The Bell Tolls at Brunete
The Decisive Battle of the Spanish Civil War
The roads are empty leading to Brunete in summertime, no one wants to drive twenty miles from Madrid to visit the featureless sleepy little town baking among brown fields under the merciless sun of the Castillian plateau. There are no tour guides, no flags, no souvenir shops, no postcards, no monuments, nothing but a couple of tarnished bronze plaques and a street named after Generalissimo Francisco Franco to indicate that on a summer day a lifetime ago, in 1937, tens of thousands of men, from all corners of Spain and many corners of the earth, were fighting here in a battle which they, as well as countless passionate bystanders listening to radios all over the world, were convinced would decide the future of the human race.
Among them were nine hundred American boys crouching in the pine woods of the royal park of El Pardo, just before dawn on July 6, .looking down at the silent gently rolling countryside with a few villagea and clumps of trees, a few narrow streams, no serious physical obstacle between them and the enemy headquarters at Brunete fifteen miles to the south. After a Fourth of July celebration which brought them double rations of Hershey bars and Lucky Strikes, they had marched carefully, speaking only in whispers, lighting no cigarettes, through the wooded hills to take up their positions in the front line of the biggest army that had ever fought a battle in Spain, over eighty thousand men.. Action was scheduled to begin at dawn, when two hundred big guns, more than three hundred planes, a hundred and thirty tanks would open up on what they had good reason to believe was an unsuspecting foe. It was, they had been told and firmly believed, to be the turning-point of the twentieth century, the death-knell of fascism, the dawn of a universal democratic future..
When the thunder of the barrage began, at the precise moment called for by the plan the infantry began pouring down hill, shouting the watchword of the Spanish Republic, No pasaran!, They shall not pass!, and singing the opening lines of the Communist hymn, the Internationale, It is the final conflict/Let each stand in his place/The International Soviet,/Shall be the human race.
As so often happens, it turned out not to be final at all, it was only one more cruel battle in a cruel chronicle. Spaniards had been killing Spaniards in such battles through civil war after civil war for a hundred and thirty years. The most that can be said of this particular battle was that it marked the climax, and foretold the outcome, of what the world has chosen to remember as The Spanish Civil War.
This particular war had broken out almost exactly one year before the battle of Brunete. But for five years before that the land had been seething with violence, teetering on the edge of anarchy ever since a bloodless rising in April 1931 had chased King Alfonso XIII into exile, and a democratic republic, the Second Spanish Republic, was proclaimed in Madrid. It was created with the noblest of intentions, but the Spanish temperament was not ready for the caution and compromise that make a parliamentary system of government workable. As the writer Salvador de Madariaga put it, the defining feature of his people was their intransigence, their inability to do anything by halves. Or as the English writer Gerald Brenan observed, the middle way was, in Spain, the line of greatest resistance.
And hardly was the new government in place than fanatics at both ends of the political spectrum began plotting to blow it up, by military coup or by mass risings.
There were those on the right who wanted to wipe out, in the words of one of their ideologues, the liberal, decadent, Masonic, materialist and Frenchified present and march steadily backwards into the spirit of the Sixteenth Century, imperial, proud, Castillian, spiritual, mystical and chivalrous. Or backward further still to the spirit of the Reconquista, the centuries-long crusade which drove the Moors out of Spain back into Africa. (They did not notice any inconsistency in using Moroccan mercenaries as shock troops in their own crusade.)
There were those on the left who wanted to cleanse the Spanish soil of oppression and exploitation and superstition and make a flying leap into a millennial future and called, as they did in the platform of the Anarchist party, for the immediate abolition of the government and the church and private property and money.
Each extreme regarded itself as the totality of the Spanish people, the true Spanish people; the other side was a mere rabble of Reds or Fascists as the case might be. We are soldiers of God, one Nationalist (Fascist) leader put it, fighting not against other men but against atheism and materialism. I want a society without class warfare, said the Republican (Red) leader Largo Caballero, but to have that, one of the classes has to disappear.
For all their claims to universality, both sides as a matter of statistical fact were minorities, of almost identical size. The vagaries of the electoral laws allowed the Popular Front of left-wing parties to win a large majority in the Cortes (parliament) and form a government after the elections of February 1936, the last before the whole system collapsed into anarchy and war. But in the popular vote the Popular Front of left-wing parties, got 4,654,000 votes, while the National Front of right-wing parties got 4,503,000. Another half a million voted for moderate parties seeking an impossible middle way or for Basque nationalists seeking an independent republic for themselves.
