The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, Henry Buckley

Reviewer: Wouter van Dijkspanish_republic_buckley

The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic. A Witness to the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley
Introduction by Paul Preston

IB Tauris Publishers, London, New York 2013
ISBN: 978 1 78076 429 0

Hardcover with dust jacket, photographs in black and white, map of Spain and index
432 pages
£20,00 / €29,99



A foreign correspondent’s requiem for the Spanish Republic

Henry Buckley was a young, catholic and progressive journalist working as a foreign correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the years preceding it. Immediately after the end of the war he entrusted his thoughts on the war, along with his personal experiences, to paper. Unfortunately almost all of the copies once published were destroyed by German air raids before they could be sold, while waiting to be distributed from the warehouse where they were kept. An ironic fate, especially when one remembers the prescience Buckley showed in his book when predicting the inevitable assault on the British Empire by the fascist powers on the European continent. Now this unique contemporary account encompassing the full lifespan of the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) has been reprinted to finally find its way to the wide audience it deserves.

Buckley was already living in Spain since 1929, and because of that knew Spain and its politics rather well in comparison with some other foreign correspondents sent to the country when war broke out in 1936. He was a practicing Catholic but his sympathies lay strongly with the republic. He unveils Catholic belief in Spain as being mainly a suitable cover for the extortion of the poor masses in the country. He also goes to some length to explain the existing social, political and economic situation in Spain prior to the outbreak of war in July 1936, thereby dissecting Spain’s infantile democracy and the continuing supreme power the army had over it. In many ways Spain’s society was still a feudal one at the birth of the Second Republic. While unfolding his narrative of Spain’s tragic slipping into war, Buckley paints vivid portraits of the key players of the period such as king Alfonso XIII, the Republic’s first president Alcalá Zamora, later president Azaña and socialist leader Largo Caballero. In a thrilling manner, Buckley tells how the political situation in Spain deteriorates during until breaking point in the years 1931-1934, when eventually in October 1934 anti-Republican right-wing CEDA-ministers are taken into Prime Minister Lerroux’s cabinet. With it, the so-called thin end of the Fascist wedge was driven into the Republic’s side. A previously announced general strike was called in answer to this and bloody clashes between police forces, strikers, fascist gangs and revolutionaries ensued.

Buckley here makes the interesting point it was the Republicans’ and Socialists’ resistance to the reactionary right, that thwarted Germany’s plans for a friendly Spain, which was needed to interrupt Britain’s and France’s oversees empire communications. If Spain’s feudal forces had succeeded and the Spanish Left was overrun without much effort, and the Left responded too weak or too late as in Germany and Austria had been the case, the fascist regimes had been in a considerably stronger position as regards these democratic powers than eventually was the case in 1939 when war did break out at last.

Despite his Republican loyalty, Buckley does seem to stand very sympathetic towards the Clerical party that was part of the conservative party agglomerate which formed the CEDA, despite the fact they clearly made common cause with the hardline right-wing parties in parliament, that strove to nothing less than the overthrow of democracy and the instalment of a dictatorship. Here the author’s ability to judge seems to have abandoned him temporarily, perhaps a bit blinded as he was because of his own Catholic background. Nevertheless it remains remarkable to remember that Buckley finished his massive account only four months after the Nationalists’ victory in Spain. It accounts for the degree to which Francoist territory remained isolated and cut off from the outside world that Buckley, overall a well-informed journalist, has no idea whatsoever as to the numbers of killings that happened in Nationalist territory. As a surrogate he proposes on account of a more or less equal number of MP’s that had been killed on both sides, that the total amount of deliberate killings behind the front in the two zones would have been equal too. However, we now know mass killings in Nationalist territory proceeded on a far wider scale and were made even deliberate policy by the rebel supreme command, in order to strike fear into the hearts of Republican defenders. Also, this fear was needed by Franco to control the vast territories he conquered with the relatively low numbers he had at his disposal.

