Eighty Years of “The Spanish Labyrinth” 

In 1943, four years after the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War, a book was published in England on the origins of the conflict. The author Gerald Brenan, (1894-1987) had lived intermittently in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s; the book, The Spanish Labyrinth soon became a classic in the English-speaking world.  [You may read it here]. To mark the 80th anniversary of its first publication we are publishing this account of the book and its influence.

In Spain, where independent historical research was severely restricted until after the death of Franco in 1975, a Spanish edition circulated illegally following its publication in 1962 by the emigré publishing house, Ruedo Ibérico. The Spanish Labyrinth, understandably, reflects the approaches to the study of history at the time and the limited sources available to the author. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of Brenan’s arguments have been challenged in recent years, particularly by Spanish historians working with new sources and adopting new approaches to historical research. However, The Spanish Labyrinth played an important role in the development of the study of the origins of the Civil War and influenced and inspired later generations of writers.

In the final years of his life, Gerald Brenan became famous in Spain. The legal publication of Spanish editions of The Spanish Labyrinth in 1978 and his other books, notably South From Granada (1974) made him a celebrity and his death in January 1987 was headline news in Spain. Brenan was, however, an unlikely figure to achieve such recognition in Spain. Although he had lived in Andalusia since 1953, he had no close Spanish friends and his social circle was centred on the English-speaking expatriate community of the area around Málaga as well as visiting friends, writers and artists. 

The early reviews of The Spanish Labyrinth gave a misleading account of Brenan’s knowledge of Spain, usually stating that he had lived in the country throughout the 1920s and 1930s and one even claiming that he had gone to Spain to become a farmer. Reality was somewhat less romantic. He arrived in Spain after serving as an Observation Officer in the British army in France throughout the First World War, for which he was decorated by both British and French governments. He moved to Spain in 1920 to live cheaply on his army pension and settled in the small village of Yegen in the Alpujarras, in the province of Granada, taking with him a library of some 2,000 books through which he planned to make up for the education he felt he had missed by not attending university. Although he rented the house in Yegen until 1934, he only lived there continuously for three years (1920-24), thereafter living in London while returning intermittently for long periods.

After his marriage to the American poet and novelist Gamel Woolsey in 1934, they bought a house in Churriana, on the outskirts of Málaga (where the airport now stands). Although the marriage was childless, they brought up Brenan’s daughter from a relationship with a young village girl in Yegen and renamed her Miranda. After the July 1936 military coup, which failed in Málaga, they arranged for friends to take Miranda to England, while they stayed in Churriana. An account of their wartime experiences in Málaga was written by Woolsey (appearing under two different titles: Death’s Other Kingdom and Málaga Burning ) and deserves to be more widely read. The couple were not to return to Spain until their visit for two months in 1949, which Brenan used as the basis for his book The Face of Spain (1950).

Before they left for England in October 1936, Brenan was briefly a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. After returning, he campaigned for British support for the Spanish Republic, writing letters to The Times and other newspapers, speaking at public meetings and providing shelter for Spanish refugees. The Duchess of Atholl, a Conservative MP who was a prominent campaigner for the Republican cause, invited him to address a meeting of Conservative members of parliament. In 1938 he campaigned in support of the Duchess in the by-election which she fought – and lost – after resigning from parliament in protest at British foreign policy. He also started work on The Spanish Labyrinth which was finished in 1941.

Read more about the Duchess of Atholl in The The Red Duchess and in Expedición a Inglaterra: The Basque Children in Britain.

On publication, The Spanish Labyrinth received glowing newspaper reviews in Britain and the United States as well as in some Latin American countries, notably Mexico.  The academic reviews were also positive. Robert S. Smith, writing in the (American) Journal of Politics, described it as “a sober, factual and penetrating study of Spanish political and social life.” (Volume 6, 1944, page 114).  Although the Second World War was at an important turning point, the Spanish Civil War was recent history and the book’s attraction to readers in these countries included those who had campaigned – and in some cases fought – for the Republican cause and who now wanted explanations for the war and defeat.

One reason for the book’s success was Brenan’s ability as a writer which made the book more readable and enjoyable for general readers than many works of history books written at the time.  Some of his descriptions are particularly memorable such as his profile of Miguel Primo de Rivera :

His personal habits were as undisciplined and as bohemian as his mind. Though he worked long hours, these hours were very irregular. He sat up talking every night in clubs or cafes till three or four in the morning, slept till eight or nine and then took a siesta after lunch -putting on a cotton night dress and nightcap and going to bed in the old Spanish style till five. His only form of exercise was riding, but every now and then he would have a good juerga or drinking bout. He and a few friends (including women) would shut themselves up in a country house, disconnect the telephone and let themselves go for a couple of days. Then he would return to work with renewed energies.

The Spanish Labyrinth (p. 79-80). 

Read more about Primo de Rivera in The road to the Coup of September 1923: Social Conflict in Barcelona.

An important feature of The Spanish Labyrinth   is the footnotes and the notes at the end of chapters. The latter are sometimes short essays, such as that to Chapter 3, which discusses the low level of education in Spain in the eighteenth century or Note F to Chapter 6  in which he contrasts different forms of landholding in Christian and Moslem Spain in the 12th century. As these examples indicate Brenan’s scope extended well beyond the immediate origins of the Civil War and they provide an insight into the range of Brenan’s research. 

