24 January 2005

Objectivity and the Spanish civil war

By Tapani Lausti

Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War. Cassell 2004. (Originally published in 1982).

Whilst reading this book on the Spanish civil war I often thought of arguments about objectivity — something I and a colleague of mine have been writing about recently in the Finnish-language section of these pages. The Collins English dictionary describes the concept as something "undistorted by emotion or personal bias". The dictionary of modern Finnish adds notions like "independent of the subject", "impartial" and "universally applicable". One could, then, describe objectivity as a search for truth.

Many postmodernists have questioned the possibility of writing objective history. They claim that every culture and period have their own version of truth. History is seen as a fictious construction which changes from one period to the next.

Maybe my dislike of this kind of thinking is one reason I enjoyed reading Antony Beevorís book on the Spanish civil war. It is a straight-forward account of what happened. In the case of this particular period, truth is a very apt concept because the whole episode was saturated by many protagonistsí blatant lies. In their ideology, the nationalists combined religion and nationalism into a reactionary and murderous mix. The communists, on their part, tried to hide the fact that in the end the interests of the Soviet Unionís foreign policy were a key factor in their decisions. Also the International Brigades much-praised military role was in fact often hampered by letting their own propaganda get in the way of military realism.

The anarchists and the Marxist POUM party were more honest even when their policies could be criticised. Beevor has a military background which I suppose makes him an unlikely anarchist-sympathiser. Yet, he writes about the protagonists of the civil war with what one could describe as fairness. He shows a lot of understanding towards the anarchists. He accepts that much of their collectivization policies made sense. Dispassionately he points out some obvious mistakes and over-reactions. Beevor also understands the weakness in the communistsí argument that winning the war was the first priority and questions connected with social issues had to wait. This didnít make sense to so many peasants and workers: it was the social revolution which fired their willingness to fight.

Writing about the civil war in a dispassionate way does not mean that Beevor hasnít got any principles. I think his book shows respect for democracy and human rights. In this sense, the author does implicitly reveal his commitment to some durable values. This is, I think, where objectivity and fairness meet.

See also:

Kun Stalin vallankumousta torjui

Yliopisto, 19/2002

How Stalin destroyed revolution in Spain

openDemocracy, 31 January 2002

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