The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
In March 2006 Spanish police raided a number of homes and offices belonging to Jesus Gil, the mayor of Marbella and to Juan Antonio Roca, head of town planning. The police seized cash amounting to some 2.4 billion euros, much of it casually stuffed into bin-liners, plus staggering quantities of valuables: ‘boxes of jewellery, several luxury cars, 245 valuable paintings including one by Miró hanging in a bathroom, a helicopter, a pavilion full of hunting trophies in the form of stuffed elephants, zebras, giraffes and leopards and a stable of more than a hundred thoroughbred horses.’ On this occasion the culprits went to jail, but it is just one of many examples of the astounding levels of corruption to have dogged Spain for centuries, laid out starkly in Paul Preston’s new history of the country, A People Betrayed.
Preston is, of course, the world’s foremost authority on contemporary Spanish history and this study – running to 565 pages with a further 134 of references – draws on some fifty years of research. Fortunately, his elegant and engaging narrative style make it eminently readable, enjoyable even, despite the subject matter. While the book follows a traditional chronological structure, it concentrates on a number of themes; as the author explains, ‘it is the central thesis of this book that the violence, corruption and incompetence of the political class have betrayed the population.’ Spain is hardly unique in this, of course, and Preston is quick to discount the popular caricatures and stereotypes of Spain and its people, the so called ‘black legend’. Nevertheless, it is striking how brazen the venality and sleaze appear to be. As Preston argues, public service in Spain has always been a route to private profit for some, and it should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that many people view it as an unsurprising, normal part of politics.
A People Betrayed begins in 1874, with the demise of Spain’s first republic and the foundations of the nineteenth century electoral stitch-up known as the turno pacifico, when ‘politics became an exclusive minuet danced by a small privileged majority.’ Subsequent chapters discuss Spain’s loss of empire in 1898, the ’tragic week’ of 1909 and the country’s missed opportunities during the first world war. All are typically thorough, though it the chapters on Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship from 1923 to 1930 which many will find particularly interesting. Preston recounts how, ushered in on the spirit of ‘regenerationism’ that pledged to make Spain great again, Primo’s regime instead sank to outrageous levels of incompetence and corruption. Monopolies were given to friends and cronies in banking, petroleum, telecommunications, even rodent eradication. Meanwhile four million pesetas were ‘donated’ by the populace to pay for the dictator’s family home.
As the descriptions of the dictator’s outrageous corruption and excesses are laid out, it gradually dawns that perhaps twentieth century Spain is not the only issue on the author’s mind. History often tells us as much about the present as the past, as the arguments currently raging over statues and memorialisation amply demonstrate. The author’s descriptions of Primo de Rivera’s boastful, thin-skinned demeanour and his pathetic yarns of macho womanising are strongly reminiscent of a more recent vainglorious blowhard. This parallel is made explicit when Preston notes how the dictator’s tendency to put out triumphalist announcements resonates in Trumps’ midnight twitter tirades. Perhaps Primo’s swift fall from power – with the country in chaos, blaming those around him for his personal and political failings – will find another contemporary echo.
IBMT readers will no doubt be on familiar ground when the author turns to the second Spanish republic, the military coup and civil war. However, there is plenty of new material here and, as ever, it’s elegantly done, explaining clearly how the fledgling democratic government faced myriad problems and bitter foes, all at a time of global economic meltdown. Returning to the theme of corruption, Preston reveals how the unscrupulous Mallorcan multi-millionaire Juan March, ‘the sultan of Spain’, utterly perverted the 1933 elections. The ensuing government was so notoriously corrupt that a roulette-fixing scandal directly involving the P.M. Alejandro Lerroux provided the Spanish language with a new term for the black market: el estraperlo.
As the author states, it’s obvious that the Republican army was militarily outclassed during the civil war; hardly surprising, given the colossal assistance provided by Mussolini and Hitler. However, Preston reiterates the view of many brigaders (and many others) that the British and French policy of non-intervention played a significant part in the Republicans’ defeat. As Preston argues, ‘More than the losses on the battlefield, the greatest defeat was Munich.’
While corruption, blunders and war profiteering were hardly unknown within the Republican camp, Preston remains sympathetic to the government’s plight, particularly to the efforts of ‘the brilliant’ Juan Negrín (whatever can it be that the author finds to admire in the larger-than-life, liberal, gourmet, university professor?). However, it will come as a surprise to no one that within Franco’s zone, hatred, incompetence and profit ruled. As Franco himself admitted in 1942: ‘our crusade is the only struggle in which the rich who took part in the war emerged richer.’ Once again Juan March’s money played its part, funding not just Captain Bebb’s infamous Dragon Rapide, but as much as ten per cent of the cost of the Nacionales’ war effort. Naturally, March was amply rewarded during Franco’s ‘kleptocratic state’ which followed. This state sanctioned corruption was, Preston argues, utterly deliberate. Franco ‘turned a blind eye to venality’, because it gave him leverage and kept people loyal. Meanwhile the dictator, who clearly drew no distinction between himself and the country, built up a huge personal fortune, including property, cash, and multiple investments. His family all gorged from the same trough and the avarice of his wife, Doña Carmen, was legendary; Preston recounts how Madrid jewellers shut up shop in panic when they saw her coming.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this tale. Preston maintains that, despite the return to democracy in 1977, ‘Forty years of brainwashing guaranteed that Francoist attitudes would survive for decades.’ Incompetence and scandal also persisted: ‘Spain was bedevilled by a level of corruption that involved virtually every institution in the country.’ To this day, political and financial scandals feature regularly in the Spanish media, embroiling politicians of all colours and even the royal family. Sadly the author doesn’t seem optimistic that this will end any time soon; he titles the final chapter, ‘the triumph of corruption and incompetence.’
The observant among you will notice that the book’s cover bears an image taken by the acclaimed Hungarian photographer, Andre Friedmann, better known as Robert Capa. It shows a long line of defeated Spanish Republican soldiers being marched off, not to freedom, nor even safety, but to be incarcerated in grim internment – dare I say concentration – camps in the south of France. Surrounded by barbed wire on three sides and the sea on the other, lacking basic food and shelter, thousands of the Spanish refugees perished. A People Betrayed indeed.
This review first appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2020, pp. 18-19.