The Spanish Cockpit:
An Eyewitness Account of the Spanish Civil War

Franz Borkenau

Phoenix 2000 [1937]
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Franz Borkenau's The Spanish Cockpit must have been an exceptional work when it was first published, in 1937 when the Spanish Civil War was still undecided; based on first hand experience, it is still a valuable source of information. At its core are accounts of two trips to Republican Spain, the first during August and September 1936 (soon after the Nationalist rebellion and the social revolution) and the second in January 1937 (when the Communists were in the ascendancy and were suppressing opposition). These are supplemented by a reanalysis of the situation after the battle of Guadalajara (based on reports by others), an introduction which sets the war in its historical context, and a conclusion which tries to see past the conclusion of the war into the future.

Borkenau's account of his first trip is taken from his diaries, left almost unedited; that of his second trip is a more connected narrative. Trained as a sociologist and with personal experience of revolutionary movements (he had some standing in the German Communist party and the Comintern before becoming disillusioned with Marxism), Borkenau was well qualified to understand the complex politics of Republican Spain. As a journalist he was relatively free to move around (at least during his first trip; less so during the second, when he was briefly imprisoned) and thus in a position to see a wide area of the country. Nevertheless, though he includes some caveats, his knowledgeable tone suggests more certainty than is perhaps warranted, given the limits of his experience — his first trip lasted just 40 days, in which he visited Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, and Toledo, as well as the Aragon and Andalusia fronts! It is usually no problem to distinguish material based on direct experience from that based on hearsay, however, and his analysis is intelligent and critical. The Spanish Cockpit is useful source of information on one of the most interesting political struggles of the century.

If Borkenau has a tendency to attempt broad generalisations based on only limited knowledge, this is even more obvious in his introduction and conclusion. Here he appeals to Spanish "national character", and in particular Spanish resistance to "Europeanization", as both the ultimate explanation for the civil war and the key to the future of Spain (whichever side won).

Given the number of other books on the subject, both first hand accounts and formal studies, The Spanish Cockpit will probably be of primarily historiographical interest, for those who already know something about the Spanish civil war. Others may even have some trouble following it, since Borkenau never actually describes the immediate background to the war.

January 1996

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%T The Spanish Cockpit
%S An Eyewitness Account of the Spanish Civil War
%A Borkenau, Franz
%I Phoenix
%D 2000 [1937]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1842120069
%P xiii,303pp