Review: The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction, by Helen Graham

by Rebeca on July 21, 2009

The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction, By Helen GrahamThe Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction
By Helen Graham
Oxford University Press, 2005
175 pages

The Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press is a wonderful way to get readers acquainted with various subjects ranging from Marx to Christianity, but be forewarned that these small tomes with their tiny print are nothing like the Dummy or Idiots books. Each of these short books pack a hell of a wallop and, hopefully, they will tempt readers to learn more about a specific subject.

In this case, it’s the Spanish Civil War written by Helen Graham, a professor of Spanish History at Royal Halloway, University of London. She is also the author of The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939, which was published in 2002. Paul Preston, another historian on the subject, sums up Dr. Graham’s book, “This is far and away the best short introduction to the Spanish Civil War that I have read in any language.”  And there you have it. Graham takes a very complex subject whose history can turn any sane person into a raving lunatic–and that’s after finally figuring out all the acronyms for all the political parties—and puts it all into a context that everyone can understand and, hopefully transition to Preston’s or to Hugh Thomas’ much longer accounts of the war.

To fully understand the implications of the war, readers need to have a pretty solid foundation of what led to Spain becoming a Republic and Graham provides succinct historical background. A Very Short Introduction is divided into seven concise chapters. In the second chapter, “Rebellion, Revolution, and Repression” Graham provides a concise narrative of the violence on both sides, from anti-clerical to the executions of poet Garcia Lorca and Amparo Bayaron, the wife of Republican novelist Ramon Sender. Graham writes:

“Those who did the killing in rebel Spain during the first few months were mainly vigilantes. What occurred was a massacre of civilians by other civilians. Mostly this took the form of death squads abducting people from their homes or else taking them out of prison. In a majority of cases the assassins had close links rightist political organizations that had backed the coup, in particular the fascist Falnge. But the military authorities made no attempt to reign in this terror. In fact the killers were often with the connivance of the authorities, otherwise the death squads who came for Amparo Barayon and thousands of her compatriots would never have been able to take their victims out of gaol at will.”

One of the strongest chapter, “The Making of Rebel Spain” Graham provides tight summary of how Franco came to power through skill, but also with some luck thanks to a few “fortuitous deaths” of some serious rivals—either by accident as in the case of General Sanjurjo or through Republican execution. However, Graham points out that Franco’s great advantage at war’s start was his command over the Army of Africa, and aid from Hitler and Mussolini.

The only drawback to Graham’s tight presentation of the Spanish Civil is that her subject–which rouses strong opinions from both sides of the political spectrum—is written a fairly dry manner and rarely interjects any of the passions of the war. However, for readers who want a short  overview on a vast and difficult war, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction is a good place to start.

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