None of these groups was a cohesive whole, they were bundles of warring factions. Communists (a small minority, at this point, with only 200,000 votes) and the Anarcho-Syndicalists hated each other more than they did the common enemy on the Right. The Right was split into hostile factions of orthodox monarchists and Carlist monarchists, intransigent Catholics, moderate conservatives and a handful of Falangists who wanted a Fascist state on the Mussolini model (fewer than 30,000 votes). The Basques of the coastal provinces like Vizcaya, deeply conservative and Catholic, fought for a communist-dominated government which had permitted if not encouraged the murder of thousands of priests, because it promised them an independent republic of their own. But the Basques of the inland province of Navarra provided some of the most determined and effective of the rebel troops because of their ancestral loyalty to the Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne, who at this point in time was a feeble old man living in Vienna and fiercely committed to a centralized government which would not grant an ounce of self-government to restive groups like the Basques and the Catalans.
The elections of February set off a series of acts of violence which a government crippled by its own internal wranglings seemed powerless or unwilling to control. With each passing week the violence became ever more popular, more widespread, more part of daily life. There were general strikes which turned into general riots, there were lynchings, church-burnings, random shootings. Newspaper headlines continually featured a paseo, literally a ride, the kind of ride on which people were taken in the Hollywood gangster movies which were all the rage at the time. When in the early morning hours of July 13, Calvo Sotelo, leader of the royalist minority in the Cortes (who would probably have become Prime Minister if the Republic had collapsed the way he expected it to), was taken for a ride by policemen looking for some one -- any one of any wrong political party -- to avenge the murder of one of their officers, and it set off such storms of great public rejoicing on one side and great public indignation on the other that it turned out to be the spark which set off the military uprising which a group of senior generals had been not so secretly planning for some time.
The uprising, set for July 18, actually began prematurely the previous evening with the killing of several government and army officials in Spanish Morocco. The plan called for simultaneous action by army units all over Spain. It was badly planned, badly coordinated, and carried out with singular ineptitude almost everywhere. General Sanjurjo, who was marked to be the leader of the revolt, had been living in exile in Portugal since bungling a previous attempt at rebellion a couple of years previously. A light plane was sent to pick him up. He insisted on bringing on board a big suit-case packed with the dress uniforms and medals he planned to wear when he reviewed his victorious troops. As a result the plane was too heavy to clear the trees at the end of the runway, and general and baggage were incinerated. The two next highest ranking generals on the conspirators list were arrested and shot before they could take any serious action. When the commanders of the Mediterranean Fleet joined the rebellion, their crews mutinied and shot them and dumped their bodies into the sea.
Only two generals succeeded in taking control of significant sections of territory, Emilio Mola in the north (and he would shortly be killed in a plane crash) and Francisco Franco in Morocco.
So what was intended to a quick clean coup détat turned into an orgy of uncontrolled violence, burnings, lynchings, random shootings, mass murders, often in the rowdy carnival spirit so vividly described in Hemingways For Whom the Bell Tolls. The bodies were left where they lay or piled up in roadside ditches or outside cemeteries where the curious could come to get a good look at them.
The French writer Simone Weil, who had gone to Barcelona to see a peoples revolution in progress, was horrified when two anarchists told me how they and some comrades had captured two priests. With a revolver they killed one of them on the spot, then told the other he could go. When he had gone twenty paces, they shot him down. The person who told me this story was quite astonished not to see me laugh...I never came across anybody who professed even privately any repulsion or disgust or merely disapprobation on account of the blood that was being spilled to no purpose."
No one has any idea how many people were shot after kangaroo trials or simply murdered for having been a member of the wrong political party, for having been a school-teacher or a union official or a priest or for owning a comfortable home or for driving a car or for letting slip a politically incorrect word like Adios which implied a belief in God and fascist sympathies or Salud! which was a greeting used by the rabble and identified its user as a Red.. A statistical survey made many years later gives the figure of 73,239 killed by the Republicans, 58,500 by the Nationalists, but these figures may err by ten or even twenty percent in either direction. Whatever the real figures, they were tremendously exaggerated by propagandists and by panicky refugees fleeing from one zone to the other, and the sheer horror of their number made it impossible for people on either side to think of compromise.
This is no way to fight a war, shouted Adolf Hitler, when agents of the generals came to him to ask for help and he learned how pitifully inadequate were the reserves of money and equipment they had accumulated.
For many days the confusion was total: the only way the ministry of war in Madrid could tell whose hands any particular city was in was to telephone the army headquarters there; if the voice at the other end said "Yes, sir," it meant that the rebel officers had been captured and shot; if it said, "Fuck you," it meant that the officers who chose to remain loyal to the government had been captured and shot.