It is important to see The Spanish Labyrinth  in relation to the context in which it was written and the sources available. It was clearly impossible to carry out historical research of any sort inside Spain at this time. Brenan’s extensive annotated bibliography is a good indication of his sources. Much of his research was carried out in the British Museum Library, where he met Arthur Lehning, a Dutch anarchist who was the librarian at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, which was based in Britain after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. Lehning was able to provide books and papers on anarchism and the agrarian problem which were unknown in Britain. Among the other people he consulted were the Austrian Sociologist Franz Borkenau, the Spanish socialist journalists Luis Araquistáin and Arturo Barea, the German anarchist historian Max Nettlau and the British journalist John Langdon-Davies. [More about Langdon-Davies in Memories of Spain in the 1930s]

The support which Franco received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which were essential to his victory, and the Republic’s dependence on the Soviet Union meant that the war was seen, with considerable justice, as part of the European great power and ideological struggle of the 1930s. Brenan, however, was clear that the origins of the war were to be found in Spanish socio-economic and political history. If this seems obvious to us now, it was not the case at the time.

In seeking to explain the tragedy of the Civil War Brenan focused on the period that begins with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1874. The first five chapters are a chronological survey of the period up to 1931 while the last part of the book is an account of the Second Republic and the Civil War, but in between are five chapters (Chapters 6-10) which are, perhaps, the essential core of the whole book. In these five chapters he examines the agrarian question, anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, Carlism and socialism. 

Brenan’s survey of the agrarian question was central to many of his arguments and attracted a lot of praise. He stresses the importance of variations in Spanish geography, climate and rainfall in influencing social, economic and political conditions. Though he has been criticised for an apparent overemphasis on Andalusia and Estremadura, where vast estates (latifundia) co-existed with large numbers of seasonably employed landless labourers, this may be justified by the need to explain the failure of the 1932 Agrarian Reform Act and the importance played by the social and economic conditions of these regions in the politics of the Second Republic. Brenan was strongly influenced by the work of Juan Díaz del Moral, whose Historia de las Agitaciones Campesinas Andaluzas (1929) is a detailed account of agricultural conditions in the province of Córdoba and the major labour conflicts which erupted there in 1918-1920. 

Díaz del Moral was also an important influence on his views of Anarchism. This, Brenan argued, was a specifically Spanish messianic movement based on the need among the peasantry for a spiritual substitute due to the Catholic Church’s association with the rich and powerful. This interpretation of anarchism has been rejected by later generations of historians, who argue that Brenan failed to distinguish between the revolutionary views of anarchist leaders and the everyday concerns of workers whose support was sporadic and instrumental. It is particularly difficult to accept Brenan’s claim that anarchism was only found among the “landless labourers and small peasants of Andalusia and the dry eastern regions” (page 185). This clearly does not account for the strength of the movement among urban workers in Catalonia: although Brenan argued that Catalan anarchism was a result of migration to Barcelona from the south, this is also now discounted. His romantic view of anarchism can be seen partly as a reflection of his own tastes and opinions: throughout his life Brenan preferred spartan living conditions and, when travelling, enjoyed taking local buses, staying in the cheapest accommodation and eating in the simplest restaurants. 

In his preface to the second edition published in 1950, Brenan himself recognised that his attitude to the Catholic Church had been “too exclusively moral and political” adding that the “Spanish church has a vitality which its conduct does not suggest.” (page xiv). This is an important point: Brenan fails to understand the support which the coup received from peasant smallholders in provinces such as Navarra. Modern readers will find other flaws in this work, among them Brenan’s regular use of supposed – and questionable – generalisations about what he regards as the Spanish national character: we are told, for example, that the Spanish are “patient and fatalistic” (page 8), that “Spaniards as a race are neither just nor fair, but they are honest” (p. 15) and that “the deeper layers of Spanish political thought and feeling are Oriental” (p. xxiv). Moreover the colourful character-sketch of Primo de Rivera cited above obscures the complexity of the Dictatorship and distracts from the important changes occurring in Spain in the 1920s.  

The importance of The Spanish Labyrinth however, needs to be seen in relation to the development of the study of Spanish history at a time when the Spanish archives were closed and when the Franco Regime used history as propaganda weapon to justify and celebrate the 1936 military coup and its repression during the Civil War and afterwards. At the time of its publication, there was no real academic study of modern Spanish history in Britain. Part of the reason for the book’s success was, without doubt, the lack of alternatives. It influenced and inspired later historians in Britain and the United States – and in Spain until after the death of Franco.  Both Raymond Carr (Spain 1808-1939) and Hugh Thomas acknowledged their debts to Brenan. In the Preface to the first edition of his monumental The Spanish Civil War (1961) Thomas described The Spanish Labyrinth as “a book of genius which illuminates the whole of the Spanish twentieth century” (page xix).  

Although The Spanish Labyrinth established Brenan as a historian of Spain, he never wrote another work of history and turned down several offers from important publishers to do so, usually arguing that he was too busy. During the Second World War he wrote a series of talks for La Voz de Londres, the BBC’s service to Spain, though his Andalusian accent was considered too strong and these were delivered by someone else. Among Brenan’s later works were The Literature of the Spanish People (1951) and two volumes of autobiography as well as several novels, none of which was successful.  After Woolsey’s death in 1968 he moved to Alhaurín el Grande, 29 km inland from Málaga in the Sierra de Mijas. Towards the end of his life he began to receive honours: in 1982 a street was named after him in Alhaurín el Grande and in 1984 the Spanish Socialist government presented him with the Pablo Iglesias Award.  

PHOTO: Gerald Brenan (Sliema, Malta, 1894 – Alhaurín el Grande, Spain, 1987). See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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