23 February 2009 **** Front Page

Correspondents in revolutionary Spain

By Tapani Lausti

Paul Preston, We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. Constable 2008.

For many students of the Spanish Civil War the late Burnett Bolloten's books are among the authoritative sources of study. Paul Preston has in the past paid tribute to Bolloten's work but in this new book the Welsh-born journalist and historian gets only a couple of lines. Many others would have given him a more central role.

There is, of course, much controversy about how historians view the Civil War. Preston's book is dedicated to the late Herbert Southworth who attacked Bolloten's work. It seems a bit unfair that the book has a full chapter on Southworth although he was not a correspondent in Spain during the Civil War whilst Bolloten's eye-witness journalism and subsequent research have been widely acclaimed.

Another noted Hispanist, Gabriel Jackson, throws some light on these personal disagreements. Jackson and Southworth were good friends but fell out for a while because Jackson wrote an introduction to one of Bolloten's books. Southworth regarded Bolloten as a right-wing propagandist, unfairly in Jackson's opinion. (Recordando a Herbert Southworth, El País, 18/12/1999; see also Burnett Bolloten and Herbert Southworth by Ronald Hilton, WAIS)

Preston and Southworth thought that Bolloten concentrated too much on the Spanish communists and their Soviet minders' role in undermining the social revolution which had erupted immediately after Franco's rebellion. For Burnett, however, the revolution was an historically important development, more profound than the Bolshevik revolution in its early stages: "... the revolution of July 1936 distinguished itself from all others by the generally spontaneous and far-reaching character of its collectivist movement and by its promise of moral and spiritual renewal. Nothing like this spontaneous movement had ever occurred before." (The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, p. 78)

Among the correspondents and writers' attitudes towards the revolution varied. According to Preston, "[Ernest] Hemingway was more comfortable concentrating on the military achievements of the Republic, whereas [John] Dos Passos was happier showing the suffering of the ordinary people and the hopes raised by social revolution." (p. 74)

Indeed, what often divided attitudes was the question whether the war was winnable if the revolution failed, or whether the revolution hampered military efforts. Whatever the opinions, the correspondents admired the ordinary Spaniards' spirit in defending themselves against the Franco rebellion.

It was ironic that one of the Russian correspondents, Mikhail Koltsov, lost his life for reporting about the Spanish atmosphere for Soviet readers. According to Preston, Koltsov "wrote so enthusiastically about the revolutionary élan of the Spanish people that, in the atmosphere of the Soviet purges, he became an embarrassment and was executed". (p. 21)

Western journalists found themselves in a difficult situation as well. Preston writes: "It was ironic that a high proportion of the world's best journalists and writers supported the Republic but often had difficulty in getting their material published as written." (p. 18) The right-wing press in their countries and the Catholic Church in the United States were pro-Franco and saw the Republicans as frightening Reds. The American Catholic hierarchy tried to present Franco and the rebels as saintly crusaders. (p. 307) Editors reacted often negatively to the correspondents' passionate writings. The best journalists had no use for "objectivity". After the bombing raids on Madrid, Arthur Koestler wrote that anyone who has lived through that kind of hell "and then pretends to be objective, is a liar". (p. 47)

The pro-Republic correspondents felt terribly frustrated by the non-intervention policies of the democracies. The American Louis Fischer wrote: "That Italian and German pilots should attack non-combatant Spaniards with bombs and machine guns without provoking a protest as to force democracies to intervene to protect Spain's progressive republic is a pretty fair gauge of the world's moral calibre these days." (p. 238)

For the correspondents the contrast between Republican and rebel zones was stark. In the former they were often surprised at the freedom of movement allowed to them. In the rebel zone even journalists sympathetic towards Franco's forces had to confront the awful presence of Luis Bolín who had been given responsibility for foreign correspondents: "Wearing breeches and high boots, against which he rapped a riding crop, he would strut menacingly through the press office glaring imperiously at the assembled journalists waiting for passes or other documentation." Bolín would often threat to shoot newspapermen. (p. 135)

The Australian correspondent Noel Monks, who was deeply Catholic, reacted with disgust to his experiences in the rebel zone: "My six months in Franco Spain deeply shocked my religious sensibilities." He reacted with shock to his experiences in Republican Spain as well but for different reasons: "one thing my assignment in Madrid taught me was that Republican Spain had the greatest cause of all — freedom." (p. 145)

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