But even in Spain a drunken fiesta can last only so long. Even the peasants in For Whom the Bell Tolls who were cheerfully using their flails to beat to death every one in their village who had a little more money than they did, even the aristocrat in Malaga who, given refuge by Gerald Brenan and his wife at considerable risk to their own lives, stood wildly cheering at their window to see his city set on fire by Italian naval shells, had to realize eventually that there was a war on, and wars need organization and discipline and careful planning, while random killing becomes a cruel monotony instead of a joyously unfettered form of self-expression.
And in a remarkably short time, considering the primitive state of the economy and the ebullient individualism of the Spanish temperament, what had started out as a colossal uninhibited brawl settled down into the pattern of a conventional war, with a fighting front and supply lines and fifth columns of more or less imaginary agents behind enemy lines and propaganda apparatuses at full throttle.
After the first days of confusion, the government found itself in control of about half of the national territory, all the big cities of Spain, all but one of the principal ports, all of the heavy industry and almost all of the countrys mineral resources. The insurgents had only one major advantage, but it turned out to be decisive. In Spains strip of North African coast, General Francisco Franco had taken command of the local garrison of Moroccan troops and the so-called Foreign Legion [which unlike the French outfit on which it was modeled was comprised mostly of native Spaniards]. As armies go, it was a small one -- no more than 20,000 men at the start -- but it was the only efficient force with practical fighting experience in the country; it had spent many years fighting an unforgiving war with rebels in the mountains and deserts of Morocco. In a few weeks Franco brought these troops to the Spanish mainland, partly by lumbering old German transport planes provided by Hitler, which could carry only ten men at a time and no heavy equipment, but mostly by ship, on the daring gamble that the mutineers who had taken over the ships of the Spanish Mediterranean Fleet would not know how to run them. It was the one great gamble of Francos very cautious life, and it paid off spectacularly well., The mutineers, according to the report of a Russian admiral who inspected them, preferred to spend their days in port listening to revolutionary speeches and roaring out revolutionary slogans like Revolution or Death! while Francos ferries with their trucks and tanks and heavy artillery chugged their way across the straits to undefended shores...
Once ashore Francos men pushed north half way across the country, all the way to the outskirts of Madrid, easily outmaneuvering and running down and massacring the untrained peasant militias armed with hunting rifles which tried to stop them. But when they reached Madrid, the people of the city rallied to build barricades, and the advance bogged down in costly street fighting in the southwestern suburbs.
In the following months, by heroic efforts on both sides, the scattered uncoordinated bands of the early days grew into more or less well disciplined, more or less well equipped armies that eventually approached a million men each.
Many observers at the time, and many historians since, have viewed the conflict as a kind of dress rehearsal for World War II. In sober retrospect, it looks more like a road-company replay of World War I. As the battle of Brunete was about to begin in the summer of 1937, the rival armies were dug in, stalemated, strewn out along a front which snaked its way 1400 miles across the country from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Pyrenees and despite constant fighting had barely budged since Francos army had bogged down at Madrid. And except for a secondary front in the north, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, so it would remain till the last weeks of the war, in the spring of 1939, a war of foot-soldiers. An Italian expeditionary force sent by Mussolini to aid the rebels had attempted to launch a mechanized assault, a Blitzkrieg, on Madrid in March 1937, ending in a costly and embarrassing failure which helped convince the French general staff that mechanized warfare was a passing fad. (The German generals were saved from a similar delusion by their conviction that the Italians did not know one end of a tank from the other.) .
An impoverished pre-industrial society like the Spain of the 1930's could not possibly have maintained a mass all-out war like this one for more than a few weeks. But the war, though the armies which fought it were made up overwhelmingly of illiterate boys from the desolate countryside and impoverished villages of Spain, soon became an international war as well.
Within hours of the military rising, both sides were begging for foreign help. And help would not be long in coming.
For many in the outer world were coming to see Spain as the center of the great apocalyptic clash which so many molders of public opinion had long been predicting.
At the very moment the battle of Brunete was getting underway, an International Exposition was opening in Paris, dominated physically and symbolically by two colossal sculptural works, the German Eagle designed by Albert Speer, later to be the boss of Hitlers war production, staring balefully from the top of the German pavilion at the confident muscular proletarians on the Soviet pavilion a few yards away. There was a general feeling through the western democracies, all of them traumatized by the senseless slaughter of World War I, all of them in the grip of the Great Depression, that these two active vibrant forces represented the two aspects of what Anne Morrow Lindbergh described in her bestselling book The Wave of the Future as the form the world would necessarily take. Well-meaning tolerant capitalistic democracy, she said, had failed the test; for all their loathsome brutalities, the Russian Italian and German revolutions marked a new tide in the affairs of mankind, and as anyone can learn on any beach, when a new tide is coming in it is madness to try to stop it.
