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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.