22/4/08

WE SAW SPAIN DIE. (INTERVIEW WITH PAUL PRESTON)



The recent spate of books appearing on the Spanish Civil War in
Britain and Spain shows the vivid interest that the Spanish conflict still generates in both general readers and professional historians.

The curious thing is that it was English speaking historians who started contemporary studies and research on the Spanish Civil War. Gerald Brenan, Raymond Carr, Hugh Thomas and Gabriel Jackson were pioneers in writing on the subject.

“British historians, especially Gerald Brenan with his ‘Spanish Labyrinth’, laid the ground for contemporary studies.” This was one of the first things Professor Preston said to me when we met in Cardiff at an international, interdisciplinary conference on the Spanish Civil War.

Paul Preston is actually a Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the European Institute in the LSE (London School of Economics) and is the President of the Fundación Cañada Blanch.

He was dressed in a black suit with a dark blue shirt. Tall, with a strong physical presence, he did not appear to be the sort of man who has spent more than 40 years among history books, manuscripts and documents in libraries and archives all around the world. His confident look indicated a deep experience of his subject. His ideas were certainly clear.

Spain has been very important in my life,” Professor Preston said. “I started visiting the country when I was very young and I made an effort to learn Spanish because I am an historian who writes about Spain. I can’t believe that there are people who call themselves historians or experts on Spain and yet they don’t speak Spanish,”.


While Paul McCartney was taking his first steps and John Lennon was starting school,
Paul Preston was born in Liverpool in 1946. Great Britain was recovering from the Second World War and Preston spent the early years of his youth in a partly destroyed city. This made him interested in history.

“I was born in a city that was half destroyed by the bombing. When I began my history studies I was interested in the Second World War, but by chance I discovered the Spanish Civil War, which has everything: Communism, Fascism, Anarchism and international affairs.”

Paul Preston studied for his undergraduate degree at Oriel College, Oxford, before moving to the University of Reading where he gained his MA in European Studies. He moved back to Oriel College to work on his PhD. He returned to Reading to take up a post as Lecturer before moving on to Queen Mary College, London. He joined the LSE as a Professor in International History in 1991. Professor Preston has been awarded the ‘2005 Premi Internacional Ramon Llull,’ awarded jointly by the Institut de Estudis Catalans and the Institut Ramon Llull. The prize is the most prestigious international prize given in Catalonia for academic achievement. In 2006 Professor Preston won the ‘Premi Trias Fargas’. He has also just been awarded Spain’s highest honour, the ‘Gran Cruz de la Orden de Isabel la Católica’ and was inaugurated into the ‘Academia Europea de Yuste,’ where he was given the Marcel Proust chair.

“I really discovered how interesting the Spanish Civil War was when I went to a seminar given by Hugh Thomas. I also became more interested when I met Herbert Rutledge Southworth who had written ‘The Myth of Franco’s Crusade’, which demolished all the Francoist propaganda.”

“I have been working on the Spanish Civil war for 40 years,” Preston said, “but I could go on for 50 more.” He attends conferences around the world, publishes articles, participates in TV programs and publishes books regularly.

Paul Preston’s books on the Spanish Civil War are amongst the best on the subject. Some of his many works are : ‘The Spanish Civil War. Reaction, Revolution, Revenge’, ‘Doves of War: Four Women of Spain’, ‘The Coming of the Spanish Civil War: Reform, Reaction and Revolution in the Second Spanish Republic 1931-1936’ and ‘Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War’. He has also written two mayor biographies, one on Francisco Franco and the other on Juan Carlos I. “I have covered a wide range of different aspects of Spain and the Civil War,” Professor Preston said, “and I have always tried to make my books readable. I want people to be able to access the information I discover in my research.”

I have read many of his books and admire the clarity of his work which approaches the Spanish Civil war from different aspects. His last book, which has been published first in Spain under the title ‘Idealistas bajo las balas, is about to come out in English as ‘We Saw Spain Die.’ It describes the lives and commitments of foreign journalists during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway, George Steer, Louis Fischer and Jay Allen came to Spain during the War and were committed to the struggle of the Spanish Republic against Fascism. “My point,” he said, “is to show how these people turned into participants in the war. They were idealists who became full of anger and indignation when they witnessed the bombing of civilians and other atrocities. They emphasised the heroism of ordinary people. And they were really angry and frustrated with the non-intervention policies of Britain, France and the US. The Spanish democratic Republic was left alone and Stalin and Russia became its last hope.”

The Spanish Civil War is known as the war of propaganda and journalists on both sides played an important role, disseminating information on Spain and influencing public opinion in their respective countries. “The Spanish Republic had bad publicity because the news presses were mainly in the hands of the Right,” said Professor Preston. “Many journalists could not get their dispatches published or the dispatches were censored or changed. This was important in the construction of public opinion. The Republic tried to act as a democracy, but it was betrayed by other democracies through the non-intervention policies.”

Jay Allen wrote about the massacre of Badajoz, perpetrated by Franco’s Moorish troops. George Steer wrote about the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion of the German air force and Hemingway proved the intervention of Italian tanks in the battle of Jarama. If it had not been for such journalists, atrocities like these would have been silenced. “When I wrote my biography of Franco, I was accused of being very unjust to him. This seems incredible to me, because nobody would say that a book has been unjust to Hitler. I can definitely become impassioned about it because the good luck of having democracy in Spain is something that concerns me very much,” he said. “Journalists were important in denouncing massacres. Objectivity for me is not to keep a balance between two sides; it is to find out the truth no matter how cruel it is, and after 40 years of research I have not found any evidence to support a military coup against a democratic government, although I know that both sides had popular support.”


Possibly, the fact that Professor Preston comes from a different culture gives him the possibility of researching and writing about Spanish history without prejudice, the eternal enemy of objectivity. His studies and research on Spain’s more recent realities: the transition to democracy or the king's figure – and on the more painful past: the Civil War, its causes, Franco’s dictatorship and the repression – have contributed to more balanced judgments. And they have also discovered nuances, such as that of ‘the third Spain’ which Preston has added to the two traditional and irreconcilable sides, left and right. It was the Spain that did not want the confrontation of 1936, the people who, on top of ideological differences, knew that the civil war, with victory or defeat, was a tragedy.


“We saw Spain Die’ is a transitional book: it moves towards my next book which is called ‘The Spanish Holocaust’. It is turning out to be a very hard task. I consider that everything – I mean absolutely everything – must be researched.”


These were Professor
Paul Preston’s last words before other people started to appear and address him on different subjects. I slowly retreated and left him talking to the new group. I felt enlightened by his talk and by his knowledge. I liked the clarity of his views on a period that is well known for its complexity. And ‘We Saw Spain Die’ is a book that any journalist interested in the history of Spain and its Civil War would be very happy to have written.

PUBLISHED BY CARLOS PRANGER IN COSTA DE ALMERIA NEWS 15/02/2008