We Saw Spain Die by Paul Preston is a thoroughly engaging, often perplexing, challenging and ultimately depressing book. It’s a story of how observers presented and reported the unfolding events of the Spanish Civil War, and chronicles the experience of some people who recorded history as it was made. These observers were correspondents and journalists, specifically for Paul Preston’s purposes, the foreign ones.
Having thus defined the specifics, the generality provides essential context that helps us interpret the content of this book. Spain’s war was in the mid-1930s. Fascism was on the rise in Germany and Italy, but important players were convinced that a policy of appeasement might avoid conflict. Thus it was thought that giving away what you never really had or wanted might just satisfy another’s greed. The Soviet experiment, on the other hand, was very much under way, with Stalin strengthening his grip on power. Ideologically, the Soviet leadership expected an inevitable force of history to compel people across the globe to follow their lead, despite the internal conflict over tactics between Stalin and Trotsky turning murderous.
And so Spain, with its reforming, democratically-elected, left-wing government, perhaps via its espousal of republicanism, repelled the Western European powers and then inevitably forced it closer to the Soviet advice and assistance that was pragmatically available. Thus, the Spanish rebels derived encouragement from the Republic’s isolation, and so launched an armed insurrection against the government, clearly assuming they would not be opposed from outside the country. Appeasement even assured that a blind eye would be turned on the presence of Italian and German forces lining up alongside the rebels. It was into this context that outsiders went to observe, to report and to analyse.
The point illustrated by Paul Preston in We Saw Spain Die is that many of these correspondents did not in fact observe, nor did they even bother to describe what they saw. What they did, at least a good number of them, was arrive with a mindset fixed by their ideological standpoint in relation to the international context and then allow that mindset to filter experience so that only content that would reinforce the original prejudice was allowed through. And so reporters who remained faithful to their experience, followed their conscience and described precisely what they saw, those who thus aspired to a detached impartiality, could always be written off as liars because their copy always appeared to contradict the weight of material that presented a largely fictional, but received and assumed position. It’s what some people might describe as hegemony.
That truth is the first casualty of war has become a cliché, but We Saw Spain Die also largely kills off integrity, honesty, impartiality and even justice for good measure. And this is what is ultimately so depressing about the book. If the reporting was dishonest or biased, it conformed to assumptions that would see it published as authoritative. If it was observant or faithful, it often could not fit in the assumed paradigm, and so it would be rubbished, along with the career of the largely honest purveyor of the message.
No short review of We Saw Spain Die could begin to address any detail of the scores of stories that the book presents. To cite even one as an example would be a distortion. The book is both authoritative in its presentation of fact and forensic in its desire to achieve accuracy. It deals not only with how foreign correspondents covered the Spanish Civil War itself, but also how the positions they took influenced their lives and careers. It is a truly great achievement and needs to be read both slowly and, perhaps, alongside Paul Preston’s other major work on the war, The Spanish Holocaust. But if a reader should value honesty, truth, accuracy and integrity, then We Saw Spain Die will ultimately present a depressing experience, but one that will encourage all of us to see history and maybe also contemporary events in a different light.