The War Before the Lights Went Out: An Interview with Helen Graham

March 6, 2010
By and

(Versión en castellano.) Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the print version of the March, 2010 issue of the Volunteer.

Video: Helen Graham: A Very Short Introduction (8’42”)  Spanish translation here.

“Telling big stories through individual human lives is a very powerful way of doing history. I am still very interested in theory, but I think that human lives—although obviously you have to pick the right lives—are in the end more complex than any theory.” Speaking is Helen Graham (born in Liverpool, 1959), one of the most prominent English-speaking historians of twentieth-century Spain today. She is the author, among other books, of The Popular Front in Europe (1988), The Spanish Republic at War (2003), and the bestselling The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005), a concise essay “that took me nine months to write and twenty-three years to prepare.” Together with ALBA board member Jo Labanyi, she also is editor of the seminal Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction (1995). Her new book in progress weaves together four biographies of individual participants in the war—two men, two women; two Spaniards, two foreigners. (One of them is Bill Aalto, a Finnish-American member of the Lincoln Battalion who in addition to being a Communist also happened to be gay; the others are Gustavo Durán, the composer who became a Republican military commander; Lucía Sánchez Saornil, futurist poet and founder of Mujeres Libres; and the Austrian-born photographer Margaret Michaelis, who was a refugee in Spain during the 1930s, lost part of her family in the Holocaust and lived the rest of her life as a portrait photographer in Australia. ) A professor of Spanish history at Royal Holloway (University of London), Graham currently holds the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Chair at New York University. On a Sunday evening in January she sat down to discuss her life-long fascination with the war, Spain’s attempts at “recovering” its historical memory, and the skewed way in which the war is still viewed by many U.S. scholars and intellectuals. An eight-minute video excerpt can be found here.

Magic Territory

Graham has spent more than two decades studying the Spanish Civil War in all its dimensions, but she has been particularly fascinated with the reasons behind the Republican defeat. The topic gripped her from the beginning. “The Spanish Civil War is without doubt the reason I decided to become an historian. I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by the fact that the Republic hadn’t won. How could that possibly be? Naturally you can’t win the war for the Republicans. But you can very usefully spend your live explaining in great, complex detail exactly why they didn’t. The Spanish Civil War was, in a sense, the war before the lights went out—the war that could have changed the course of European and world history if power actors had behaved in different ways. And it was such a transformational site, culturally, for so many different kinds of people, that it is really a bit of a magic territory.”

Graham approaches the past with a great deal of respect, sympathy and nuance, taking into consideration everything from the psychology of political leaders to the evolution of class and gender relations. She categorically refuses to succumb to the temptation to explain the world in binary terms. “I am interested in history because it is the ultimate antidote to any kind of oversimplification. As soon as somebody says: That is always the way this should be, you can say: Ah, but it wasn’t that way in X time. In that sense, history is the perfect immunization against thinking in binaries and simplistic categories.

“In the Very Short Introduction, for example, I was very keen to talk about Communism as a social movement. The general public, even students today, buy into the ridiculous notion that Communism amounted to a kind of collective brainwashing. They don’t seem to understand—and this has become worse after 1989—that it was not just about ideology. In the European context particularly, you really have to start from the idea that Communism was a mass social movement that embraced millions of people, and that was about the whole of their lives. Its significance was cultural as well as political.”

The VSI is Graham’s most widely read work. “I purposely didn’t write it as a textbook. It’s an ethical essay on the Spanish Civil War that in some way distills all my previous work. The process of writing a book like this is a bit like Sudoku, there is something cleansing about it. I have to confess that it was quite a challenge. But I’m very happy I did it. I’m constantly amazed at the letters I get from readers about it. I was reading it on the Tube, someone will say, and I had to write to you.”

Crossing Borders

While British and American historians, from Brenan to Jackson and Preston, have played an important role in the development of Spanish historiography, their relationship with their Spanish colleagues has not been free of tension. “All British historians of Spain have stories about a certain amount of jealousy—This is not your territory, what are you doing here? There are historical reasons for this. The severe limitations imposed by Francoism on Spanish historiography caused the relationship between Spanish and foreign historians to be a bit odd, which may have caused Spanish historians to feel vulnerable. But that situation has been fading for a while now, and relationships have normalized. It is obvious, for example, that most archival Spanish history is now going to be written by Spaniards, who have more time and opportunity to delve into the materials than we do. And hey, some of my best friends are Spanish historians!”

