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Review of Jason Webster’s Violencia

The cover of Jason Webster's Violencia

Based in his farmhouse in Andalusia, Jason Webster has spent much of the last fifteen years writing with great affection about Spain, its people, culture and history. Many readers will already know Duende, his account of years obsessing over flamenco, or Guerra, an examination of the enduring legacy of the civil war and Franco dictatorship. His latest publication, Violencia, is a bold attempt to write the history of Spain in less than 400 pages. This has earned one or two disdainful remarks on social media, unfairly, for this book is aimed at the everyday reader, rather than specialist academics. It’s very engagingly written and should be read as an – occasionally irreverent – introduction to Spanish history.

The author’s fondness for his adopted country is made abundantly clear by a detailed description of its influence around the world. ‘Without Spain,’ he points out, ‘emblematic aspects of “Western” civilisation as diverse as rational thought, modern surgery and the American cowboy would all be missing.’ Likewise, he highlights the powerful impact of centuries of Arab rule over Spain. The ‘Moors’, he argues, were not (and are not) ‘the other’, but a vital part of Spanish history and culture.  

However, as the book’s title would suggest, it is not just a celebration of Spain’s past greatness. The main tenet of the book is an argument that Spain has a long and unfortunate tradition of turning to violence as a means of solving political crises. Spanish history, Webster argues, has been an enduring struggle between two sides, personified by the two faces of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain: on the one hand Matamoros, the violent Moor-slayer, and on the other the peaceful Sage. This ‘dark side’ of Santiago has been turned against many different forms of enemy, for Spain has always needed an ‘other’ to unite a disparate country against. Sometimes that enemy has lain overseas, but on other occasions it has existed within the ‘indivisible’ Spain itself. The expulsion of the Jews, the Reconquista, the Carlist wars of the nineteenth century and the civil war itself thus all become symbols of this struggle.

At the end of the book, the author considers whether this thesis might be applied to contemporary Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was, of course, built on violence and though the transition appeared to signify that Spain was at last turning away from violence, many would argue that the transition is still not over. As Paul Preston and others have pointed out, there was never a denazification (or de-Francoisation) in Spain. Many on the Right still resent any perceived challenge to their inalienable right to rule. The government’s heavy-handed response to the Catalan referendum of October 2017 and the draconian sentencing of the separatist leaders up to 15 years for their crimes – originally portrayed as rebellion – could be seen as further evidence of the trend.

The author is certainly right to state that Spain currently faces many challenges. Yet another election beckons, in which concerns about Catalan nationalism and immigration are likely to see support for the neo-Francoist Vox spread well beyond its Andalusian cradle. The recent disinterring of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen was not supported by a third of the population (according to a recent poll in El Mundo) and has infuriated the family and supporters. In these circumstances, the author wonders if Felipe VI might be the last King of Spain. Does the country’s future lies with democracy or authoritarianism? Could Spain return to the violence of the past? Personally, despite the recent angry protests in Catalonia, I think that’s unlikely. Franco is long dead and Spain has been a democracy for more than 40 years. In many ways, the importance of disinterring Franco’s remains was symbolic, more than anything else. However, it’s hard to disagree with the author when he concludes that ‘pretending that the ghosts from the past don’t exist, only makes them stronger in the long run.’

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán!, 1-2020, p. 19.

Review of Jessie Burton’s The Muse

Having read quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War over the years, I tend to approach novels set during the turbulent period of 1930s Spain with a fair degree of trepidation. While fiction is not constrained by the rules of historical non-fiction, it still grates when authors make lazy, factual errors. Fortunately, Jessie Burton has obviously researched thoroughly; not many novels would include Henry Buckley’s wonderful memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, in the bibliography.

The Muse opens in 1960s London, where we meet the young, Caribbean immigrant Odelle Bastien. Fed up with her tedious job in a London shoe store, she manages to land herself a job in an obscure London art gallery, along with a posh boyfriend who seems to have little to show for himself, apart from ownership of a mysterious, strikingly beautiful painting.

