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review 2020-01-06 22:09
A fascinating visual document for those interested in military vehicles and the Spanish Civil War
German Military Vehicles in the Spanish Civil War - Lucas Molina Franco,Jose María Mata,José María Manrique

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a connoisseur when it comes to military history or military vehicles, but I have recently become fascinated by unusual documents and photographs about the war, as they have the power to make the past come to life in a vivid way even for those who never experienced it. In the case of this book, 2019 marked the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, and I have watched programmes and read articles about different aspects of it. Many talked about the air raids by Italian and especially German bombers in support of the Nationalist army and against the Republic, which worked well as a testing ground of their equipment prior to WWII. When I saw this book, it struck me that I hadn’t heard anything about other German vehicles used during the Spanish Civil War, although it made perfect sense that they would also send other military equipment to aid the war effort. And I felt curious.

This book is a treasure throve of pictures of the vehicles used in the Spanish Civil War. Apart from the photographs of vehicles (and not only German, as there is also the odd captured vehicle, like some Russian tanks), there are also pictures of insignias, medals, and some fabulous illustrations, both in black and white and in colour, of the vehicles and the soldiers. The collection includes tanks, cars, buses, trucks, ambulances, motorbikes (some with sidecars), and plenty of support vehicles (signal vehicles, anti-tank, anti-aircraft vehicles, mobile communication units…), and of course, the soldiers as well.

The text is minimal, and it contains factual information about the negotiations with the Germans, the number of vehicles and men they sent to train the rebel army, where they were posted, and there are also some charts summarising the numbers and the makes of the vehicles in each unit. As the authors explain, it is difficult to be precise when it comes to numbers, and in fact they ask readers to get in touch if they find any discrepancies or have any further information that can be updated in future editions.

The main interest for a non-expert like me, apart from seeing many pictures of vehicles I’d never seen before, was to see the soldiers and the different locations also. Many of the pictures are clearly posed, but some seem to have caught soldiers going about their everyday lives (peeling potatoes, chatting, washing by the river…). There are no overly dramatic pictures or action pictures as such, but the uniforms, insignias, and vehicles could prove invaluable to historians and writers interested in obtaining an accurate description of the era. I also read reviews that commented on how useful such a book would be for people interested in building realistic military models, and by the same token, it would also be useful to people who provide props or create sets for movies or TV programmes.

I missed an index and a bibliography, although the book seems to be based on an individual collection, that of J.M. Campesino, and that might explain why there is no detailed information.

This is a book that will delight fans of military history and military vehicles, with the added interest that many of those vehicles were tried and tested in Spain first and were later put to use in WWII. The authors have published a number of books in Spanish on historic subjects related mostly to the Spanish Civil War, and I understand that Pen & Sword are working on publishing other related titles. An informative and visually engaging book about a period of Spanish history that remains very present, and we should never forget.  


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review 2019-11-29 11:15
Fantastic. Unforgettable.
A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels, although I haven’t read any of her recent books, despite my best intentions. I read many of her early novels, in Spanish, and I enjoyed her take on Magic Realism, which I found inspiring. When I saw this novel, which combined Allende’s writing with a historical subject close to my heart (I’m from Barcelona, like the protagonist of the novel, and some of my relatives lived experiences quite similar to those Victor goes through), I had to read it. And although it is a very different reading experience from that of The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enormously.

This novel is the story of Victor Dalmau, whom we meet at a very difficult moment, during the Spanish Civil War. He was studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view (there is a fragment where the novel deviates from that, but there is a good reason for it), the book follows his life pretty closely and in chronological order, although not all periods of his life are shared in the same detail. We learn about his family, his parents, Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war, the retreat (“la retirada”), and the problems a huge number of Spaniards who escaped to France had to face once there.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, is fundamental to the story, not only because he chartered the SS Winnipeg that took many Spaniards (around two thousand) to Chile, escaping from Franco’s regime and the French camps, but also because he personally appears in the novel and each chapter is introduced by one of his poems. In fact, the title of the book also comes from one of his poems, and it is a descriptive metaphor of the country, Chile, that welcomed the refugees with open arms. The story also follows Victor’s later adventures, his studies and work as a cardiologist, Roser’s works as a musician and her creation of an orchestra, and the historical and political upheavals they have to confront, with further displacements and persecution. What is to be an emigrant, how different people adapt to different realities and countries (Victor and Roser are pretty different in this respect), and also the invaluable contribution those very same immigrants make to the very fabric of the country that takes them in, are threads that run through the whole novel.

