Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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A Day in Segovia

A Day in Segovia


A few weeks before moving to Madrid, I was sitting at the dining-room table while my brother showed me pictures from his high school trip to Spain.

The old digital camera made a beep every time he scrolled to the next photo—a tired and rather unenthusiastic beep. The screen, moreover, was exceedingly tiny, even compared to the one on my smart-phone. It is amazing to think that there was a time, not too long ago, when digital cameras like this one were cutting-edge; and now they seem like artifacts from another epoch.

“This was cool,” my brother said, pointing to a microscopic image.

I leaned in and squinted my eyes. With a suppressed gasp, I recognized a towering Roman Aqueduct.

“Wow, where’s that?” I asked.



Several weeks, a plane ride, and a train ride later, my girlfriend and I were standing on a line for the bus to Segovia. We’d just taken the train from Madrid; and, owing to our full bladders, we had missed the first bus from the train station by going immediately to the bathroom upon our arrival; so we had to wait on line for another one to arrive.

“When’s the next bus coming?” I asked, petulantly.

“According to the schedule, not for another thirty minutes.”

“What? So what are we going to do?”

“I dunno.”

I looked around at the landscape beyond. I’d heard that Segovia is a bit like The Lord of the Rings (El Señor de Los Anillos); and indeed it was. Fields of dry grass stretched out in all directions, leading to the gently sloping peaks of the sierra on the horizon. Armies of orcs and elves marched through the countryside of my imagination as I waited, bored and sullen, for the bus to arrive.

“Let’s just walk,” I said, after five minutes.


“C’mon,” I said. “It’s only about an hour. I’m tired of waiting here.”

“We’re not walking.”

I began to mope again.

A group of five American girls was standing in front of us, each of them wearing a floral dress and a black leather jacket; did they coordinate? I looked back at the station building, then at an advertisement on a billboard, then at the line in front of me, and then out at the scenery.

“C’mon!” I said again. “I wanna walk. This sucks.”

“There is no chance I’m walking,” my girlfriend said. “Just wait.”

“This is a waste of time!” I whined. “We might as well just go back to Madrid.”

The sun beat down upon my back, the wind occasionally whipped up in a gust, and still the bus didn’t come. The man in front of me shifted his weight from one leg to another, the couple behind us had a subdued conversation, and still the bus didn’t come. No, the bus didn’t come when I looked to the left or the right, nor when I frowned or pouted.

And then it did. A blue blip appeared on the road far away, and was gradually magnified into a full-sized city bus. The bus pulled up to the line, and then the driver promptly got out of the vehicle and popped inside the station building. He was taking a break.

This is actually one of the most jarring differences between Spain and New York. The bus drivers in NYC are more or less chained to their seats. The very suggestion that they would get out of their vehicle is preposterous. Here, the buses are driven by people, and sometimes they take breaks. It’s hard to get used to.

In five minutes, however, we were standing on the bus, speeding towards Segovia. I’m glad we didn’t walk.


We were delivered right into the center of Segovia. I looked up and blinked into the cloudless sunny sky. Towering over me was a Roman aqueduct.

It was magnificent. Right before my very eyes were two rows, one atop the other, of the famous Roman arches. After all these years, the thing still conveyed a sense of the awe and splendor of the imperial power. What must the local inhabitants of Segovia have thought when these invaders erected this massive structure? What could have prepared them for this feat of engineering, a pathway on stilts to carry water from miles away to the heart of their city?

Even to this denizen of the twenty-first century, the aqueduct is breathtaking. It is so narrow compared to its height that it looks like a strong gust of wind could knock it down. But of course, the wind has puffing away at it for a few centuries now, all to no effect. It has been built with such tremendous skill that it has outlived even the immortal empire that erected it.

When I imagine a gang of ancient Romans, without calculators, without spreadsheet software, without cranes, steel support beams, retractable tape-measures, reflective vests, or hard-hats, pulling up stone after stone with pulleys and hand-twisted rope, writing down their designs on papyrus scrolls (or whatever they used), mixing their Roman cement by hand in giant vats, strong-arming these heavy stones into place, I am simply beyond astonishment at what they accomplished. Really, I haven’t the slightest idea how they did what they did; I have trouble even assembling the furniture from IKEA.

Faced with something like this, there’s not much a tourist can do. You take a photo from one angle, take a photo from another angle; then stop, gape, and stare. You climb some stairs to take another photo; you take a photo with the town in the background, with the sky in the background, with yourself in the foreground; then stop, gape, stare, repeat. It is terribly frustrating, really, because you know that no amount of photos could possibly do justice to the thing sitting before your eyes. Not even your eyes can do justice to it.

But we couldn’t spend all day just staring at it; we had only a few hours, and more sites to see. Our next stop was the Segovia Cathedral.

Compared to other cathedrals I’ve seen, the Segovia Cathedral struck me as more feminine. I hope this adjective does not ring of sexism, for it is not only me who uses it; among the Spaniards, the cathedral is known as la Dama de las Catedrales (“the Lady of the Cathedrals”), partly because of its small size, and partly because of its elegant and curved exterior. Compared with, say, the Toledo Cathedral, the cathedral of Segovia seems rather subdued; the bright tan color is more welcoming than the harsh gray of Toledo; and absent are the statues which seem to burst from every corner of its more southerly cousin.

There was no line, and not even an entrance fee, so we walked right in. The interior was just as welcoming as its exterior. The whole space was wonderfully bright, owing to the many windows on each level of the cathedral. Indeed, there was nothing “gothic” about this gothic cathedral; the design seemed rather joyful and playful. But pleasant as the place was, it did not powerfully capture my attention like other cathedrals have; and thus in thirty minutes, we were walking outside, heading to our next location.

