Looking back

Hugh Thomas on the work done, over the past twenty years, by historians of the Spanish Civil War

  • The Spanish Civil War by David Mitchell
    Granada, 208 pp, £9.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 246 11916 0

In a review, 22 years ago, of my history of the Spanish Civil War, Malcolm Muggeridge concluded that the one merit of the book was that no one would want to go into the disagreeable matter again. That proved over-optimistic. Since then, there has been a flood of memoirs, monographs and reconsiderations. After 1970, it enveloped Spain.

The impression of the war which had been left on the public mind in 1961 was that it was a more complicated affair than people had assumed at the time: the picture of a small group of fascists rising, as part of a carefully-organised international conspiracy, against a beleaguered democracy was false; the democracy was ailing and had suffered before 1936 from the militancy of both anarchists and socialists as well as from the attacks from the Right. Then, during the war, the Left had committed as many unspeakable crimes as had the Right. Various left-wing gangs murdered 80 per cent of the priests in one province, and some six thousand clerical personnel in all Spain, if not Claudel’s famous ‘seize mille’. On the other side, ‘fascists’ (actually, the Falange) conducted themselves no worse than the old-fashioned Catholic Right: perhaps better, if the fate of Garcia Lorca be considered, for he was safe when being looked after in the house of fascists, and betrayed to his death by a Catholic ex-deputy.

The Republic certainly did retain the services of men of integrity, to the end, but the shadow of Soviet intervention damaged the cause. On the other side, Franco managed to extract a great deal of help from Hitler and Mussolini without making fundamental concessions: the murder of Andres Nin, the independent Communist killed by the Russian secret police on the Republican side, had no counterpart among victims of the Gestapo, but Nationalist Spanish propaganda was Nazified, and, in those days, the distinction between propaganda, ideology and culture became increasingly fine.

Franco won the war because of superior generalship, superior political control of the diverse elements which contributed to his party as to the Left, and a more regular supply of better foreign weapons. New German transport planes, fighters and artillery, as well as a general interest in tactical innovation, made German help to Franco superior to the equally, if not more, substantial Soviet help to the Republic, the latter being partly managed through the Comintern and the International Brigades – some of whose most famous figures (‘Kléber’, ‘Gal’) turned out to be Soviet citizens. The International Brigade old boys, incidentally, if they managed to survive the war, and the subsequent Nazi occupation of nearly all of Europe, ended up as leading figures in the Stalinisation of its eastern half.

This picture seems to have held, roughly speaking, until the present day. But some important modifications have been achieved by, for example, Gabriel Jackson, who, in The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, firmly anchored the conflict in the controversies which preceded it, and without detailed consideration of which the war is incomprehensible. Raymond Carr’s majestic Spain 1808-1939 went further back, using monographs and literature unavailable to Gerald Brenan when he wrote The Spanish Labyrinth. Later Ramon Salas Larrazabal, in his exhaustive two volumes of analysis of the Republican Army (plus two of documents), was to prove conclusively that the Spanish Army was as badly divided by this conflict as any Spanish institution, and that in the defence of Madrid there were just as many regular officers defending the capital as attacking it. The collapse of the Catalan economy in the war has been well analysed by Jose Maria Bricell. And so on. In the field of memoirs, Santiago Carrillo has conceded, not only that he was already secretly a Communist in 1936 when still formally the leader of the Socialist Youth, but that Andres Nin was indeed murdered ‘on our side’. Even the recent book by Ian Gibson has, however, failed to establish his responsibility, or freedom from blame, for the murder of two thousand Republican prisoners at Paracuellos – probably the biggest single atrocity of the Spanish war. In Blood of Spain Ronald Fraser made a splendid case for oral history by recording the views and recollections of a great many witnesses – modest, and no doubt the more trustworthy for that – to all these events. The books in question go further than ever in reminding us that if a country be unfortunate enough to experience a class war which becomes a physical conflict, it is the middle class which can be expected to suffer most. Fraser’s book gave evidence, incidentally, of the highly-motivated regenerationist views of many young fascists who disliked class conflict and believed it was possible to revive Spanish nationhood: José Antonio was, as Stanley Payne first argued in his Falange (1962), a much more high-minded individual than most of his seedy confrères of international fascism.

Not everything is yet known. Take the bombing of Guernica, the best-known single event of the Civil War – that renown being itself a singular tribute to the effect of art on politics. Everyone now recognises that the town was destroyed by German aircraft, with perhaps a few Italians sharing in the attack, but it is uncertain whether Franco knew beforehand that there would be such a barbarous act. Nor is there definite evidence as to how the lie was mounted that the city had been destroyed by the Basques. It looks as if the courteous long-serving Spanish consulgeneral in the United States, Luis Bolin, must have been party to the affair: but now he is dead and no doubt papers were not kept.

