He who reigns in Spain

May 14, 1999

Huw Richards talks to Franco biographer Paul Preston (above), the British historian who has become a household name in Spain.

It would be an exaggeration to call Paul Preston a prophet without honour in his own land. To have been a professor of history for 14 years - the last eight at the London School of Economics - is an impressive record for an academic in his early fifties. Yet his professional distinctions in the United Kingdom pale alongside his fame in Spain, the country on which he has based his working life. There, his lectures are standing room only, he is asked for his opinions on a huge range of historical and political issues and his books are bestsellers.

Decorated by the Spanish government in 1986, he won further laurels with his book AComrades!, just published in the UK. Under the Spanish title Las tres Espa$as del 36, it won the 1998 As! Fue prize, the most prestigious non-fiction award in a country that takes literary competitions seriously.

AComrades!, subtitled "Portraits from the Spanish Civil War", consists of nine biographical essays on major figures from the war, fought between 1936 and 1939 by the elected republican government and nationalist rebels. It returns Preston to a conflict about which he has already written a great deal. Of the 12 previous works listed in AComrades!, five are directly concerned with the war and its origins, while most of the others - notably his massive biography of nationalist leader and dictator (1939-75) Francisco Franco - relate to it.

He is not the only historian to address the subject. "Proportionate to its scale as an event, I suspect it is covered even more intensively than the second world war - about 20,000 books at last count," he says.

His main project at present is a biography of Benito Mussolini. Gloomily contemplating a box containing the turgid mass of Mussolini's complete works - including a couple of novels - he muses that however short on redeeming features, at least Franco did not write as much.

But the Spanish civil war retains the allure it had for him as a graduate student. "I was interested in interwar international relations and soon realised that it was a historical cornucopia - pretty well everyone who was significant in Europe at the time has a walk-on part - Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, Chamberlain, Blum, Trotsky. That started me off and what kept me going was the sheer complexity. The more you study, the more you uncover."

He has discovered some while working on Mussolini: "I was fascinated to discover that Italy's involvement in the civil war was far greater than has previously been acknowledged. Italy was in effect in an undeclared war against the Spanish republic, committing about 100,000 men and half of its air force." This helps explain not only the republic's defeat, but Italy's limited involvement in the second world war.

AComrades! reflects two long-running preoccupations - the conviction that individuals make a difference in history and a dislike for simplistic versions of the war. "My problem with George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom is that they represent only a small part of the war," he says. "I worry people may think they show the whole reality."

Preston's preoccupation with his subject may border on the obsessive but it is an interest shared by at least the 60,000 Spaniards who have bought his books.

Spanish fascination with a 60-year-old war could appear to parallel Britain's much-derided second world war fixation. But Preston highlights an important difference: "Spanish consciousness of the civil war also includes the nearly 40 years of dictatorship that followed." Franco was a contemporary of Neville Chamberlain, but survived until the year in which Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party.

This fascination marks one of the failures of the Franco regime: "They did their best to take the history away, inventing stories about the war and painting the losers as worthless. It backfired, leaving people with a deep desire to rediscover their history."

Hence the response to AComrades!, a book that Preston admits is rooted in personal motivation: "Several of the subjects were people who fascinated me and who I wanted to write about but knew I would never have the time to deal with in a full-length biography."

Particularly striking is his concept of the third Spain. Preston says: "It is a literary conceit, but it makes the point that the experience of war is different for everybody. It is not just about bloodthirsty maniacs. Large swathes of Spain, the people who believed in peaceful coexistence, were forced into war."

The bloodthirsty maniacs are certainly here. But they are outweighed by people who engage Preston's sympathy and admiration: the long-lived Salvador de Madariaga, who sought a mediating role; socialist leader Indalecio Prieto, who made tireless efforts to save the doomed republic; reluctant president Ma$uel Azana.

Preston argues that such people prefigured the democratic Spain of today, in which the extreme right and left win less than 2 per cent of the vote. "People in Spain worry about the ferocity of some political debate," he says, "but it scarcely compares with the 1930s, when political differences could be a matter of life and death. There are continuities in that many of the leaders of the Popular Party come from the Francoist establishment, while many socialists were in exile under Franco. But the modern parties have little in common with the socialists or the CEDA (right wing) of the 1930s."

Spain's return to democracy was gradual and consensual rather than sudden and violent. While most of the Calle Jose Antonios (streets named after the right-wing martyr) and statues of Franco, once common in Spain, have been renamed or removed, this happened gradually rather than through bonfires and uprootings.

Preston has a privileged position as a commentator on the political transition. "As an outsider you have an aura of equilibrium and detachment," he says. "In the early days you still had the legacy of the intellectual drought of the Franco years, when people in Spain could not really say anything anyway. But I am still amazed by the receptivity of Spanish people to outside opinion."

But contemporary Spanish affairs are not his major preoccupation. "My Spanish interests increasingly focus on the civil war and the Franco era," Preston says. Not so much a research interest as a lifetime's quest.

Paul Preston's AComrades! is published by HarperCollins, Pounds 20.00.

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