Graham’s books, like those of Preston, have a wide Spanish readership. “Something that British historians of Spain have always had going for them is that they write well. I’d go so far as to say that their contribution to the field has not been so much in any particular content as in the delivery, the form. Specialist work in Spain, by contrast, is often still very dense. Even the really good stuff is not that easy to read.” Antonio Muñoz Molina, who, like Graham, holds the Juan Carlos Chair this semester, believes there are underlying cultural reasons for this. “I always had the idea that Spanish historians simply didn’t bother too much with readability because they were writing for their peers. But Antonio thinks that they actually believe it’s somehow beneath their dignity to write readably. To me that is counterproductive. If you want to reach the person in the street, you have to be readable. And I strongly believe that you can say quite complicated things in quite clear prose without being simplistic, in the same way that you can say very theoretical things without using very theoretical language. Perhaps philosophers cannot always do that—but cultural historians certainly can.”

For Graham there is no reason why historians should feel constrained by their national identity. “To the contrary, I think it’s very important that histories are not just written by nationals. If they were, history would be incredibly less rich. On the one hand, the point about being an historian of a country other than your own is that you look at it from outside and bring a different perspective to it. On the other, I don’t necessarily think of myself as English. Still less would I want to write the history of the English, nor indeed the fictions of their empire.

“Obviously I’m a citizen of the UK because it says so in my passport. But there are an awful lot of different cultural identities within the British Isles. I myself have always had a very problematic relationship with the English and Englishness. Much of this no doubt stems from my having been born and raised in the Republic of Liverpool, which in many ways is its own patria chica. There may well be a connection between one’s interest in a foreign country and a feeling of displacedness in one’s own society; it is no coincidence that British Hispanism has tended to be stuffed with people from the Celtic fringes. Now I don’t want to suggest that I am in any way traumatized or displaced myself. But if you come from Liverpool, or from any other peripheral northern city, your relationship to Englishness is clearly going to be different than if you’re born in the Home Counties. On the other hand, what are historians really doing when they write the history of their own country? Presumably everyone has now moved on from the idea that national historiography is basically a branch of nationalism, meant to glorify the national story. Fortunately that notion has disappeared by now—or at least it has among the people that I consort with. Everybody should cross more borders.”


Conservative commentators in Spain and elsewhere have accused historians like Graham, Michael Richards, Paul Preston, and Ángel Viñas of pro-Republican bias. Amateur scholars such as Pío Moa and César Vidal, backed by Stanley Payne, have made a lucrative career out of denouncing the leftist “myths” about the war which, they claim, inform most professional historiography of twentieth-century Spain. To Graham, their calls for objectivity ring hollow. “When people start talking about objectivity, there is generally some funny political business going on. Objectivity is not an equidistant position between any two points. This is what always bothers me in these debates. Let’s take it to an absurd extreme for argument’s sake: No one in their right mind would argue that an objective historiography of Germany in the 1930s should occupy a midpoint between the Nazis and those who they were attacking. I have never understood this association of objectivity with some kind of position in the middle. That whole idea needs some serious unpicking; there’s something fundamentally wrong with it.

“Look, what drives historians is the thirst to understand. Understanding presupposes that you don’t doctor the evidence, or tell it like it isn’t. And if that’s not about objectivity, I don’t know what is. Now of course we’re also human. We all have our stories, the things that interest us, the questions we want answered. In that sense, no account written by a human being is ever fully objective. But that doesn’t mean that it is distorted or bad. If that human being is a professionally trained historian who is honest with themselves and with the material—if they read everything, think about it all, and see how it fits together without hiding anything or making things up—then they are being faithful to the calling. Beyond that, I feel that we needn’t worry about any of this.

“To be sure, I personally find people who are bearing change within themselves—people who are outside on the margins, knocking on the door of politics—more sympathetic than those who hold a monopoly on political power in a traditional society. That’s me; I can’t change that, and it obviously has to do with my own background and values. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand other kinds of political actors. Even if I’m not sympathetic to them, I can certainly write about them without simplifying them or turning them into two-dimensional cardboard villains. I can write in three dimensions about people whose experience is very far from mine. It’s funny: when you write about the Spanish Republic, people make all kinds of assumptions. Some Irish readers, for example, told me: We are surprised at how well you seem to understand religious belief. As if I didn’t!”

