on 10 April 2010
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 was the first war in Europe in which civilians became targets en masse. The war also inaugurated a new and more dangerous phase in newspaper reporting - because this was high velocity warfare and also because it was a conflict in which reporters were themselves seen as players not neutrals. All told, as many as a thousand foreign correspondents reported on the conflict in Spain across its near three-year duration and it is their experience, and, most particularly, the progressive political commitment and testimonial legacy of a core of charismatic and high profile war reporters, that is the focus of this riveting book.
Overall this study gives the reader a thought-provoking comparative overview of the nature of and conditions for war reporting in the opposing zones (see especially Part 1). Both sides understood that this was a new kind of war in which representation before a foreign audience would have crucial political effects. So in whichever zone they worked, correspondents had to negotiate censorship or attempt to evade it. Even so, the Republican press office came to accept that it had more to gain by a relatively open policy towards foreign correspondents. In contrast, the military authorities of the insurgent zone remained rigidly controlling and hostile to all except the most explicitly pro-rebel journalists.
In Parts 2 and 3 of his study Paul Preston offers a series of analytical portraits of a group of urbane, politically acute, intellectually powerful and eloquent correspondents - in the main North American and British - who came to a lifelong commitment to the Republican cause. Sometimes this was through their previous deep acquaintance with Spain, usually through their own progressive social and political ideas, but always through their own live and searing experience of the military rebels' war against the Republican population (in particular the siege of Madrid and the bombing of open cities and of escaping refugee columns). Above all Paul Preston demonstrates the link between that humane commitment and the correspondents' understanding of how the Republic's plight prefigured a broader continental fascist threat: this understood not only in geopolitical terms as expansionist conflict, but also as brutal civil war against civilians in the name of a `transcending' political order. The Spanish civil war was a war that could have changed the course of European and world history, had the leading constitutional democracies behaved differently. These correspondents all felt this instinctively at the time: `Oh old Europe, always busy with your petty games and great intrigues. God grant that all this blood should not choke you', Louis Delaprée, the embittered Catholic representative of France's conservative Paris-Soir, filed less than a month before he was killed when his Toulouse-bound plane was shot down.
The book's chief focus on Anglo-Saxon correspondents underscores Preston's central preoccupation: that for all their political lucidity and eloquence these correspondents could make not the slightest impact on the reckless indifference of the policy-making establishments in either Britain or the US, the former apparently blind to how the Axis dictators were using their intervention in Spain to change the international balance of power against Europe's old colonial powers, and the latter still deep in isolationism, for all of Roosevelt's personal ambivalence. Nevertheless Paul Preston's book brings to our attention the tremendous acuity of their war reporting: as the conscientious New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews remarked, their body of work was the `first draft of history... a journalist who writes truthfully what he sees and knows on a given day is writing for posterity.' Their gut instinct, reinforced by what they `saw and knew' has since been more than corroborated by the empirical investigations of professional historians.
The rebel generals who launched a coup against Spanish democracy in July 1936, owed the success of their rising to strategic military intervention by Hitler and Mussolini. Rapidly and massively escalated, this also guaranteed the rebels their final military victory in spring 1939. Crucial to its effect too was the British-led strategy of Non-Intervention that not only deprived the elected Republican government of its legal right to buy arms, but also systematically eroded its economic viability and political credibility over the near three years of sapping warfare.
In view of the scale and duration of the violence wrought by Francoism - a violence whose disfiguring afterlife still lingers today in Spain's politics and society - it is extraordinary that so many of the press reviews of Preston's book have seen fit to remark on the author's Republican preference and his criticism of Franco. Can one imagine any reviewer criticising a book's evident bias for Weimar democracy over Hitler? Or remarking on an author's ill-disguised antipathy for Stalin? One is moved to cite veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn's own exasperated put-down of `all that objectivity shit'. Franco, like Hitler and Stalin, waged a war against his own society; like them he too murdered and incarcerated huge numbers of his own nationals. Of the three, Francoism was the regime most directly born of a `hot' civil war. But its most remarkable peculiarity lies in the fact that it was for so long protected from the historical verdict by the politics of the Cold War.