This is my first experience of reading Allende’s work in English, and I thought the translation was excellent. The language is both functional and beautiful, capturing the emotions of the characters, and vividly portraying their experiences, at times harrowing and at others uplifting. I was very touched by the narrative, and although that might be in part due to my personal connection to the material (not only the historical aspect, but also the experience of life in a different country) , the effect was not limited to the parts of the story I was familiar with. The adventures of Victor and Roser in Chile, Allende’s government (of course, Salvador Allende was Isabel’s uncle), and the military coup, further tested their endurance and made them start again in Venezuela. Added to the larger historical events, we have a story of love, family, and displacement, which will resonate with many readers, even if they are not familiar with the particular historical and geographical setting. Circumstances might change, but the problems are universal.

The author talks about the genesis of the book in a note at the beginning of the book and explains it in more detail in the acknowledgements at the end. Although this is a novel, it is based on real accounts, and its main character was inspired by another Victor, Victor Pey, who lived to be 103, and who experienced many of the trials and tribulations we read about. Allende creates a catalogue of varied characters, complex and credible, and mixes historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly. Victor is a quiet man, hard-working, who prefers action to idle talk, and whose mission in life seems to be to help others. He is a survivor who can be naïve about the consequences of his actions and about the motivations of others, but he always expects the best of others and hopes against hope. Roser, his wife, is a fabulous character, a strong woman who keeps going no matter what, and their relationship evolves through the book, never getting old and with plenty of surprises. There are plenty of memorable characters in the book, some that play a larger part than others, and some that keep popping up at regular intervals as time passes. I was intrigued by the Solan family, fascinated by Juana, their lifelong servant, and also appreciated the small details that add a human touch to the historical figures, Pablo Neruda in particular.

I loved the writing style, poetic and lyrical at times, despite dealing in some very harsh topics. The flow varies, and some historical periods are described in more detail than others, as happens in memoirs. I’ve read comments of readers who say there is too much telling in this novel. There is a fair amount of telling, that is true, by the very nature of the story, but it suits the personality of the protagonist, and to be honest, I cried with the story as it is. I’m not sure I would have managed to read it if it were even more emotional. (I smiled as well, and it is a hopeful story overall, but it did touch me deeply).

I have highlighted many passages, and it’s difficult to choose one or two, but I decided to give it a try.

Here Victor Dalmau observes the work of the female volunteers looking after injured soldiers in the Spanish Civil War:

Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother.

If you are very sensitive, you might want to look away now:

This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air.

And I had to include one from Pablo Neruda, quoted here in chapter 2.

Nothing, not even victory,

Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.

I love this novel, which I recommend to readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or the history of Chile, to fans of Isabel Allende, and also to those who’ve never read her before, but are looking for a compelling story, masterfully written, with a memorable cast of characters and a story with many parallels to recent events. I attended a conference about la Retirada (the retreat of around 500000 Spaniards, both military and civilians, escaping to France from Spain at the end of the Civil War, in February 1939) on its 8oth anniversary earlier this year, and looking at the pictures, it gave us all pause, because if we just changed the background of the photographs and the clothes, we could have been watching the news. Like those images, this is a novel that will stay with me. I might be biased but that’s my prerogative and I can’t recommend it enough.

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review 2019-09-03 07:57
Spanish Civil War Air Forces - Christopher Shores

A concise, illustrated history of the use of air power by the Republican and Nationalist air forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

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review 2019-05-30 19:24
Gotten as a Kindle Freebie
The Spanish Civil War - Charles River Editors

This is one of the better CRE books. It takes a complicated issue and lays out the facts clearly. Nicely done.

