Stanley G. Payne’s The Spanish Civil War, published in 2012, is a rare bird indeed - a balanced and fair account of that conflict.
Of all the sacred causes of the Left during the 20th century few if any can equal this one. To leftists it is an article of faith that the Spanish Civil War was an epic struggle of democracy against fascism. This is of course absolute nonsense, as Payne convincingly demonstrates.
The Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic had practised electoral fraud on a breathtaking scale. Their intention was to remove conservatives from the political process altogether. They had made the unpleasant discovery that if the Spanish people were given a free choice they would reject the parties of the Left. The obvious solution was to ban parties of the Right. The Republic was moving rapidly towards totalitarianism. It was not however a communist totalitarianism. It was to be a totalitarianism overseen by a coalition of leftist parties.
There was of course the danger of a revolt by the army. Bizarrely enough the government not only welcomed this, they actively provoked it. They were confident they could crush such a revolt. This proved to be a fairly spectacular error of judgment. Rather than a weak revolt what they got was a full-scale counter-revolution.
The counter-revolution was all the more determined since the government had initiated a savage and brutal assault on the Catholic religion. Hundreds of churches were burnt and thousands of priests (and nuns) were murdered.
The Republic was confident that it could rely on the help of the Soviet Union. That assessment turned out to be accurate - the Republican forces received enormous amounts of military assistance from Stalin including hundreds of modern aircraft and tanks. What the Republican government had not counted on was that Franco’s rebel Nationalists received not only large quantities of military equipment from Italy and Germany but sizeable contingents of German and Italian personnel.
Payne points out the Republicans made the mistake of believing they could repeat the success of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, but had not taken account of fundamental differences between the two situations. The Bolsheviks had been united while their enemies had been divided; the Republicans were hopelessly disunited while the Nationalists were united under the strong and capable political and military leadership of Franco. A conflict between a divided movement and a united one will almost inevitably end in victory for the united side. This is of course exactly what happened in Spain.
It was a legendarily bitter and brutal war and Payne is careful to point out that both sides at times behaved barbarically. On the other hand there is no question that the Republican government was entirely responsible for the war.
As for the leftist fantasy of a crusade against fascism, the the Spanish fascists (the Falangists) were a very minor component of the Francoist forces. Franco was a conservative Catholic who ended up by establishing an old-fashioned authoritarian dictatorship that had little in common with Italian fascism, and nothing whatsoever with German National Socialism. Fascism and National Socialism are ideologies of the Left; Franco was and remained a man of the Right. Franco’s aim was to prevent the establishment of communism in Spain and in this aim he succeeded, thereby saving Spain from the horrors of communist totalitarianism. Franco also hoped to turn Spain into a modern and prosperous country whilst preserving its traditional culture and religion. He succeeded in the first part of this aim but was less successful in the second.
Payne’s study is a superb and much-needed corrective to the depressingly pervasive leftist view of one of the key events of the 20th century. The book provides an excellent balance between the political and military aspects of the conflict (although with a somewhat greater emphasis on the political side). Very highly recommedned.