Book Review: Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War

By Michael Seidman

This is certainly not just one more book on the Spanish Civil War. Its originality lies not only in the empirical evidence it handles but also in its unconventional way of explaining the reasons for the Republican defeat. The potential audience for this book clearly goes beyond Spanish Civil War scholars, since it will be equally appealing to social, economic, and military historians, as well as to social scientists interested in political violence, collective action, and socio-political identities. Also, various illuminating comparisons are drawn among the Spanish, American, and Russian civil wars. Due to its novel and stimulating view of the Spanish conflict and its original contribution to the study of individual behaviour in wartime, I highly recommend this very readable, perceptive, and interesting book.

Price: £21.50
Publication Date: 2002, University of Wisconsin Press.
ISBN: 978-0299178642
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However, for the sake of discussion, I will raise some points that need further illumination.
Although the author is very interested in writing a social history of the Spanish fratricidal conflict, he is equally concerned with emphasizing the role of personal choice in history. One of the main strengths of the book is to account for variation in circumstances not specially favourable to individual freedom of action, but this focus may also constitute one of its weaknesses. After reading the book, I do not have a clear idea of the reasons why some individuals, apparently subjected to the same environment, behaved as militants while others engaged in opportunistic, cynical, or survivalist behaviours. One of the author’s aims is to combine individual behaviour with social history, but while he identifies and analyses these four kinds of individuals (militant, opportunistic, cynical and survivalist), he fails to show what individuals within each group had in common; nor does he demonstrate why people in different groups who were apparently subjected to the same social, economic, and cultural conditions behaved in such different ways. All of this is directly connected with the difficulty contained in the author’s attempt to combine the idea that “individuals were not determined by their class or gender identities” with the statement that “the Spanish civil war was undoubtedly a class war”. If the author wants to emphasize family, friends, and village ties above the most commonly used class and gender identities, the second statement could be seen as unnecessary or, alternatively, the articulation between the two arguments could be more developed.

Another intriguing problem, partially related to the former, has to do with the fact that although the author is very concerned with avoiding determinism in the explanation of individual behaviour, when he comes to the general description of Spanish history before the conflict, he seems to fall into a somewhat deterministic account of the “long-term causes for the civil war.” He states that “Spain did not follow the same pattern of development as north-western Europe,” and he even goes back to the eighth century to try to prove that. This is somewhat unnecessary for the main argument and contradicts the principal methodological assumptions of the book, which sometimes seem to be used to justify the unavoidability of the civil war.

The author is absolutely correct to devote more attention to an issue normally ignored in academic—not to mention novelistic or cinematographic—accounts of the war: that the main priority of most people was to survive, to protect their families and friends, and to avoid suffering. The Spanish Civil War, after all, often has been portrayed as a pure ideological war in which most people were clearly aware of their ideological stands. In spite of the high levels of political and union mobilization during this period (part of it due to instrumental attitudes during the war), most people did not have the time or the resources to develop a committed ideological stand. Given this truth, which is abundantly demonstrated in this book, several aspects of this account could be improved.

Worthy of note is the way in which the author has dealt with primary sources; he undoubtedly made the most of them. However, regarding secondary sources, in order to make some of his points he sometimes resorts to quoting authors who are fairly discredited, due to their ideological biases and unconditional commitment to one of the warring sides. The most obvious example is Vallejo NĂ¡gera, who cannot be considered a reliable source. His comment that “young women [of both sides] … were frivolous, impertinent, irritable, erotic, but incapable of taking care of the home and raising children” (p. 99) is unnecessary.

Other strengths of the book lie in Seidman’s more than adequate description of collectives, in the sophisticated account of the economic and management problems faced particularly by the Republican side, and in the description of the diet consumed in both zones and the health problems faced by each side. The fact that the Nationalists proved much more able to feed their population and military turned out to be crucial for the outcome of the war, since this affected not only the health but also the morale of the society and troops. Seidman’s depiction of the conflict between socialist and anarchist unions is very accurate, as is his description of the logic of violence on both sides. Also, his recollection of the cases of self-mutilation and desertions that affected Nationalists as well as Republicans is very well documented. In conclusion, I strongly recommend this refreshing book, stimulating and fruitful reading throughout.