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Hugh Thomas and The Spanish Civil War

Hugh Thomas, in 2003.
Hugh Thomas, in 2003.

Many years ago now, I was a young(ish) undergraduate history student, excited at the prospect of taking a course in the Spanish Civil War. At the time, like many in Britain, my knowledge of one of the twentieth century’s most seismic events was based primarily, if not solely, on two works; one a memoir by a British novelist; the other, a novel by an American journalist and writer. Yet neither Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia nor Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, important though they may be, can in any way be seen as histories of the conflict. Consequently, like many students before me and since, I immersed myself in the encyclopaedic study, The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas.

Born on 21 October 1931, Hugh Thomas was the son of a British colonial officer and nephew of Sir Shenton Thomas, the governor of Singapore, who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Hugh attended Sherborne School before going on to study history at Cambridge. He worked for a time at the Foreign Office, before leaving, so he said, over the Suez crisis. That same year he published his first novel, The World’s Game, which led to him being invited to submit a proposal for a history of the civil war in Spain.

Third revised edition of Hugh Thomas’s <i>The Spanish Civil War</i>
Third revised edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War

Published in 1961, to coincide with the 25 year anniversary of its outbreak, The Spanish Civil War was generally well received by critics. Smuggled into Spain during the Franco dictatorship, it became a clandestine best-seller. Eminently readable and packed full of entertaining anecdotes, the book has become seen as the history of the civil war. It has now run to four editions and sold more than a million copies across the world. The book still appears on undergraduate reading lists today and I know that I am not the only historian of the civil war to consult it regularly. However, it is by no means faultless; there are many errors of fact and judgement and Thomas has rightly been accused of occasionally valuing narrative style above factual accuracy. Fortunately, revisions have gradually been made during later editions, such as the removal of the following offensive description of the International Brigaders: ‘Many of the British volunteers appear to have been persons who desired some outlet through which to purge some private grief or maladjustment.’

A year after the book’s publication, Hugh Thomas’s success allowed him to marry the glamorous Honorable Vanessa Jebb, daughter of Lord Gladwyn Jebb. A talented and popular lecturer, four years later, in 1966, Thomas was made Professor of History at the University of Reading. When he took a sabbatical in 1974 to concentrate on his writing, his research assistant, a promising young historian called Paul Preston, took over his teaching duties. Hugh Thomas’s 1700 page history of Cuba was published in 1971 followed, eight years later, by An Unfinished History of the World.

Meanwhile, the 1970s saw a shift in Hugh Thomas’s political allegiances. After an attempt to secure a Labour seat in North Kensington was stymied by Militant Tendency, he abandoned the Labour Party for the Conservatives’ free-market economics. Having replaced Keith Joseph as Chairman of her think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, Thomas became a favoured confidante of Margaret Thatcher and was a frequent guest at Downing Street and Chequers. In 1981 he was rewarded for his support when he was ennobled as Lord Thomas of Swynnerton.

A prodigious work ethic enabled him to continue his remarkable output of works on Spanish and Latin-American history. His substantial history of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico was published in 1993 and was followed by what many would argue was his crowning achievement, a trilogy about the Spanish Empire, consisting of Rivers of Gold (2003); The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V (2010) and World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II (2014).

Increasingly disillusioned by the Tories’ increasing Euro-scepticism, Lord Thomas crossed the floor of the House of Lords on 17 November 1997 to join the Liberal-Democrat benches. A committed Europhile, he maintained his opposition to the Brexit shambles right to the end. After suffering a stroke, Hugh Thomas died on 7 May 2017, leaving behind several unfinished projects, including an autobiography. He is survived by his wife Vanessa and their three children, Inigo, Isambard and Isabella.

An edited version of this post first appeared in issue 45 (3/2017) of the IBMT Magazine.

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