The book then shifts to Spain in early 1936 and the affluent, British ex-pat family of frustrated teenager Olive Schloss. She’s been offered a place to study art at Slade in London, but her bipolar mother and out-of-touch father take neither Olive, nor her painting seriously. We also meet Isaac and Teresa, siblings from the nearby Andalusian village who, through their desperation for work, open our eyes to the appalling inequalities and class-hatreds of pre-civil war Spain.

As the book progresses and the narrative switches backwards and forwards with increasing rapidity, we begin to understand that the two stories are indelibly linked. Burton manages to inject a real sense of foreboding, which builds steadily as the plot develops and the pace quickens. It’s an extremely well-crafted novel, with strong, three-dimensional characters and a convincing portrayal of the two very different worlds in which they reside. It’s also very knowing, touching on themes such as racism in 1960s London and the long-standing lack of recognition of female artists.

The Muse ­is a powerful follow-up to the author’s debut, The Miniaturist, which sold over a million copies and was made into a BBC TV series. If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent, literary pager-turner, this might well be it.

Review of Enrique Moradiellos’s Franco: Anatomy of a Dictator

For anyone who spends their working days immersed in the turbulent events of Twentieth Century Spain, the notion that anyone could have forgotten General Franco and his brutal regime seems far-fetched. However, the eminent Spanish historian, Enrique Moradiellos, believes that the gradual removal of the physical evidence of the Franco dictatorship – street-names, monuments, etc. – has led to a situation where many Spaniards, particularly the young, have forgotten the awful realities of life under Franco. Hence this new study of (or, rather, anatomy of) the dictator which examines in turn, Franco the man, Franco the ‘Caudillo’ and, finally, Franco’s regime.

The first section provides the reader with an astute depiction of Franco. Clearly the author – though scrupulously fair – is no supporter of the dictator, pointing out that even Franco’s own sister admitted that ‘cunning and caution define his character’. Commander of the Rebel air-force, General Kindélan, was apparently no more polite, portraying Franco in terms that might remind readers of someone rather more contemporary: ‘a man in the enviable position of believing everything that pleases him and forgetting or denying that which is disagreeable. Puffed up with pride, intoxicated by adulation and drunk on applause.’ ‘Franco’, wrote the American chargé d’affairs succinctly in 1950, ‘is the kind of Spaniard who likes to get into the movie without buying a ticket.’

Moradiellos outlines clearly Franco’s extraordinary rise to Generalissimo, pointing out (as have others, not least Franco himself), that his involvement in Spain’s colonial war in Morocco is key to any understanding of the man. The author remarks on Franco’s legendary skill in paying off Rightist groups against each other and his ruthlessness towards opponents, demonstrating that Franco always intended his dictatorship to be permanent. Moradiellos does concede that, despite his support to the Axis during the Second World War, Franco deftly ensured the survival of his regime. However, at the same time, he is very critical of the ‘bankruptcy of Western policy to oust him peacefully’ and their decision to allow the ‘Sentinel of the West’ back in to the fold. The author agrees with others that Franco’s abandonment of his disastrous policy of autarky in the 1950s led to much needed growth in Spain’s economy, though pointing out that it was not until the 1960s that Spain was transformed economically from an essentially agrarian feudal state into a modern industrialised nation.

Yet Spain was still a dictatorship, even if Franco was getting old and his regime was crumbling, beset by challenges: labour disputes, student protests, Catholic support for democracy & ETA terrorism. It was the assassination of the Prime Minster, Admiral Carrero Blanco, on 20 December 1973 that marked the beginning of the end for Franco’s regime and Moradiellos logically concludes his initial section with the dictator’s death in November 1975.

He then moves on to briskly discuss the notion of Franco as Caudillo. Moradiellos argues that the association of Franco with the term (and his quasi-religious ‘crusade’) was due mainly to Franco’s successful advance on Madrid in the autumn of 1936, though also to his iron control of the press and propaganda. Franco knew full well that Rightist conspirators understood that the coup depended on the army, giving him huge leverage and allowing his conscripted army to predominate over volunteer groups such as the Falange and Carlist militias. As Moradiellos argues, the military, Church and Falange authority ‘cemented the consistent cult of charismatic personality that would continue until his death in 1975.’