Then again, the sheer passage of time has affected judgments of events in 1937-39. I do not think anyone now would regret, with the naive hero of Look back in anger in 1956, that there are no more great causes ‘like the Spanish Civil War’. In 1961, too, it was still possible to look on the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship as an aberration in the slow business of the modernisation of Spain. In 1976, or 1983, that view is not so easy. A better explanation would be that the failure of Spanish industrialisation in the 19th century, and the final loss of empire after the Spanish American War (1898), caused a major national crisis in the first years of the century. Intellectual revival came first: hence the achievements of Spaniards in all the arts between, say, 1900 and 1936 – in the cinema (Buñuel), but particularly in painting (Picasso, Gris) and poetry (Lorca, the Machados, Jimenez, Hernandez). The Catalan artistic revival was as remarkable as that of Ireland at the same time.

The political consequence was increased disintegration. The nation divided within both professions and classes – hence syndicalism, itself fractured between socialism and anarchism. It divided geographically, with Cataluña splitting off, then the Basque country and Galicia, and then other regions. Cataluña put itself forward as the one ‘vital member’ which might revive the nation. Further troubles caused by military setbacks in Morocco led to syndicalisation even in the Army. Bloodshed broke out with fighting in Barcelona between anarcho-syndicalists and unions sponsored by employers, as a consequence of heightened expectations themselves inspired by the First World War. These are the themes of that brilliant book Spain Invertebrate by Ortega y Gasset, whose The Revolt of the Masses remains one of the best general tracts for our times.

A hard-faced general, Martinez Anido, was given virtually absolute power in Barcelona in 1917. The violence in Cataluña was crushed. Spain still seethed. A further defeat in Morocco was the last straw. Primo de Rivera came in as dictator in 1923-30. Spain flourished economically, with all the wounds bound up as if in plaster of paris. After his fall, the plaster was removed, and the country began once more to disintegrate. The Republic was a brave attempt, but it did not work. As Carmelo Lison Tolosana argued brilliantly in his study of a tiny village in Aragon (Belmonte de los Caballeros, 1967), total politicisation followed democracy: afterwards in came military rule. The Civil War was the natural consequence of ‘invertebration’ and Franco came to power – in half Spain in 1936, in the whole of it in 1939. That power lasted till 1975, and effectively and successfully Franco presided over the modernisation and industrialisation of the country, his two military predecessors having been either too narrow (Anido) or too genial (Primo). In the 20th century, there is no room for enlightened despotism. Franco’s regime began brutally, but became increasingly lax save on the key issue of political parties and recent history. One could not publish disintoxicating books on the Civil War till after 1975.

In the early part of this year Granada mounted a television series on the subject of the Civil War, in six episodes. Since I was an advisor to the producers it would no doubt be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on the result. Now a book has been published by Granada publishers to capitalise on the success of the series. The author is David Mitchell, a writer not previously known in this field. His mission was to incorporate, not only the material used in the television series, but the numerous other interviews which the producers could not use. Granada’s publicity team add the quite false impression that they were the first people to have taken evidence from survivors – a curious remark and a special insult, I should say, to another advisor to the television series, Ronald Fraser, whose book is entirely made up of such interviews.

At all events, the outcome is an attractive picture book, well-produced, and with very few literal errors: a fact so rare nowadays as to be worth mentioning, and a reminder to more traditional publishers that it can be done. The general balance of the book is reasonable, though the writing is undistinguished and the approach rarely original. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it must have been written in something of a hurry. The quotations from the interviews with participants give the book its character. Unfortunately this material is not presented in a way which makes it easy to use. This is not the author’s fault, but the publishers’. The publishers may also, perhaps, be responsible for the fact that the author makes no attempt to evaluate or compare testimonies. Old men forget, and things may not have been just as the characters here say. I cannot, for example, believe that Cardinal Segura said to a priest who was anxious to leave the Church: ‘I’ll starve you to death.’ Prieto may have been pessimistic at the end of the war but he was not so at the beginning, despite what Lister said of him in 1981. Eden’s remarks to Blum, as reported to Jules Moch, cannot count as hard historical evidence. Nor was President Azaña just a coward: he can be considered one of the best writers ever to stray into politics. And so on. The author is a balanced man, but he betrays his own attitude once or twice as when he says that the Left’s revolution in Asturias was ‘a courageous failure’. It was surely an outrageous breakdown in democracy, which, as Madariaga (and Hugh Dalton) pointed out long ago, deprived the Left of a strong moral case when the Right took the same action (against a Left-Centre government) two years later.