Navigate / search

Review of Peter Carroll & Fraser Ottanelli eds., Letters from the Spanish Civil War

Letters

My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…

 

Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.

 

Review of Lisa Kirschenbaum’s International Communism and the Spanish Civil War

Scan_20160429

Since the end of the cold war and the consequent opening up of the Moscow archives, fresh light has been shone on the relationship between the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and Spain during the country’s civil war. Increasingly, this has allowed a rather more nuanced, ‘warts and all’ analysis. Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion? (reviewed in issue 41 of the IBMT newsletter) is a good example of this rather more thoughtful, balanced approach; so too is this latest study by Lisa Kirschenbaum.

Though the book’s title refers to international communism, it focuses mainly on Party members in the Soviet Union, Spain and the U.S. This may limit its appeal to a British audience, which would be a shame, because many of the issues the book discusses transcend nationality such as, for example, the accounts of Communists ‘who reported, then and later, they in Spain they lived their ideals more intensely, passionately, and fully than they had anywhere else.’ (p. 10) Likewise, discussions of the now well-known problems the International Brigade command faced – leave and repatriation, the distrust of other nationalities, resentment of Spanish officers, a lack of effective communications – could relate to any of the national units.

While the author does touch upon some of the more over-arching themes of the role of the Communist Party in Spain – including a refreshing scepticism towards the old trope that the Spanish Republic was controlled by Stalin – it is the individual lives of Communists which are of main concern here. The author’s detailed discussion of notions of ‘Communist identity’ examines volunteers’ attitudes towards a wide range of issues: the impact on families back home; bravery and cowardice in battle; drinking; sex and notions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. The author is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, arguing that ‘despite the fact that gay men served in the International Brigades, homosexuality remained for many communists presumptively fascist.’ (p. 174.)

The final section of the book turns to the period after the war in Spain, recounting the persecution of Communist Party members in both the US and the USSR. It is a deeply dispiriting story and many readers will be shocked and appalled by the levels of paranoia, distrust and persecution directed towards Spanish civil war veterans on both sides of the iron curtain: ‘labelled subversives and spies by authorities on both sides, they were harassed, tried, convicted and, in the Soviet bloc, tortured and sometimes executed.’ (p. 236)

Yet, while Stalin’s brutal and murderous regime caused many Party members and civil war veterans around the world to reject Soviet Communism, the author argues that very few of them came to abandon the cause of Spanish democracy, or anti-fascism. This is, I think, an important point to make. After all, just because the description of Republican Spain’s struggle as ‘the cause of all advanced and progressive humanity’ originated with Josef Stalin, it does not make it any less true.

This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion?

radiant_illusion

This edited volume is based upon a series of public lectures and seminars at Gresham College London delivered during 2013 and 2014. It features an introduction and two central essays by professional historians (Roderick Floud, Kevin Morgan and Nicholas Deakin) and a number of biographies, most by family members – the so-called ‘red nappy babies’ – with brief additions by Denis Healey, Peter Hennessy and Juliet Gardiner.

The book’s central premise is to critically re-examine the reasons that lay behind middle-class men and women joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. One obvious answer, of course, might be that following the Party’s abandonment of its disastrous class-against-class policy, they were no longer discouraged from doing so. Kevin Morgan’s essay, however, provides a rather more detailed analysis of, what Juliet Gardiner describes as, ‘a perfect political storm’. Clearly, the rise of fascism was crucial, but Deakin argues that there were as many different reasons for joining the Party as there were members: some practical, some philosophical. And, of course, Spain played a vital part, becoming ‘the “good cause” of the decade and one on which communists could campaign – and recruit – without inhibition, alongside other progressives.’ (p. 63.)

