Why Do So Many Historians Fail to Understand the War in Spain?

November 14, 2020

The war of 1936-39 in Spain had much in common with the many other conflicts being waged in societies across Europe after the First World War, as those who sought to maintain old hierarchies clashed with those striving for change. Yet the evident similarity is one that English-speaking historians often seem oblivious to. What explains their curious blind spot?

In the early 2000s, a popular British history magazine commissioned me to write an essay on the war of 1936-39 in Spain. But when I filed my piece, they told me they couldn’t publish it because their readers “wouldn’t recognize in it the war they knew.” In my essay, I’d analyzed the conflict in Spain in the context of the many related ones catalyzed across continental Europe by the war of 1914-18. In the end, I argued, these were all conflicts between those who wanted to preserve the hierarchical social and political structures of the pre-1914 European world and those who sought to achieve some form of social and political change—whether by reformist or revolutionary means. Everywhere, Spain included, such conflicts arose from a broader context: accelerating urbanization, industrialization and, crucially, the accompanying processes of increasing migration from countryside to city.

The magazine’s response seemed unusual. My “Europeanizing” perspective was not new in academic circles, although it wasn’t until later that it began to reach a more general readership—largely as a result of Mark Mazower’s book Dark Continent: Europes Twentieth Century (1998). Mazower painted a picture of Europe between 1918 and 1948 in the throes of rapid structural change, a process accelerated by the First World War and consummated by the Second. Social and political conflict across the continent, he argued, virtually always sprung from the changing relationships between urban and rural populations. He also connected the violence that Europeans brought on each other with the long history of imperial violence inflicted on colonized populations; the idea that, as Aimé Césaire wrote, Fascism and Nazism were “colonialism come home.” All of this was also true for Spain, even though the country had not been a belligerent power in the First World War. The military coup in July 1936, after all, was perpetrated by officers from the colonial army of Africa, who designed their “occupation” of Spain as a pushback against the levelling effects of an urbanizing and industrializing society.

Milicianas near Guadarrama, eating, Aug. 1936. Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Once Spain’s military coup began to falter in the face of urban resistance, its instigating officers welcomed the Nazi and Italian Fascist intervention that would see it escalate to a battlefield war. (The golpistas had not envisaged a war of that kind, even though they had intended to inflict “exemplary” violence on civilians who opposed them.) As it was, the coup itself also triggered a dirty war in which civilians used lethal violence against each other. Here, in fact, the Spanish case prefigured the Second World War in Europe as a series of internal wars waged by civilians on other civilians. These wars—catalyzed by Nazi occupation and expansionism but not reducible to the Nazi agenda—would help shape postwar Europe.

My own Europeanizing magazine essay on the conflict in Spain would become a book, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005), which has sold over 50,000 copies in English and been translated to German, Portuguese, Greek, and Turkish. Unlike those magazine editors, its readers have had no trouble recognizing and understanding the relationship between what happened in Spain and the violence across other areas of Europe in the crucible of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

And yet for historians that continues to be a hard nut to crack. The editors’ comment from almost twenty years ago about “a war we do not recognize” still describes an enduring blind spot among British and North American Europeanists. To be sure, most have long assimilated Mazower’s perspectives—but they somehow still have trouble applying them to Spain.

Over the past two decades, this curious inability has given rise to other, equally curious phenomena. For one, the war in Spain, and the extreme nationalism to which it gave rise under Francoism, almost always remain “invisible” in what are otherwise wide-ranging and sophisticated transcontinental studies of political and social violence in twentieth-century Europe. Still today, standard Anglo-American works of comparative European history tend to mention the conflict of the 1930s in Spain only in passing, referencing great-power diplomacy in the “run-up” to the Second World War. If, unusually, an attempt is made to go into particulars, references tend to bypass the past thirty years of specialist historiography on the topic. No comparative Europeanist would consider this acceptable if they were writing about Germany, Italy, or Russia. The fact that it still goes unremarked where Spain is concerned indicates that, in the minds of most British and American Europeanists, the country’s history inhabits some sort of “antiquarian niche.”

