This is an excellent read. I had very little understanding of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 when a friend leant me a copy of this book.
Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? What happened? What was Canada’s position. How about the Church? Best selling author Adam Hochschild takes us through the very sad and brutal story of all this with some great prose. His 2016 book is well documented with maps, notes and photos.
Due to rising popular pressure, King Alphonso XIII abdicates in 1931 and the 2nd Spanish Republic is proclaimed. In the feudal system that had prevailed up to then, no one other than the existing land owning class was permitted to buy or own any land. In January 1936 the Socialists, Communists and Republicans work together under the name the Popular Front. They win the election, defeating the National Front consisting of monarchists, landowners and the Catholic Church hierarchy. It is the overthrow of the feudal system in Spain. Unwilling to accept this outcome, monarchist General Francisco Franco launches a coup. When the coup fails, a civil war erupts and he quickly becomes leader.
The Nationalists (led by Franco) are supported by fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Musolini with troops, planes, bombs and guns. The Republicans are supported only by Joseph Stalin. The United States, Canada, Britain and France decide to remain neutral, refusing to supply arms to either side. The Nationalists win the ugly war and over 200,000 civilians are killed making it one of the most brutal wars of all times. Thousands of Americans, Canadians and Brits volunteer in several international brigades fighting on the Republican side and are in the end decimated. The Vatican surprisingly to me, aligns itself with the Nationalists as it is strongly opposed to the secular Republican state. Hence it is a war of the rich and privileged against the meek, poor and destitute.
In the book we learn about the key role of journalists such as Ernest Hemingway and authors like John Dos Passos and George Orwell in getting the word out about what is happening. Also about volunteer leftist American fighters like Bob Merriman who commands the volunteer Lincoln-Washington Battalion for the Republicans. Some 1500 volunteers from Canada join the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the Mac-Paps). However, Texaco supplies oil for Franco’s war machine while the U.S government looks the other way. Hitler and Mussolini’s arms, planes, bombs and troops turn the tide for the Nationalists.
Guernica, a small town in the Basque country in northern Spain is carpet bombed by the Nationalists killing over 200 civilians. It takes 40 years for the truth of this and many other like events to get out. Prisoners are routinely shot on the spot, thousands of priests are murdered by the Republicans. Later the Catholic Church would canonize many of these martyrs but still refuse to officially recognize the hundreds of priests in the Basque country who supported the Republican side, many of whom were murdered by the Nationalists. You can see how poisoned these times were. It seems the western allies were paralysed by their fear of communists on one side vs. fascists on the other, and consequently did nothing.
While the book is more a rendition of American volunteer participation on the Republican (democratic) side and the nasty role Texaco played in fueling the Nationalist (fascist) side, it makes for a good introduction to these troubling times. I rate it 9.5 out of 10, a great read.