The book’s final section is much more discursive, academic even, looking to establish an over-arching definition of Franquismo, even though, as Moradiellos recognises, the longevity of Franco’s regime means attempting to provide one single definition is difficult. His fundamental question is: was it a traditional conservative military dictatorship, or a Spanish version of European fascist regimes? Clearly Franco felt it was a dictatorship and most historians would accept that labelling it simply as fascist is problematic: ‘Franco wasn’t a fascist, he was something much worse’, argues Paul Preston. Nevertheless, fascism was a part of the regime, even if it was absorbed into Francoism or used as ideological window-dressing. As Moradiellos argues, Franco’s regime was fascist for social rather than political reasons; it was fundamentally ‘a violent and extreme expression of a movement of reaction’.

While Enrique Moradiellos’s biography of Franco is undoubtedly scholarly, it’s not immediately clear that it contains enough new material (the final academic section aside) to appeal to someone who has already read one of the numerous earlier biographies. Still, clear and concise and well-written as it is, it will, no doubt, prove to be an important resource for students of contemporary Spanish history.

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 3:2018, pp. 20-21.

Volunteers in Syria and the Spanish Civil War

Michael Petrou, author of <i>Renegades</i>, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War
Michael Petrou, author of Renegades, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

In May 2013 an article entitled, ‘Homage to Latakia’ appeared in the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine Maclean’s. Written by historian and journalist, Michael Petrou, the piece argued passionately for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds and drew comparisons with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when the western powers had refused to intervene. However, in the six months since the article appeared – chemical weapons inspections aside – the west has not shown any great enthusiasm for doing so.

While debates on the advisedness – or not – of intervention continue, so does a tendency, within the media in particular, to view the Syrian conflict through the prism of the Spanish Civil War. As with many of these comparative exercises, while it’s interesting to engage in, I’m not convinced how useful it actually is.

There are certainly parallels which can be drawn; the most glaring being that in both Syria and Spain foreign powers provided significant military support, while the western powers watched on. The disparate and fragile nature of the coalition facing Assad’s military junta seems, on the surface, to echo Spain, but here too we should exercise caution. (It seems to me the situation in Egypt is actually a closer parallel, where a military coup was launched against a legally elected government).

The most recent attempt to compare Syria with Spain was on 24 November 2013, when I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend (you can listen to my brief interview by clicking the audio-player above). The interviewer, Shaun Ley, was particularly interested to know, first, why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain, given that it was a country of which most of them knew very little and, second, in the light of the experiences of those returning from Spain seventy-five years ago, how any survivors from the 200 or so Britons presently fighting in Libya might be viewed on their return.

Answering the first question is straightforward and clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of comparing British Islamic jihadists fighting in Syria with the men and women who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The overwhelming majority of volunteers in Spain were there because they had watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism across Europe in general and in Britain in particular. For these anti-fascists, determined to do what they could to halt the fascist tide, Spain was just the latest battlefield in the wider war against fascism. As George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, explained in a letter home to his family:

“Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.”

The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched
The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched

Interestingly, Shaun’s second question did tease out one similarity. As I explained, when the veterans of the Spanish war returned to Britain in December 1938, they faced grave suspicion from many within the British government and security services. Though the government recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting volunteers for Spain under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, this should not be seen as a general sympathy for their cause within the British establishment. On the contrary, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked and others described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. Whether any of the 400 or so British Muslims fighting in Syria will ever return to Britain is not clear. However, it is probably safe to say that, if they do, the British security services will view them with every bit as much suspicion. In 1938 the veterans were described as having been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’; in 2013 they will have been ‘radicalised’. The language may be different but, in this aspect at least, the experiences of the two utterly different groups of volunteers may be very much the same.