This phenomenon is closely connected to the legacy of the Cold War. Other areas of post-war European history saw a gradual unfreezing of Cold-War distortions starting in the 1990s (even if things have since re-skewed by the re-emergence of extreme forms of nationalism across Europe). Yet in the case of the war in Spain that opening has scarcely occurred at all. Thus, British and North American Europeanists continue to view Spain, often without even realizing it, through a Cold War lens—if they don’t directly adopt representations manufactured by the Franco dictatorship. That Franco’s own PR was permitted such latitude for the duration of the Cold War is unsurprising, given that the dictatorship was underwritten not just by the United States but by the entire Western alliance. More surprising is that a sanitized myth of Francoism should still be resistant to dismantling even today. The excuse of a perennial lack of English translations of specialist historiography on Spain is not sufficient—nor is the fact that comparative Anglo-American Europeanists still tend to lack a reading knowledge of Spanish.

The real question doesn’t concern these lacunae themselves but why they are still perceived not to matter. The unspoken answer is that, even without access to recent specialist historiography, the essentials about the 1930s in Spain are assumed to be already known. It is in this assumption where the persistence of the Cold War lens is most glaringly visible.

A second curious side-effect of what I’ve called Spain’s “antiquarian niche” is the extent to which British historians of the United Kingdom have been blind to the broader context surrounding the war in Spain. By the 1930s, of course, Spanish high society and British elites were closely intertwined in social and economic terms. And yet mainstream British historians have still not produced any real analysis of the hugely erosive effects that the war in Spain had on British imperial power and strategy. Nor, for that matter, have they had much to say about the many ways in which the war in Spain was bound up with social change inside the United Kingdom itself.

Yet there is no lack of primary source material in this area or empirical work already done—from the humanitarian mobilization inside British civil society catalyzed by the war in Spain to the work on the thousands of volunteers who joined the International Brigades. The fact that the overwhelming majority of these volunteers went to support the beleaguered Spanish Republic because they perceived in it a symbol of hope for a fairer society, clearly links back to the others forms of social and economic change across Europe occurring since the end of the First World War. But given how little most volunteers from the United Kingdom really knew of Spain (George Orwell included), it is obvious that the historical significance of their perceptions, as well as their engagement with Spain —whether they traveled there or undertook humanitarian activities within Britain—belongs first and foremost to British interwar history itself. Yet the British historical mainstream has yet to take notice of what this all might have meant in terms of the changes occurring to social consciousness and to social structures within the UK.

Part of the problem may be ideological in a deeper sense. The British historical mainstream is still fairly traditionalist and focused on high politics. But studying the social and political impact of the Spanish conflict in the UK brings center stage questions that touch on race, ethnicity and, above all, social class, at whose confluence in the 1930s lay the phenomenon of migration. Across continental Europe, many of those who volunteered for the Spanish republic were shaped by experiences of migration. As I wrote in A Very Short Introduction, the global phenomenon of the International Brigades is inconceivable without taking account of the massive displacements that occurred after the First World War, and especially from central and southern/south-eastern Europe. But for the British Isles, too, there is an interesting historical analysis still waiting to be pieced together on the relationship between colonialism, migration, and volunteering in Spain.

Instead, what still prevails in the literature are statements like “a lot of people joined communist organizations or sympathized with them in the 1930s and this led them to join the International Brigades.” Aside from the empirical limitations of this view—there is no perfect symmetry between communist affiliation and support for the republic in Spain—it completely fails to address the pertinent historical question: What in the sum of the volunteers’ lived experiences explains their political affiliation and their engagement with the Spanish conflict? “Because they were communists” is not an explanation—it’s not even a useful recapitulation of the historical question, which remains oddly out of focus.

When it comes to the connection between migration and Europe’s wars of social change, once again many ordinary readers have an easier time understanding than mainstream Anglo-American historians. In my own teaching experience over thirty-seven years, I’ve seen this among British undergraduates. The profile of British university students has of course changed significantly over the past fifteen or twenty years. Because so many more history students count a family background of migration within their own memory and experience, they are more open to understanding this key aspect of interwar European history. To be sure, the student cohorts who now recognize these things for what they are do not much resemble the demographic still imagined by popular British history magazines. But they understand the war in Spain only too well.

Helen Graham is Professor of Spanish History at Royal Holloway, University of London. A longer version of this article appeared in Contemporary European History, vol. 29 (2020), pp. 268-71.