Intimate sketches of the Third Spain

¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War
August 13, 1999

Geoffrey Parker praises a moving collection of penetrating portraits that shows that not all Spaniards were either nationalists or republicans.

One hundred years from now," claimed Manuel Azaña, president of the doomed Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939, "most people won't know who Franco and I were." He reckoned without Paul Preston who, in the past 33 years, has published 14 books on 20th-century Spain. ¡Comrades! is his latest. Preston tells us that the Spanish version of this work, titled "The Three Spains of 1936", has already won "Spain's biggest non-fiction literary prize". It is easy to see why.

¡Comrades! includes essays on nine parallel lives transformed by the Spanish civil war. Four of the subjects virtually selected themselves: Franco and Azaña, the rival heads of state; José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish fascist party (the "Falange"); and Dolores Ibàrruri (commonly known as "La Pasionaria"), the visible head of the Spanish Communist Party. The other five choices were less obvious. General José Millàn Astray founded the Spanish foreign legion, taught it unusually brutal practices, and helped to form (or deform) one of his lieutenants, Francisco Franco. Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of José Antonio, led the women's section of the Falange and wielded enormous influence over millions of Spanish women during and after the war. Salvador de Madariaga, intellectual and diplomat, "abstained from the war" and thus earned the hatred of both sides, spending most of the rest of his life in exile trying to reconcile the parties to the conflict. Julian Besteiro and Indalecio Prieto, both members of the Socialist Party, dreaded the onset of war, although the former supported a coup against the republic in 1936 that greatly assisted the military rising that swept Franco to power, while the latter squandered his health on sustaining the republican war effort.

Much else divided the nine. For example, two died as a direct consequence of the war (José Antonio and Besteiro), four went into exile (Azaña, Madariaga, Prieto and Ibàrruri), and three exploited their victory (Millàn Astray, Pilar Primo and Franco.) Nevertheless, Preston uses their diverse experiences to illustrate two unifying themes. First, he seeks to examine "the relationship between individuals and historical processes more often examined in terms of collectivities" - how men and women react when they face extreme circumstances. He searches for the human beings behind the political personages, whether victor or vanquished. His second aim is to challenge the view, repeatedly stated by Franco and others, that the entire Spanish nation in the 1930s was divided into two mutually antagonistic blocs, and that the war was "the struggle of the Fatherland against the enemies of the Fatherland, of national unity against separation, of morality against iniquity, of the spirit against materialism". In the words of Antonio Machado, with which the volume opens:

"Little Spaniard coming into the world,

May God protect you.

One of the two Spains

Will freeze your heart."

Preston strongly contests this view. He argues for the existence of a "Third Spain which was not responsible for the bloodthirsty extremisms of the far left and the far right". It included those who, like Madariaga, refused to take part in the war and left Spain, as well as many men and women who stayed behind and tried to find a middle way. Some spoke out against the atrocities on both sides, others "suffered considerable embarrassment because they could not meet the requisite levels of fanaticism". This "Third Spain" stood for "democratic dialogue and understanding, and embraced a wide spectrum of the population". Azaña's speech in July 1938, on the second anniversary of the outbreak of the war, addressed this audience:

"It is a moral obligation, above all for those who suffer war, when it ends, as we hope it will end, to draw from its lesson and from its warning the greatest benefit possible. And when the torch passes to other hands, to other men, to other generations, may they remember, if some day their blood boils with anger and once more the Spanish temper is infuriated with intolerance and with hate and with the appetite for destruction, let them think of the dead who now, locked in the embrace of mother earth, have no more hatred, have no more resentment, and who send us the message of the eternal Fatherland which says to all its children: peace, pity and forgiveness."

Fine words, indeed, yet they remained largely unheeded for almost 40 years. Those who belonged to the "Third Spain" in the 1930s resembled those caught between Protestantism and Catholicism four centuries before: once battle began, no "middle way" remained. For several months after the outbreak of war, Madariaga seemed convinced that little distinguished the protagonists and that, therefore, "an understanding between Franco and Prieto" was possible. This view, as Preston himself notes, was "a fanciful miscalculation". At the time (December 1936), Sir Robert Vansittart of the British Foreign Office wrote bluntly: "I much doubt whether Senor Madariaga knows anything about Spain as it is now." In the 1530s, leading supporters of both Luther and the pope had dismissed Erasmus and other advocates of "the middle way" in much the same terms.