While many of the essays are critical in the strict academic sense, there is the sense that, twenty-five years after the end of the cold war and freed from its intellectual baggage, studies of the CPGB in the 1930s are free to adopt a more nuanced view. Yes, there is recognition that many recruits had to suspend their critical faculties in order to swallow the Party’s unquestioning support for the USSR, their philosophical about-turns and ideas of ‘revolutionary expediency’ and ‘democratic centralism’. However, at the same time there is an acknowledgement that most people became communists because they wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the Party was the best means of achieving this. As Elizabeth Dolan puts it, writing about her parents, Mary Macintosh and Richard Clark:

It is my contention that this youthful enthusiasm for Communism, with its at that time inevitable support for the Soviet Union, far from being an illusion, or misguided or naïve, in fact helped to produce well-balanced, thoughtful citizens whose subsequent lifestyle, attitudes and values were a direct development, not a contradiction. (p. 149)

What is missing from the book is a discussion of the Cambridge spies. It’s true that plenty has been written about them already, but it does rather lead to an unfortunate feeling that there is something important that everyone is carefully avoiding. Apart from Denis Healey, that is, who cannot resist drawing a comparison between the Oxford Communists (of whom he was one) who ‘never wanted to do anything particularly for the Russians’, with those from Cambridge who ‘all spied for the Russians’. Clearly sectarianism can be just as rife in academia as it is in politics.

This review appears in the January 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds

spain_bleeds

It has become a tired cliché that necessity is the mother of invention, but it is nevertheless true that the demands of warfare have spurred the advance of technologies; some of them fortunately designed to preserve lives rather than cut them short. The war in Spain was no exception, with the pioneering work in the treatment of fractures and front-line surgery by the Catalan surgeons Josep Trueta and Moisès Broggi offering one pointed example. Developments in blood transfusion, the subject of Linda Palfreeman’s latest study, is another. As the author points out, ‘the Spanish Civil war marked a new era in battlefield blood transfusion.’

Though written in an academic style, the book is accessible to a non-specialised reader. It begins with a useful overview of developments from ancient times to the present, covering the use of direct arm-to arm transfusions established in the nineteenth century, Karl Landsteiner’s vital (and Nobel prize-winning) discovery of blood-groups in 1900, and subsequent improvements in storage. And for anyone with an interest in haematology, there is plenty of detail on the actual processes of transfusion: overcoming the limitations of direct arm-to-arm transfusion, mixing donations to minimise rejection and the use of sodium citrate to prevent coagulation.

The book focuses on the contribution of a number of key players involved in the developments of transfusion in Spain, including a brief chapter on the Nationalist efforts, led by Carlos Elósegui Sarasola. Interestingly, many Nationalists appear to have been singularly unenthusiastic about the use of stored blood, preferring traditional direct transfusions.

Amongst those working on the Republican side, the ground-breaking work of the Canadian Doctor, Norman Bethune, obviously features strongly. Described as an ‘explosive and unpredictable virtuoso’, Bethune does not seem to have been the easiest person to work with. However, as he has already been the subject of a previous volume in the Cañada Blanch/Sussex series, this study spends less time on the personal politics that underpinned his downfall, instead concentrating on his undeniable contribution to the Republican blood service and the mechanics of transfusions.

British readers will be pleased to find a chapter on Reginald Saxton, whose transfusions helped save the lives of numerous British and Irish casualties at Jarama and Brunete in 1937. Intriguingly, Saxton experimented with the use of cadaverous blood during the battle of Teruel in the winter of 1937-8. However his work was apparently brought to a halt by a Spanish law which prohibited any experimentation on corpses within twenty-four hours of death.

The author is clearly an admirer of Frederick Duran Jordà, for two chapters are devoted to the influential Catalan surgeon. However, a little explicit bias does not do the book any harm. Certainly Duran and his work were admirable and, as the author convincingly argues, political malice and the professional envy of colleagues has prevented his ground-breaking work from receiving the fame it should have. In fact, the author chooses to conclude the book with Duran’s exile to Britain in 1939 following the Republic’s defeat. Unwilling or unable to the take up of the lessons learned during the Spanish war, the British Government initially refused Duran permission to practice as a doctor and he could only find work as a laboratory technician. It was only in 1941 that he was at last able to take up a job as a pathologist. As the relatives of brigaders will know, it is an all too familiar tale.