As well as a reminder of the political prescience of his foreign correspondents, Paul Preston's study resonantly evokes their no less compelling emotional commitment. This commitment has been a significant historical phenomenon in its own right too since 1936. What many of the front-rank foreign correspondents went on sharing with International Brigade veterans and medical volunteers from across Europe and the Americas - was a feeling of being burned by `Spain', but never being the same for sure, and not being able to fit again, anywhere, ever - another kind of exile, to add to the territorial and political one endured by Spanish Republicans.
on 16 February 2010
At first sight, the choice of title "We Saw Spain Die" would seem to stress the preferences of both the author and his subjects with regard to the Spanish Civil War. One of such character, Martha Gellhorn, exclaimed that she would have "none of that objectivity" stuff when describing the conflict in Spain. I suspect Preston chose this title as a deliberate snub at the military rebels and their civilian allies who claimed that they represented "true Spain" and categorized their opponents as the "anti-Spain".
This does not, by any means, imply that this book is any less meticulously researched than any of Preston's previous works. If anything, the lack of strict objectivity is a source of strength. This highly readable book communicates how much the struggle of the Popular Front forces in Spain came to deeply affect those who witnessed it, and thus deeply humanizes their cause for the reader in a way that bombastic, ideologically-driven propaganda posters and slogans could never do. Preston's recounts not only the big issues involved in the war, but also the travails of daily life in the Republican Zone and so connects the reader to the subject matter on a more personal level. Moreover, while Preston is rather forgiving of the foibles of such men as Louis Fischer, whose empathy and humanity for the suffering of strangers never extended to those of his wife and children, he does not avoid them either. As such, while clearly admiring many of those correspondents covered in the book, Preston does not glorify what were flawed characters, some of whom - like the Pravda correspondent Mikhail Koltsov - were caught up in their own tragedy.
As noted in some of the previous reviews here in Amazon, this book does assume some previous knowledge of the Spanish Civil War - though Preston does give an introductory chapter to the conflict, as well as peppering historical context amongst the narrative. Those reviewers who were surprised that this book was primarily about war correspondents in Spain should learn to read a book's title before they purchase it. On this note, Steve Keen's comparison with Antony Beevor's "Battle for Spain" is misplaced. While Beevor's book is highly readable (despite its great length), Battle for Spain is meant to be a general account of the SCW, and We Saw Spain Die has no such pretension. One might also add that while Preston is a world-reknowned expert on the SCW (and has also published a general account on the war), Beevor has no such expertise.
The issue of "too many names" is somewhat justified, though I can't see how this could have been avoided. I agree with HM Lambert that perhaps a brief appendix of main characters (and newspapers) would have been helpful for the non-specialist who may be grappling with trying to remember everything. Nonetheless, what one reviewer referred to as "name dropping" is actually a asset of the book as it introduces the reader to the various personalities of a vibrant journalistic community in a fascinating period of Spanish, European and World history. It is a demonstration of the meticulous nature of Preston's research, for which he should be commended, not castigated.
on 15 March 2010
Paul Preston is that rare creature: a serious historian who can write page-turning books that bring to life the personalities involved in great events. He achieved this in biographies of Franco and King Juan Carlos and in his 'Doves of War' portraits of four female protagonists in the Spanish Civil War. In 'We Saw Spain Die' he turns his attention to the foreign correspondents of that same war that aroused such raw emotions for a whole generation.
What is striking about so many of the writers who covered the war is the way that they so passionately identified with the cause of the Spanish Republic. Notions of impartiality went out the window when they witnessed the desperate attempts by Spanish people to resist the rebellion launched by General Franco with backing from Hitler and Mussolini. And the Republic's eventual defeat was a deeply-felt blow from which some of them barely recovered. Josephine Herbst later wrote: "In the most real sense my most vital life did indeed end with Spain. Nothing so vital, either in my personal life or in the life of the world, has ever come again."
