Book Review: Eyewitness account recovered

September 15, 2013

Buckley_Life_DeathBritish journalist Henry Buckley wrote The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic in 1939, after leaving Spain where he had lived for a decade. This full account of the Second Republic was published in London in 1940 just as German bombs were raining on the city. Its appearance was bitter-sweet, fittingly perhaps in such inauspicious times. A few dozen copies made their way into libraries around the world, but all the unsold copies—certainly the vast majority, given the edition’s later rarity—were destroyed when the Luftwaffe bombed the publisher’s warehouse. The book was not exactly blasted out of existence; but it went almost straight from the printers to its afterlife in scholarly bibliographies, without enjoying the usual life cycle of a book that is passed around, read, and discussed. This edition, the first in English since 1940, is a very welcome act of restitution. It comes with an introduction by Paul Preston, and it carries warm recommendations from leading historians on the dust jacket.

The book begins on a personal note with the author’s impressions of the country that he encountered when he arrived in November 1929. Soon enough, Buckley was keeping vigil outside the Royal Palace on the last night that King Alfonso XIII spent in Madrid and witnessing tumultuous crowds as the Second Republic was established. These were the first of a long series of historic events Buckley observed, continuously shifting his narrative between History with a capital ‘H’, and la petite histoire of anecdotal episodes and personal experiences. This approach eases the reader’s way into the intractable political life of the pre-war Republic. So we get, for example, an entertaining vignette of the imprisonment of the millionaire industrialist Juan March in 1933, who received cooked meals from the Palace Hotel while he was in jail and made himself popular with other prisoners by handing out cigars. March was to go on to bankroll the generals’ coup in 1936.

By living and reporting in Spain under the early Second Republic, Buckley acquired first-hand knowledge of the country that proved invaluable during the civil war. It was not simply that he had already met some of the leading figures like Negrín or understood the language. More importantly, his prior experience, as well as a good reporter’s natural skepticism, kept him grounded amid clouds of disinformation. Months after the municipal elections in 1931 spelled the end of the monarchy, Buckley had been shown hundreds of paper bundles of uncounted electoral returns in the Ministry of the Interior. So much for official statistics. When it came to the bombing of Madrid five years later, Buckley did not simply re-use the inadequate figures he was given, he took on the distressing task of going personally to the morgue to count the dead. This was well beyond the call of duty.

Buckley with his driver in wartime Spain. Photo courtesy of I.B. Tauris.

Buckley with his driver in wartime Spain. Photo courtesy of I.B. Tauris.

Buckley was there, or thereabouts, for nearly all the key events of the Spanish Civil War, which he reported from the Republican side. He was in Madrid during the military uprising in July 1936, describing most the great battles and witnessing the plight of Spanish refugees fleeing across the French frontier in early 1939. The photos reproduced in this edition show him alongside iconic figures like Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa and Herbert Matthews. (They were all together in the small boat that nearly capsized as they crossed the river during the later stages of the Battle of the Ebro.) Except for one month in Switzerland, when he seems to have spent most of his time compiling newspaper reports on the conflict, Buckley barely left Spain at all. As a practicing Catholic, he was especially concerned by what he felt to be the obscurantism of the Spanish Church and seems to want to set the record straight for English-speaking Catholic readers. Buckley did not attempt to describe campaigns, such as the one in the Basque region, about which he knew little.

It’s no coincidence that this splendid book was written immediately after the fall of the Republic. By then the Spanish Civil War was yesterday’s news, so it’s doubtful that Buckley would have thought of this book as a potential best-seller. (The title, with its apparent nod to Elliot Paul’s commercial success of 1937, The Life and Death of a Spanish Town, might suggest otherwise.) But if 1939 or 1940 was not the most propitious time to publish a book about Spain, it was the perfect time to write one—close enough to events for them to be freshly remembered and recounted with great immediacy—yet just far enough away for a liberal-minded, level-headed observer like Buckley to achieve a remarkable equanimity that was rarely found (or even sought) in wartime writing. The result of this minor miracle is a book that may have seemed slightly out-of-date to its few readers in 1940. Decades later it reads like the new release that, by a quirk of fate, it actually is.

Martin Minchom’s publications include Spanish editions of Geoffrey Cox, La defensa de Madrid (2005), and Louis Delaprée, Morir en Madrid (2009).