The Spanish Civil War
At the time Benet wrote ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon,’’ a civil war was raging in Spain. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Spain was a country in conflict with itself. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the country was governed as a republic, but this quickly gave way to a return to monarchy under King Alfonso XII in 1875. His son, Alfonso XIII, continued this monarchy until 1931. Beginning in 1923, however, the country was effectively ruled by a military dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, who had overthrown the parliament and earned the title of prime minister from the king in an effort to maintain order in the country. As the country’s economic condition worsened during the Great Depression, Spanish citizens called for an end to both the military dictatorship and the monarchy. In 1931, a new republic was established in Spain that offered greater individual freedoms as well as the nationalization of certain industries within the country for the sake of public welfare.
However, following years increasing tension between radicals on either side of the political spectrum. Elections in 1934 shifted power to right-wing groups, who ended many of the reform policies of the previous administration. Revolts and discontent among left-wing supporters grew, and in 1936, control of the government again swung back in their favor. This led to discontent among the right-wing opposition, some of whom were military leaders who hatched a plan to overthrow the democratically elected government of the country.
A key figure in this attempted overthrow was Francisco Franco, a military leader who became the leader of the Nationalist faction. This group fought against the Republicans who supported the elected government. Instead of a quick defeat for either side, the battle turned into a bloody civil war. Aid arrived from many other countries. The Nationalists received significant support from Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, and Benito Mussolini, the leader of Fascist Italy. Hitler and Mussolini wanted Spain to be ruled like their own countries were: by a central powerful authority that could prevent those with opposing viewpoints from speaking out.
One of the most infamous and tragic episodes of the war—and the one which was the inspiration for ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’—involved the use of German planes to bomb the village of Guernica in 1937. Hundreds of villagers were killed and most of the town’s buildings were destroyed. This action was heavily criticized by Americans and Europeans since it betrayed the notion that wars were to be waged between soldiers—not against unarmed civilians. The military support of the Germans and Italians was devastating to the more modest Republican forces, which were finally driven to surrender in 1939. Franco then ruled Spain as an oppressive dictator until his death in 1975, and the country finally returned to democratic rule in 1978.
The Development of Atomic Weaponry
Although the Great Burning described in ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ appears to reflect the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, research into these types of weapons was still in its infancy when the story was published. It was not until 1932 that scientists could confirm the different types of particles that make up an atom, the building blocks of all matter. It was also discovered that the removal or addition of neutrons to the nucleus of a certain kind of atom could cause a chain reaction capable of generating massive amounts of energy. This chain reaction is called nuclear fission.
When Europe became embroiled in World War II in 1939, American and British military leaders saw the potential for nuclear fission to be used as a weapon. This ultimately led to the creation of the Manhattan Project in 1942. This was a top-secret endeavor to build the first successful atomic bomb. Though the project was controlled by the American military and run by American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, it included many of the world’s most foremost physicists. These scientists came up with a way to synthesize plutonium, a rare element necessary for atomic weaponry, as well as a method of remotely activating a nuclear core to create the ideal chain reaction. The first test of a nuclear weapon was carried out in a desolate area of New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The test, known as ‘‘Trinity,’’ was successful, and less than one month later, two atomic bombs were dropped by American forces on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation caused by these bombs resulted in the almost immediate death of over one hundred thousand people and an equal number of deaths resulting from radiation exposure over the following year. Just as is suggested in Benet’s story, the site of a nuclear explosion is effectively ‘‘poisoned’’ by radiation for years afterward.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Published by Gale Group, 2010