Preston's narrative conveys the passions and commitment to the cause felt by these journalists. Their deep sense of frustration with the policy of non-intervention being pursued by the Western democracies, which effectively doomed the Republic, was compounded by the indifferent or politically hostile reception - and emasculation - that their despatches often received in the newsrooms of London, Paris, New York and Chicago.
The Spanish war attracted several famous journalists and writers of the day, along with many others who made their name covering the conflict. The roll call includes Claud Cockburn, Geoffrey Cox, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Herbert Southworth and George Steer. 'We Saw Spain Die' vividly recounts their experiences in Spain, complete with political intrigues, spy plots and love affairs.
Preston's riveting book is an essential read not just for those of us wanting to know more about the Spanish Civil War. There is much of interest here too for anyone with questions to ask about how the news media report wars in today's world of sanitised spin and embedded correspondents.
on 9 April 2010
Paul Preston is probably the historian who has devoted most scholarly attention to the Spanish Civil War. In his work, he has long been fighting in words the war that the Republic lost on the battlefield. One of best things about his work is that he has never pretended to be scientifically objective or, as the feminist would say, he doesn't write from the perspective of "the eye of God" (who believes in that?). He writes with an even hand, honesty and carefully researched material. The characters and the key scenes which he recreates to illuminate his stories are carefully chosen both to add life to the narrative but also to underline the ethical issues.
He has written the biography of a democratic King, Juan Carlos I, and also about the Triumph of Democracy in Spain. But through all his research he has mainly focused on the multifarious aspects of the same tragic period in the history of Spain in which democracy and so many lives were destroyed. His work illustrates this period through different perspectives, and diverse experiences and voices. Military winners or Republican losers, aristocratic or working class nurses, idealists and pragmatists (from both sides) have peopled the saga made up by these books, a saga that relates one of the most terrible wounds suffered by European democracy.
Foreign Correspondents, as intelligent witnesses, compose the last set and the last perspective in this long lasting (and hopefully unfinished) kaleidoscopic gallery. With his always perceptive eye for the human dimension, Preston has filled his book with engaging portraits and masterfully described situations of daily life under fire, capturing the entire kaleidoscope of danger and love, of fear and escapism. But mainly he has captured the growing feeling of a personal conscience in those who came to Spain. Moving from impotence to commitment, between censorship and propaganda, these men and women made a cause of their story. Many of them warned the world outside about was what going to happen next. But their clairvoyant warnings were not heard.
Based on massive research, this book is absorbing and fascinating. It is another masterpiece in the huge jigsaw that Paul Preston has long been building on the Spanish Civil War. Sadly, it confirms that, at the end of the day, as the spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma said long ago: `de todas las historias de la historia, la más triste es la de España porque termina mal' (of all the stories in history, the saddest of them all is that of Spain because it ends badly). Unfortunately that can not be changed. But memory must be kept. And Preston's book is a valuable reminder. A posthumous loudspeaker for all those non listened voices.
on 6 April 2010
Another well written, impeccably researched and thoroughly engaging book from Paul Preston, the world's authority on Spain's civil war and dictatorship.
Preston here turns his attentions to the `first historians' of the civil war, the foreign correspondents from around the world, who watched on as the Spanish Republic was slowly bled to death. This book brings to life the personalities of the foreign press corps and the dark atmosphere in which they operated, as they struggled to get their testimonies to the outside world. The contrast between the journalistic freedoms allowed in the Republican zone, with the absolute control and punishments exacted on dissenters in the Nationalist zone, is striking. Preston shows clearly why many reporters developed a strong sympathy for the republic, including reporters with extremely conservative political and religious backgrounds.
