Book Review: Spain 1936: Year Zero

December 29, 2018

Spain_Year_ZeroSpain 1936: Year Zero, by Raanan Rein and Joan Maria Thomàs.  Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2018.

The latest addition to the Nigel Townson’s Sussex Studies in Spanish History, Spain 1936: Year Zero compiles fourteen transnational views of Spanish history into one volume.

The latest addition to the Nigel Townson’s Sussex Studies in Spanish History, Spain 1936: Year Zero compiles fourteen transnational views of Spanish history into one volume. In Townson’s words, the work “endeavours to revisit the early months of the Civil War in a dispassionate spirit that eschews the politically-charged approach of many other studies.” This volume focuses on topics and interpretations that still remain underexplored even in the crowded field of Civil War histories. The fact that this collection brings together a remarkably international group of researchers (scholars from Portuguese, Spanish, Israeli, Northern Irish, American and Japanese institutions are all represented), no doubt contributes to its variety. Michael Seidman’s chapter, for example, which is pointedly critical of the Republican government in the early months of the war, appears side-by-side with Raanan Rein and Manuela Consonni’s very sympathetic treatments of the ill-fated People’s Olympiad and the Italian International Brigade fighter Renzo Giua. This arrangement is possible because the editors, Rein and Joan Maria Thomàs, choose to favor new scholarly perspectives over tired, sometimes doctrinaire claims.

I believe four arguments found in the collection will prove particularly important for opening new directions in the field. First of all, Michael Seidman takes on the idea that the Republic lost the war because of a lack of support from the liberal democracies of Britain, France and the United States. Seidman does not deny the importance of non-intervention, but he also suggests that the causes of Republican defeat were not all external. The Republic’s toleration (at least at first) for rearguard militia pillaging and violence encouraged small landowners and Catholics to sympathize with the rebels. At the same time, while the Soviet Union may not have been seeking to spark revolution by aiding the Republic, its end goal, a so-called “democracy of a new type,” was far from a liberal-democratic Spain, which worried international observers. In sum, the Republic “alienated centrists, conservatives, and Catholics in Spain and abroad,” thereby depriving itself of the internal and external support it needed to win the war.

Secondly, Spain 1936: Year Zero is proof that transnational, comparative perspectives offer new insights on a well-trod subject. Again, historians often excoriate liberal-democratic signatories of the Non-Intervention Agreement for a willful abandonment of a democratically elected government. However, the diplomatic histories in this volume on France and Britain, by David A. Messenger and Emilio Sáenz-Francés San Baldomero, reveal that from a geo-strategic point of view, the choice these two countries had to make was not so simple. Open support for the Republic risked sparking a pan-European conflict and also presented domestic problems. If France’s León Blum had openly supported the Republic, it would have doomed his governing coalition with the Radicals, while British Conservatives feared they could end up supporting a regime in Spain that would slip into Communism. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but at the time non-intervention was the only politically realistic policy for both Britain and France.

Spain 1936: Year Zero’s third innovation is simply the breadth of its international perspective. The volume contains chapters on all of the oft-cited key players in the Spanish conflict—Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany and Portugal. In addition, it also considers the lesser-known connections that Argentina and Japan had to the war. While these two countries were certainly not major players, Leonardo Senkman demonstrates that several people who became important to the Franco regime received aid from Argentina during the war, including Ramón Serrano Suñer and Pilar Primo de Rivera. Japan did not have an influence on the war, but Haruo Tohmatsu shows that the war did have an influence on Japan because it revealed German and Soviet weaponry and tactics to the Japanese and helped bring Japan into an alliance with Germany. These chapters demonstrate that the impact of the Civil War was truly global and suggest that the question of what effect the war had on other countries outside of those directly involved in the conflict deserves further study.

Lastly, there is the question, raised by the title of the collection, as to whether or not 1936 constitutes a “year zero,” a temporal dividing line that definitively marks the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. Some scholars have already sought to elevate 1789 in French history and 1945 in German history to this status, for example. Of course, 1936 did not represent a complete break with the past, but the question of to what extent the military government on the Nationalist side and the “Spanish Revolution” on the Republican side were complete ruptures is worthy of further exploration. Yet after posing this tantalizing question in the collection’s title, only the Seidman piece takes on the subject directly, and many chapters do not even focus on the year 1936 alone. As a result, Spain 1936: Year Zero stands as a welcome resource for researchers searching for new areas of investigation regarding the Spanish Civil War, suggesting new international perspectives and challenges to conventional interpretations, but scholars will have to await future publications to receive complete answers to the questions raised here.

Foster Chamberlin is a visiting assistant professor of humanities at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey.  He holds a Ph.D. in modern European history with a specialization in Spain from the University of California, San Diego.