Nationalists in Mérida, 1936. Some Spaniards felt foreign “adventurers” treated their war as sport. Photo: Getty Images
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How Anglo writers stole the story of the Spanish civil war

When we think about writing about Spain's civil war, we go first to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Why were Spanish authors mistrusted?

An English speaker asked to name countries colonised by the Americans and British in the 20th century would be unlikely to think of Spain, yet if someone asks you where you learned what you know about the Spanish civil war the answer is likely to be Homage to Catalonia or For Whom the Bell Tolls – or a history by Hugh Thomas, Stanley Payne or, more recently, Paul Preston, Antony Beevor or Helen Graham. Another prime source, out of print now but used by students for a couple of decades, was the 1980 Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, which, as the poet and editor Michael Schmidt pointed out in a review for the New Statesman at the time, included next to no Spanish writing.

One of the reasons for this Anglocentric view of the war was that, for decades, Spanish authors were mistrusted. Mario Vargas Llosa confessed that as a young man in Peru in the 1950s he read nothing by Spanish writers living on the Iberian Peninsula, “because of a prejudice as widespread in the Latin America of those years as it was unjust: everything published over there reeked of fustiness, sacristy and Francoism”.

Among the things that made Vargas Llosa change his mind was belatedly reading Carmen Laforet’s 1945 autobiographical Gothic novel Nada, about a young woman living with dysfunctional relatives in post-civil-war Barcelona. (Imagine something between – and as good as – The House of Bernarda Alba and The Girls of Slender Means.) The rest of Europe was and still largely is oblivious to this Spanish postwar era – it began in 1939, after all, and a lot was going on then – but it was a time of poverty as well as of psychological readjustment to dictatorship. A superficially very different fictional version of the period from Laforet’s, almost hippie-ishly pastoral but with an under­current as dark as a sewer full of corpses, is El Jarama (The River) by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio. It is set on a hot Sunday in the mid-1950s, in the countryside south of Madrid, not far from where Barajas Airport stands today. A dozen young people have come out from the city to swim, picnic, laze around and flirt in a place where, only 18 years earlier, tens of thousands fought for Madrid.

Both novels are wonderful: all one can say is read them (they’re available in good translations). In the case of El Jarama, though, British readers need to know a few things in advance. One is that the novelist, who is still alive, is the son of a famous Falangist: Rafael Sánchez Mazas, whose own story is the starting point of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis. Another is that the fictional party’s all-but-blithe forgetfulness symbolises a phenomenon that has since become a big topic of contention in Spain: was there a tacit deal to suppress the recent past, or were matters more complicated, even more benign? And how much does it affect our reading that, of the thousands of Jarama casualties, a few hundred were from the UK?

International involvement has been crucial to Spain’s modern history. No overall account of the period would be adequate if it didn’t mention facts such as the death of Felicia Browne, an English artist who volunteered on the republican side and was shot in the course of an attempt to blow up a nationalist munitions train, or the support given to the nationalists by the wildly aggressive South African poet and correspondent Roy Campbell. Our mythologising of the civil war, though (don’t we all wish we had been Laurie Lee?) needs to take account of the fact that foreign involvement wasn’t welcome to everyone in Spain, and helped to escalate what was from the outset a proxy war. This is among the reasons why we should read what the Spanish in Spain have written and look at the films they have made – not only since Franco’s death in 1975 but under his regime.

There are too many of them to discuss here and many ironies were involved. Carlos Saura, for example, like other dissi­dent Spanish directors, was trained at the official film school established under Franco in 1947. In Saura’s half-encoded 1966 attack on the regime, La caza (The Hunt or, better, “the shooting party”), the arrogant, self-absorbed businessman Paco is played by Alfredo Mayo, whose roles had included the one Franco meant to be an idealised version of himself in his own film, Raza.

Some artists worked deep undercover. Among the most active of these, as well as the most powerful imaginatively and politically, was Jorge Semprún, who had fought with the French Resistance, had been imprisoned in Buchenwald and, once democracy came to Spain, was for a while minister of culture. His The Long Voyage, also translated as The Cattle Truck, first published in 1963, is a classic of the “long” Second World War. Others, however, produced their art more openly and some were actively helped by the regime. Some, in fact, worked for it.

The most controversial of this group, and the most extraordinary, by any measure, was Camilo José Cela, who won the Nobel Prize in 1989. The dictator was still in power when his novel San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969. Its hectic, reiterative, unparagraphed, sparsely punctuated narrative is set in Madrid in the first days of the civil war. Figures who have come to dominate Spanish history books make occasional appearances but the focus is on ordinary people. Historical events, the narrator says, are generally credited to some powerful individual rather than to “the people . . . perhaps more than twenty or thirty thousand men, each with his moving little novel stuck to his heart”. It sounds like a republican sentiment, yet Cela worked for the nationalists as a censor and a spy, was appointed to various official bodies under Franco and became a somewhat scandalous senator.