Preston draws on a lifetime's research in archives and libraries, as well as on interviews with many survivors of the events he describes, to reconstruct his nine stories. Even familiar material takes on new significance in his biographical settings. Take, for example, the confrontation in October 1936 between Millan Astray and the famous philosopher and novelist Miguel de Unamuno in the Great Hall of the University of Salamanca. Unamuno, as rector of the university, made a speech critical of the nationalists who dominated the town, and Millan Astray, in the audience, shouted back "Death to the intellectuals". At this the rector made the memorable retort: "You will conquer but you will not convince. You will conquer because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And to persuade, you need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle." Only the intervention of Franco's wife prevented the two from coming to blows.

All this is well known - indeed in 1992 a letter published in a leading Spanish newspaper compared the inability of former US vice-president Dan Quayle to spell "potato" correctly with Millan Astray's cry "Death to the intellectuals". The story is normally told as part of Unamuno's life, however. It seems far less bizarre when set beside some other actions of his one-eyed, one-armed interlocutor - who warned a delegation going to meet Franco that they were about to hear "the voice of God", and who (as head of the nationalists' wartime propaganda machine) blew his whistle to summon journalists to his daily press conference. Likewise, we are now familiar with Franco's total disregard for human life - perhaps as many as a million of his opponents were condemned to labour camps and prisons, and 200,000 others were executed. We hear less often, however, that he did the pools every week, for a time signing his coupon "Francisco Cofran". Few books on the civil war have recorded that in 1941 Pilar Primo de Rivera was proposed as a bride for Adolf Hitler; or that three of her "comrades" formed attachments to much younger partners (Azaña took a wife 24 years younger than he, Millan Astray married a woman "young enough to be his daughter", and La Pasionaria took a lover 15 years her junior); or that almost all of them travelled widely outside Spain. Besteiro and Madariaga spent a considerable time before the war in England. Azaña, La Pasionaria and Prieto all went several times to France (the two men met in Belgium too, and Azaña also toured Italy.) Pilar made four triumphant visits to Germany, and met Mussolini in Italy and Salazar in Portugal. Millan Astray, perhaps surprisingly, was the most cosmopolitan of all, living in the Philippines, Algeria, Morocco, Portugal, Germany, Italy and France.

Throughout, Preston provides substantial extracts from the writings of his subjects. His brilliant translations infuse their words with fresh life - especially the speeches of Azaña(hailed by Madariaga, who had no reason to praise him, as "the most distinguished parliamentary orator ever known in Spain") and La Pasionaria (the sound of whose voice haunted some of her listeners "for months afterwards"). Some of the former's words appear above; here are three ringing phrases from the latter. "The Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees." "It is better to be the widows of heroes than the wives of cowards." Perhaps most chilling of all, because so accurate: "Let no one forget that if today it is our turn to resist fascist aggression, the struggle will not end in Spain. Today it's us; but if the Spanish people is crushed, you will be next. All of Europe will have to face aggression and war."

Neither speaker possessed the visual charisma expected of orators today. Azaña was somewhat obese, with what Madariaga wickedly called "a seriously unfriendly face". The body and face of La Pasionaria, a miner's daughter in her early forties, reflected the grinding poverty of her first 30 years, a brutal marriage, and the birth of six children (four of whom died in infancy).

The cumulative impact of reading these nine parallel, intertwined lives is extremely moving. Although the chapters contain some overlap, because the same events affected several participants, for that same reason each can be read by itself. In this way, Preston achieves triumphantly his principal aim: he demonstrates "the relationship between individuals and historical processes more often examined in terms of collectivities". Today, the remains of Francisco Franco rest at the centre of the pharaonic Valley of the Fallen, carved out of the rocks north of Madrid by republican prisoners, while his rival's simple tomb at Montauban in France (where he died in exile) reads only "Manuel Azaña (1880-1940)". Yet, thanks to Preston's labours, the names and lives of both men, like those of their seven "comrades", will continue to be known and discussed well into the 21st century.

Geoffrey Parker is professor of history, Ohio State University, United States.

¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War

Author - Paul Preston
ISBN - 0 00 215392 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 396

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