Prologue to the cataclysm: Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain

robert_capa_civil_war_3

Antony Beevor has written fine accounts of the battles of Stalingrad, Berlin and Normandy. However this book must rank as his masterpiece. It is a gripping narrative history of the Spanish Civil War, updated from an earlier account he wrote, with new material from former Soviet and other sources. At just over 450 pages (excluding references and notes) it is a substantial volume, but still only half the length of the Spanish language version of the work.

The author is clearly sympathetic to the cause of the Spanish Republic, but this does not stop him from being scathing about its failings, particularly its military ones. He is clear-sighted also about the atrocities of the Republicans but these pale in comparison with those of the Francoists, which were systematic and often chilling in their brutality. In one instance an American journalist was present when a fascist officer handed over to his troops two young girls. The officer “told him calmly that they would not survive more than four hours” (p. 92).capa_essay_01

The Spanish Civil War prefigured the cataclysmic struggle of the Second World War, both in terms of the ideological conflicts and as well as the pitiless violence. Yet it is also a conflict which is important to understand in its own terms and for its influence on contemporary Spain and Europe. This is something that Beevor manages seemingly effortlessly. It is a great work of narrative history.

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Waltz with Bashir: a startlingly courageous Israeli exploration of that country’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre

Ari Folman in Beirut, from Waltz with Bashir

Ari Folman in Beirut, from Waltz with Bashir

Twenty years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, of which he was a participant, the writer and director Ari Folman realized that he had little memory of his time there. This included being stationed a few hundred metres from the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila during the three days in which the Phalangist militia massacred the population there.

Waltz with Bashir recounts how, with the help of others who had been there, including fellow soldiers, he began to recover his memory of the events. The result is this extraordinary “animated documentary”,

Palestinians and Lebanese have no voice in this film. Nevertheless it still represents some of the best impulses in Israeli society, documenting how an ordinary Israeli faces the truth of a particularly vile episode in his nation’s history in which he himself was directly implicated.

The massacre in Sabra and Shatila has echoes through history: one Israeli journalist, Ron Ben-Yishai a distinguished war correspondent who was the first journalist to witness and report on the massacre, and personally informed the then Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon of the massacre as it was occurring in a bid to get it stopped, recounts how the scene in the camps reminded him of the images of the Warsaw Ghetto.

There are other echoes in Middle Eastern history. One not mentioned in the film is how in 1268, on capturing the city of Antioch, the Sultan Baybars immediately locked the city gates to stop the escape of any of the town’s inhabitants as he proceeded to massacre them. Folman argues with this film that the role of the Israeli army during the massacre was the equivalent to Baybars’ locking of the gates. This allowed Israel’s Phalangist allies, Israeli-equipped and in the full knowledge of the highest Israeli military commanders, security to carry out the slaughter, safe in the knowledge that the civilians they were killing could not escape through Israeli lines. While the film may provide only a narrow perspective on the Lebanese invasion, it is a startlingly brave and humane one, showing how an ordinary individual human can take responsibility for himself and the best ideals of his country even in the face of racist atrocity and overwhelming historical events.

Making the Borgias boring: Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias

Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia

This is a startlingly dull biography of one of history’s most infamous families, its limitations perhaps a product of the fact that Christopher Hibbert was working on this towards the end of his life.

There is a welcome focus in the book on the unfairly maligned Lucrezia, and the author illustrates how she was a pawn in the power-plays of her pope father, Rodrigo, and brother, Cesare. The book details her many horrific experiences, including the murder of her husband, probably by her brother Cesare, and effectively refutes the myth of her monstrousness

Cesare was no more dastardly than his contemporaries, and in many ways more effective, as Machevelli’s account indicates. But he was still a pretty nasty character. He was a murderer and a rapist, keeping, for example, Caterina Sforza-Riario, ruler of Imola and Forli, as a sexual slave for weeks after sacking her cities. Tiring of her after a while he consigned her to the dungeons. Hibbert treats the coarse humoured contemporary accounts of the “willingness” of Caterina at face value, rather than consider in any great depth the invidious nature of Caterina’s position, and what this says about Cesare.

Casere Borgia

Casere Borgia

Time and again Hibbert seems more interested the clothes that the Borgias wore rather than the psychology of the family and the politics, papal and secular, that drove them. On the positive side it is a short book and does provide a relatively concise overview of the careers of this family. Still considering the potential of the source material it is a disappointing book, and probably unrepresentative of the author.