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Books Orwell got it wrong

JOHN GREEN recommends an excellent survey of the involvement of the British state, and British volunteers, in the Spanish Civil War

Perfidious Albion: Britain and the Spanish Civil War 
by Paul Preston 
The Clapton Press, £14.99

THIS new collection of essays by Paul Preston, the renowned historian of modern Spain, is very welcome. It is the perfect book for anyone seeking a dispassionate and scholarly introduction to the Spanish Civil War. 

Today, right-wing politicians like David Cameron and his ilk again are invoking the spectre of appeasement which characterised Britain’s position on  Spanish Civil War and gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland in 1939, but this time around as an argument for continuing to fuel the war in Ukraine by demonising Russia as the new Nazis. Never mind that it was precisely Cameron’s party forerunners who were the historical appeasers of fascism then, hoping to drive Hitler to invade Russia. Plus ça change! 

Preston’s collection of essays here are timely in their recalling of that history. The first part focuses on the hypocrisy of British foreign policy towards Spain and which was instrumental in helping Franco defeat the Republic. And it was the Conservative Party, imbued with its hatred and fear of communism and “Russian barbarism” which took the lead then as now.

Preston shows that although Franco’s military rebels enjoyed a massive advantage thanks to the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, that alone fails to take into account the considerable advantage provided by the barely disguised sympathy of the British government.

The second part examines the selfless contribution and humanitarian efforts of medical personnel from across the globe, including many doctors and nurses from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries. Here he also relates the stories of Doctors Len Crome and Reginald Saxton as part of the historiography of the British contribution to Republican medical services. Chapter Five deals with the selfless humanitarian effort launched on behalf of the refugees fleeing from Malaga in February 1937 and especially the role played by Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune and his team. 

Part three looks at British perceptions of the Spanish Civil War and assesses the influence of four prominent “writer-historians” (George Orwell, Herbert Southworth, Burnett Bolloten and Gerald Brenan). In chapters Six and Seven he attempts to explain the political distortions to which historical writing about the Spanish conflict have been subjected, including Ken Loach’s film, Land and Freedom, based on Orwell’s work.

Preston does an excellent job in deconstructing Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. “It is almost certainly the most sold and most read book about the Spanish Civil War,” he writes, and “it is a vivid and well-written account of some fragments of the war. Orwell graphically recreated the fear, the cold and, above all, the squalor of the trenches, the excrement, and the lice. 

“However, Orwell’s book would certainly not be there as a reliable analysis of the broader politics of the war and particularly of its international determinants. Its political analysis and predictions are deeply flawed by his acceptance of the partisan views of anarchist and POUM comrades as well as by ignorance of the wider context. In Homage, Orwell was writing in white heat about a confused, unimportant, and obscure incident in a war he did not understand.”

Herbert Matthews, the New York Times correspondent, summed up the issues in Orwell’s work: “The book did more to blacken the loyalist cause than any work written by enemies of the Second Republic,” even though that was not Orwell’s intention. 

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in a comprehensive and fascinating look at the influences that shaped British foreign policy and attitudes towards Spain at a critical time in its history.


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