This was, in practical terms, the attitude taken by the governments of the western democracies, Britain France and the United States, all of which expressed their deep concern but did everything they could to avoid getting involved in a war which they thought ought to be left to the Spaniards.
The United States, anxious to avoid foreign entanglements, had just passed a Neutrality Act providing stiff penalties for any American citizen or business taking part in any foreign conflict.
The British induced all the great powers of Europe to sign a Non-Intervention Pact, which only the British made a serious effort to observe. The French fiddled and faddled, sometimes letting arms and volunteers slip across the Pyrenees into Republican Spain, sometimes not.
For Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, the Spanish war was an opportunity to jockey for position in the greater conflict which they all knew was coming soon, though only Hitler knew precisely when..
Hitler thought the conflict was a useful side-show which would distract the attention of the western democracies from the much bigger war he was preparing. Stalin hoped that Hitler would get bogged down in a Spanish quagmire and have to postpone any adventures in the East .Mussolini hoped to show he was a big man on the world stage by demonstrating the invincibility of an army endued with the fascist spirit.
Shipment of arms to the belligerents air sea and land began within hours of the outbreak of hostilities. These arms were doled out carefully and they were not sent as gifts. In return for his planes and tanks and a host of advisors, no fewer than six of whom went on to become marshals in the Red Army which was to crush the German army a few years later. Stalin got all the gold in the vaults of the Bank of Spain in Madrid, 346 truckloads of it. Hitler sent planes and tanks in exchange for the output of the Spanish nickel and iron and tungsten mines to provide steel for the Wehrmacht. Mussolini sent three divisions of volunteers, some of whom were said to have signed up under the impression that they were going to be extras in a war movie in Africa; in return he got a naval base in the Balearic Islands..
To the men and women of Spain, of course, this war was never a sideshow, or a geopolitical game. It was a struggle to the death in their homes and streets and fields, involving all their hopes and fears. And so it was for a large portion of the population of the western world. The wonders of modern communications, the newspapers and the radio, brought them directly on to the firing lines. Foreign visitors could take the subway or a taxi right to the trenches and artillery posts at the edge of Madrid, they could send their reports back from the skyscraper of the telephone company pock-marked with shell holes.
Their reports of a heroic people, the first to stand up to Hitler and the fascist hordes, fired the imagination of those who would have nothing to do with neutrality or non-intervention, who insisted that the over-riding question for the world was the sudden and terrifying rise of Nazi barbarism To writers, artists, students, intellectuals, as well as to unemployed workers living out the Great Depression, Spain became a rallying cry. Picasso made a world-famous painting, Hemingway wrote a world-famous novel, to express their solidarity with the Spanish people. Huge meetings from London to Los Angeles thundered with demands for lifting the embargo and shipping arms to the Republic. (At one huge meeting in Paris, while from thousands of throats rose the cry of ARMS FOR SPAIN! a small plane flew overhead putting out smoke which spelled the word PAIX, Peace. No one noticed the irony.
Others felt that only direct physical action, here and now, could stop the terrifying onrush of the brown tide of Fascism. André Malraux, the French novelist, recruited a squadron of fighter planes. Romantic idealists like the English writer George Orwell joined anarchist armed units (there were more people calling themselves anarchists in Spain in 1936 than in any other country before or since) and were alternately thrilled and troubled to learn that they believed that revolutionary actions like redistributing land to poor peasants and setting fire to churches were more important activities than learning how to fire a gun.
Some 50,000 volunteers from almost every country in the world, joined the International Brigades on the more realistic premise that the first order of business was not to change society but to win the war. The brigades were formed and directed by Communists and most of their members were old party stalwarts like Josip Broz, later to be Marshal Tito, ruler of Yugoslavia, and Pal Maleter, later to be the Hungarian general hanged by the Russians after the anti-Communist uprising of 1956.. But there were also thousands of young men from all walks of life (seamen and students were the leading categories among the Americans) whose only concern was freedom and democracy, and who accepted Communist leadership because the Communists, having abandoned their program of world revolution in favor of a united front against fascism, were the only group disciplined and ruthless enough to run a war against Franco. As Hemingways hero Robert Jordan put it, their policy was the soundest and sanest for the duration of the war.
(There were also volunteers on the other side, though they got very little publicity. Salazar the Portuguese dictator would declare when the war was safely over, that several thousand of his countrymen had fought for Franco. Several hundred Irishmen also fought: there were IRA men on both sides, while the Green Shirts of General Eoin ODuffie lined up, with the blessing of the poet William Butler Yeats, solidly in the Franco ranks.)
The character of Robert Jordan was said to be modeled on the real-life American Robert Merriman, son of a lumberjack from California who had started an academic career and was doing research on agricultural problems in Russia when the war called him to join the bands of young Americans in the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades which were to count among the shock troops of the Republic.
As they joined the battle at Brunete, these shock troops could smell success in the air. Everything was going according the plan which had been drawn up by Colonel Rojo of the Republican general staff, with the aid of Russian advisors and which was described with pardonable pride by Rojo as a rigorous technical beauty, almost perfect. It called for an operation such as Hannibal had used to destroy the Roman army at Cannae two thousand years before and which the Russians were to use to destroy the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad five years later. Two giant pincer wings were to close on the Insurgent army which had been bogged down months before when it seemed on the point of taking Madrid. A defeat here might be fatal to the insurrection, or it might lead to mutual exhaustion and a negotiated end to the fighting, at the very least it would be a tremendous moral boost to the Republican armies which, starting out as disorganized poorly armed militia bands had been holding out doggedly for a whole year with the war-cry No pasaran! and now could prove that they were able to carry out complex offensive action against Francos professional troops.
For the first and last time in the war, the Republicans entered action here holding virtually all of the cards. They had two or three times as many men, they had more and better planes and tanks than any with which Hitler and Mussolini had hitherto ventured to commit to this war. And they had the advantage of complete surprise.
The cafés of Madrid had been buzzing for weeks with talk of the coming offensive which could hardly have escaped the ears of all the Franco spies and Franco sympathizers in a city of two million traditionally curious and talkative people. Julian Bell, Virginia Woolfs nephew, who was driving an ambulance for the Republican army, wrote home in a letter of July 1 that he had the worst forebodings for the military results of anything so public as our present operation. Francos intelligence service must have picked up mountains of talk, but apparently decided it was all bluff, no rabble of Reds could carry out such a sophisticated operation as was being talked about. And when the blow struck at dawn on July 6 everyone at Franco headquarters was asleep.
The left hand of the pincer struck into positions which had been heavily fortified long in advance, and it could make very little headway. But the right hand succeeded beyond its leaders wildest expectations. The enemy front line, lightly held and with big gaps between units, disintegrated in the first couple of hours, and the Republican troops found themselves marching along, singing rousing revolutionary songs under a bright cloudless sky marred only by great black cloud rising over an ammunition dump in the village of Quijorna which had taken a direct hit. The ground was not as gently rolling as it appeared from the hills, it was full of narrow steep-walled barrancas, ravines and gullies. A worse threat than Francos bullets was the oppressive heat which rose to over a hundred degrees, and most canteens were emptied by ten in the morning. The Guadarrama River, two feet high when the action started, dried up in a few hours to a chain of rancid puddles.
Still the smell of victory was intoxicating, the enemy so disorganized and demoralized that one whole division, commanded by Enrique Lister, the communist carpenter who had risen from the ranks to become one of the Republics most successful and most charismatic generals, was able to slip unobserved all the way to Brunete, and before the sun went down it had captured the town with barely a shot being fired, a whole week ahead of schedule.
In barely twelve hours, the raw republican army had achieved what all the mighty armies of the great powers had only dreamed of doing in four bloody years on the western front in World War I They had with one blow punched a wide open hole in the enemy line through which tanks and cavalry and foot soldiers could pour to spread havoc in the enemy rear and perhaps deliver a death-blow to the rebellion. They had only to go on ten more miles due south to reach Navalcarnero and cut the main road which was the lifeline of the enemy army. Or they had even less to go southeast to Boadilla del Monte some units came within rifle range of it and break the enemy army in two. A charge up the undefended slopes of Mosquito Ridge across the Guadarrama River would give them a position dominating the whole battlefield.
But none of these things happened. Nothing worked out the way it was supposed to. On top of the usual muddle of battle -- the messages lost or orders misunderstood, the bombs dropped in the wrong place, the supplies misdirected, unexpected acts of cowardice or incompetence -- the men who ran the Republican forces in the field simply did not know their job. There was nothing in their instructions that would tell them how to exploit the unexpected speed of their victory. The field commanders were men like Lister, Modesto, El Campesino, working men of great courage with fabulous qualities of leadership, great men to hold a position to the death or win a free-for-all fight, but totally unequipped to fight a war of maneuver involving complicated movements of men and supplies. According to one of their colleagues, they not only didnt know how to read a military map, they didnt see why they should learn. They did not know how to handle the monstrous traffic jams formed by the tanks and the guns and the infantry columns and the trucks bringing up replacements and supplies and the ambulances bringing back the wounded over the few wretched roads in the narrow wedge of ground they had won. (And they had to pay the price for having failed to impress on the drivers of all those vehicles that they had to supplement revolutionary enthusiasm with humdrum details like oiling and greasing their engines and slowing down on curves.) They were unskilled in coordinating infantry, artillery, armor and aircraft, and tanks sometimes went into action with no foot soldiers to follow them up, planes bombed positions which had been abandoned by the enemy, sometimes bombed their own men.