Living with Defeat

Graham’s turn to biography is a conscious choice. “It’s not just that human lives provide a window into the complexity of history. Biography also allows for a different kind of readership. Of course it’s not an either/or question. Monographic history based on national political papers is always going to be very important—and without it there are other things you cannot have. But in a lifetime you only want to write a certain number of very scholarly monographs. Initially it’s an apprenticeship. You have to show that you can hack it. Once you’ve done that, you probably want to be read by more people, which means that you need to do other things. And in the end, I write to be read.”

The four interwoven life stories that make up Graham’s new book—“I’m still struggling with the structure, I’m trying to avoid the conventional, chronological format of biography”—show how individual participants in the war managed, for good and for bad, to live with defeat. “It’s really a story that transcends Spain. To put it in a grandiose way, the book is about finding an ethic after destruction. It’s a bit like dealing with the Holocaust, which people want to explain into submission, with the idea that it’s all going to be alright: you assimilate defeat and move on. But there are some experiences that cannot really be assimilated or explained away like that. There are things from which you don’t just move on; you have to carry them with you. And I think that the Spanish Civil War, like the Holocaust, is one of those. You just have to find a way to live with the negatives. Writing these four lives is therefore something of a philosophical pursuit as well. It is a way of talking about how people live with a world that is not perfect, that’s very different from the one that they wanted to create—about picking up the pieces and making different kinds of political choices, choices that are about immediate solidarities with the people around you. It’s about investing in personal relationships rather than trying to change the world in some sort of huge, utopian way.

“Existentially and emotionally, there are other similarities between the Spanish Civil War and World War II as well. Some of the lives I deal with in this new book, for example, are affected by what I call the plenty phenomenon, after a play by David Hare called Plenty, which deals with people who lived the Second World War so intensely that they are not able to come down from it. The title is ironic: it refers to the plenty of the postwar period in relation to the austerity of the war, while for the characters it was the war years that were rich and plentiful, while the postwar is threadbare. Even though war was painful and difficult, it was when they were most alive. And they never recapture that.”

A Toxic Story

Seventy years on, the Spanish Civil War remains as controversial as ever. In Spain, the grassroots call for the “recovery of historical memory” of the past decade has put the war and the Francoist repression front and center of public discussion, generating a flood of publications. Graham thinks this has been a necessary process. “In a sense, the whole explosion in the Spanish public sphere of historical memory—it should really be historical memories, in the plural—is obviously part of the democratic transition. What happened between the late 1970s and 1982 was a superstructural transition from a dictatorship from a parliamentary regime. But because of the particular way the transition was negotiated from the top down, there was a complete block on actually talking about what had gone on in the war and under Franco. Of course this partly happened for reasons of stability, and because of the position of the army. But in the end it wasn’t a terribly democratic process.”

“Spain is of course not unique in having to come to terms with a difficult past. In a sense it’s happening all through continental Europe, especially since 1989. But curiously the focus has been almost exclusively on northern Europe. Everyone goes on about the Stasi archives, for instance, and about the fact that everyone in the Eastern block was spying on everyone else. Sure—but wasn’t it exactly the same story in Spain, Portugal, and Greece? And yet, given the asymmetrical outcome of the Cold War, nobody talks about those countries. Decisions were made in all three of those democratic transitions not to open up those archives. But if they were, they would also show that large numbers of the population were spying on their fellows…

“What does make the Spanish case different from others is the fact the Franco dictatorship legitimized itself with a particular reference to the civil war, turned into a fairly toxic story of martyrs and barbarians. What is also unique about Spain is that the regime then went on to mobilize the population en masse, making it complicit through a huge system of trials and denunciations. Which is why there still is an awful lot of bad feeling, bad blood, bad faith in Spain—and guilt, an awful lot of guilt.”

Getting the Lincolns

The Spanish Right has been sharply critical of the so-called memory boom, warning that “opening old wounds” can be a dangerous thing. Graham thinks differently. “The whole notion that Spain as a country has to agree on one specific version of the past is part of the Francoist legacy. The idea that if we all don’t have a single view of the past it’s going to be chaos come again, we’re going to have another civil war, and we’re all going to hell in a bucket—that’s in itself also a Franco effect. Making the transition to democracy—coming through and out the other end—means coming to a point when you understand that we all don’t have to agree in order to achieve a form of non-lethal coexistence, there doesn’t need to be one single, monolithic, hegemony view of the past. It means accepting that although we may see the past differently, it will all be alright.”

