Book Review – The Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

Michael Alpert, The Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Maps. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. £65. pp XVII + 374.

Reviewed by Dr Klaus Schmider, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

This book constitutes a real labour of love, having started life as a PhD under Hugh Thomas in the early 1970’s, though it has never been published in English until now. Instead, it found a major echo in Spain, where several revised editions were published to critical acclaim in 1978, 1989 and 2007. Only now can English-language readers appreciate what they’ve been missing out on. Essentially, The Republican Army is a history of the political and organisational evolution which the land forces of the Second Spanish Republic underwent as they tried to check the advance of the better-equipped rebel forces under Francisco Franco between July 1936 and March 1939. Sadly, the preposterous price tag put to it by Cambridge University Press is likely to put many people off.

In view of the increasingly histrionic debate which recent years have witnessed on the general subject of 1930’s Spain, it’s a downright relief that in the foreword Alpert pledges “to tread warily and with respect” rather than shove any partisan views down the unsuspecting reader’s throats. One of the first manifestations of this is the clear focus on the Spanish forces of the Ejercito Popular, thus rejecting the by now routine habit among many Anglo-American historians of yielding the stage to the International Brigades at every opportunity.

The first three chapters (pp. 1-58) are chronologically arranged in order to give the reader an opportunity to appreciate in a ‘then and now’ fashion how the events of the July coup left the Republic with the tattered remains of what had already been by any standards one of the more backward armies of Western Europe. The remaining chapters, though still following a rough chronological order, deal in a thematic fashion with the attempt to create an army which would eventually supersede the militias of 1936 (pp. 59-84), the blending of the old and the new in the officer corps (pp. 85-156), individual experience (pp. 157-173), political commissars (pp. 174-201), the impact of domestic and international politics on the army’s effectiveness and cohesion (pp. 202-257), the establishment of a regular army by the summer of 1937 (pp. 258-274) and last, but not least, an analysis of the events of the Casado coup which effectively brought the war to an end (pp. 275-302). A collection of short biographies (pp. 322-352) is a very useful tool to contextualise the role played by some of the less eminent players.

Leaving aside that the rebels enjoyed foreign help which was more numerous and continuous than that which the USSR gave the Republic, Alpert freely concedes that the Republic essentially failed in building an army which could have stood up to and possibly even rolled back Franco’s forces. Most crippling of all was the all-pervading dearth of officers (especially for staff duties) and senior NCO’s who were both well-trained and enjoyed the crucial trust of at least one of the major political groupings (Socialists, Anarchists, Communists) now overseeing military affairs at one time or another. In the rank and file, the enthusiasm among the militiamen of 1936 notwithstanding, desertion and absenteeism soon became a serious problem; at this point, it is a pity that the author did not engage with the latest scholarship which discusses the apparent ease with which the rebel leadership ‘recycled’ both individual recruits with a leftist past as well as a large part of the Republican Army of the North after September/October 1937 into their own ranks . To Alpert, the Republican Army at best could have hoped for a prolonged draw. In view of enemy superiority in a number of areas (officer training, supporting air power) and its own incapability to pull off a “military revolution” which would somehow have combined the enthusiasm of 1936 with greater professionalism, defeat was inevitable. He backs up this analysis with an impressive array of primary and secondary sources.

The sheer number of books available on the Spanish Civil War makes it virtually impossible to single out one particular title as the premier book on one particular aspect of this conflict. Even so, Alpert’s must certainly feature in the short list of anybody wishing to read up on the Republican side of this by now very-well documented conflict.

Citation: Klaus Schmider, ‘Review of Michael Alpert, The Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 28 August 2014

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