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30 August 2022

From the NS archive: Franco’s Spain

8 May 1937: So far all books published on the crisis in Spain show every evidence of being put together in a hurry.

By Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly had by May 1937 read “practically everything” that had been published about the conflict in Spain, and could say that so far most books had been produced “to cash in on the civil war in a not very dignified manner”, he writes in this spiky review of five books. Connolly would only recommend “Franco Means Business” by Georges Rotvand “to anyone who can get a laugh out of the author’s painstaking attempt to make a thoroughly unsympathetic character likeable”. In it Franco, the nationalist leader and future dictator, comes across as a “fat, frugal, taciturn little man”. One of the other books suffers from “an unredeemable seediness”. Connolly ends his piece with a list of suggestions for how to write a good book about Spain, but says he knows they will be ignored – a significant political event such as the Spanish Civil War is a sure money-maker for authors and their publishers.

Franco Means Business by Georges Rotvand
Death in the Morning by Helen Nicholson
Spaniard’s Way by Vittorio G Rossi
Salud! by Peadar O’Donnell
Red, White and Spain by Nigel Tangye

Books on Spain may be divided, at the present moment, into three classes, works of pure propaganda or pamphlets destined to help one side or the other, and travel books culled from material gathered before the civil war and hastily unloaded.

I think I have read practically everything that has been published on the subject and I can say that so far all the books show every evidence of being put together in a hurry, some in order to state a case as quickly as possible, most in order to cash in on the civil war in a not very dignified manner; all are heavily padded and all draw largely on other books. Nothing has yet been written with any permanent merit and I advise people who really want to know about things to await the book which Frank Jellinek, who wrote the history of the Paris Commune, is writing out there, or those which Hemingway, Orwell, Frank Pitcairn probably will write when they come back, and there may be poems by Auden and Spender.

But for the present any book will show signs of being part of the grab for Iberia and I recommend only the admirable Spanish Government and medical aid pamphlets, and such articles as compress the writer’s experience instead of inflating it. Carlos Prieto’s Spanish Front is the best sort summary of events leading to the war. These books here, with the exception of Salud, are all in varying degrees pro-Franco, and they have a certain interest on account of the extreme lack of documentation about events on his side, and, above all, on account of the mentality of the people who write them, although of course, “it can’t happen here.”

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Franco Means Business is sheer propaganda. I recommend it to anyone who can get a laugh out of the author’s painstaking attempt to make a thoroughly unsympathetic character likeable. The smooth surface of this character presents nothing to seize hold upon. One looks in vain for the chink in the armour or the Achilles’ heel. And – which is a great matter – he knows how to wait. Nothing, for example, has induced him to hurry his offensive against Madrid…

In other words, Franco’s desire is less to overpower than to charm and to attract…

“The districts,” he said at Burgos, “will retain their individuality and their liberties, but on condition that those liberties do not weaken the nation and are compatible with the strictest principles of authority.”

“Everybody,” the author adds, “was satisfied.” But it is a disappointing book. “Why he, rather than another?” asks the author, and it is not a question, I am afraid, that he has been able to answer.

It is really hard to explain this mysterious intuition of a nation.

All one gets is a picture of a fat, frugal, taciturn little man who was a better organiser and considerably more up to date and scientific than other Spanish generals, who was ambitious and worked very hard, and had a success with the Moors and the men of the Foreign Legion. It is probable that his greatest crime in the eyes of posterity will be his attempt to put back the clock of European history by recourse to the brute forces of Islam. My only complaint about this book is that, in its brilliant unconscious analysis of the utter barrenness of the rebels’ cause, it omits my favourite Franco-ism “Education will be the first care of the new Spain and the subjects taught will be religion and patriotism.”

Death In The Morning is an American woman’s account of life in Granada during the civil war. It is mostly a tale of unsubstantiated atrocities, a bloodthirsty and ignorant little book. “They’re the grandest, toughest-looking set of fighting men I ever saw,” she says of the Foreign Legion, and “that afternoon the Albaicin surrendered, and for several days we luxuriated in the blessed silence that followed.” Of Lorca’s Granada, even of Da Falla’s, we hear nothing. Incidentally she expresses one of the commonest fallacies about the civil war. “The February elections had plunged all the members of the Right Wing party into despair, and I heard much of the means by which those elections had been falsified.” What were they? Since the Right was in power at the February elections it would not be so easy to dislodge it that way; the corruption was more likely to be on the other side, as anyone who has voted under the aegis of unfriendly authority must realise.