This review appears in the January edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Chris Farman, Valery Rose and Liz Woolley’s No Other Way

Oxford_cover_nov14-1

When Paul Preston was promoting Spanish Holocaust, his exhaustive account of the appalling atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (and after), he pointedly stressed his debt to historians involved in local research. While he was referring to work conducted within Spain, the remark is true also of the UK, where detailed regional studies of areas such as Reading, Manchester and Tyneside have played an important part in helping piece together a wider picture of Britain’s role in the conflict. This latest addition to the literature, No Other Way (the title, of course, taken from C. Day Lewis’s famous 1938 poem, ‘The Volunteer’), unearths Oxford’s role, examining the efforts of both ‘town and gown’ in support of the Spanish Republic, efforts that apparently united the two different worlds in a manner never seen before, or since.

This new study of Oxfordshire is to be welcomed, not least the account of the role of the university itself. Sam Lesser, veteran of the International Brigades and former IBMT Chair, once confessed to me his concern that an understandable tendency to debunk what Bill Alexander once described as the ‘vague notion that every­one in the brigades was a poet or writer’ could lead to the role of artists, writers and other intellectuals being downplayed, or even overlooked. I suspect that this book (together with other recent publications and exhibitions) would have gone some way towards assuaging his worries.

No Other Way begins with a prologue by Oxford Professor Tom Buchanan and an introduction by Chris Farman, which helpfully sets out the wider context. This leads onto what, for me, was the most interesting and central part of the book, Valery Rose and Liz Wooley’s account of the personal involvement of the people of the university and its town. In addition to the Oxfordshire men and women who volunteered to go to Spain, the book shows how residents were actively involved in campaigns on behalf of the Spanish Republic and in the creation and support for local colonies of Basque children. The authors illustrate the influence of European political refugees in the university and the key role played by the semi-autonomous Ruskin College, site of this years’ IBMT AGM. And though the section rightly concentrates on the support for the Spanish Republic, the authors do not shy away from unpalatable truths, pointing out that, just as elsewhere, there were a number in Oxford praying for a Franco victory.

The second major section of the book is a collection of biographies of the 31 Oxford volunteers. This is a considerable achievement, managing to pull together material from myriad sources. Like the previous sections, and the subsequent methodological discussion by Jenny Swanson, it amply demonstrates the attention to detail and academic expertise of the authors. Which leads to my one minor quibble: why no footnotes? A strange omission, in the circumstances. That criticism aside, I found No Other Way to be clearly and engagingly written and it showcases what can be achieved with careful and thorough research. The book provides a useful template for other local studies; the hosts of the 2015 AGM in Aberdeen have a tough act to follow.

This review appeared in the January 2015 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Peter Carroll and Fraser Ottanelli’s Letters from the Spanish Civil War

Letters

My review of Peter Carroll and Fraser Ottanelli’s edited volume of Letters from the Spanish Civil War will be appearing in a forthcoming edition of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies.

The letters are from a number of American volunteers, though most were written by Carl Geiser, a young Jewish volunteer from Ohio who became a political commissar during his time in Spain. As the letters demonstrate very clearly, Geiser was a volunteer who never lost his belief in the cause.

Review of Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga

lowe-fear&loathing

No visitor to Barcelona football club’s iconic stadium, the Camp Nou, can fail to notice the slogan splashed in huge letters across the back of the seats: mès que un club. If one aim is to goad supporters of their arch-rivals, Real Madrid, it certainly seems to work. As Sid Lowe explains in his highly entertaining and exhaustive account of the rivalry between Spain’s two dominant football teams, the irritated Madrid fans have responded by inventing their own version. ‘Barcelona’; they chant, is más que un puticlub (more than a brothel).