The book focuses on correspondents from Britain and America, such as Ernest Hemingway, Jay Allen, Louis Fisher and George Steer. However, it also includes a fascinating chapter on the Russian Mikhail Koltzov, whose authority far exceeded that of a newspaperman.
In its meticulous portrayal of the personalities, politics and passions of those who risked their lives in reporting the conflict, this book demonstrates graphically why the Spanish Civil War raised such high emotions at the time and why it still continues to do so.
on 16 February 2010
Paul Preston, highly regarded as the author of many outstanding books about the Spanish civil war, now brings his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject to bear on a different aspect of the conflict: the foreign correspondents who risked their lives and sometimes damage to their professional careers to report on what they saw in Spain. With his customary skill, Paul Preston weaves together the historical context, the work of the correspondents, and the human stories behind the news.
Determined detective work has unearthed new material that enriches the content in these twelve, wide-ranging chapters. The great tragedies of the war are conveyed through the wonderful writings of correspondents such as Jay Allen, who reported on the massacre at Badajoz, and George Steer, who shocked the world with his description of the bombing of Guernica. There is political intrigue aplenty as, for example, in chapters dedicated to evaluating the evidence in the case of the disappearance of José Robles and on the role of Mikhail Koltsov in Spain. Especially moving are the accounts of the struggles the correspondents faced to get their stories out. After overcoming the problems of censorship in Spain, they frequently had to convince their own newspaper editors that the reports of Nationalist bombings and reprisals were not wild exaggerations but unpalatable truths. The last communication from Louis Delaprée before he was killed on the plane flight from Spain to Paris was an indictment of the policy being implemented by his employer, Paris-Soir. Half Delaprée's reports had not been published, thereby leaving room for extensive coverage on the love life of Edward VIII and the abdication crisis in England. `You have made me work for the wastepaper basket,' he wrote, `I shall send nothing more...The massacre of a hundred Spanish children is less interesting than a sigh from Mrs Simpson.'
Preston's chapter on the rebel zone reveals the heavy restrictions imposed by Franco to prevent correspondents from seeing what was happening for themselves, leaving them feeling like `a bunch of schoolgirls under the guidance of a schoolmistress.' Not only was censorship much more tightly enforced by the Nationalists than by the Loyalists, but reporters also suffered a significantly greater degree of mistreatment if they stepped out of line. One of the great strengths inherent in Preston's writing is his ability to portray the characters in historic dramas with wit and vitality. Idiosyncratic personalities leap from the pages to engage the reader. Hugh Slater's white Rolls Royce is `dreadfully noticeable on the battlefield.' Ernest Hemingway treats all and sundry with `splurging magnificence' at the Hotel Florida. Thwarted in love, the dissolute Basil Murray acquires an ape. Gonzalez Aguilera, a Nationalist press officer, believes the war was caused by the introduction of modern sewers for the masses.
But it is the humanity of the correspondents, both men and women, that gives the book its warmth. Most were deeply affected by their experiences in Spain, from Martha Gelhorn, who would have no truck with what she called `all that objectivity shit', to Arthur Koestler who wrote, `Anyone who has lived through the hell of Madrid with his eyes, his nerves, his heart and his stomach - and then pretends to be objective, is a liar.' However, as Paul Preston demonstrates, it was possible to combine high professional standards with a passionate belief in the Spanish Republic, though this belief brought much sadness in its wake. `We left our hearts there,' wrote Herbert Matthews.
Paul Preston has written a book that will be valuable not only as a key work of reference, but also as a moving testimony to those who had the courage to go under fire and bring Spain's story to the world.
on 30 June 2009
Every time I read a book by Preston I feel humbled. Any time I think I know anything about the Spanish Civil War I am proved 100% that Preston is the leading authority on the subject in the UK. Here is another reason why.
