I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War. Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager. (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.) I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school. I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”. On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.
One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.” (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)
Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself. There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them. Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.
No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us. The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men. It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“. Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter. The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago. Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.
And I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left. But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.