February 25, 2009


Hacks versus Franco: Was it possible to report neutrally on the Spanish Civil War?: a review of WE SAW SPAIN DIE: Foreign correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston (Ronald Fraser, February 25, 2009, The Times Literary Supplement)

Through the pages of this outstanding book stride some of the great correspondents and writers of the period: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Arthur Koestler, Arturo Barea, Martha Gellhorn and Herbert Matthews; and a number of others, among them Ilya Ehrenburg, George Orwell, André Malraux and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, make fleeting appearances. But the correspondents who most concern Paul Preston are those whose work will be best known to readers interested in the Civil War: Jay Allen, George Steer, Louis Fischer, Mikhail Koltsov and Henry Buckley. And even these are only a few of the mainly anglophone and French newspapermen who people this work with their lively presence.

The war was certainly dangerous, but it also raised new challenges for correspondents which resonate to this day. Could journalists be partisan and still truthful? Could they openly aid the side from which they were reporting and still be objective? Were actively partisan correspondents who also reported to their national intelligence services betraying their profession? In short, was each of these a regressive step down a slippery spiral, where “truth” was ultimately sacrificed? As usual in such matters, it is advisable to consider first the circumstances in which these challenges arose.

With a few exceptions – notably Allen and Buckley, who had lived for considerable periods in Spain before the war – most of the correspondents knew little if anything about the country in which they suddenly found themselves at the start of hostilities. Nor was there the time to learn about the recent Spanish past, for the present weighed too heavily on them; and even if they had the inclination, as Cedric Salter of the Daily Telegraph discovered, any discussion of the core of the conflict was regarded in British polite society as “not in quite the best of taste”. What, then, was left for correspondents in the Republican zone but to report the fighting against the insurgent military – whose coup to overthrow the democratically elected government had failed and precipitated the war – by the hastily formed, untrained and poorly armed working-class militias that were trying to hold the rebels back?

Here we already have a correspondent’s elemental story: David’s sling and stone against an armed Goliath supported by home-grown Falangists and the fascist powers of Germany, Italy and Portugal. [...]

In the light of the fascist powers’ intervention and the non-intervention of the Western democracies, the war, not surprisingly, centred for foreign correspondents on its international, anti-fascist, dimensions. The more percipient of them saw clearly the writing on the wall: the Civil War was the precursor of the inevitable and greater war that would follow if fascism were not stopped in Spain. They were privileged, they felt, to be “writing the first draft of history”, as Matthews put it, and were enraged by their own countries’ pusillanimity, which was pushing the Republic into the arms of the only major nation prepared to support it, the Soviet Union. The fact that most “loyalist” Spaniards – committed Communists, socialists and anarcho-syndicalists alike – were neither loyal to the pre-war Republic nor entranced by what they saw as “bourgeois” democracy was overlooked.

"Was"? Try, "is." We know quite well what would have happened had the Left prevailed in the Civil War. Spain would have been a gulag and the USSR would have controlled a vital naval chokepoint. In short, it would have been a disaster for Spaniards and the West. Thankfully, Franco defeated the philistines.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2009 8:01 AM
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