Stories from the front line

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


Paul Prest

The Spanish Civil War has a continuing fascination because it was the first modern war whose battle lines reflected a wider, almost dualistic international divide. Reaction and Progress, Liberalism and Authoritarianism, Hope and Fear themselves appeared to be engaged in a mythical struggle on Spain's streets and plains, capturing the attention of a whole generation. The impact the conflict had beyond its own borders was later echoed in popular anger over the Vietnam War, with perhaps a fainter repetition more recently over Iraq, but Spain is where the "internationalising" of local wars came of age, a precursor of the proxy conflicts of the Cold War and beyond.

That the period still resonates today is also due largely to so many literary "greats" of the 20th century being drawn to the war. Hemingway, Orwell, Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, Auden, Spen der, Dos Passos and Lee all passed through Spain during this time, often taking part in the fighting themselves. It is partly thanks to their writings - novels and memoirs based on their time there, from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Homage to Catalonia and 'Espoir - that we can still get a sense of what it was like to live through those years. And their legacy lives on: Orwell's experiences in particular fed directly into the writing of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Much of this appeared late in the war, however, or after, when what had happened to these writers had been distilled and matured. Less celebrated in the public mind (Hemingway excepted) are the foreign correspondents who often risked their lives to make known the events of the war at the time. We Saw Spain Die, Paul Preston's latest addition to an already impressive list of writings on the period, is a praiseworthy attempt to bring into focus a group of men and women who told the story of the Spanish Civil War as it happened, and whose material is still used by historians to this day.

It was a difficult time to be a correspondent: the American Frank Hanighen declared that it was "by far the most dangerous phase in the history of newspaper reporting". Journalists on the Francoist side had to run the risk of imprisonment, expulsion and even execution if they fell foul of the authorities. Things were slightly easier behind Republican lines, but then many reporters had problems getting copy past their editors back home. Sometimes their contribut ions were spiked for political reasons - many newspaper barons were pro-Franco - but at other times reasons of "taste" were used: Cedric Salter was told simply that the public didn't want to read of murder and brutality over breakfast.

Yet the war left a deep mark on almost all those who reported on it, as Herbert Matthews of the New York Times commented, and in the end many carried on writing about it mostly for posterity's sake. Exasperated by the treatment his copy received, not least from the "partisan Catholic" night editors who controlled the newsroom, Matthews concluded that he was "working more for the historical record than for the daily reader".

Some of the stories about the correspondents in this book are not unknown to contemporary readers: George Steer has recently become celebrated again thanks to Nicholas Rankin's excellent account of his reporting of the Guernica bombing; the rift between Hemingway and Dos Passos over the murder of Dos Passos's friend José Robles has been examined in English by Stephen Koch. Preston gives his own version of both these events, but also goes on to offer mini- biographies of other figures, including the American Louis Fischer, who often discussed the war with Prime Minister Juan Negrín, sitting on the toilet while Negrín was in the bath; the Pravda correspondent Mikhail Koltsov, suspected of being a Kremlin agent but later shot on his return to Moscow; and Jay Allen, one of the most important witnesses of the Badajoz massacre. Many of these journalists enjoyed wild nights in between despatches: the Florida Hotel in Madrid, a favourite haunt for hacks, became notorious for having the hottest nightlife in the city at the time. Hemingway labelled the prostitutes running in and out of correspondents' bedrooms "whores de combat".

Paul Preston has become a hugely influential historian of the Spanish Civil War, not only for his scholarship, but for his eye for detail and skill as a storyteller. In We Saw Spain Die these talents come to the fore, aided not only by the richness of the material, but also by Preston's deep en thus iasm for his subject. In many ways he is the descendant of the generation here described: an engaged yet critical observer, he is there lest we forget one of the great wrongs of the 20th century - the abandonment of the Spanish Republic by the liberal democracies of the west.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks