Monday, 21 February 2011

Osprey’s Nasty Little Book

The inevitable consequence of getting interested in something like the Spanish Civil War is that you end up reading a lot of stuff that can make your flesh creep. The accounts of interrogation centres set up by the Communists, and the masses of people shot by Franco’s men and thrown onto rubbish tips are not for the faint hearted.

I’ve read a number of accounts written by those who volunteered and fought for the Republic some of whom are pretty much unreconstructed Communists. In reading these works you expect a degree of bias, and that’s evident from the moment you open the book usually because the writer tells you so.

I’ve started to widen my reading now to look at those forces supporting Franco, and I started with the Osprey Elite volume on the Condor Legion. I often come away from studies of Nazi units feeling a bit grubby. There’s a school of thought that thinks it is okay to say “I abhor the politics of the SS, but they were one of the world’s finest fighting machines and they had nice uniforms”. Well, as our local wargaming vicar says “Everything before the but is b*ll*cks”. You can’t divorce the SS that fought in the front line from those that systematically rounded up and executed those they felt were racially inferior.

I wasn’t expecting anything similar from this book. It was published in 2006, and was written by a Spaniard who is now in his mid-50s. It is a bit gushing, and is rather overly obsessive about how smart Germans look when they’re in uniform but that you sort of expect.

However, it is the account of the bombing of Guernica that stands out as being more than a little apologist for the Nazis who went to fight for Franco.

According to this book Guernica was not an intentional terror bombing raid, but was intended to knock out a bridge. It also suggests casualties were closer to 300 than the 1,654 claimed by the Basque government at the time.

Looking at the evidence the latter claim is supportable and this is confirmed in subsequent studies. However, the former claim is open to serious challenge, and honestly falls in the same sort of areas as David Irving’s claims about Nazi Death Camps.

The raid on Guernica was not preceded by any reconnaissance, and the bomb loads included incendiaries. The waves of bombers were supported by fighters that straffed the roads leading out of the town. Richthofen’s order specifically refer to the bombing of the streets as well as the bridge.

So all in all I would say that the book in this respect is inaccurate, if not in fact misleading. The facts as we now know them are not difficult to check, and anyone editing a work covering such a controversial incident should have been able to challenge the author’s assertions. This isn’t a case of sloppy research of a lack of contemporary resources (as per for example the Osprey on Kadesh), this is a deliberate piece of political revisionism.

This is the most overt piece of apologist writing in the book. Elsewhere there are numerous remarks along the lines of the Germans were only there because the Russians were, and that Franco and the Generals had a legitimate case for overthrowing the elected Government of Spain.

How much difference does it make? Difficult to say. Ospreys are bought by a wide range of people within the hobby. Some, like me and others that I know, buy them, accepting the limitations and enjoy the pictures. For others they’re often the only “research” they do. Draw you own conclusions.


  1. A good analysis of the book and I agree with you on all your points, particually about the SS

  2. "There’s a school of thought that thinks it is okay to say “I abhor the politics of Gengis Khan, but the Mongols were one of the world’s finest fighting machines and they had nice armour”. Well, as our local wargaming vicar says “Everything before the but is b*ll*cks”.

  3. JWH,

    I'm not sure about your point here. Are you suggesting that we are overly sensitive to the recent past, but overlook the crimes of antiquity with a careless disregard?

    An interesting discussion point and one that was debated quite heavily in the early days of WD when Black Wargames were being considered. It lead, in my case, to the design of a game called "Harrying of the North", which was very black.

    On the other hand if you are suggesting that we should tolerate those that admire or act as apologists for fascism and not challenge what is a deliberate distortion of the facts then I think we will have to differ.


  4. I think we do overlook the crimes of antiquity but that should not make us apologists for fascism and encourage revisionist history.

    Really liked this blog entry, made me think a lot. Not quite sure I was as eloquent in my thoughts:

  5. I suggest that if you thought the Spanish distasteful, you REALLY don't want to find out about the Japanese and the infamous Unit 731.

    But if you do....

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for the comments. Checked your blog out, so thank you for the support. But I do think you need to do something about your background!


  7. Phil B,

    I'm aware of Unit 731 (there's an full page article about it in The independent today). The Japanese have never really come to terms with their war record, as far as I can see.

    I'd say that they key thing I'm driving at in this blog is not that the SCW is uniquely terrible (it isn't) but that someone would try to justify what was done, or rather claim it didn't happen.


  8. Do you recall the article in Miniature wargames extolling the honour and virtue of the Waffen SS?

    Evil, superstition and racism pervaded German culture in the first half of the 20th C. but the Waffen SS were the leading exponents of a vile creed. By all means wargame WWII, but let's not lose sight of what the SS stood for.

    But again, one doesn't buy Ospreys for their grasp of history.

  9. Trebian,

    I agree with your central argument but I think that the "wargaming vicar"'s argument is very weak - if you are going to wargame at all. Wargaming relies on us being able to take the soldiers out of the political context in which they were employed, whether Imperial Romans, Mongols, Napoleonic French, Colonial Brits, Waffen SS or whoever.


  10. More feedback than I expected, & a few points to pick up.

    John, - I don't remember that edition of MiniWargs, but I do have the early 1970s copy of Military Modelling with the hagoigraphic cover of the SS standard bearer. That caused a stir at the time. The point on not buying Ospreys for the history is amusing but I think it misses the point. They purport to be military history books. They should be as accurate as possible and they shouldn't be used to justify the unjustifiable. The section on Guernica is wrong and not supported by the facts. It only exists in the book to make the reader feel that the Nazis weren't quite that bad after all.