At one level, Fear and Loathing in La Liga is a celebration of two highly successful football clubs who, while they may inspire mutual fear and loathing, also draw plaudits and admiration from around the world. They have also attracted some of the world’s most talented footballers, many of whom crop up in this book. There is Barcelona’s powerful forward of the 1950s, the Hungarian László Kubala, whose father optimistically bought him a violin as a child, only for the youngster to use it as a goal post. And the Argentine star, Alfredo Di Stéfano (who some still feel was a better player than either Pele or Maradona), who Madrid infamously stole from under the noses of Barcelona. The detailed account of Johan Cruyff’s time at Barcelona clearly outlines how much the current team of Messi, Chavi, Iniesta et al owe to Cruyff and the inspirational Dutch ‘total football’ of the 1970s.

However, Fear and Loathing is mès que un libre about football for, in addition to being The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent, Sid Lowe holds a PhD in modern Spanish history. He combines his areas of expertise effectively to demonstrate how the history of the two rival clubs is inextricably bound up with Spanish history itself. Just as there are fierce battles over the past and historical memory, so many of these arguments have become expressed through the tribal loyalties of football; ‘war minus the shooting’, as Orwell famously described it. However, it is, perhaps, no great surprise that much of the story of the rivalry between the two teams is about perception, rather than reality. Most football fans, ‘the twelfth man on the terraces’, are not neutral, dispassionate observers and – like everyone else- often choose to believe what they want to believe.

For example, the book outlines how supporters of rival teams within Spain – and around the world – often scorn Real Madrid as ‘Franco’s team’. For Catalans especially, Real represents the image of traditional, Castillian, centralised power, while Barcelona is portrayed as a beacon of democracy, the symbol of the separatist movement which Franco (and by extension, Madrid) brutally suppressed. Now it is certainly true that Franco’s regime was extremely partisan towards Real; the infamous match of 1943, which ended 11-0 to Madrid, is but one example of the regime’s meddling. And Santiago Bernebeu, the father of the modern club was quite evidently pro-Franco, having and volunteered to fight for the Nationalists during the civil war. However, as the author makes clear, things are not always as simple as some would like to make out; this simplistic binary division inevitably means that inconvenient truths are ignored.

In many ways this book is an exercise in myth busting; perhaps a response to some of the more trenchant (if not bizarre) opinions the author must have come across in newspapers’ online comments, or via some of his 140 000 followers on Twitter. So, for example, he points out that Rafael Sánchez Guerra, the president of Real Madrid from 1935 to 1936, was actually put on trial by the Franco regime, accused of being ‘a Red’. And while one of the current directors at Barcelona is allegedly a member of the right-wing fundación Francisco Franco, the parents of Real’s former manager, Vincente del Bosque (now in charge of the Spanish national team), were imprisoned by Franco’s regime. To return to football, the author argues that ‘[Real] Madrid did not become the best because they were the regime’s team; they were the regime’s team because they became the best.’ And it’s not as though Barcelona fans have a monopoly on feeling aggrieved: Madrid’s defeat in the 1960 European cup final still rankles, amidst rumours of bribes and dodgy English referees.

The book’s skilful interweaving of football, history and politics makes for an enjoyable and interesting read. Perhaps members of the IBMT who are not followers of the beautiful game may wonder why two books relating to football have been reviewed in recent newsletters. However, if Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly’s infamous quote that ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, does not convince, then perhaps an anecdote from the book concerning the supremely talented Danish footballer, Brian Laudrup, may do so. In 1994, Laudrup led Barcelona to an astonishing 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; the following year, he played in another el clásico, but this time around, the Dane led Real, in their turn, to a 5-0 victory. According to Laudrup, when he eventually decided to leave la liga, a relieved King Juan Carlos confessed to him, ‘That’s good … now I can go back to being the only King of Spain.’

Review of Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic

IB edition of Henry Buckley's long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War
IB Tauris’s 2013 edition of Henry Buckley’s long-lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War

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.

Review of James Matthews’ Reluctant Warriors

James Matthews' Reluctant Warriors, published by Oxford UP in 2012

Within Britain, popular knowledge of the Spanish civil war usually centres on the internationalisation of the conflict; the support of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy for General Franco and the involvement of the volunteers of the International Brigades in support of the Spanish Republic. However, it should be remembered that foreigners only ever made up a small proportion of those fighting in Spain; most were Spaniards and a huge number were conscripts. Therefore the publication of Reluctant Warriors, James Matthews’ examination of the experiences of these ordinary Spaniards drafted into the armies of both sides, is to be thoroughly welcomed.

For the full review, please see the English Historical Review 2014, issue 129, pp. 761–763.

Review of Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow

war-and-its-shadow

Helen Graham’s latest monograph, The War and its Shadow, is not an introductory text to the Spanish Civil War, nor is it an easy read. While only 150 pages long, the text’s richness and complexity, the scope and ambition, the intelligence and sheer breadth of knowledge contained within make it both thought-provoking and challenging. Important and timely too. One of the major issues currently facing the International Brigade Memorial Trust is how to explain to a contemporary audience the significance of a war which was fought in Spain over seventy years ago. This book provides detailed evidence of the enduring relevance of the Spanish Civil War and the thirty-five years of malevolent and vengeful dictatorship which followed.

In structure, the book comprises a number of essays, implicitly divided into three main sections. In the first, the author discusses the legacy of the First World War, which saw the mortal wounding of many European ancien regimes but not, as yet, their destruction. During what was essentially becoming a European civil war, nationalist movements fought to reassert what they believed to be their natural right to rule. The second section examines the notion of the volunteers (originally raised in her inaugural professorial lecture) for the Spanish Republic as ‘border-crossers’. For Helen Graham, many of the International Brigaders were, to use her rather elegant expression, ‘the stormy petrels of social change’, members of a vanguard fighting for ‘cosmopolitan cultural modernity’. The third, final section of the book is a passionate essay on contemporary Spain, the enduring legacy of Francoism and the current battles to control historical memory.

The book provides a trenchant demolition of some of the more enduring myths of the Franco dictatorship. As the author points out, the Spanish Civil War was the first battle of a war ‘waged predominantly on civilians’ and there is no shortage of evidence that murder and rape were used deliberately as a weapon to break down resistance. As the leader of the military rebels, General Emilio Mola declared, they were determined to eliminate ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do.’ This included not just members of the ‘left’ and members of some imaginary ‘judeo-masonic conspiracy’, but any representatives of progress and modernity: teachers, trade unionists, homosexuals and ‘modern women’ too, as the accounts in chapter three of the viciousness visited on the Barayón family make only too clear.

Like Paul Preston’s acclaimed Spanish Holocaust, Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow reiterates that Franco’s dictatorship was not ‘softer’ than those of Hitler and Stalin,  remarking pointedly on a persisting lack of awareness of the vast number of ‘extra and quasi-judicial’ killings enacted by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1975. The chapter on Franco’s prisons is particularly harrowing. ‘All Spain is a prison’ wrote Marcos Ana, as Franco’s regime set about ‘teaching the defeated the meaning of their defeat’. As evidence of the truly repugnant nature of Franco’s Spain, the author reminds us that even Heinrich Himmler was shocked by the extent of judicial murder when he visited Spain in October 1940 (though admitting that his main concern may have been the wastage of potential slave labour). The book explains how the victimisation continued within the prisons, with ‘the rape/sexual assault of women prisoners was systematically perpetrated with impunity by the servants of the Franco regime’, and children removed from what were considered to be ‘unfit’ mothers.

The book concludes with a rather depressing, though no doubt accurate, assessment of the situation in contemporary Spain, which finds the conservative Partido Popular in power during a time of severe financial crisis. Attempts to recuperate historical memory are becoming increasing difficult, as court cases are launched against those – however prominent – involved in investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. As the author explains, while there have been many positive changes in Spain since the death of Franco, ‘many of its most damaging effects endure within the constitutional polity.’ Clearly much of Spain remains in shadow and the task of dismantling the Francoist structure has some way to go.

This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 34, January 2013, pp. 24-5.