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Why did world democracies fail to help the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War 1936-39?

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Here’s some pithy historical analysis, which must have resonated for George Orwell!

A Call to Arms

Oct 16th 2008

From The Economist print edition
We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War
By Paul Preston


Constable; 436 pages; £20

Buy it at


“IN SPAIN two vast world forces are testing each other out: if Franco conquers, Europe will be black or Europe will go to war as soon as Hitler and Mussolini are ready.” That was the correct prediction in 1936 of Louis Fischer, an American journalist so convinced of the dangers of Franco’s fascist rebellion that he joined the International Brigades to take up arms on behalf of the Republican government.

Fischer was hardly alone in his devotion to the Republican cause: in an excellent account of the foreign reporting of Spain’s three years of savage fratricide, Paul Preston cites an impressive list, from America’s egotistic Ernest Hemingway to Britain’s self-effacing Henry Buckley. By contrast, enthusiasts for Franco’s rebels were few (Mr Preston singles out William P. Carney of the New York Times for special, scornful mention). As Mr Preston explains, foreign correspondents were given relatively free rein by the Republicans’ press office, with easy access to the front lines. On the Francoist side they were often threatened with prison and execution.

So why did the reporting of so many pro-Republic correspondents not persuade outside powers, notably Britain, America and France, to lift their arms embargo on the hard-pressed Republicans? A prime reason was the fact that the Republicans were backed, more in materiel than men, by Stalin’s Russia: an antipathy to communism was, it seems, a good enough excuse to overlook the presence in Franco’s forces of German and Italian troops. Outside opinion was also offended by the anticlericalism of the Republican side, with its attacks on priests and vandalism of monasteries. Some of these attacks were horrible enough; others were exaggerated by Francoist sympathisers. Mr Preston notes that Carney invented many of his stories, which pro-Catholic editors at the New York Times printed despite the anguish of Herbert Matthews, its more objective correspondent on the Republican side.

Mr Preston’s own preference for the Republican cause is obvious, but it does not deter him from detailing the spying for their governments of several pro-Republic correspondents. He devotes a fascinating chapter to Russia’s Mikhail Koltsov, a Pravda correspondent for whom Republican Spain was an inspiring antidote to the terror of his homeland—and whose loyalty to Stalin was rewarded by torture and execution. Fischer, writing mainly for the Nation, was not a spy, but he was so well-connected in both Europe and America that his advice was welcomed by American and Soviet politicians alike.

One weakness of Mr Preston’s book is his concentration on the English-language press (Koltsov apart, non-Anglophone journalists are mentioned mainly in passing). Another is an overlong chapter on the dispute between Hemingway and John Dos Passos on the disappearance of Dos Passos’s friend, José Robles. But these are small criticisms. The author paints a marvellous portrait of the world of the war correspondent: the risk to life; the temptations to infidelity (Hemingway’s affair with Martha Gellhorn was hardly exceptional); and, in the days before satellite phones, the constant struggle to get the story out.

The story was tragic, not just as a prologue to the second world war but also because it condemned Spain to decades of dictatorship. Implicit in this book is the thought that, if the correspondents had been listened to, the outcome could have been different. As Mr Buckley later wrote, the outside world cared more for Spain’s art works, spirited to safety in Geneva, than for its thousands of refugees.

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War.

By Paul Preston.
Constable; 436 pages; £20


Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/11/10 at 07:44