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The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain

War, Loss and Memory

In the Series
Studies in Spanish History

Tom Buchanan is Reader in Modern History at the University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education, and a Fellow of Kellogg College. He is the author of two previous books and numerous articles on Britain's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, as well as Europe's Troubled Peace, 1945–2000 (Blackwell, 2005).

Explores the relationship between Britain and the Spanish Civil War (1936—9)

Explains the war's legacy and longer-term impact on Britain

Presents a chronological progression from the Civil War to the post-war Franco era.

Provides a sensitive discussion of the importance of loss and memory

Published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the war

The Spanish Civil War has had a profound and lasting impact on Britain. At least 2400 Britons volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic (of whom more than 500 died), while others provided medical assistance, visited Spain in delegations, or covered the Civil War as journalists.

In this collection of three of his published articles and seven new essays, all based on primary research, Tom Buchanan sheds light on many facets of this complex relationship. The book's central themes are the impact of loss on families and communities, and the importance of Spain itself – its history and culture – in the way that the Civil War was understood in Britain.

Some of the chapters deal with individuals involved in the Civil War, such as the writer John Langdon-Davies, the artist Felicia Browne and the journalist GL Steer. Others pursue somewhat neglected themes, such as the response of British artists to the war or the role played by British medical personnel. The final two chapters focus on the long-term impact of the conflict on British politics and on Britain’s relations with Spain since 1939.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-126-9
Hardback Price: £49.95 / $65.00
Release Date: January 2007
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-127-6
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $32.50
Release Date: January 2007
Page Extent / Format: 320 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


Series Editor’s Preface
List of Abbreviations

1 “A far away country of which we know nothing”? British perceptions of Spain and its civil war, 1931–1939

2 Journalism at war: George Lowther Steer, Guernica and the resistance to fascist aggression

3 The masked advance: politics, intrigue and British medical aid for the Spanish Republic

4 The lost art of Felicia Browne

5 Mobilising art: British artists and the Spanish Civil War

6 The death of Bob Smillie, the Spanish Civil War and the eclipse of the Independent Labour Party

7 Loss, memory and the British “volunteers for liberty”

8 My country right or left: John Langdon-Davies and Catalonia

9 Spain rediscovered: British perceptions of Franco’s Spain and the advent of mass tourism, 1945–1975

10 The Spanish Civil War in British politics since 1939

Select Bibliography

According to these erudite, riveting essays by Buchanan, the British public responded to the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 in a variety of contradictory ways, some having no connection to politics. In many cases, these contradictions were outgrowths of Britons’ stereotypical views of Spain as a country of brutality and siestas. Some earnest and adventurous young Britons were caught up in the ideological conflict between communism and fascism. They rushed to volunteer, founding, for instance, the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) in support of the Spanish Republicans. SMAC was fraught with infighting and intrigue throughout its attempts to provide relief. Other Britons, such as promising young artist Felicia Browne, just happened to be in Spain in time to be swept up in events. Tragically, the young woman was the first British volunteer to die in the conflict, shot by nationalists while participating in a raid for which she was, Buchanan writes, ‘sadly out of her depth’. After WWII, British tourists, including former leftists, now more uneasy about Cold War totalitarianism than about Franco’s regime, rediscovered the beaches and villas of sun-drenched Spain. Recommended.

The Spanish Civil War produced a variety of responses in Britain and captivated British public attention possibly to a greater extent than any other regional conflict in modern European history. This collection of essays, written over the past decade by the leading historian of Britain’s role in the Spanish war, examines the volunteer soldiers, aid workers, writers, artists, and tourists who descended on wartime Spain, and how their activities reflected back onto British politics and society on the eve of World War II.
... The book’s greater focus is the Left side of the British political spectrum, which took a far more active interest in the Spanish Republican cause than the noninterventionists of the mainstream Right. Of the thousands of Britons to descend on Spain after 1936, most were drawn by left-liberal idealism, although Buchanan deserves credit for noting other sources of inspiration: the Independent Labor Party supported the social revolution taking place in some regions of Republican Spain, and some in the Labor Party, including Ernest Bevin, depicted the war as a defense of Europe from Africans and Muslims being recruited to fight with the rebel army (11).
... The author’s interest in nonstate actors and cultural exchange conforms to current trends in international history, and his depictions of the effect of the Spanish conflict on British life are a refreshing addition to the often insular historiography of the Spanish Civil War. Additional comparative perspective would have been useful in some cases, such as in evaluating the role of cultural stereotypes in informing policy. Although many British elites had not perceived Russia as fully European, Britain intervened (albeit belatedly and ineffectively) in the Russian Civil War because Russia was a major participant in international affairs, something Spain had not been for over a century.
... This collection adds interesting stories and fresh approaches to the study of the Spanish Civil War as an event in British history.
Journal of British Studies

Predictably, all of the essays are well researched and written in an economical, readable style. They are richly illustrated with telling and sometimes amusing detail. The discussion of tourism in Franco’s Spain mentions that one of the early post-war British writers, Rose Macaulay, met her first British tourists in Torremolinos; they were also the first drunks she had encountered in Spain (p. 166). The most interesting and engaging essays are those that deal more explicitly with wider questions … the Spanish Medical Aid Committee’s (SMAC) work is among the most significant. It convincingly argues that, contrary to the claims of other historians, ‘Questions of politics and political control, far from being marginal, were integral to the SMAC and its work in Spain’ (p. 45). Similarly, the treatment of the effects and consequences for those joining the International Brigade and their loved ones is detailed and nuanced. Buchanan considers why individual losses that were expressed in so many ways (and often critical of the Communist Party) were so muted politically. He argues that the CP was successful at providing convincing meaning for the loss of life in Spain and the suffering of brigaders’ relatives: a ‘process of commemoration during the Civil War followed by the rapid creation of a community of volunteers and their supporters in its aftermath, forged a powerful consensus of opinion that these lives had certainly not been wasted’ (p. 135).
... The quality of Buchanan’s research and writing is clearly very high… Tom Buchanan has produced a very thorough and stimulating book. Like his other work, it is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject. … It deserves and can expect—with its appeal for the specialist and the interested layperson alike—a wide readership. Twentieth
British History

The introductory chapter addresses the issue of established British perceptions of Spain. Cultural prejudices about ‘Spanish customs’ facilitated the judgement that ‘traditional Spain differed radically from ‘modern’ Britain. Auden characterised Spain as ‘that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe’ .Sympathisers with the Republic who insisted that the conflict was much more than a Spanish affair often began from an acknowledgment of singularity.
... Perceptions of difference could also breed complacency. Orwell, having fled from Barcelona, looked through the boat-train window at ‘southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult … to believe that anything is really happening anywhere’ . In Baldwin’s England generals did not rebel against governments and anti-clericalism did not turn churches into bonfi res. British politics did not pit socialists and many liberals against a largely reactionary Catholicism and a traditional élite clinging inflexibly to long-held privileges. Despite such distance, many British socialists and liberals, and on the other side some conservatives and Catholics, defended their competing visions of Spain and, by extension, of a wider Europe. In this liberal Protestant island, aided by Guernica and the mounting evidence of Nationalist mass killings, the left’s interpretation eventually proved much more effective. The book’s core engages critically with instances of this dominant version.
English Historical Review

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