    JWH - To be fair to my friend I took his "Everything before the but..." comment out of context, but I commend it to you as a really useful filter to apply to conversations you may have or what you hear people say. For example any sentence that begins "I'm not a racist but..." is never going to end well.

    I agree that you can't refuse to use figures just because you don't like their politics. Fighting the Eastern Front without SS units makes a mockery of the simulation. However I think you can't regard them as context-less pieces. You should understand what it all means and not just take the +1 for being elite die roll modifier.

  11. As an occaisional supporter of the Spanish republic and possibly a bit older than some of the posters here. Its interesting how views change and mould/are moulded. Now personally I avoid SS units if I can don't much care about ancient massacres as the world was different then and attitudes were very different and mostly obscure to us . Even the attitudes of 100 years ago are hard for "homo politicus correctus" to admit to understanding. Now the human race has spent a lot of its time being unpleasant to each other- live with it - you have no choice ,as histrians understand that history mutates as it is written and re-written and by all means revise history- not all "revisionist" history is automatically bad - it depends which way you are revising it and in whose name after all facts should be immutable but the gloss historians put upon said facts is not . I've known not a few historians of the past who colour their history with their politics.

  12. Big Andy,

    I'd agree that historians colour what they write with their politics - the great Christopher Hill was a Marxist, so his analysis has to be read with that in mind. That isn't the same as changing the evidence which is what David Irving and this author did.

    What I found annoying here was the apparent lack of any editorial oversight from within Osprey themselves. Of course we have to accept Osprey for what they are, and I will continue to buy the books because I like colour pictures too. Some of them are very good, - I understand that the volumes on aspects of the American Civil War are highly regarded and sold at the battlefield centres in the US. Some of them are poorly researched. But this one is deliberately misleading.


  13. Excellent little debate you've stimulated here :) ...

    I don't buy the argument that we must divorce ourselves from the politics in order to be able to sustain an involvement in wargaming.

    Quite the opposite ... Wargaming can be a great way of exploring the past (and that should be an all-embracing exploration, of course) ...

    I do see a difference between the brutal warlords of the distant past and the brutal warlords of the 20th century: whilst we cannot 'apologise' for Tamerlane, we know there is more to be said about the brutality of his age and culture. I think the world is entitled to expect a higher standard of 'modern' leaders in an age of Leagues of Nations and concepts of human rights.

    Entitled to expect more and obliged to judge unflinchingly.

  14. I'm likewise amazed at the response. I usually expect to get most hits & feedback from posting pictures of painted figures.

  15. - “I abhor the politics of the SS, but they were one of the world’s finest fighting machines and they had nice uniforms”. Well, as our local wargaming vicar says “Everything before the but is b*ll*cks”.

    How is someone that says they abhor the SS, but says they were an efficient military force and had good uniforms trying to divorce the SS from the atrocities? Whether you hold the SS to the same standards as Gengis Khan or not is irrelevant - the question is can you abhor the politics but think they made effective soldiers or warriors (I leave the aesthetics of the uniforms to personal taste). The wargaming vicar is saying that if you think that Nazi soldiers were effective fighters and wore smart uniforms, you must somehow be lying when you say "I think their politics are hideous". And I say that doesn't follow.

  16. No, he didn't say that, - I just applied his axiom to the statement.

    And I think it holds good as a sense check when people are talking about morally dubious subjects. An admiration for the methods of the SS in combat leads in certain circumstances to a failure to recognise what they did and what they stood for and we end up with the obscenity of WW2 re-enactors dressing their children as Hitler Youth and the MiniWargs article referred to by one of the other commenters.

  17. An interesting original post.

    I think the passage of time does blur, at the very least, our history. An example of this is the plaque ( ) at Battle, near Hastings, which is a commemoration rather than a rememberance, and quite spookily so given the horrors endured following the Norman conquest.
    If anyone today were to suggest a plaque of a similar nature at a significant WW2 site there'd be uproar.

    On a tangent freedom is a strange beast, so reenactors should have the liberty to do whatever they choose so long as it remains legal - I don't have a problem with it - you can't make poor taste a crime.
    I think they're harmless in comparison to the historical actuality, and more modern realities.

  18. 6milphil's comment made me smile ...

    '.. you can't make poor taste a crime.'

    Very true. And how full the jails would be if you could!

    Phil :)

  19. Thanks to 6mmphil for the Hastings plaque. I don't recall seeing that on my visit. It made me smile today.

    You're right, - you can't make poor taste a crime, but it does make you wonder who would ever think it was a good idea. Unless you'd read some apologist rubbish and then decided that Bitler was really misunderstood and the Hitler Youth were the same as your local cub pack (yes, cue jokes like "Have you see our local cubs" etc etc).

  20. Coming late but nevertheless finding it interesting...

    My favourite jaw dropping moment is Maj General Fuller's atribution of Persian cardaces as 'a kind of Hitler Youth' in the Generalship of Alexander the Great.

    And, in fairness to Osprey, their volume on the International Brigades is also standard 1940s communist party propaganda. A straight mixture of outright lies and whitewash.

    Pretty much down to failure to use a competent editor. Sometimes you get a fantastic bargain eg anything by Rene Chartrand or Stuart Reid sometimes just a load of B******t.

  21. I think the crtiticism of the Brigade book is unfair and not in the same category as the problems with the Condor Legion book. I've read a lot of stuff on the IB over the last few months and the "Comintern Army" argument doesn't stand up given the people who also went who believed in anti-facism but not necessarily in Communism (see Jason Gurney's book & the recent "Real Band of Brothers".)