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BOOK REVIEW: "The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic" by Henry Buckley

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Henry Buckley's "The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic" was originally released in 1940.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic by Henry Buckley (I.B. Tauris & Co.) 2013/1940

While working as a correspondent for England’s Daily Telegraph, British journalist Henry Buckley lived and worked in Spain throughout the 1930’s, witnessing the birth of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 and later witnessing its defeat and death at the hands of ruthless Fascists and Gen. Francisco Franco in the spring of 1939.

Subtitled “A Witness to the Spanish Civil War,” Buckley’s book, originally published in 1940, Buckley captures Spain as it was. He was a bona fide, shoe-leather journalist who happened to be Catholic and one with (likely) center-right politics, although he kept it close to the vest.

Paul Preston, whose The Spanish Civil War we reviewed here, wrote the new introduction to Buckley’s book. Preston noted that the Nazis bombing of London in 1940 resulted in unsold copies of The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, which were stored in a warehouse struck by the bombs, were destroyed.

Preston noted the irony, adding,“Thus, this classic history of the war has been unavailable ever since.”

But thankfully we have Buckley’s account once again, all of these decades later, re-released in 2013, as a reminder of how important the Spanish Civil War was.

Specifically, Buckley was sent to Spain in 1929, still a few years before the birth of the second Spanish Republic, which would occur at the same time fascist leaders like Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini were garnering increased support from the reactionary masses.

But it was in Spain where this would really all play out, as Franco rose to power in the midst of a military led-rebellion, which would lead to the kick-off of the. Spanish Civil War in 1936, a pivotal war which was covered in depth by Buckley and was considered the prelude to World War II.

And just as the Fascists (Nationalists) were on the march, the Communists were as well, with Stalin sending support to Spain, on the side of the Republicans. In writing about the International Brigades and the Battle of Jarama, which took place just east of Madrid in early 1937,

“Of the drama of the British volunteers at the Jarama much be said,” wrote Buckley. “Many of them had never fired a shot before. Over a score were fooled by Franco forces who advanced singing The Internationale and with clenched fists and then pulled out guns before the surprised British, who assumed that the Spaniards were deserting, had discovered this deceit.”

With the Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Trotskyist POUM faction, the Republic was being defended by a rather motley and disorganized bunch over the course of the Spanish Civil War, which would end in defeat in the spring of 1939.

The leader of the POUM (Partido Obrero Union Marxista), an intellectual named Andres Nin (a.k.a. Andreu Nin), would run afoul of the rebels and be arrested, only to disappear from jail and never to be heard from again.
“It was said that (Nin) was shot by the Communists,” wrote Buckley. This doesn’t come as much as a surprise since Stalinist agents would track down the exiled Trotsky himself in Mexico in 1940 and assassinate him in his home.

So, while the left was not united as it could be, the right was, with the military, the landowners and the Catholic Church working together to create their united Spain, under Franco.

Where were the Americans and the British? Their policy was to remain neutral and not involved. Buckley disgustedly wrote that a British diplomat he knew said it was more important to “stand by our class” than to intervene with the struggling Spaniards who were trying to fend off the Fascists.

And the Spanish Church, in a most un-Christ-like way, felt pretty much the same way, Buckley noted.

“It is so easy to be on the side of power and wealth, I thought” wrote Buckley as the war wound down. “But Christ from what we know of his life was never on that side of the fence. It seemed funny that 2,000 years later anyone who felt for the poor, who wished to see poverty and misery abolished and the good things of the world extended to all should be looked upon as anti-Catholic.”

It’s interesting to read Buckley’s personal comments about his disappointment in Spain’s Roman Catholic Church siding with the Fascists and Franco, and so he took a stand of sorts by refusing to go to Mass.

While Buckley was “of his class,” middle class for all intents and purposes, he had a good heart for the people. He never really took sides, though and was able to get interviews with Left and Right leaders. His interview with Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri was fascinating in that Buckley was clearly quite taken with her, writing, “But what a woman! She was, I think, the only Spanish politician I ever met; and I think I know most of those who have any call on fame during this generation, and she is the only one who really did impress me as being a great person.”

Sadly, in over 400 pages, there is nothing on the ruthless Fascist bombing of Guernica in 1937, a horrific event that was artistically captured by Pablo Picasso’s world-famous anti-war painting a few months afterward. I’m not sure how Buckley overlooked that catastrophic event.

Nevertheless, Buckley does his best to report on the people and events of that roller-coaster of a decade, there in Spain.

The book includes a number of black and white photographs, some taken by Buckley and others taken of Buckley. I particularly liked the one of his friend Ernest Hemingway smiling and holding his arm up with a “power to the people” clenched fist. Hemingway (who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls while in a hotel in Madrid) would call the slight, jittery and somewhat frail Buckley a “lion of courage,” willing to get in the thick of things to get a story.

Buckley would cover World War II and would return to Spain and be embraced by Gen. Franco, with the fascist dictator giving Buckley Spain’s highest civilian honor, while Queen Elizabeth II would appoint Buckley a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Interpret that how you will.

Buckley would die in November 1972, approximately three years before Franco. Spain has come a long way since the days of the Francoist dictatorship and currently there are efforts to remove his name from public plazas, streets and so forth, particularly in Madrid.

And while I liked Buckley’s coverage – it is important in understanding all the important figures of that time and what led to their rise and/or fall -  I am partial to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (recently reviewed by RDR under the title Orwell in Spain) and his take on the events there, particularly from a leftist point of view.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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