Poet who had to die

Observations on Spain

Seventy years ago, in the middle of a late summer night, Spain's greatest 20th-century poet, Federico García Lorca, was bundled into a hollow in a wooded ravine north of Granada and shot dead. Lorca, 38, was a challenge to everything Franco's clerical fascism stood for. He was gay. He hailed Spain's infant democracy. His sympathies were with the left.

The poet could have fled Granada easily when it fell to the nationalists in the first days of the uprising against the Spanish republic, but he chose to stay with his sister, who was married to the city's mayor. Yet, despite fame, status and connections, he was soon dragged away and murdered.

Today's tourists in Granada marvel at the Alhambra, symbol of a Europe a millennium ago where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony, but in 1936 the district around the palace was a nocturnal killing field, with 20,000-30,000 Spaniards shot dead because they were thought to be supporters of democracy, the left or trade unions; or because they were teachers, journalists or, like Lorca, writers. Few in Britain in 1936 had heard of Lorca, but the story of his death and of the war that killed him has echoes for us today.

While Spain sank into civil war, Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government tut-tutted about the nationalist rebels but did nothing to help the elected government, and the Labour Party leadership supported him. The conventional wisdom in London was that it was better if both sides lost.

Non-intervention was the byword, and we are hearing it again today. Sir Malcolm Rifkind (who as Tory defence and then foreign secretary did nothing during the Balkan massacres of the 1990s) now accuses the government of being over-keen on intervening abroad, and there is a mood in foreign-policy circles in London, among Kissinger-style realists and left liberals who dislike Tony Blair, that we should leave the furies of the world to fight, and hope that Britain will be spared.

In Spain in the 1930s the left, divided between socialists, trade unionists, Stalinists, Trotskyites and anarchists, was no match for Franco, who knew what he wanted and had the support of Hitler and Mussolini. Franco would not have a Spain in which a gay, modernist poet and playwright could flourish, so Lorca had to be killed.

Today there is a rough cross of rocks and stones on the ground where it is thought he was shot. Thrust between the stones are pages where modern Spaniards have copied his poems or left personal messages of sorrow. It is the most moving monument to a European writer I have ever seen.

After 1945 Spanish democrats hoped that the US and Europe would remove Franco's fascist regime. They were disappointed. It took three more decades before Lorca's poems would be published and his plays put on in Spain.

Franco claimed he was protecting Catholic Spain from an "international Communist, Jewish, Masonic conspiracy". Here, too, there are unpleasant modern echoes. The Hamas charter, for example, also claims there is a world plot of communists, Jews and Masons. And there are plenty of writers today who face hatred and violence when they stand up against contemporary clerical fascism. From Kabul to Rabat, such people are the favourite targets of nationalist or religious extremists.

How long before poets and writers in Arab nations, or in Iran or Afghanistan, can publish without facing censorship or the physical dangers that blighted the final years of the Arab world's only Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, who died in Cairo last month?

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham. His biography of Edward Heath will be published this month by Haus

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