They were continually making the wrong decisions. Instead of pushing ahead with all their might through the great hole they had made, they diverted precious troops, including the American brigades, to making costly frontal attacks on enemy positions like Quijorna and Villanueva de la Cañada which insisted on fighting on to the end in hopeless situations, when they might have gone around them.
They waited for orders from headquarters -- because this was the way in the traditional Spanish army and in the Russian army of those days as well -- before pushing ahead on their own. Headquarters spent precious days drawing up elaborate plans for exploiting the capture of Mosquito Hill, only to learn some time later that Mosquito Hill had never been captured at all A good-sized Republican force had swept confidently up the slope on the second day of the battle, only to be met at the top by a Nationalist captain who, seeing he was outnumbered ten to one, ordered a bayonet charge. The Republicans, assuming they were up against a stronger enemy than they had bargained for, retreated to the bottom of the hill, set up a defensive line there, sent a report to the rear which somehow got lost or misdirected, and waited patiently while the moment of golden opportunity passed..
Or it may have passed on the third day of the battle, when a Republican cavalry squadron was sent to establish a bridgehead across the Guadarrama River. They found nothing at all in front of them but a battery of 75's which they might easily have overrun or bypassed. But they found it more prudent to retire and report to headquarters that they had run into heavy enemy reinforcements. By the time the report had gone through channels and new units could be sent to bolster to them, the enemy reinforcements had actually arrived in large numbers and there were no more advances on that front.
There a dozen such stories of junior officers rallying fragments of the defeated army, putting guns in the hands of clerks and cooks who had never held a gun before except on a firing range, and putting up such a bustling noisy defense that they stopped advancing Republican columns dead in their tracks for irreplaceable hours, irreplaceable days.
Only a very few hours and days were needed to decide the issue of the battle. In a remarkable and quite an-Spanish display of speed and efficiency, reinforcements were hurried from all over nationalist Spain to Brunete, traveling great distances over the same kind of rickety railways and wretched Spanish roads as those of the other side, but these arrived in time. By the fourth day of battle, the numerical advantage of the attacking Republicans was giving way to a rough equality.
The almost complete mastery of the air which the Republicans with their Russian planes had enjoyed at the start of the battle, began to be frittered away with the arrival of brand-new German equipment, the Me 109 fighter plane and the 88-millimeter anti-aircraft gun, which would turn out to be two of the most successful military inventions of the century. Republican planes could still barely hold their own in the air over Brunete, but the tide was running the other way, and through the rest of the war Germany superiority in the machines of war grew rapidly and steadily till it broke the back of the Spanish Republic...
By the sixth day the battle what had started as a battle of movement had settled down to a small-scale replica of Ypres or Verdun, World War I battlefields where masses of men surged back and forth over a devastated countryside of burning wheat-fields, burning cork-oak trees, burning tanks, screaming men and burros, through a continuous burst of bombs and shells and rattle of machine-guns, trying to chase each other out of holes in the ground a few yards apart. As usual in such battles the attacker took the brunt of the casualties. The Republicans took terrible losses trying to widen the wedge they had driven in the enemy lines. The Nationalists took terrible losses trying to win back the few patches of strategically worthless land they had lost.
What was special about this battle was the dry summer heat which turned dead men into mummies and drove the living mad with thirst. Fighting day after day for three weeks, the days blurred together as all sense of time was lost, all colors blurred together as in snowblindness. The old men still alive who can remember having fought there may not remember on what day any particular any particular hill was taken or any particular friend killed. But they all remember the constant torture of thirst. How they had to debate whether it was better to drink a last cupful of water or to save it to cool down the Maxim gun that might otherwise turn red and blow up in your face? If a water truck was hit by a shell, it was worse than losing a column of tanks. A Nationalist soldier remembers waiting in an improvised trench on Mosquito Ridge, holding beer bottles filled with gasoline -- an improvised weapon that in the next war but one, the war in Finland, would be christened Molotov Cocktail -- to throw at the Republican tanks lumbering up the slope. The man beside him, out of his mind with thirst, smashed the neck of his bottle on the barrel of his gun and gulped down the gasoline. .Harry Fisher, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, remembers frantically digging in the hard-baked bed of the Rio Guadarrama, down to a level where he could find little pockets of mud, out of which a few drops of water might be squeezed. (Why did it never occur to the men who had planned the battle so perfectly that the Arabs who had fought their way through this countryside thirteen hundred years before, had named the river Guadarrama because in Arabic that means river of sand?).
