Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, just out in paperback in the summer of 2006, is a re-release of his 1982 book about the Spanish Civil War, revised and updated. I'm sure this includes information from Soviet archives that were opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the book definitely benefits from this inclusion. As Beevor relates, so much of the Republican side of things related to the Soviet Union and Stalin that an analysis of the subject can only benefit from these archives. This edition is definitely a readable account of these horrible three years in Spanish history. The Battle for Spain goes into great detail about every aspect of the war, giving the reader a good overall view of what happened and, most importantly, why.
The Spanish Civil War is widely seen as a precursor of World War II in the sense that both the Soviets and Germans (as well as the Italians, to lesser effect) were able to test military theories, strategies, and equipment. The war was also another chapter in the ongoing struggle between fascism and communism, but it was so much more than that. As Beevor shows us, internal Spanish struggles brought many of the tensions in the country to a head, ostensibly giving both sides a "reason" for starting a revolution. The Spanish monarch was not well-liked, and a failed left-wing revolution happened in 1934. Elections did result in 1936, though it is questionable whether different results would have changed much. The Left won the elections, and the fascists launched a coup. Beevor asks the question in his Introduction, would the Left have reacted much differently if the fascists had won the elections? While the war may not have been inevitable, Beevor doesn't think any compromise would have satisfied both sides.
Beevor gives a good background to all of these events before going into the fascist coup and the simultaneous military uprising in many Spanish cities. Some of these uprisings succeeded and some failed, and Beevor goes into detail about them all. He captures effectively the audacity and planning of the coup, as well as how close it came to failing had the Republicans responded more quickly or with more organization. The Nationalists (the name for the fascist side) needed Hitler's help right away, as the expected naval coup that would have allowed troops from Spanish Morocco to come to the mainland didn't develop as planned, and they needed German airplanes to ferry troops across. This is one instance where a quick reaction may have stymied the Nationalists. With the varied success of these risings, battle lines were set and the war settled into the war we're all familiar with, one that lasted three years and resulted in a fascist state for over 30 years.
Beevor's excellent introduction sets the stage for the updated version of this book, acknowledging the 70th anniversary of this horrific war. He also uses this introduction to provide a wonderful directory of all the varied organizations on both sides of this conflict. The Republicans were not just Communist, and in fact many on the Republican side were trying to fend off the Communists almost as hard as they were fighting the Nationalists. The Nationalist side was not quite as fragmented, but there were various groups, some of which weren't quite as fascist as Franco's group was (some were indeed monarchists, simply trying to re-instate the king, others were Catholic and other religious groups). Beevor clearly illustrates the political maneuverings on both sides and showcases how Franco was able to subdue all of the interests on the Nationalist side to his own ambitions, something the Republicans were not able to do.
Beevor remains objective, showing the horrors on both sides, from the Nationalist mass bombing of the city of Guernica to the mass executions by the Communists on the Republican side. His main point is that Spain was in a bind no matter which way the war ended; there was no way the Republicans could have won without Communist support (especially men and material from the Soviets), which would have resulted in a Communist takeover of Spain. While he doesn't claim that the Communists would have executed more people than Franco did, he insists that the question cannot be brushed aside. Instead, we must just try to see what happened, and leave the moral evaluations to the others:
"The historian, although obviously unable to be completely dispassionate, should try to do little more than understand the feelings of both sides, to probe previous assumptions, and to push forward the boundaries of knowledge." Pg xxviii
Beevor covers all aspects of the war, from the individual campaigns to the politics of both sides to the paralyzed international reaction, as well as documenting the intervention that did take place by the Germans, Italians, and Soviets. At times, it appeared that the war was between the Soviets and Germany via proxy, using Spanish forces though the outside countries were basically running policy. As the most that people generally remember about the Spanish Civil War is the fascist versus Communist angle and, perhaps, the International Brigades of American, British, Canadian, and other countries' volunteers who went to fight on the Republican side, the level of detail in this book is amazing and eye-opening.
One detracting aspect of The Battle for Spain is that Beevor sometimes repeats himself, often within pages of having first stated the fact. He might mention the affiliation of a person then emphasize that affiliation again just a couple of pages later, as if he were reporting it for the first time. It doesn't happen that often, but definitely enough to be irritating and throw the reader out of the book.
Other than that, Beevor’s is a wonderful overview of this important, though sometimes forgotten outside of Spain, prelude to World War II. While there can always be more details presented, and I wouldn't use the word "definitive," it is possibly the closest that we will come to that without becoming too dry and boring for the non-academic reader. The Battle for Spain is an excellent book for anybody with an interest in the subject matter.