While she respects and admires her Spanish colleagues, Graham has little patience for American scholars who approach the Spanish war from a narrowly U.S. perspective. “In a U.S. context, the Spanish Civil War punches above its weight because it really is not about the Spanish Civil War at all—in the end, it is always about getting the Lincolns. And therefore it is about post-1945 American history. My big bugbear with people like Ron Radosh and others is that they don’t know anything about the Spanish Civil War. Theirs is basically an imperialist take on the conflict. For them, Spain doesn’t exist until the great powers inscribe a meaning on the face of Spain. This is clearly going to annoy anybody who has spent twenty-odd years of their life working on all of the other debates and issues that were actually there in Spain to start with.”

“The greatest challenge of the new millennium,” reads Graham’s epigraph to the Very Short Introduction, “is not to mythologize our fears.” “Yes, if there is anything I would like people to take away from the book, it’s that. Mythologized fears, a hatred of difference: it’s what’s at the very bottom of the dark mid-twentieth century, when more people were killed by more people than at any other time in the history of the world. If you want to put it differently, you can say that the history of twentieth-century Europe—and Spain is right there at the heart of it—is about coming to terms with the city, with urban life. It’s migrants and urban dwellers who are widely viewed as the cause of all problems. General Mola famously said that everything would be alright if he could just drop bombs on Bilbao and Madrid and get rid of the miasma. Franco was slightly more realistic, but he was still driven by the same idea.”

Sebastiaan Faber and James Fernández are members of ALBA’s executive committee.

(Versión en castellano.)

Further Browsing:

  • Helen Graham’s Inaugural Lecture, Royal Holloway: “Border Crossings: Thinking about the International Brigaders before and after Spain” (podcast); see also the 10th Annual Bill Susman Lecture, ALBA/King Juan Carlos I Center, New York (lecture textPowerPoint)
  • Helen Graham: A Very Short Introduction, an 8-minute video excerpt of the interview



5 Responses to “ The War Before the Lights Went Out: An Interview with Helen Graham ”

  1. Theron P. Snell, Ph.D on March 13, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Much of what is said here resonates with me personally as a returned expatriate, as someone who has moved quite a bit and who finds echos in T.E. Lawrence’s comments about no longer being an Englishman but never having been an Arab…a third culture view. I struggle with the sense of being a “too-late” (as opposed to premature) anti-fascist at a time when fascism seems to have swept the world.

    Thank you for this interview.

  2. Joe Midhaels on March 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Unbelievable! Sort of a Communist Lesbian perspective by Helen Graham. The truth is the majority of Spainard rebeled agaisnt the Republic after the Ancharchit and Communist took control. Throughout history anytime foreign influence is forced among the people they rebel. When the Republic started killing clergy and burning churches the majority of Spainard were loyal to Spain. The Basque and Catalons would never support a war against their church.
    Franco never had Facist ambitions. I tried…can’t find any pre war books, articles or literature by Franco in that respect.
    People please don’t believe the lies that you read on this site.

    My grandfater died fighting for the Republic…my family was seperated during the war. My mother almost died many time during this time. She remembers the Russian Flag flying over Madrid. She remember seeing churches destroyed by the Republic.

  3. […] The War Before the Lights Went Out: An Interview with Helen Graham […]

  4. Jack Oswald on April 18, 2011 at 2:41 am

    Hi Helen….are you still working on that book about Bill Aalto? Thanks by the way for Foss’s outline…”Hero of the Left”. I remain fasinated with Aalto’s life but am not sure enough facts remain to really capture his life . A film might be interesting…or historical fiction as a format. Too bad Foss wasn’t more objective…and too bad he cannot be located. I seem to be able to “feel” him as an entity……but I have never been able to describe this…to others. I really feel he wants his story told……….to me…he seems very much alive……one feels that Billy could explain today’s “People’s armies”…..and thier roles in upcomming world events….in a way that might even make sense of it all……quite a few of his predictions have indeed come to pass! Salud Jack in Chicago

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