When it was all over, and some fifty thousand casualties had been added up, each side claimed victory, the Nationalists because they had retaken Brunete in the last days of the battle, the Republicans because they had conquered and held on to about twenty square miles of devastated Spanish soil. In the long run, it was a disaster for the Republic, which lost some of its best soldiers (of the 900 Americans who started the battle, barely 250 were fit for action at the end).
The war would go on for almost two more years, but it was largely a replay of Brunete. Again and again, at Teruel, on the Ebro, the Republicans made a surprise attack, advanced for a few heady days to occupy big pockets of strategically unimportant terrain, then were ground down yard by yard in long bloody counter-attacks till as last they collapsed, and Francisco Franco became dictator of all Spain..
No one at the start of the war, least of all his fellow generals, could have suspected that such a role could be played by Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, a genuine war hero of the Moroccan campaigns and a capable military administrator, but generally regarded as a dull insignificant figure: a pudgy colorless little man with a piping voice, no oratorical skills, no political sex appeal, His colleagues in the army regarded Franquito (Little Frankie) as overcautious, and indeed he had not joined the conspiracy to start the uprising till a very few days before it began.
If Franco won the war, it was not because his army was stronger or braver or more motivated than that of his enemies, but because it was better organized, more professional, more at home in the complexities of modern war. Ninety and more percent of the junior officer corps, the men in actual charge on the ground, the men who knew how to storm hills and outflank machine gun nests, stood by him when he rebelled against his government, stayed with him to the end. A good part of that loyalty was personal loyalty to Franco as a man, for many if not most of those junior officers had passed through the armys Military Academy at Saragossa during the years when he was its director. They loved him. He was a fierce disciplinarian who had once had a soldier shot in Morocco for throwing his rations in the face of a sergeant who had sruck him for having refused to eat them, who drove his cadets mercilessly through drills and marches till they were ready to drop. He had an obsessive concern for detail.. .He was also a soldiers soldier, he had fought through years of horrible war in Morocco, he had been badly wounded and won the highest decorations. And he knew his men. When the boys at the Academy got an evening off and went to take the tram to downtown Saragossa, there was always the director at the stop to give a hearty handshake to each cadet while pressing into his palm a package of condoms, and he would later post up charts on the bulletin board recording the dramatic decline in venereal disease among the cadets. If it can be said, as Wellington first said it, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, cannot it be said that the battle of Brunete was won in the whorehouses of Saragossa?
He was also responsible for setting up the network of training schools for young soldiers who became alfereces provisionales, temporary second lieutenants, whose willingness to take individual initiatives without waiting for orders from higher authority and whose exploits in the civil war were to provide the theme for laudatory books published during the long years of the Franco regime. In one of those books I found a number of captured republican documents, chosen of course to demonstrate the incompetence of the Reds, and in one of them I was surprised to come across the name of a Major Gerassi, whom I assume to be my old friend Fernando Gerassi who would later have a successful career as a painter in Paris and New York. He found himself one day at the head of a unit which had penetrated deeply into enemy territory on the way to Brunete, but the enemy was counter-attacking and the units on both his left and his right had turned tail and run away, leaving his men in danger of being surrounded at any minute. He led them back in good order to a new defense line which held against further attacks. He was promptly court-martialled for having abandoned his ground without sending in a full report and receiving the approval of the supreme command. (He must have had friends in high places, for he got off on the grounds that he was in bad health at the time,)
The German generals who were advising Franco were critical of his strategy at Brunete and in subsequent battles, they said that if he had just let the Republican attacks peter out and not insisted on costly counter-attacks, he could have won the war much more quickly and with much fewer losses. They were probably right, but they were shortly to end up in the dustbin of history, while Franco made the remarkable and almost unbelievable achievement of not only winning his war but going on to remain as absolute master of Spain for the rest of his life, thirty-six. years, longer than any of the other dictators of the 20th century except for Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro..
While he lived, he found plenty of lackey biographers who portrayed him as the greatest strategist, statesman, political philosopher and moral leader of all time. Since his death, biographers have tended to be both hostile and scornful, emphasizing his cruelty, his narrowness, his deviousness, his occasional stupidity. They prefer to ascribe all his successes to the retranca, the low cunning of the peasants of his native province of Galicia. Few Galician peasants, however, have come close to equaling his performance.