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review 2019-04-14 17:58
A masterpiece of historical biography
Franco: A Biography - Paul Preston
From Benito Mussolini to Adolf Hitler, the 1930s was the heyday of right-wing dictatorships in Europe. Yet none of them proved as enduring as that of Francisco Franco. From the triumph of his Nationalist forces in 1939 until his death in 1975 Franco dominated Spain, guiding it from years of war and scarcity through the tumultuous economic and social changes of the postwar era. Such a figure deserves a through and penetrating study of his life set within the context of his times, and Paul Preston provides his readers with just such a book.
Preston's presentation of Franco's life within its pages can be divided into four periods. The first covers his early years, from his childhood in Galicia to the start of the Spanish Civil War. The scion of a family of naval officers, Franco was destined for the sea until Span traumatizing defeat at the hands of the United States in 1898 curtailed his options. Instead Franco opted for a career in the army, where his discipline and his organizational skills ensured in a meteoric rise. Preston pays particular attention to Franco's service in Morocco during the drawn out Rif War, arguing that it was here where Franco's approach towards governance — one in which obedience was to be compelled with force rather than cultivated through building consensus — first developed. With Spanish politics veering from monarchy through dictatorship and republicanism, it was one that would increasingly appear to be the only solution to Spain's problems.
Nevertheless, Preston notes that despite his burgeoning right-wing political views, Franco was willing to reconcile with the Republic provided that he continue to be appointed to the positions he felt he deserved. Yet even after he was relegated to the command of the Canary Islands Franco hesitated to join the emerging conspiracy against the newly-elected left-wing government, only committing to the cause at the last minute. This brings Preston to the second part of his book, which chronicles Franco's role in the Spanish Civil War. Here Franco waged campaigns on several fronts, fighting the Republicans  militarily while gradually cementing his control over the Nationalists and ensuring his emergence as the dominant leader at the end. Though Franco had opportunities to win the war more quickly than he did, Preston shows how Franco pursued his meticulous approach both to give himself time to cement his control over the disparate Nationalist factions and to purge the Republican regions conquered by his forces. For Franco, the civil war was nothing less than an ideological crusade for his vision of Spain, one that he would spend the rest of his life trying to preserve.
Achieving his vision of Spain, though, required navigating a variety of international challenges, most immediately those created by the Second World War. This part of Preston's book is in many way the most revelatory, as he goes to considerable lengths to debunk the postwar myths perpetuated by Franco and his regime. Rather than carefully hewing to a course of neutrality in the conflict as he subsequently claimed, Preston shows Franco as an eager ally of Germany and Italy, to the point where Franco offered in 1940 to join the war on the Axis side. Franco's mercenary interests, however, alienated Adolf Hitler, who prioritized Vichy France's compliance over the Spanish participation that Franco offered in return for France's empire in North Africa. Even as Franco's interest in joining the war waned he continued to offer the Germans considerable support, which ranged from auding U-boat operations to providing thousands of volunteers for Germany's campaigns against the Soviet Union. Well after the Allied invasion of Normandy Franco's preference for a German victory endured, even as he pivoted to court the Allies.
With the end of the war Franco scrambled to adapt to the postwar environment. This serves as the final period covered in Preston's book, as it shows how Franco gradually adjusted to the realities of the world now before him. Here he was aided by the nascent Cold War, which helped transform Spain from a pariah to a useful ally for the United States against the Soviets. But Franco was also forced to adjust in the 1950s to the economic realities before him by abandoning the autarkic policies advocated by his Falangist allies and embracing the economic liberalization urged by the more technocratic members of his government. While Spain prospered over the course of the 1960s, Preston sees Franco as more of an obstacle than an enabler here, noting that resignations and transfers of power back to a monarchist system earlier would have opened up more of the international aid opportunities that Spain so badly needed. Yet Franco proved reluctant to give up control of Spain, a reluctance that was borne out when within two years of his death Spain rejected the undemocratic regime he preferred in favor of the parliamentary democracy that endures to the present day.
In this respect, Franco's greatest achievement lay not in the Spain he tried to create but in his own ability to endure. Preston succeeds in showing how Franco survived in a world moving past him. While the reader can get burdened down in the later chapters with the details of cabinet formation and the jockeying of various family members, overall his book is a masterpiece of biography. From it emerges a portrait of a man vainly holding back the forces of change in Spain, yet one who managed to hold on to his own position to the very end. To understand his ability to do this and why he failed in his broader effort to reshape Spain to conform to his vision for it, Preston's book is necessary reading.
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