New Perspectives on the Spanish Civil War

Cover of "Spain at War" pamphlet
Front cover of the Spain at War pamphlet.

July 2016 marks the 80th anniversary of the military revolt in Spain and the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Few conflicts in history have been so divisive or ideologically charged, and the ramifications of the war can still be felt in contemporary Spain. In order to commemorate such a significant moment in Spanish, and international, history, the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study organised a two-day conference entitled ‘The Spanish Civil War and World Literatures’. Making use of its rich and eclectic range of materials, Senate House Library produced an exhibition which encapsulated the central themes of the event.

"Stop the war in Spain" poster
A pamphlet calling for an end to the Spanish Civil War.

The quality and originality of the display is thanks to two special collections held at Senate House Library. The majority of the selections for the exhibition were from the Ron Heisler Collection, which contains thousands of books, pamphlets, journals, newspapers and archival material covering left-wing and radical political movements and ideas. Many of the items within this collection were published in small quantities and are now, therefore, scarce. Materials were also sourced from the Joan Gili collection. A Catalan writer, translator and book-seller, Gili settled in London in 1934. He became a founding member of the Anglo-Catalan Society in 1954 and was later its president. The collection includes personal papers, books on the Spanish Civil War and lists of stock from Dolphin Bookshop, a shop Gili opened in London which focused on sources about Spain and Latin America. The two collections are essential viewing for scholars of the Spanish Civil War and the Catalan- and Spanish-speaking world more generally, as well as those working on European political history. 

Partisans marching for liberty
Partisans marching in a photo entitled "We are fighting for our liberty".

The materials selected for inclusion in the exhibition include poetry anthologies, photographs, letters, memoirs, drawings and essays. The artefacts encompass the international, multilingual and aesthetically diverse themes of the IMLR conference, and serve as a reminder of the world-wide impact of the Spanish Civil War as well as the breadth and wealth of the materials held in Senate House Library. Items in the display from the Heisler collection include a souvenir programme from a concert to raise funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War held in London in 1937, an edition of Spain at War (image one), a publication which supported the Spanish government’s struggle against the fascist insurgence, and a pamphlet promoting a speech which called for an end to the Spanish Civil War, held in London on 21st June 1937 (image two). Amongst the visual materials are three photographs depicting scenes from the Spanish Civil War. The images include; ‘We are fighting for our liberty’ which shows marching partisans (image three), ‘Anti-Fascist Salute’ which is a photograph of a child sat on donkey turning and giving anti-fascist salute, and ‘People of Madrid’, showing crowds gathered giving anti-fascist salute in Madrid town centre. There is also a collection of drawings by Felicia Browne (image four), an English artist who died in battle in 1936 defending the Second Spanish Republic during the Civil War. Items from the Gili collection include Els darrers dies de la Catalunya republicana, a first-person account of the victory of the fascist forces in Catalonia by Antoni Rovira i Virgili, a Catalan politician and writer, and Poems. García Lorca, a collection of poetry by one of Spain’s most celebrated poets who was killed by fascist forces at the beginning of the conflict. The anthology includes poems and extracts from Lorca’s plays in the original Spanish, with corresponding English translations provided by Stephen Spender and Joan Gili.

Sketch by Felicia Brown
A sketch by Felicia Browne, who died in battle in 1936.

In sourcing items for the exhibition the amount of ground still unexplored by scholars was abundantly clear. The prevailing sense of unfinished business, as the wound of this bloody, bitter conflict is yet to heal in Spain, can also be applied to the wealth of unseen materials to be examined. In addition to developing archival and curating skills, the process of sourcing items for the display emphasised how professional collaboration is mutually beneficial for research librarians and academics. The exhibition fulfilled the professional aims of both the IMLR and Senate House Library, as the display encapsulated the international and interdisciplinary dimensions of the conference and showcased the materials held by the library. Above all, the exhibition illustrated the shared ambition of the IMLR and Senate House Library to promote and facilitate research, and exemplified the research potential of the Library’s Special Collections.

New perspectives of the Spanish Civil War are as necessary now as they were in 1930s Spain, as the conflict encapsulates the tensions between progress and tradition, advancement and regression, and revolution and authority which remain at the forefront of political debate in Europe. The insight afforded to us through the Special Collections available at Senate House Library, therefore, have ramifications far beyond an improved historical knowledge of 1930s Spain, and will be of great interest to academics and enthusiasts alike. 


Deborah Madden WRoCAH (AHRC) is Doctoral Researcher in Spanish and Portuguese at the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sheffield.