The Spanish civil war in foreign eyes

Many of Spain's current problems stem from the fact that the Spanish civil war set back the country's evolution toward modernity and democracy by at least 40 years, from the outbreak of the army insurrection in 1936 to the death of Franco in 1975, and the distortions of justice and other institutions still persist. It was not an exclusively Spanish conflict, but a global one, acted out in Spain not just by Spaniards but by all the fascist, socialist, liberal and conservative capitalist forces in Europe and the Americas—and thus we need the outsiders' views for a full perspective.

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War, by Paul Preston. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2008. 443 pp. + notes, bibliography, index

"Spain" did not die, but it was badly wounded and still has not recovered fully. The Second Republic did die in that terribly brutal war, 1936-39, killed by a coalition of the Church, the old oligarchy and crazed ideologues who feared the power of ordinary men and women—especially of the women—to decide for themselves how to live and whom to love. Paul Preston has done a tremendous job digging up details of the lives and work of more than a dozen journalists from half a dozen or more countries who managed to reveal, and in some cases horribly distort, how that massacre was unfolding, and the hundreds of thousands of more particular murders it required. And Preston has done much more than that: He has pulled together a coherent story from notes, archives, published reports and oral reminiscences by and about those journalists, with their various languages and their diverse political views.

Of the Americans, Herbert Matthews and Louis Fischer earn Preston's greatest appreciation, for their personal courage and their insistence on getting the facts right, regardless of pressures from their respective sponsors to slant their stories. Matthews, writing for The New York Times, was expected by his editors to be more favorable to the "Nationals" (as the Franco-led insurgents called themselves) than to the forces defending the Republic. Matthews was a moral Protestant indignant at fascist abuses, but not ideologically committed to socialism, and he exposed himself to considerable danger to report personally on such horrors as the bombing and strafing of civilian refugees fleeing from Málaga (which had just fallen to the insurgents) along the coastal road to Almería, or the fighting in Valencia, even though he
was convinced that [his dogmatically conservative editors in New York] treated his copy with 'suspicion, anger, and, at times, disbelief', tampered with his wording and buried entire stories because they were perceived to favour the Republican side. In contrast, they printed unashamedly partisan material from William P. Carney, his counterpart in the rebel zone, despite knowing that it was someties faked. [p. 22]
Fischer was under different political pressures. A fluent Russian- and German-speaker and with a wife and child in Moscow, he was committed to socialism and felt comradeship to (though he never accepted the discipline of) the Communist Party. Whether he ever learned to speak Spanish fluently is unclear, though he must have managed: he had excellent personal relationships with prominent Republican (i.e., Spanish Republic) politicians, even including Juan Negrín. But despite his commitment, he perceived and reported on what he saw as gross failures in political and military policy—for example, the lackadaisical defenseworks supposedly protecting Madrid. He was especially indignant with the aged trade-unionist and prime minister Largo Caballero who was afraid to alienate his trade union supporters by ordering idle construction workers in Madrid to go out to Toledo and build serviceable trenches and breastworks.

After the fall of the Republic, Fischer had the good sense to get his family out of Russia before Stalin's paranoia could destroy them. His subsequent career included works on Gandhi and professorship at Princeton. Matthews continued with the NYT and achieved notoriety again years later for his reports from Cuba proving that Fidel Castro was still alive and his guerrilla movement going strong. Both Fischer and Matthews wrote many books, not only on Spain, that merit attention.

Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Josephine Herbst, and John Dos Passos are also here, interesting mostly for what they had to say about one another and less interesting for any insight into the Spanish struggle. Hemingway was boisterous and outrageous and having a great testosterone-charged time, at one point firing off a machinegun to no purpose but with dangerous consequences (it drew return fire), but you've got to love the big brute because in a jam, he could pull his buddies through—on at least one occasion, by sheer muscular force, rowing a little boat across the mined Ebro river with Robert Capa, Matthews and Henry Buckley aboard.

Another reporter who deserves and gets major attention from Preston is the audacious and hyperenergetic little Russian Jew Mikhail Koltsov, whose extremely vivid reports for Pravda would be his undoing when he returned to the USSR. He not only wrote rapidly, succinctly and dramatically, he also carried a pistol and didn't hesitate to intervene and give military orders (for which he had no authority) when he saw it necessary to avoid disaster. When required to do so by his party bosses, however, he was quite capable of writing outrageous lies condemning the leaders of the POUM as Trotskyists and traitors to the revolution. As Koltsov surely knew, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista had broken with Trotsky long before and was one of the main defenders of the socialist Republic in Catalonia, but because it did not follow the dictates of Moscow Stalin ordered his operatives in Spain to destroy it—as George Orwell has famously recounted in Hommage to Catalonia

Stalin was suspicious of all the Russians who had served in Spain, whether as journalists or military officers, probably (in Preston's interpretation, which is persuasive) because they returned with a more revolutionary, more participatory and much freer vision of socialist revolution than Stalin's democratic centralism could tolerate. Koltsov, like others who had been acclaimed as heroes in Spain, was at first praised and then arrested and ultimately executed by Stalin's forces. 

Oddly, Preston makes only passing mention of Orwell, mostly regarding his impressions of Koltsov and his grudging review of another reporter's book, South African-born George Lowther Steer's report on the ruins of Guernica, from observations made as soon as Steer could get there after the devastating German bombardment of that quiet and undefended little Basque town. The book was essential to counter the massive disinformation campaign by Franco-ist propagandists and their allies in the Catholic Church in the U.S. and other countries, who were claiming that there had been no bombardment but that the destruction was the work of leftist incendiaries. (Orwell recognized the value of the eye-witness report but took issue with Steer exaggerated and emotional bias for the heroic Basques as contasted to the supposedly less noble Spaniards elsewhere.) Of the other British reporters mentioned here, we learn that Claud Cockburn was an imaginative Communist who, it seems, would write anything to support the cause, even if he had to make it up, and Tom Wintringham, Commander of the British Batallion of the International Brigades. Wintringham got in trouble with the CP back home because of his defense of his latest lover, American journalist Kitty Bowler, who was absurdly accused of being a fascist infiltrator (apparently because she was much better looking than most of the Communist women in party HQ in London and so aroused the suspicion of those others, including Wintringham's wife). 

The brazen Swedish nurse-turned-reporter Kajsa Rothman, a courageous and physically impressive women (much taller than most Spaniards and with bright reddish-blonde hair) also deserves mention, more for her presence than for her reporting—though she (fluent in several languages) must have been important to Swedish short-wave enthusiasts for her broadcasts from Spain. We also learn of the Spaniards on both sides of the propaganda war: Luis Bolín, the cruel and pompous chief of the foreign press in the "national" (Franco-ist rebel) zone who tried to control every word and didn't hesitate to order executions of reporters who strayed to close to the truth of the rebel massacres. On the Republican side, the chief concern of Arturo Barea and later the redoubtable Constancia Mora was to facilitate the reporters demands for access—in the belief that the truth could only help the republic—without letting them reveal military secrets (gun emplacements, etc.) which could serve enemy.

Preston ends the book with a tribute to his former professor Herbert Southworth, who got to Spain after the fighting was over but contributed mightily to undoing the myths of Franco propagandists.

Photo: The destroyed center of the Basque town of Guernica after it was carpet-bombed by Germany and Italy, from Nicholas Shakespeare's review of the book in the Telegraph.

1 comment:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...