The scandals were mainly a matter of his disrespect for everything “appropriate”. Most of San Camilo, 1936 is set in one or other of a range of brothels in the centre of Madrid, including one establishment known as the League of Nations, “because there they’ve got everything, Moors, Germans, Belgians, Frenchwomen, Portuguese, everything”. Cela’s novel insists that the important always coexists with the trivial: a fly in someone’s coffee with José Calvo Sotelo’s assassination; the early days of conflict with what was happening in the Tour de France. And this perceptual indiscriminacy is connected with what is said more overtly about the war: “. . . they kill priests, they kill Andalusian peasants or they kill schoolteachers, it depends on who’s doing the killing, but finally . . . everything stays the same only with more people dead”.

Cela shows the underlying confusions in the conflict’s polarities: for instance, that a republican might have had conservative sympathies more in tune with some of the internally divided fascists (Cela’s word) than with the supposed position of the similarly faction-ridden republican government. This book is pointedly dedicated to conscripted Spanish soldiers, “all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral . . .”

By “adventurers from abroad”, Cela meant not just the German, Italian and Moroccan troops on one side and Soviet Russians on the other, but volunteers from all over the world, many of whom died – 2,000 Germans on the republican side, 1,000 French, 900 Americans, 500 British. But “killing Spaniards like rabbits”? Was he really saying that the likes of John Cornford, George Orwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner thought the war was a kind of sport?

It’s true that some of their statements can seem unconsidered in retrospect. In his introduction to that oddly slanted but invaluable Penguin verse anthology, Valentine Cunningham pointed out that Cornford, who was killed near Córdoba, went out with the intention of staying “a few days, firing a few shots and then coming home”. Orwell’s early assertion that the whole point was to kill people on the other side comes across as even more swashbuckling. Warner, meanwhile, for all her expertise in Tudor ecclesiastical music, cheerfully enthused about the republicans’ burning of churches and smashing of shrines. However idealistic and self-sacrificial such participants were, and however much their views matured during the bitter course of their experiences, reading them does provide glimpses of the kinds of attitude Cela resented.

There were people who held back. The short-story writer and New Statesman journalist V S Pritchett, who had lived in Spain in the 1920s, was bemused by the suddenness and, as he saw it, naivety of other writers’ involvement after the military uprising in July 1936. Stephen Spender’s best poems of the time are full of uncertainty and an accurate sense of impending dissolution. W H Auden’s much-criticised ambiguity was partly due to his being repelled not only by the republican slaughter of priests, but by what it felt like, even for someone who thought he was an unbeliever, to be in a place that had expelled religion.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the book that, more than any other, anticipates Cela’s challenge while being exposed to it. Hemingway knew Spain well, spoke Spanish and was battle-hardened. Yet he, too, was an “adventurer”, to whom physical danger was at least as attractive as the communist dream from which his hero, Robert Jordan, is fast waking up. Jordan, though implausibly hard-headed in military matters for the young literary academic he is supposed to be, is convincing when he vacillates about the rights and wrongs of what he’s up to in Spain.

No. There was nothing to be gained by leaving [these people] alone. Except that all people should be left alone and you should interfere with no one. So he believed that, did he? Yes, he believed that. And what about a planned society and the rest of it? That was for the others to do.

The moral-political dilemmas in this thrilling, tragic romance are real and important. Yet even at its most self-aware and engaged, Hemingway’s version of the civil war elevates its military tourists. For Whom the Bell Tolls begins, after all, with the tall, blond Jordan, a sabotage specialist, being guided through the mountains by an old Spaniard. Soon we’re in the cliché-thicket of every 19th- or early-20th-century British or American travel book about Spain: wine poured from a skin, smells of Mediterranean food cooking in the open air. Even Hemingway’s well-intentioned efforts to take us more deeply into his Spanish characters by reproducing their idioms – “I obscenity in the milk of thy fathers” – can be comically distancing and patronising in effect.

Jordan is fully conscious of his and other foreigners’ outsiderness. What he doesn’t think about is the extent to which the expertise and equipment they brought to the conflict worsened it. It’s the American who gives the orders, the American who teaches the Spaniards how to mount a machine-gun, the American who plants the explosives, the American who in this way literally (as well as figuratively with Maria) makes “the earth move”. Still, Hemingway is too good a writer to rest on this complacency. The novel ends, after all, with the dying Jordan sighting his gun on a nationalist officer whom the reader knows to be a decent man.

You would think that the passing of time would restore complexity to matters that were formerly simplified but the opposite is often the case, and a tendency to sentimentalise the Spanish civil war is heightened in Britain by our love of lost causes; think of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”. To me, the best way to get at the truth about mid-20th-century Spain involves at least two things. One is remembering that to impose (what we hope is) our own moral template on (what we think we know about) the past may be satisfying but isn’t reliable. Another is looking at what good Spanish artists produced in Spain at the time.

“Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936” by Jeremy Treglown is published by Chatto & Windus (£25)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage