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.
On 26 February 2011, I was a contributor to a Radio 4 programme on foreign volunteers in Spain, hosted by D.J. Taylor for Radio Four’s Archive Hour, called The Last of the International Brigades. More information about the programme can be found on the BBC’s website, here.
Click on the audio player below to listen to a short excerpt from the hour long programme.
There has been a spate of books published recently on The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain, to use the title of Tom Buchanan’s latest (2007) work. In addition to the IBMT’s Antifascistas (2010) written to accompany the exhibition on the British and Irish volunteers, we have had Brian Shelmerdine’s British Representations of the Spanish Civil War (2006), Lewis Mates’ The Spanish Civil War and the British Left (2007), David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War (2008) and now Hugo García has added The Truth About Spain!: Mobilizing British Public Opinion, 1936-1939. This is not to forget Chris Hall’s Not Just Orwell, Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia, the two oral histories of British volunteers – Max Arthur’s The Real Band of Brothers and Peter Darman’s Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War – and two more general books that include much of interest to a British audience: Paul Preston’s study of the war correspondents, We Saw Spain Die, and Steve Hurst’s Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War. Clearly, as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war, the conflict still has a powerful resonance in Britain, despite rarely making an appearance in the classroom.
Hugo García has made an important contribution to this rather crowded field; it is a rich, detailed study, impeccably researched. The title, however, is somewhat of a misnomer for García’s aim, as he admits, is not to judge the veracity of Republican and Nationalist propaganda, but rather to attempt to present an objective, dispassionate analysis of the forms and effectiveness of their propaganda campaigns, how they functioned and impacted on British opinion.
The book comprises four main sections. The first is a history of ‘modern’ forms of propaganda and censorship, from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, focusing on the use of propaganda in the totalitarian countries and in Spain itself during the Second Republic.
Part two compares the differing approaches of the Nationalists and the Republicans and contains a wealth of detail on the development, manning and operation of both sides’ propaganda machines. As García shows, the view of foreign correspondents as spies and criminals by senior Nationalists, and their treatment by their rude and obstructive Press officer, Luis Bolín was often counter-productive. For example, the expulsion of The Times correspondent George Steer required him to move to the Republican zone, from where he later produced his devastating coverage of the bombing of Guernica.
García’s analysis of the Republicans’ approach – frequently drawing on Arturo Barea’s wonderful memoir, The Forging of a Rebel – recognises that the Republic’s initial problem was to overcome the chaos that followed the rising and which had shattered the state apparatus. As García describes, order was gradually re-established by the end of 1936, leading to increasingly sophisticated and professional dealings with the foreign press. In contrast to the repugnant Bolín, Republican faces such as Constancia de la Mora offered an efficient and charming front to the foreign correspondents, recognising their value, rather than treating them as irritants.
García then turns to the propaganda messages put out by both sides, particularly atrocities and foreign intervention. It was obviously vitally important for both sides to get across their version of events: the Rebels’ depiction of themselves as Nacionales with an anti-Communist crusade was countered by the Republicans’ portrayal of the war as ‘progress versus feudalism’, or the defence of democracy against international fascism. García argues that the techniques used by both sides were, in fact, very similar and that both sides knowingly and deliberately used falsehoods to sustain their portrayal of the conflict.
The final section discusses the impact of the propaganda on Britain. As he recognises, García faces the thorny problem of assessing exactly how the ‘messages’ put across by both sides were received in Britain; not easy to judge considering the unreliability of opinion polling, then still in its infancy. García claims that, in the main, there was a general indifference, ‘a plague on both your houses,’ as one contemporary newspaper put it. However, as he recognises, of those who took sides, many more sided with the Republicans than with the Rebels. And while the strongest support for both sides came from the political extremes in Britain, the Republicans had some success in extending their realm of support as the war progressed.
However, García believes that the reportage of the horrors of the Spanish war was most effective in convincing neutrals of the horror of war in general, rather than of one particular side, and thus consolidated support for non-intervention. In a depressing conclusion, he argues that even if the Republican propaganda had been more effective, it would probably still not have achieved enough to be able to save the Spanish Republic. Sadly, it is difficult to disagree with García’s view put forward at the very beginning of the book, that ‘this was, from very early in the war, a lost cause.’ Once Britain and France were determined to pursue a policy of non-intervention in the war, despite ample evidence of a huge German and Italian presence in Spain, the Spanish Republic was effectively doomed.
This book brings together leading British and Spanish historians in an examination of key aspects and themes of the Spanish Civil War. Contributors discuss the politics of memory; recent revisionist historiography; biographies of international volunteers; the experience of nursing in Catalonia; the baptism of fire of Jarama; Britain’s blocking of aid to the Republic; Soviet intervention in the conflict; and the crimes of Franco, both during and after the war.
‘Useful compilation of the last 9 years of annual lectures of the IBMT – bringing us up to date with current thinking in the Spanish Civil War as republican memory is revisited. Useful for A Level GSCE, but more so for under/post graduate work.’
‘Looking Back at the Spanish Civil Waris a collection of the first 10 Len Crome annual lectures sponsored by the IBMT. These include Paul Preston’s tribute to the man for whom the series is dedicated, “‘No Soldier’: The Courage and Comradeship of Dr Len Crome,” describing one of the many medical personnel who gave generously to the Spanish cause and later served in World War II. As expected, the British side receives considerable treatment—essays by Richard Baxell and Angela Jackson, and Enrique Moradiellos’s “Albion’s Perfidy” about the pro-Franco response of the British government. But running through most of these essays is a strong international thread: Helen Graham’s “The Return of Republican Memory”; Ángel Vias’s “September 1936: Stalin’s Decision to Support the Spanish Republic”; Julián Casanova’s “History and Memory …
This historical work is good—have no doubt about it—and reflects the growing interest around the world in matters related to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. Partly the result of new archival discoveries, partly because of the passing of the generation that lived and fought the war, the new scholarship has effectively shifted the historical narrative closer to its original, pre-Cold War position.
Most recent writing emphasizes that the war in Spain had long, indigenous roots; stresses selfish national interests in Britain, France and the United States for the failure to prevent fascist expansion; and treats the IB volunteers as heroic anti-fascists (rather than dupes of Stalin). On these grounds, the Spanish Civil War was a fight between an elected democracy and a fascist-military rebellion rather than a war between fascism and communism (the Cold War version). Instead of seeing the Spanish war as a precursor or “dress rehearsal” for a world war, it appears as it once was seen by its contemporaries, the first battlefield of World War II.’