Book Review: Spanish Republicans in WWII

August 30, 2023

Spanish Republicans and the Second World War: Republic Across the Mountains, by Jonathan Whitehead., Philadelphia and South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books, 2021. 304 pp.

Back in 1996 at a ceremony around the International Brigade monument in Barcelona, Lincoln vet Len Levenson openly wondered if anyone had studied what had happened to the Spanish comrades who had sought refuge in France in 1939. Of course, the subject is studied in France and the first Spanish authors to write about it were Antonio Vilanova, Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) in 1969 and Eduardo Pons Prades, Republicanos españoles en la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Spanish Loyalists in the Second World War) in 1975, but neither book has ever been translated. In this sense, Jonathan Whitehead’s text fills a void as the first book in English that addresses the trials and tribulations of the Spanish Republicans and their continued fight against fascism after their loss in 1939.

This sweeping 300-page text is divided into twenty-five chapters that chronologically touch on the experiences of the exiled Spanish from 1939 up until the failed attack across the Pyrenees into the Val d’Aran that the Spanish Communist resistance hoped would trigger a popular uprising against the Franco regime and precipitate an Allied invasion of Spain late in 1944. It mentions, for example, the participation of thousands of Spaniards as soldiers in Allied units like the French Foreign Legion or the Leclerc Division or as members of the French Underground. It also includes those who were imprisoned and murdered in Nazi death camps, amongst other destinies.

In the end, despite being a very appealing subject, the book unfortunately does not deliver. Historical errors stemming from the occasional use of untrustworthy sources and an excessive reliance on newspaper references make for a frustrating read, peppered with typographical errors and a few truly outlandish assertions, such as the claim that General Philippe Leclerc would have released his famed Second French Armored Division to participate in the Val d’Aran attack. Furthermore, the author includes an odd chapter dedicated to Franco’s Blue Division, a volunteer Falangist corps that embodied the antithesis of the Loyalist struggle, sent to bolster the Germany Army’s Eastern front against the Red Army. It’s a subject that is out of place in this volume.

While this book may prove useful for readers who are unable to access the rich Spanish and French bibliography on the matter, it should be read with caution—perhaps strictly as a possible introduction rather than the definitive work on the subject.

Robert S. Coale is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the Université de Rouen-Normandie in France and a member of the Board of ALBA.