One of the highlights of this year’s International Book Day celebrations in Saragossa was the release of Julián Casanova’s new book Europa contra Europa. A tenured professor of modern history at the University of Saragossa and a regular op-ed writer for the Spanish newspaper el País, Casanova is a highly recognized expert on the Spanish Civil War and the various anarchist movements which have marked the development of social, political, and labor ideologies in Spain. A prolific writer and frequent visiting professor in Latin America and the United States, Casanova has taught courses on the history of Europe between the two world wars at both the University of Notre Dame and the New School of Social Research. Europa contra Europa is a short but comprehensive study of the polarizations and traumas that shook Europe from the eve of the First World War through the apocalyptic end of the Second World War―a chronicle that covers the collapse of monarchies and empires, the formation of fledgling democracies hatched under the shadow of extremist forces bent on their destruction, and the rise and fall of right- and left-wing dictatorships from Russia to the Aegean basin.
Casanova divides the 200 pages of Europa contra Europa into seven chapters, shifting his focus from one part of Europe to another as he traces the evolution of events on a continent that entered the twentieth century hobbled by outdated social and economic structures that were either inadequate or inappropriate for dealing with the demands of emerging mass societies and a growing breach between urban and rural populations. His observations concerning the vulnerability of democracies founded on the ruins of the First World War to pressures from both the left and the right and the destabilizing impact of the Great Depression are particularly interesting. The book dispels myths about the nature of the October revolution and Lenin’s consolidation of power in Russia and brings to light numerous examples of the irony of realpolitik, such as the Vatican’s protection of Ante Pavelic, the fascist leader of Croatia responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma, and Croatians who resisted his regime. I personally appreciated Casanova’s inclusion of lesser known European histories; I was fascinated by the information he supplied concerning the social and political chaos provoked in Finland by the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the British intervention against Greek communists in 1944.
In the chapter of Europa contra Europa devoted to the Spanish Civil War, the author aptly lays out the vacillations, calculations and miscalculations, self-deceptions, and treachery that characterized the foreign policies of the majority of the nations of Europe throughout the 1930s. Written off as a case of the “rebel versus rabble” by British conservative Sir Henry Chilton, the Spanish Civil War was a litmus test of Europe’s respect for legally elected governments and a proving ground for the weaponry the Axis powers would soon unleash against neighboring states, whose leaders clung to a fruitless policy of appeasement and demonstrated a dangerous complaisance towards petty dictatorships that served as a buffer zone between the capitalist west and the communist east.
As Casanova correctly points out, the Spanish Civil War was a European war in miniature that pitted the disadvantaged working class and a handful of intellectuals without civil service experience against the powerful interests of “property, religion, and order.” While he notes that the Second Spanish Republic found itself trapped between the policy of neutrality adopted by Great Britain and France and the flagrant intervention of Italy and Germany in favor of the military rebellion launched by Francisco Franco, the author also recounts the internal calamities that hindered the Republic’s attempts to maintain coherent and successful international relations, such as the desertion of up to 90% of the diplomats serving in Spanish embassies around the world in the wake of the military uprising and the no holds barred repression of the Catholic church and wealthier classes by anarchists in Catalonia, which inflamed mainstream international opinion.
Throughout Europa contra Europa, Casanova stresses the collateral damage provoked by the hatred, intolerance, and extremism that marked European societies during the first half of the twentieth century. The figures provided by the author to illustrate the massive human suffering that occurred during the turbulent years 1914-1945 are staggering testimony to the mobilization and brutalization of entire civil populations and the near total disregard for human life and liberty throughout the period.
Casanova is one of my favorite authors of non-fiction. He organizes his material well, employs a clear and precise prose style, and works to engage his reader. His impressive committment not only to history as an academic discipline, but also as a branch of the social sciences, constitutes an ongoing contribution to the reconstruction of a historical and social consciousness that was denied and suppressed in Spain for generations. Europa contra Europa is an intellectually rigorous but accessible study of a crucial period of world history that should be of interest to a wide readership. The thoughtful inclusion of a chronology of events, annotated bibliography, index of names, and a general index make it a handy reference book for any home or institutional library.
Europa contra Europa 1914-1945