Reporting for duty
WE Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War is engrossing reading. The result of detailed research, it shows an acute eye for the human dimensions of a great historical moment and a persuasive, purposeful style of writing.
The great foreign correspondents who witnessed the Spanish conflict, including Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Louis Fischer, Arthur Koestler, John Dos Passos and Mikhail Koltsov, form the core of this account of the destruction of Republican Spain.
The author, Paul Preston, records not only their work but their courage, passions and flaws, and analyses their influence on public opinion and their contribution to the historical record. For many of them, the republic’s fight for survival became a cause more than a story.
The conflict made the reputation of more than a few writers, including Hemingway; but it also broke and ruined others, some in the notorious Lubyanka cellars of the NKVD secret police headquarters in Moscow.
Preston has dedicated We Saw Spain Die to Herbert Routledge Southworth, who arguably caused general Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship more difficulty than any individual.
Born in Canton, Oklahoma, in 1908, Southworth was working in the Library of Congress when the civil war broke out. Fluent in Spanish after working with Mexican miners in Arizona, he began writing articles and reviewing books about the war for the The Washington Post. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in, and loyalty and affection for, the lost republic.
In 1963, Southworth published The Myth of Franco’s Crusade and had it translated and smuggled into Spain. It created an even greater storm for the fascist government than Hugh Thomas’s magisterial work, The Spanish Civil War. Southworth challenged the essence of Franco’s claim to legitimacy, exposing the myths on which his state had been erected. Ultimately, an entire propaganda department in Madrid was established to counter Southwark’s ongoing campaign of scholarship and publication. It is a remarkable, if little known, story.
Remarkable, too, is the story of British correspondent Henry Buckley, a devout Catholic who identified with the Spanish workers, particularly the miners and peasants. His long residence in Spain and his accurate reporting made his book, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic , particularly insightful. It was to Buckley that a British diplomat remarked scornfully that the Tory government in London must stand by its class in Spain.
Preston, a distinguished academic from the London School of Economics, is an outstanding historian of Spain in the 20th century, particularly of the civil war period. His biography, Franco , is considered the benchmark study of the Spanish dictator.
From this distance in time, the civil war may be distilled as the naked destruction of the constitutionally elected republican government, which had been formed by the parties of the Popular Front, by a military coup led by Franco. The coup was endorsed by the parties of the Right, including the Spanish variant of European fascism, the Falange.
Spain assumed a critical significance for the politically committed. On the Left, communists, socialists and liberals considered the republic the embodiment of democracy imperilled and the International Brigades were formed to fight in its defence. On the Right, the Axis powers — Nazi Germany and fascist Italy — came in force to Franco’s aid. The brutality of their support is exemplified by the wanton destruction of the Basque township of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.
The Spanish Republic’s struggle inspired some of the great art of the 20th century.
From Pablo Picasso’s Guernica to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls , from the disillusionment of George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia to the optimism of Andre Malraux in Days of Hope , Spanish democracy in its agony was depicted in some of the most vivid and convincing expressions of the age.
The fascists, by contrast, produced no art worthy of note. Franco’s Spain was characterised by a numbing orthodoxy and a violent response to Western concepts of liberty, conceived in reaction and delivered in blood, and few mourned its passing in the 1970s.
The Spanish Civil War was the opening act to World War II. The republic, while enjoying substantial moral support in the West, was officially backed only by the Soviet Union and Mexico. Its fierce anti-clericalism and its early excesses — including executions of landowners, priests and military officers — caused a degree of revulsion. And the Western powers saw Spain’s powerful Communist Party as a tool of the Soviets.
Western correspondents, who moved freely under an enlightened republican censorship, could never change official views in London, Paris or Washington. Orwell observed in retrospect that when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, his reaction had been that the gloves were finally off in the fight against fascism. Alas, it was not to be. The democracies embraced the fiction of the Non-Intervention Pact, ignored by the fascist powers, effectively denying the republic the ability to defend itself.
It was far harder to report from fascist Spain than from the republic. Fascist censorship, under the clumsy, bullying intrusions of press chief Luis Bolin, who routinely threatened to have correspondents shot for filing anything other than propaganda, restricted travel dramatically. Often, the truth about fascist atrocities committed on the march did not reach the world’s newspapers.
Preston notes, quoting from Francis McCullagh’s In Franco’s Spain : ‘‘ The groups of correspondents were controlled by the press officers to the extent that they became ‘ like a bunch of schoolgirls under the guidance of a schoolmistress, or like a gang of Cook’s tourists dragged around by a guide’.’’
The shadow of Joseph Stalin looms large in this book. His obsession with Trotskyism led to some of the worst excesses committed by the republicans, especially the purges of Trotskyites by Stalinists in Barcelona. The fate of Koltsov, Pravda ’ s correspondent in Madrid, who was earlier regarded as ‘‘ Stalin’s eyes and ears in Spain’’, along with his lover Maria Osten, is but one tragedy among many: they were executed on Stalin’s orders, like so many Soviet advisers who had served in Spain.
As the war turned against the republic, the influential Fischer, another American correspondent and confidant to the republican leadership, particularly the prime minister, Juan Negrin, wrote: ‘‘ Two hundred planes can make all the difference between a fascist and democratic Spain . . . But in the whole of the democratic world there are not 200 airplanes for a cash buyer who wishes to safeguard his hearth and home and national territory against invasion. In the case of America it is a stupid law which robs the Spanish government of the wherewithal to defend itself; in the case of England it is blindness; in the case of France it is cowardice.’’
No better epitaph was written for the doomed Spanish Republic.
Preston has skilfully woven all the threads of the leading foreign correspondents’ experiences during the civil war into a book which eloquently tells a tale of hope destroyed by brutality and diplomatic expedience. Stephen Loosley is a former ALP national president and senator.
For the record: Republican soldiers captured by an AFP photographer during the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo, Spain, in July 1936