Monday, June 29, 2009

Distracted.

So, I'm trying to broaden my historical horizons. Let's take Europe in the middle of the last century as a "for instance": I could write up a half-decent off-the cuff outline of the European theater of World War Two, but my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was limited to something along the lines of...
"Franco crosses from Africa. Nazis back Franco. Commies infiltrate the Republicans. Joe and Adolf fight it like a proxy war in a petri dish. Republican International Volunteer Brigades act as sort of a global idiot magnet. Orwell goes and gets disillusioned. Hemingway goes and stays drunk. Nazis bomb the crap out of Guernica. Picasso paints it. Fascists win. Commies lose."
...which, you must admit, is short on nuanced detail.

So I'm trying to remedy that lack by reading Comrades And Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. It's a fascinating book, and it's taking all my efforts to be productive and not just fall back into it. Right now the American volunteers are bogged down on the Jarama front, still trying to elect their officers and form a machine-gunner's union so they can file grievances with high command; their brigade commander, a crazy thug of a Yugoslav colonel, thinks everybody is a coward; and there's a paranoid Frog who's tight with the comintern and wants to hang everybody for Fascist spies, or at least Trotskyism. Oh, and Ernest Hemingway is drunk in Madrid.

What's not to love about a tale like that?

18 comments:

Ed Rasimus said...

When I was lucky enough to live in Spain for four years I felt an obligation to learn something about the Civil War. I read a book and thought I understood. Then I read a second one and never knew who was right after that.

I do know that Franco worked out pretty well for the Spanish. Probably better than the Republican loons would have.

Been drunk in a lot of the same places Hemingway was.

LabRat said...

When you finish it, watch The Devil's Backbone. Or Pan's Labyrinth. Or both. Not exactly ringing historical fiction, but they'll make you real glad you weren't there...

Frank W. James said...

As I understand the Spanish Civil War the big thing with the Republicans is they kept eating their young or at least trying to devour each other as opposed to, say, concentrating in unison on their opposition.

Makes ya think of something more current doesn't it?

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Matthew Carberry said...

I've been doing the same thing lately, looking at the peripheral theatres and the wars that set the stage for the biggies; Africa in WWI, French and Indian War, the Span. Civil War, those ilk.

You might check out Antony Beevor's "The Battle for Spain" if you haven't already. Excellent book, very thorough and spent 12 weeks at #1 in Spain IIRC.

On that note, can anyone suggest a good book about the Italo-Ethiopean War(s)? Chemical warfare, CAS and Il Duce's stab at retaining relevance. Also yet another failure of the League of Nations to act against aggression.

T.Stahl said...

The Spanish Civil War - The largest live-fire exercise ever.

Until the Iraq War of 2003.

Ed Foster said...

Superb novel, called La Guerra (go figure). Relatives on my mother's side fought there, on opposite sides.

The Irish are essentially anarchists, so one maternal cousin went to fight alongside the Basques, only to find out the Commies were running the show, after which he went home.

Another cousin, same side of the family, went down there with the Irish Blue Shirts, a sort of Mick Fascist group, and supposedly had a very busy time for a few months.

The Blue Shirts were disbanded when the refused to fight Basques. The Shirt leader's comment to Franco was supposedly "Don't they have the same right to be free of Spain that the Irish have to be free of England?". Perhaps it grew in the telling, but it's a neat story.

There's a spine-chilling folksong I heard in a little pub in Cork, called "Fields of Catalonia". I wish I could find a copy of it somewhere.

For reference, the horrific painting showing the destruction of Guernica by the Luftwaffe was propaganda.

Actual photos of the ruins show the buildings all exploded outward, destroyed by charges set by the retreating Republicans.

Which is not to choose sides, although I would probably go along with Ed Rasimus, that Franco was the better choice for Spain by a fair distance.

Stranger said...

See if you can locate a copy of George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia." It's another of those inside looking out stories but it does throw some light on La Guerra.

DirtCrashr said...

In Madrid drunk is a good thing to be, but it's better in Barcelona and may be a requirement. There's a small courtyard in B-town down off Ramblas behind a church, with a small well in the center and a tree. It's small like somebody's living room-small with an office plant next to a water-cooler - or the footprint of my one-car garage. Maybe 20x20 feet max, with a single small arched entryway through 3-foot thick stone walls. And all the walls are pitted at chest- and stomach-height with bullet pocks from a whole day's shooting, one side eliminating the other. I was told they finally had to stop when the Maxim gun overheated and quit. Busy day's work in a small place.

Crucis said...

And old J. Edgar kept a close eye on the survivors of the Lincoln Brigade too. Also all were blacklisted to some extent.

Some deservedly so.

Tam said...

Hell, it was practically the CPUSA's own little Foreign Legion.

RM1(SS) (ret) said...

@Matthew Carberry: For the African front in WW I, I recommend World War I: The African Front, by Edward Paice. Guerilla, by Edwin P Hoyt, is also readable.

Ed Foster said...

Anything about General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck would be a worthwhile read. The greatest tactical genius of the 20th century.

Almost fifty years after the war ended, Germany dicided to pay those askaris still alive who served under Von Lettow. Thousands of old black men, marching and hobbling through the streets, with their own General Paul on their shoulders.

Men who had broken and humbled the pride of the British and Portuguese empires, outmarched Boers, and who had surrendered at war's end, on British territory, while still advancing.

Building that army while mostly cut off from support, manufacturing his own ammo and drugs, and growing most of his own food, Von Lettow managed to win every battle he fought, for four long years,against odds so unbelievable even Hollywood would not consider it filmable.

And getting away with refusing service to the Nazis, tending his garden while the bombs fell around him, saying Germany would have to endure the most terrible punishment to regain her soul. Wow.

Alcibiades said...

I remember something about the Communists killing a bunch of Anarchists because they thought victory was assured...

Anonymous said...

It is also worth reading "The Germans who Never lost;: The story of the Konigsberg"

Ted

D.W. Drang said...

And they had the best music...

Had a friend whose father fought for the Republicns. He was Basque, was not allowed to enlist in WWII, but was recruited by the OSS to urn suplies over the Pyranees to the FFI.

Matthew Carberry said...

Thank you both RMI and Edward.

Actually Paice's book is the one I finished not long ago.

The marching distances and speed involved were staggering, especially considering the climate and terrain. I look back at my time in the Marines and, like any time I read about Korea, am awed by the endurance and determination of those men.

Any leads to books on Italy v. Ethiopia in the '30s?

Britt said...

Paul Johnson's Modern Times has an excellent chapter on the Spanish Civil War. Hell, the whole book is great, a really excellent tonic to the version of the 20th century you learn in public school. After finishing it, I realized just how great Calvin Coolidge was, and why the worst thing that ever happened to Africa was decolonization.

Stan said...

For a somewhat different perspective on Franco from that often presented by the media, you might try Brian Crozier's biography of Franco, titled simply "Franco." It was published in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press and to me Crozier makes a pretty good case that Franco was indeed better for Spain than the Republicans would have been.