söndag 12 december 2010

Beevor on the Spanish Civil War

Finished Antony Beevor's "The Battle for Spain" (in the Swedish 2006 translation).

I've seen criticism of Beevor that he doesn't spend enough of his books on operational detail, making them less valuable as military history. That criticism misses its mark, though, IMO. Beevor writes eminently readable military history that depicts the action of war in a somewhat more summarizing manner, seasoning it with anecdotes and illustrative examples, and offering the reader his conclusions about why this or that didn't work out so well while something else was very successful. If you're an amateur military historian, odds are you might want something going a bit more into the operative detail, but you're not going to get it from Beevor, so maybe he's just not for you.

But he is perfect for shallow little ol' me, though, so here's my review of the book:

First, this wasn't as easy a read as I've come to expect from Beevor. Partly that might be because there's so many factions and characters to keep track of, partly because it's such a depressing war, with no real good guys and what can arguably be seen as the worst guys winning in the end, and partly because I've spent way too much time playing Europa Universalis III instead of reading, thus messing up my flow.

Anyway, Beevor sets the stage by giving his readers the basic political situation and developments leading up to the war, then details the developments of the war, including political and international ramifications, and wraps up the book with a couple of chapters on what happened after the war. And he does it well, as usual.

Beevor dismisses the myth that the Republican side were the "good guys", with plenty of examples of crimes committed by that side, but the Nationalist side has them beat in cruelties and murdering, even though increasing communist influence on the Republican side -- not least because the Soviet Union was the only foreign nation willing to help the Republican side, Britain and France even refusing to sell weapons to the legal Spanish government (France to a large extent due to Britain's influence), while the fascist dictatorships in Germany and Italy had no compunctions about assisting their pal Franco. (There was also a lot of sympathy for Franco's anti-communism in the British government, and Royal Navy officers had a lot of sympathy for their Nationalist counterparts.) The result wasn't good for Spain, nor for the Republican side. With growing power, Stalinist communists implemented more of the repression of their ideological model, not infrequently against what should have been their brothers in arms. Beevor seems to have the most sympathy for the anarchists, but they were too, well, anarchistic to be able to hold their own in both the war and the infighting on the Republican side.

Not content with the lack of foreign support hurting their chances, the Republican leadership also did a lot themselves to hurt their cause. Beevor is scathing in his criticism of their bad planning and – especially – their stupidity in planning offensives mainly for their potential propaganda value abroad rather than planning based on the realities on the ground. Thus, they sent their soldiers to die on in ill-conceived offensives that had little hope of success from the start – to a large extent due to the Nationalists having air superiority, much of which thanks to the German support (including the ruthless Condor Legion). Then, when their stupidity led to offensives petering out with excessive losses, they couldn't admit that they'd been wrong, so they kept it up long after it should have been obvious that all they did was wasting men and material they'd sorely have needed to defend the areas of the country that they still controlled.

He also castigates the Republican leadership for keeping the war going long after it was obvious that they wouldn't win, thus ensuring even larger suffering for the population.

Had the Republican side instead chosen a more defensive strategy, Beevor feels, they would have been much better off, as Franco wasn't a really clever military commander, but rather a pretty traditional one who sent in his attacks in the old WWI-style manner, and could have been better held off with a good defense extracting a fierce price for territory gained, coupled with more limited spoiling/distracting attacks along the line of defense.

Meanwhile, the crimes against the population committed by the Nationalist side isn't glossed over, and the role the Catholic church played in supporting these vicious murderers is also brought t light. Like I said, no real "good guys" in this conflict.

During the war, the Germans learned the value of concentrating armor to achieve breakthroughs instead of dispersing it throughout the line where it could be taken out with AT guns. They also realized that their tanks were too weak in armor and armament, and thus inferior to the Soviet tanks on the Republican side.

After the war ended, hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the border to France. Unfortunately, the French government didn't really bother with setting up well-maintained refugee camps, resulting in the death of large numbers of those refugees due to bad hygienic conditions and exposure – while the French right-wing attacked the government for even helping those refugees.

Beevor has harsh words for many in his book – the Republican leadership, the Church, the British leadership, the Stalinist communists, the fascist butchers, the German war criminals, etc. For me, it mainly confirmed several of my deeply held convictions: War is an ugly business usually best avoided, political extremists are not people you want in charge of anything, and Social Democrats and Social Liberals are usually the best choices for leading your country. You may have some other of your pet causes confirmed if you read it, but read it you should. I'll be reading more books on the conflict, as it is too complex for one single book to be sufficient, but I'm glad I read this one.


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