It was no easy job to cajole, bully or bribe all the antagonistic groups in his camp to form a single movement with himself as unchallenged boss. The Republicans might be hamstrung by conflicts between different parties, different regions, by civil war in the streets of Barcelona between communists and anarchists. Franco knew how to outwit and finally destroy any man or group which seemed likely to try to challenge his authority.
While Spanish officers in the Republican army were continually bickering among themselves and grumbling about the high-handed ways of their Soviet advisers who, said one Minister of War, treated them like elementos colonizados, Franco kept all the reins firmly in his hands. He would take advice but never orders from his German and Italian advisers.
He remained in total control after the war too, picking a sure-footed way through the dangerous thickets of national and international politics, double-crossing friends, betraying principles, changing policies overnight, but always holding on to power. He might fawn on Hitlers genius and profess undying obedience to his creed, but when Hitler, at a meeting on the French border in the fall of 1940 tried to get him to join his war and mount a joint German-Spanish attack on Gibraltar, he presented such eternal lists of conditions that Hitler said he would rather have all his teeth pulled than go through another such session. When in 1943 he realized that he had been betting on the wrong horse by shipping vital minerals to Hitlers war machine, he coolly began selling them to the English. Thirty years later he would switch overnight from the state-controlled economy which had been his pride to a free-market policy which has made Spain for the first time since the16th century a prosperous nation.
For the fact remains that when death ended his long reign of absolute power in 1975, Spain was a richer, more stable, more peaceful and more united nation that it was when he took up arms in 1936. Not united in any way that he would have approved, for he remained an intransigent crusader to the end. Though he gave Spain its first social security and other features of the welfare state, and though he started the process which would turn his dictatorship into a democracy, he never gave up his conviction that it was his God-given duty to crush everything that he regarded as anti-Spain. He once put it as chasing out the last vestiges of the spirit of the Encyclopédie. One of his last actions as head of state was to spurn a request that widows of Republican soldiers should be given pensions.
The Spanish people on the other hand, had somehow decided, on its own, without advice from Franco or any other political leaders, to bury the past They made their own conclusion that it was folly to go on perpetually avenging crimes committed by past generations. They have learned to live together even though, as some one has said, you never know if the person you sit beside in the subway or the person you are going to marry may not have a grandfather who murdered your grandfather sixty years ago, or vice versa. A poll taken in early 1980's, only a few years after the death of Franco found three quarters of the population agreeing with the proposition that the civil war was the most shameful moment of Spanish history and is best forgotten.
When in February 1981 a handful of die-hards made an armed assault on the parliament building to overthrow King Juan Carlos, Francos hand-picked successor and the new democratic government which was gradually taking over, they assumed they were replaying the role that the generals had played when the started the insurrection in July 1936. But they ended up in jail.. As if the Spanish people had taken for their own the saying of James Joyce, History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. Nunca más de esto! No more of that! became the watchword. Barely a generation after three years of atrocious fratricide, they had decided that they had to, and would and could, live together in peace..
Awake or asleep, history has a way of playing tricks on people. The Spain of today, with its parliamentary democracy, free speech, free markets, its material prosperity and its rampant consumerism, where el futbol has replaced the slaughter of bulls as the national spectator sport, is exactly the kind of society which both Francos friends and Francos foes in the civil war would have regarded as an abomination.
At Brunete, which is twice as big as it was when it was totally destroyed in 1937, it is hard to see the new buildings for the new billboards announcing the construction of new chalets, apartments, duplexes, for yuppies of the bustling prosperous new Madrid where you can only hear of paseos in old movies.
Twenty miles up in the mountains a giant crucifix towers over the Vale of the Fallen, a monument built by convict labor (the convicts were the soldiers of the Spanish Republican army taken prisoner during the Spanish Civil War) to be an everlasting memorial to the victors of the war and especially to their leader, Francisco Franco. It is now one of the great tourist attractions of the Madrid area. People whose grandparents may have been murdering each other sixty years ago drive up to it by the hundreds every day in their new cars, walk down the arched nave which plunges like a celestial railway tunnel 600 feet through solid rock to where the generalissimo lies buried. On their way out they may stop to buy memorial T-shirts or the Cookbook of the Carmelite Nuns before they drive back to traffic-choked streets of Madrid for a meal at McDonalds and a quick check of the latest stock market quotations.
Free after years of an obscurantist dictatorship, people now snatch up books exposing the follies and corruptions of the Franco reign, and they cheer when survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade come back to their battlefields and are made honorary citizens of Spain. But there is little sign of the old passion, the old intransigence. The causes for which so many thousands died have become flickering shadows in a distant, irrelevant past. I was so happy the day Franco died, said a lady at dinner the other night in Madrid. School was closed that day.
©1998 Robert Wernick
expanded version of an article published in Smithsonian Magazine April 1998