Re­port­ing for duty

Stephen Loosley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.