James Matthews. Reluctant Warriors: Republican Popular Army and Nationalist Army Conscripts in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. vii + 244 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-965574-8.
Reviewed by Cameron Zinsou (University of North Texas)
Published on H-War (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
James Matthews's Reluctant Warriors examines conscripts, who were the most utilized type of soldier during the Spanish Civil War. Matthews self-consciously continues the recent trend in Spanish Civil War historiography of exploring the experience of the "ordinary Spaniard." This shift represents a move away from the traditional internationalist approach to the Spanish Civil War. Matthews's narrow focus is on the conscript in the National and Republican armies in the areas surrounding Madrid. He believes this comparative study to be representative of the 1.7 million conscripts employed during the war by both sides. He predictably argues that the Nationalist were "more effective at managing its conscripts than the Republican Popular Army" (p. 9).
Matthews employs various theoretical frameworks to shape his study. He relies on a comparative framework established by Marc Bloch. Matthews analyzes the different ways both sides mobilized, trained, fed, disciplined, and rewarded conscripts, amongst other things. Additionally, he inserts aspects of relational history into his work, relying on Jürgen Kocka's definition of "mutual influences and the interplay between them" (p. 7). The interplay between the two sides--such as the active encouragement of enemy soldiers to defect--plays a central role in Matthews's analysis. Mostly, however, Reluctant Warriors charts the parallel paths the two armies developed as the Spanish Civil War evolved.
The first chapter typifies what Matthews does in his work. Republican conscripts called into service for the Popular Army were viewed as second-rate. Volunteerism for the army represented a victory for the proletariat and its movement towards a more equitable society on every level. Conscription, in which men were forced to fight, undercut that image , and was therefore downplayed bycommunist and anarchist commissars and officers in the expansive Republican propaganda machine. The Nationalists by comparison, showed no hesitation when instituting their version of conscription. The challenges were different for them. Franco and the military establishment had to successfully incorporate and then subjugate the Carlists and Falangists who rebelled along with the military against the Nationalist government. Additionally, the Nationalists called up conscripts in a measured, methodical way. This ensured the Nationalists had young, fit men to recruit and employ throughout the conflict, rather than the older, less fit men the Republicans resorted to in the late stages of the war.
One myth that Matthews successfully debunks is the notion that the Nationalists had a small portion of defectors because of their stern discipline. The Nationalists successfully coerced large numbers of Republican prisoners, defectors, and sympathizers into fighting effectively for Franco. Matthews explains this as resulting both from the threat of violence and a system of rewards that allowed Republican soldiers to gain clemency and absolution for their past left-leaning views, and in the process save their families. This astute practice contrasted against the lax Republican disciplinary standards. To compensate for the failing self-regulation standards the Republican army maintained, government officers took punitive actions against these soldiers and their families.
Nationalists and Republicans looked to spread their message across geographic boundaries to adversarial conscripts. Sanctioned visits to brothels, literacy campaigns, and sufficient material to live as a soldier were facets of a concerted effort by both sides to keep their soldiers happy when morale fell and desertion increased. Matthews ably shifts between both sides when comparing their similar, yet different approaches to these various issues. Yet at times this continual switching loses the reader.
There are a few issues with Reluctant Warriors. For the work's stated focus on the central region of Madrid, Matthews frequently leaves this zone of the conflict to use examples from other regions to further his argument. One could argue that the central region of the war is representative of the war. However, Matthews boxes himself in by limiting his focus; thus, when he uses a single anecdote from the central zone to confirm that prostitution ran rampant in places like "Seville, Saragossa, Granada, and Oviedo" (p. 132), the reader is left wondering how prostitution affected his area of study in the work. Additionally, the relative weaknesses of both sides meant that only one army from each was operational at any given time. Resources were prioritized for the battlefields around Madrid, the capital. Thus, the concerns of neglected conscripts in the south of Spain could be dramatically different than the concerns of soldiers in the central zone. It is an issue that asks for a larger look at conscripts in the war as a whole, rather than the limited area Matthews investigates. It appears that Matthews also uses the hindsight of Nationalist victory to explain their practices as being inevitably successful, which gives the work a twinge of fatalism. Though not a weakness, this is a technical study, which means the reader should be familiar with the Spanish Civil War.
James Matthews provides a rich, narrowly focused look at life for the average conscript in the Nationalist and Republican armies. He provides equal attention to both sides and gives a glimpse into the lives of both sets of combatants. There is a solid intellectual framework underlying the book. Occasional stumbles and some assumptions hinder some of the books' points. Despite those, Reluctant Warriors holds considerable value in adding another chapter in the Spanish Civil War historiography. It also is a necessary work for serious students of the war looking to better understand the intricacies of both armies and the largest contingent of soldiers to fight during the war: conscripts.
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Cameron Zinsou. Review of Matthews, James, Reluctant Warriors: Republican Popular Army and Nationalist Army Conscripts in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
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