As the war progresses, Buckley is getting increasingly involved in the Republican cause, even to the point he seriously considers joining the International Brigades. This he does not however, feeling he lacks courage to take this final step, a thing he much regrets afterwards. Despite not being one of the fighting men, Buckley was present at nearly all the great battles of the war and despatched eyewitness accounts of the battles of Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Teruel and the Ebro to his newspapers.

While reading Buckley’s analysis of the war and Spanish politics, it becomes clear he has a very low opinion of the anarchists. He states they weren’t strong, not in numbers nor in acting, despite the fact they were instrumental in preventing the Nationalists’ coup succeeding. Also, he is quite critical towards the workers’ self-government that was installed in many placed after the defeat of the coup, and which he sets aside as ‘reckless experiments’. Another curious observation he makes is when he blames the anarchists of the CNT and Marxists of the POUM with the outbreak of the fighting in Barcelona that became known as the May Events, in May 1937, accusing them of starting a revolution that had to be suppressed by government troops. We now know it were government troops at the urging of the communist PSUC who totally unnecessary tried to take over control of various anarchist-held buildings, most famous of these the telephone exchange. Buckley even suggests the anarchists and POUM had help from Franco during the week’s fighting, it seems communist propaganda did its work well on Henry Buckley on this occasion.

Buckley repeatedly accuses the socialists and republicans of being not imaginative enough in government issues, in contrast to the communists, who were real doers. While setting aside the socialist fear of Moscow domination through the Spanish communist party as mere jealousy, Buckley himself seems rather unimaginative while talking to Largo Caballero’s adviser Luis Araquistain about the socialists’ fear of a communist coup, stating he couldn’t imagine Russia dominating the Spanish communist party, which was so far away geographically. We know better now. However, Henry Buckley is very sharp in his analysis of the main cause of the Republic’s defeat, which he claims is the international policy of non-interventionism. This diplomatic monstrosity enabled the slow strangling of the democratic Republic, while Europe’s fascist powers proceeded with supplying Franco with everything he needed on credit, and not only they, the world’s great financial and industrial enterprises were also not unwilling to help him either in order to impose his dictatorship. Buckley is at his best when he analyses the French and British men in power putting their class interest before the interest of their respective empires by stubbornly refusing to aid the Republic in its struggle.

A shortcoming that Buckley perhaps can’t be blamed for since he was amidst the complex events unfolding, was when he in his analysis of the Spanish political situation totally overlooked the government infiltration the PSUC was busy with. Also, Buckley continually underestimates the strength and popular support of the anarchists, while overestimating the communist support before the war and during its first stages. He totally seems to miss the point of saving democracy from fascism if it were to be replaced by totalitarian communism. But then again, at the end of the 1930’s just the first pieces of information about Stalin’s reign of terror came seeping into Western Europe, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge Buckley too hard for not appreciating these first signs in Spain for what they truly were. Nonetheless some contemporaries did see where this was going to, and one only has to read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, to name an example, to get informed.

Despite some minor flaws mentioned above, and which also make a contemporary account such as this so interesting, Buckley’s book is highly useable to learn more about the war in Spain and the chaotic situation that presided in Spain during the years. The first-hand descriptions of many leading political and military figures are wonderful, as is Buckley’s refined writing style; sometimes bursting with anger when describing the failure of Western Europe’s democracies to come to the aid of the Republic, at other passages very modest when narrating the many horrors he witnessed during his time in Spain. Buckley remained in Spain until the end, eventually leaving with the remnants of the Republican army across the Pyrenees but before that witnessing the Republic’s last parliament meeting in Figueras in Catalonia. It was here where he agreed with his fellow journalist Ilya Erenburg that the castle dungeon the Republic’s parliament was meeting in was not only a tomb for the Spanish Republic itself, it was the tomb of European Democracy. That proved all too true.

Wouter van Dijk

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