This was the Alcázar of Segovia. As I’ve mentioned in another post, the word “alcazar” comes from the Arabic word for “castle”; thus the word is now used in Spain for castles or forts left behind by the Moors. The three most famous of these, I believe, are in Córdoba, Sevilla, and Segovia. Having visited all three, I can tell you that each one is a stunning work of architecture.

The Alcázar of Segovia is the most dramatic of the group. Built on a large rock overlooking the surrounding area, the castle can only be approached from one direction—that is, unless one is prepared to climb straight up a few hundred feet of rock. In short, it is a perfect spot for a defensive structure, which is why the site has been used for fortifications since Roman times.

A solid wall of stone greets the visitor (or would-be conqueror) as the structure is approached, a towering tan bulwark which seems to beat its chest at you, daring you to attack. Separating the castle from the approaching walkway is a deep moat, which, interestingly enough, was carved into the rock by fitting logs into grooves in the stone and pouring water onto the logs, causing them to swell and break the rock. Thus, with the drawbridge pulled up, the place would be nearly impregnable. Or at least, short of simply blasting it to smithereens, I have no idea how one would go about invading the thing. And indeed, according to the audioguide the place was never successfully taken (though I’m not sure how many attempts were made to do so).

The inside were perhaps less impressive than the outside. A fire had badly damaged the interior of the castle in the 19th century, and it has since been only partially restored. Nonetheless, it was an agreeable experience to walk around the place. Empty suits of armor (which looked like replicas), greeted us as we walked in, and old pieces of fancy furniture—thrones and chairs and beds—were available for our viewing pleasure. Ornate tapestries hung from the ceilings; stained-glass windows adorned the outside walls; and royal portraits and religious paintings decorated every room. More interesting, perhaps, was the Hall of Kings, a room wherein a band of miniature sculptures of every Spanish monarch—stretching back to Pelagius, the 8th century Visigothic king—wrapped around the top of the room, each of them sitting on a golden throne, all seeming to be part of some otherworldly general council.

But the highlight of the tour was the tower. To get up to the top, one had to climb perhaps one-hundred stairs up a twisting spiral staircase, occasionally pressing oneself against the wall to allow people to pass by on their way down. It’s an exhausting, claustrophobic, and slightly harrowing experience, as it would be so easy to slip and tumble down all one-hundred steep stone steps and break your neck. But we paid extra to see the tower, and by Joe we were going to see it.

If you are like me, you will be panting, sweaty, and have aching knees by the time you reach the top; but the view is worth it. Or, at least, this is what I told myself as I leaned against the wall, panting, snapping a few photos of the town and countryside beyond. But I’m afraid my peace of mind was disturbed by the knowledge that I would soon have to descend those same steps that led me up here, which did not put me in the mood to wax poetic about the distant hills, the rolling plains, the rivers and trees far below, the bright sunny sky above, and the town of Segovia stretched out before me. No, I was not feeling terribly appreciative at that moment; in fact, I was feeling somewhat peckish. But it was a bit like The Lord of the Rings.


Before our trip, a kind Spanish teacher from Segovia gave us some tips. She mentioned all the usual sites, which didn’t seem to excite her a whole lot; but she very much perked up when she began recommending food.

We thus arrived in Segovia with a list of foods to eat and restaurants to eat them in. And it wasn’t long after leaving the Alcázar that we had been seated in one of these restaurants, and were going through our list.

The first dish was judiones. This is a bean stew made with giant beans (judiones de La Granja, or “beans from La Granja”), chorizo, bacon, pork, onions, and of course plenty of salt. It’s a rich and hearty appetizer, perfect for cold weather. But what I was really excited for was the cochinillo asado, or Spanish roast suckling pig. This is the most well-known dish of Segovia, and deservedly so. It is exceedingly simple, but exceedingly delicious. The skin is crispy and buttery, while the inside is rich, tender, and succulent. To finish, for desert we had ponche Segoviano, which is a sort of simple cake with a creamy sauce; it was milky, sweet, and scrumptious.

In fact, I think that the meal was the best I’ve had in all of Spain so far—and that’s saying something. We emerged from the restaurant too full to walk; we could only waddle our way back to the bus, taking sundry wrong turns along the way. We had a train to catch, and not enough confidence in our own ability to figure out the buses to wait any longer. This turned out to be a good thing, as we spent about five minutes waiting at the wrong stop. Really, there’s nothing like foreign travel to make you feel absolutely clueless and lost.

But we were not lost; soon we were riding the bus to the train, and then the train to Madrid. This was, by the way, the first high-speed train I’d even ridden on, and I must say that it’s extremely impressive how the train is able to reach such tremendous speeds without passengers feeling so much as a bump. We seemed, rather, to hover through the landscape; or perhaps the landscape hovered past us, whizzing by in a great green blur.

I was luckily sitting on the westward facing side of the train, and thus could see the sun setting on the horizon. It was terrific; the distance was lit up in vivid shades of red and orange, while the sky above turned a purplish blue. It reminded me of the sunset I had seen on the plane ride over; the ground was so flat that it could have been a sea of clouds or a rolling ocean.

I wanted to show my girlfriend, but she was fast asleep. So I pressed my cheek against the cold glass, and watched the sun slowly dip below the horizon, the color draining out of the sky until the world was shrouded in the deep blue of night.