The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

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