Top positive review
20 people found this helpful
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.