We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War

Despite the bad press, journalists played an important role in the conflict, says Julius Ruiz

December 11, 2008

The Spanish Civil War attracted reporters from across the globe. When Ksawery Pruszynski, correspondent for the Warsaw literary journal Wiadomosci Literackie, arrived in Madrid in the autumn of 1936, he found the Spanish capital "full of foreign journalists". Nearly 1,000 foreign correspondents went to Spain at some point during the conflict, and their work has not generally received good press. In 1937, George Orwell wrote: "The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18". More recently, Philip Knightley invoked the war as an example of the dictum that the first casualty of war reporting is the truth.

Paul Preston, author of biographies of General Francisco Franco and King Juan Carlos, has turned his attention to war reporters. Full of fascist and communist spies, love affairs and prostitutes, at times his narrative reads like a thriller: anyone interested in the personal experiences of foreign journalists in the Spanish Civil War should start with this book.

The primary purpose of Preston's study is to pay homage to those foreign correspondents who saw the Republican cause as "the fight to defend democracy against the advance of fascism". The best reportage, he argues, came from passionate defenders of the Republic who were determined to tell "the truth".

With the important exception of Mikhail Koltsov, the Pravda correspondent, Preston's book is mainly Anglo-American in focus. Among its protagonists are familiar figures such as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and George Steer, whose account of the bombing of Gernika in The Times in April 1937 shocked the world. Non-anglophone correspondents are passed over without explanation: while Preston reproduces in its entirety the first dispatch of Jay Allen, the Chicago Tribune reporter, on the massacre of nearly 2,000 Republicans in Badajoz in August 1936, he gives only a couple of references to the Portuguese journalist Mario Neves, whose eyewitness reports helped bring Badajoz to Allen's attention.

Although Preston stresses that some reporters were willing to write inconvenient truths about the Republican Government, there is surprisingly little about the messy realities of Republican Spain in his narrative. Thus, foreign reporting of the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937, which so infuriated Orwell, is not discussed; the chapter on war correspondents in the Catalan capital centres on the affair between Kitty Bowler, an American reporter, and Tom Wintringham, a fellow journalist and future commander of the British International Brigade.

Other polemical issues that are overlooked include Republican bombing, although extensive coverage is given to Francoist destruction of towns and cities. So while the siege of Madrid is given prominence, there is nothing on the Republican siege of Oviedo in 1936-37 and its many civilian victims, despite the eloquent despatches of Webb Miller, an American reporter who was arrested by the military rebels and threatened with death in September 1936. George Steer would reflect on the ethical dilemmas of modern warfare, welcoming the Republican bombing of Salamanca in January 1938 with the observation that "unpleasant though it is, reprisal is the only sound method in war".

Another argument of Preston's book is that "the Republican press apparatus tended to facilitate rather than impede the work of correspondents". Preston is undoubtedly right to point out that in "Nationalist Spain, the military had no time for newspapermen". In the best chapter of the book, he shows how foreign correspondents, including those sympathetic to the Francoist cause, were threatened and sometimes arrested by the military. But the more professional approach to press relations by the Republic did not always facilitate the work of reporters. This can be seen by its management of the massacres of more than 2,000 political prisoners at Paracuellos del Jarama and Torrejon de Ardoz in the Madrid province between 7 November and 4 December 1936. Organised by elements in the capital's security forces, these killings were carried out with the passive acquiescence of the Government in Valencia, despite the protests of ministers such as the Basque nationalist Manuel de Irujo. Although Preston acknowledges that Paracuellos remains "one of the most controversial issues in the Spanish Civil War", his pithy account does not mention that it was only the energetic actions of Melchor Rodriguez, an anarchist who took control of Madrid's prisons, that ended the killings. That Rodriguez's name remains largely unknown outside Spain is testament to the success of the Republican press apparatus in suppressing the truth about Paracuellos.

Foreign correspondents, such as Geoffrey Cox of the News Chronicle, certainly knew about the sudden disappearance of prisoners from Madrid's jails, but echoing their Republican contacts, tended to stress only the general danger of the Francoist "fifth column" in their reports. Preston, accepting the oft-repeated claim of an active fifth column at face value, asserts that at Paracuellos, "some were executed as known fifth columnists". However, recent research, which Preston does not cite, has demonstrated that the "fifth column" did not exist in November 1936: it emerged only in the spring of 1937 as a reaction to the failure of the rebels to take the city.

Such, therefore, are the dangers of an overly sympathetic approach to pro-Republican foreign correspondents in the Civil War; they may have told the truth as they saw it, but was it the whole truth?

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War

By Paul Preston

Constable, 416pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781845298517

Published 25 September 2008

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