Cooper’s London

A Not-So-Civil War

by Mel Cooper

Though he first published The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in 1961, Hugh Thomas has been expanding and updating his monumental study, with various revisions and versions, regularly since then. I re-read the book recently, inspired to do so because Thomas is now writing the third volume of his trilogy covering the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire and its aftermath. (See my post and interview of September 13, 2011.)

In the interview, Thomas told me how took on the Spanish Civil War almost accidentally. In the book, his masterpiece, he deals with the intense feelings and controversies that caused the war and played out not just in that era, but for decades―not only within Spain, but around the world. The Spanish Civil War is still with us today in various ways; and I certainly recommend visiting the municipal archives dedicated to its history in Salamanca. 

Thomas’s view is clearly that the war was a fulcrum upon which revolved the various political ideologies and fanaticisms of the era: democracy, republicanism, fascism, communism and even religion, with a powerful and objective coverage of the complex role of the Spanish Catholic church, in the news again recently for revelations about how it sold children to families it deemed more worthy than the ones that actually gave them birth.

The Spanish Civil War (nearly 1000 pages of text) is gripping from end to end and, as Cyril Connolly said in his review of the original edition, “Almost no aspect of the Civil War, however painful or unpopular, escapes him in this splendid book.” A scrupulous, detailed and completely compelling study, thought-provoking and still relevant today, I recommend strongly that anyone interested in this era in Europe in general, and in Spain in particular, should read the most current edition they can get their hands on. It’s about the fight for the soul of the Spanish nation, the foundations of the fight that led to World War II, and the spirit of the era. They still haunt us.

The Mexican Suitcase

by Apollo’s Girl

Yes, they do. While the rest of the world seems to have forgotten most of the details of the Spanish Civil War as it recedes into history, pretty much obscured by the Holocaust and its aftermath, for the Spanish themselves it remains very much alive–much in the way our own Civil War still claims so many followers at home. There is a singular bitterness and afterlife to civil war among its survivors that resists erasure. How complicated the Spanish Civil War was! Not only pitting the many warring factions among the Spaniards against each other, but also drawing volunteer battalions from other countries, idealists who took up the Republican cause.

Many feature films have explored the subject, from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Secrets of the Beehive, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Devil’s Backbone. But what has has really haunted me ever since I saw it last year at Docufest is a wonderful documentary made by Trisha Ziff: The Mexican Suitcase. It’s deep, rich, and constructed like a first-rate thriller that follows all the threads of the story through the maze of history without dropping any of them. film site

The Mexican Suitcase features powerful photographs by Robert Capa, his wife, and his collaborator that have become familiar icons; you will recognize the images at once. But, without the efforts of those who spirited the negative-filled suitcases (there were actually three of them) out of Spain at the time, and Trisha Ziff, who tracked them to Mexico City more than half a century later and spent years piecing together her film based on those images (adding other personal photographs, interviews, and archival footage), they would have been lost in the murky post-Civil War Spanish landscape. The film also gives credit to Capa’s wife Gerda Taro (who was killed in Spain) and his assistant, David Seymour, without whom the negatives would have been doomed.

This film is only just beginning to get the attention it deserves. How good is it? You can take my word for it, or the word of other reviewers, the_mexican_suitcase_review, or go with the numbers; its IMDb rating is currently 9.3. And if it isn’t yet playing in a theater near you, you can find out much more at the International Center for Photography in New York, where most of the negatives and prints are stored. ICP archives


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