Spaniard’s Way is a travel book which has won a literary prize in Italy. It is about Spain in 1934, a lively and observant account of the author’s travels, not overtly Fascist, but indirectly so, since it reveals a completely cynical attitude to the Spanish, and reminds one of those clever books about Ireland (fascinating people, but quite unable to govern themselves, of course), and this attitude is apt to jar on the reader very unpleasantly; the book in fact suffers from an unredeemable seediness, the work of a wise-cracking Latin smart-aleck who sneers his way through the peninsula very thoroughly. Red, White and Spain is more important. The author felt a definite urge to go out to Franco’s Spain last Christmas, and went. He is an ex-naval officer interested in flying, typically Fascist-minded, connected with the Daily Mail, restless, adventurous, pro-German, something of an introvert. He went around with German letters to Faupel, etc., and one from Charles Grey, editor of that outspoken journal The Aeroplane, whose shrewd comments on the politics of the day are a constant source of embarrassment to insincere politicians (and of pleasure to readers of This England).

Much of this book is not unsympathetic, for the author, travelling through the length and breadth of Franco’s Spain alone in a taxi, has tried to give an honest account of his feelings, his hatred of war, his admiration of the men who are waging it, his own rather complicated position – in many ways they are not unlike those of visitors to the other side – a deepening love and admiration for the Spanish character, a growing impatience with red tape and foreign officials. I enjoyed his description of German etiquette in Spanish hotel dining-rooms. But suddenly the sympathy is withheld. The author can spell hardly any Spanish name correctly and even ventures to explain Spanish history and what he calls “The Pragmatic Sanction.” Here is his solution:

“It was the opinion of the small international group that discussed it here this afternoon that the best thing for Spain would be for Franco to govern by a firm military dictatorship, but that this, in view of the latent warring factions within his ranks, would be valueless in itself. It would need to have the influence of one of the powers behind it – something similar to Great Britain and Iraq or Egypt. Then, and then only, will Spain have a chance of fleeing from one hundred and thirty years of bloodshed and unrest.”

And why stop at a hundred and thirty-odd years? Should Spain ever have been independent at all? Should it not rather have been administered on the lines of Iraq by Italy and Germany, natural inheritors of the spirit of Romans and Visigoths, since Ferdinand and Isabella? Think of the bloodshed and unrest that would have been saved! And if that is true of Spain, how much truer of England and France! Has France ever governed itself since 1789? Since Charlemagne, since Chilperic? Surely it would benefit by a power behind it, and the lesson of Egypt and Iraq?

Mr. Tangye falls between two stools. His book is not vigorous enough to succeed as propaganda, nor interesting enough to stand by itself. In fact he has padded. Mr. O’Donnell suffers from the same fault. He is a Catholic, an Irish patriot, an agriculturalist and fisherman, an advocate, in fact, of green revolutions. He writes rhetorically but with much good sense, and his account of the beginnings of the rising and the early days in Barcelona and on the coast is fascinating. After reading the other books one breathes at last an atmosphere of liberty and experiment and open-mindedness, and one breathes it like the air when a window is opened after a long tunnel. His sympathies are with the anarchists, as must be those of all who saw Catalonia in the early days of the war and from a non-doctrinaire attitude. In Madrid he prefers the Communists. This book is important for the author’s knowledge of agrarian problems, his account of the revolutionary meetings to discuss collectivisation, of the beginning of the march on Saragossa, of the arms racket, and for some refreshing criticism of the government censorship. It is the only one of these books to be sensible about atrocities.

In conclusion here are some rules for those now writing books about Spain:

1. Get a friend to correct the spelling mistakes, dates and historical data.

2. If you have only thirty thousand words of experience and are asked for sixty – resign.

3. Do not make a compilation from all the other books, unless you want your book to be like all the other compilations.

4. What have you got new to say? What really exciting things happened to you? What really important people did you meet? Were you in Spain more than ten days? How much of them were spent outside the cafe, the waiting rooms of offices, the train, the hotel?

5. Have a good look at your photographs. How would you like it if someone else started showing them to you? Do you write as well as – see list at beginning of article. But you will write it all the same.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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