Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain

If you want to know all about the Spanish civil war, read Anthony Beevor's book (586 pages), if you want to understand what it was like and be able to feel it, read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (220 pages), first published in 1938 when the war was still going on.

Ever since 'Stalingrad' Beevor's successive historical bestsellers have been praised by critics for their strong narrative. I disagree: I think the narrative side of The Battle for Spain is its weakest feature. The book is cluttered, events are presented in a fragmented, difficult to follow way. There are unnecessary repetitions in some cases, and in others there are omissions which make it difficult to make sense of the sequence of events and their relation to one another. One has to have a degree of prior historical knowledge to navigate through The Battle for Spain - and enjoy it.

Still, as with Stalingrad, Berlin and especially A Writer at War, Beevor brings back to the forefront of contemporary intellectual life the events that had shaped the modern world - and the ideas, prejudices, social phobias and stereotypes which still live on.

Of particular interest is the description of the workings of the non-intervention committee, a European grouping through which Britain and France conducted their policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini in an effort to avoid a second European war. Stalin's Soviet Union supported the republican government also in an effort to avoid direct confrontation with Germany - but also to extend the communist reach into Western Europe.

Mikhail Bakunin

While today's neo-conservatives routinely cite the failure of pre-WWII appeasement policy as justification for American-led interventionist foreign policy - in defense of democracy, it is worth remembering that it was the fear of democratic freedoms in Spain and in their own countries that had been driving British and French governments appeasement policy.

And the second very important element - politically, economically and ideologically - in Beevor's account is his extensive, though sadly somewhat scattered, depiction of anarcho-syndicalist contribution to the war effort and to the reforms in the economy. Badly armed anarchist militias, later transformed into divisions of the regular Popular Army, turned out to be the most efficient. Industries and farms 'collectivised' by anarchists were flourishing. And ideologically anarchists proved to be the most principled, consistent - and flexible force on the republican side of the conflict until they were first side-lined and then pushed out of administration. It is poignant that even today 'anarchist' is used as a derogatory term, and the few attempts to look into their Spanish legacy are restricted to academic world while staying largely unnoticed and unused in a Western society in desperate search for a 'third way' in the face rising religious militancy. A way which may well be provided by anarcho-syndicalism, with a huge legacy in theory and practice going all the way back to Michel Bakunin (pictured above) whose anarchist faction was famously ousted from Marx's First Internationale.

George Orwell Homage to Catalonia

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