"It was the first war in history that could be followed almost minute by minute," writes Robert Wernick. "In beleaguered Madrid, reporters could take a taxi or the subway to the front lines at the edge of the city, and their stories would be in the papers everywhere the next day." It was also a particularly brutal war "that cut to the heart of almost every city and village in Spain." World War II has partly obliterated it from public memory, but during the 1930s, Europe, the United States and much of the world were mesmerized by the Spanish tragedy.
Germany and Italy--eager to test weapons--sent men, guns, tanks and planes to General Francisco Franco, the Fascist leader who had rebelled against the Popular Front Republican government, duly elected but too disorganized to rule a hopelessly divided country. The USSR became the mainstay of the Republican side. Meanwhile, the Western democracies--the United States passionately isolationist, France and Britain fearful of starting a bigger war--clung to neutrality and nonintervention. But as the struggle went on, tens of thousands of young idealists from all over the world joined the Communist-organized International Brigades to fight for the Republic against Fascism.
Robert Wernick describes the war--its mass executions on both sides, the part played by American volunteers, the years of bloody stalemate punctuated by battles that Franco's forces almost always won--until its end on April 1, 1939, when, with half a million Spanish dead, Franco became what he was to remain for 36 years, the total master of Spain. Just five months later, in September 1939, Britain and France were forced into World War II anyway, when Hitler invaded Poland.