Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Last Crusade by Warren Carroll

The Last Crusade by Warren Carroll

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is an event that generally goes ignored in American history classes. At most it is a sidebar leading up to World War II, explaining why Spain was not involved on either side. The country had been devastated by an internal war between pro-Carlist (supporters of the exiled Spanish royalty and of Spanish Catholic tradition) Nationalist forces and the pro-Communist, pro-cultural overthrow Republican forces. The Nationalists eventually won, though their main general, Francisco Franco, was declared head of state. A restoration of monarchy was seen as an impossibility but a strong leader was needed to put the country back together.

This book's main thesis is that the Spanish Civil War was the last crusade, a war fought by Christians to protect their liberties to worship and live in peace. After several regime changes and coups in the early 1930s, the Spanish government was lead Manuel Azana, a nominal Catholic with more political ambition than conviction. He was left-leaning and allowed Socialist, Communist, and anarchist groups to grow in power and influence throughout the government. Their plans were for a social revolution like the 1917 Russian Revolution. They would tear down society and rebuild it according to their own principles. Using government forces and revolutionary mobs, attacks on churches and religious people began. A group of traditionalist generals met and made plans for a military coup in case things got out of hand. By the summer of 1936, the plan was put into action.

The book goes to great lengths to document the deaths of priests, bishops, nuns, and seminarians at the hands of the Republican forces. The stories are interesting and worth remembering, especially since most people only crow about the unjust death of poet and homosexual Federico Garcia Lorca at the hands of Nationalist forces (one of many atrocities on the Nationalist side). Carroll goes to great length to document what happened, especially as it shows how far the Communist forces were willing to go to create a cultural revolution that would eliminate Catholicism from Spain.

The battles between various forces are also described, often quite vividly. The best part of the book covers the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo. Nationalist forces in the Alcazar (an ancient military fort on a hill in the city) had brought in supplies and their families when Republican forces took the city. They held out hope for the main Nationalist Army to liberate them. After three months of heavy fighting and many different intrigues (including an attempt to tunnel under the castle and blow it up with five tons of TNT), they were liberated.

The book is very well written and well documented. Carroll captures the various personalities vividly and tells the dramatic stories of those individuals. The book is unabashedly Catholic but also aware of its viewpoint. Carroll is aware of other viewpoints on the war and argues against them with documentation and reason. The book is a very enjoyable read and fills in a gap that most general histories ignore.

Sample Quote: On the atrocities committed by both sides during the Spanish Civil War
Only academics cut off from human reality by the walls of their study, invincible naivete or prejudice, could expect that crimes of the type already described here [the butchering of male and female religious and the desecration and destruction of churches] would not arouse at least in some men an anger so ferocious as to override all moral considerations, or that other men would not use these horrors as an excuse for moves to gain personal advantage or personal vengeance. Men are not angels. No cause purifies everyone who fights in its name. To a degree perhaps not surprising in an age which has so largely abandoned reason as well as faith, men have forgotten that the justice of a war is not determined by acts committed by any individuals during it. It is determined at the outset by the right or wrong of taking up arms, and the prospects for success with them.
The planners of the Spanish military uprising of July 1936 believed they could win quickly, with little bloodshed, and save Spain from the fate of Russia which so much evidence indicated it was about to share. With better planning and better fortune they might well have done so. It was a risk worth taking. The alternative was what actually happened: a devastating war that took more than 250,000 lives. [p. 96]

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