BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
The article appears in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, Volume 91, Issue 1-2, 2014.
Ever since the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, myths and misconceptions have surrounded the International Brigades, the volunteers from around the world who came to the defence of the Spanish Republic. Their creation, composition, and role in the war itself have all been hotly debated, with critics arguing that the International Brigades were primarily a ‘Comintern Army’, a tool of Soviet expansionism, in which any form of dissent was ruthlessly eliminated. Therefore, the discipline problems and consequent heavy-handed responses from the I.B. leadership are often seen as politically rather than militarily driven, despite the manifestly demoralizing nature of the war. Yet while a small number of volunteers were undoubtedly brutally treated, there was a much greater tolerance in the Brigades—certainly within the English-speaking battalions—than has often been suggested.
The reissue by IB Tauris of Henry Buckley’s long-lost memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, is an event which anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War should celebrate. Buckley’s classic eye-witness account of the eight years of the second Spanish Republic from 14 April 1931 to 31 March 1939 is, I think, one of the best accounts of the period penned by Britons.
Knowledgeable, insightful and beautifully written, Buckley’s memoir possesses a rare sense of immediacy that immerses the reader deep within turbulent 1930s Spain. ‘Spain’, writes Buckley, is ‘a poor country with many rich people’; struggling to cope with a difficult transition, where ‘new ideas, as well as motor-cars, raced along these fine broad roads which now intersected Spain.’ A devout Catholic, Buckley was nevertheless objective enough to recognise the Church’s failings and its complicity in creating and supporting a deeply unequal society. In fact the text is astonishingly fair-minded and objective: while he became deeply sympathetic to the Republican cause (even toying with the idea of joining the International Brigades), he was not blind to its failings, arguing that the Republic needed not just to aspire to be good, but to actually raise the pitiful living standards of the poverty-stricken peasants ‘[which] still form[ed] the majority of the nation’s population.’
Unlike foreign correspondents who arrived at the outbreak of the civil war, Henry Buckley had been in Spain since 1929. He spoke the language fluently and knew the country well. He was acquainted with many of the key figures in the Republic, including Pasionaria, Francisco Largo Caballero, Manuel Azaña and Juan Negrín. And his observations of many key figures are not written in the polite banalities of politicians and diplomats. For example, while Buckley has good things to say about many of the Republic’s political and military leaders, especially Negrín and Pasionaria, he is not always as enthusiastic about the socialist leaders Francisco Largo Caballero and Julián Besteiro.
There are occasional factual errors in Buckley’s account, though surprisingly few when one remembers how deeply immersed in the situation the author must have been. And any errors are more than compensated for by the astute observations and intelligent, grounded analysis. The account of Largo Caballero’s own contribution to his fall from office in 1937 is one good example, as is Buckley’s sorrowful analysis of the doomed attempts by the western democracies to restrict the war to Spain’s borders. Buckley fully understands the inevitable consequence of the French and British governments’ determination not to come to the Republic’s aid. His eloquent account of the final dark days of the Spanish Republic and the dashing of the hopes of those fighting in support of the Spanish Republic are heart-rending. Yet, despite all, Buckley’s conclusion is as clear as it is uplifting: ‘their courage and efforts were not in vain. No sacrifice like that ever is.’ A sentiment that, I suspect, many will feel is as true now, as it was seventy five years ago.
This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 36, January 2014, p. 22.