The book is immense. As always, well researched and any footnote can be followed as appropriate. Although some of the chapters were a bit cumbersome and could have been broken down, I felt the sheer complexity and nature of the subject (both in political and personal terms of the journalists and the censorship apparatus on both sides of the divide) justified this length. A combination of a general chronology in the first part alongside more developed individual biographies in the second was entirely welcome.
It is a shame that it isn't a multi-volume series, for there are so many people that would be fascinating to follow, yet for lack of space Preston selects the most important AND interesting cases. I thought it was well written in this respect and was very selective in what to include, and what to omit for footnotes.
Particularly interesting was the different attitudes to censorship Preston brings out in a variety of ways. It shows just how tough the Republic had it, how Orwell betrayed trust in the cause of the left, and how utterly repulsive the Nationalist censor - Luis Bolin - is. I came across him before through Chalmers-Mitchell and Koestler, alongside his completely flawed work "Spain: The Vital Years" and this book drives home in personal and political terms how much of a nasty character he was.
I thought the other review did the book a bit of an injustice. While I can get on board with some of the enormous tangents involved (and straying either side of the conflict), some I felt were entirely necessary and helped to deepen understanding. At times I felt the book could benefit from a brief appendix, detailing who was who. For although he does this during the book in particular and painstaking detail, there are so many names I felt as if I was having another War and Peace flashback.
I felt moving from Josephine to Josie Herbst wasn't that much of an issue. All of the protagonists have unique names so I thought overlap unlikely. But there are SO many names I felt (as mentioned above) that an appendix could have been useful. Hemingway, Fischer and others I was suitably familiar with; Elizabeth Deeble I was not. For those coming to Preston for more excellent work on the SCW, I felt his implicit requirement for prior knowledge a little bit of a handicap, but not a major issue. Yes, the book has some issues but I felt it entirely appropriate to leave "La Pasionaria" out as she wasn't really involved in the journalist process.
Overall I thought "We Saw Spain Die" added a new and insightful dimension to the historiography. As always, I find Preston well read, and able to convey his message clearly and coherently. He develops our (or mine at least) understanding both of the politics of the journalists but also their personalities and how you can sit at the end of the book and think on behalf of the injustice of the Republic and the press: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
on 18 April 2015
a well writted engrosing read
The Spanish Civil War may be one of the most tragic episodes of the 20th Century in terms of lost opportunities. Not only was the opportunity to run a well-supported, idealistic Republican experiment destroyed, but so too was the opportunity to stifle the forces of fascism before they unleashed their global campaign of hate.
Similarly, here is a book that misses an opportunity to throw some light on the journalists who reported on the Civil War with some passion. Instead, what we have is a rather dull account which tends towards the mechanical and often strays well off course, as in the case of the chapter on Mikhail Koltsov. Whilst it is absolutely right that we should be aware of the poisonous impact of Stalinism on the Civil War effort, and the way in which Stalin "thanked" those who served in it, the majority of this chapter barely touches on the war itself.
Paul Preston, the author, has a real problem with names, too, unable to stick to one name for any one person. Hence Josephine Herbst goes from Josephine to Herbst in one chapter, then at the opening of the next suddenly becomes Josie Herbst, prompting the reader to wonder if it's the same person.
Also annoying is the way he keeps reminding us that so-and-so is an American novelist, or great, or celebrated. And how do you have a book about the Spanish Civil War that makes only one mention of La Pasionaria, Delores Ibárruri? And then only in passing?
Fortunately, though the style is drab and irritating it does not take away the interest in the events themselves, though these too often are reported out of context. Particularly interesting is the contrast between the Republicans and Nationalists when it came to censorship, with the Republicans more or less adopting an anything goes attitude, whilst the Nationalists were as like as not to shoot a holder of journalistic credentials.
But the interest, unfortunately, is independent of the author's writing, and I shan't be queuing to buy anything else by him.
If you read Anthony Beevor's The Battle For Spain then this will come as a real disappointment in comparison. If you didn't, then I'd say you should.
on 5 December 2014