Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Review: Historian as Judge & Detective

Professor Preston's Parochial Anglo-Saxon Account   

The Spanish Holocaust. By Paul Preston. Illustrated 700 pages.  Harper Press.  £30 in hard-back.  
PROFESSOR Preston writes:  'I thought long and hard about using the word “holocaust” in the title of this book', and he concludes 'I could find no word that more accurately encapsulates the Spanish experience than “holocaust”.'  To back up this decision he says:  'I was influenced by the fact that those who justified the slaughter of innocent of innocent Spaniards used an anti-Semite rhetoric and frequently claimed that they had to be exterminated because they were the instruments of a “Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic” conspiracy.'  He writes that ''my use of the word “holocaust” is not intended to equate what happened in Spain with what happened throughout the rest of continental Europe under German occupation but rather to suggest that it be examined in a broadly comparative context.'  The Professor says that he hopes 'thereby to suggest parallels and resonances that will lead to a better understanding of what happened in Spain during the Civil War and after.'  
The Spanish Holocaust is a piece of rigorous research whose author clearly operates unashamedly as both a detective and judge:  the book is moralistic history of a high order and seeks to measure the spirit of the military sedition in July 1936 that became the Spanish Civil War alongside the rise of the national socialists in Germany in 1933 and the cruelties of the Third Reich.  Pro. Preston wants to say, more or less, that Hitler equals Mussolini, and both of these equal General Franco, and he puts work in to establish that during the Spanish Civil War and after under the regime that followed that war 'nearly 200,000 men and women were murdered extra-judicially or executed after flimsy legal process' and that  '(a)ll of what did happen constitutes what I believe can legitimately be called the Spanish holocaust.'  He also regrets that 'To this day, General Franco and his regime enjoy a relatively good press.'  
Against this moralist approach may be contrasted the attempt to pose a scientific venture that as Isaiah Berlin says try to tell us that 'it is foolish to judge Charlemagne or Napoleon or Genghis Khan or Hitler or Stalin for their massacres which is a comment on ourselves and not upon the facts.'   Isaiah Berlin writes in his essay 'Historical Inevitability':
'We are also told that as historians it is our task to describe, let us say, the great revolutions of our time without so much as hinting that certain individuals involved in them not merely caused, but were responsible for, great misery and destruction – using words according to standards not merely of the twentieth century, which is soon over, or of our declining capitalist society, but of all the human race at all times and in all places in which we have known it; and are told that we should practise such austerities out of respect for some imaginary scientific canon which distinguishes between facts and values very sharply...' anything else would be, according to these anti-moralists, '.,.unworthy of serious scholarship.'
 Berlin strongly disagrees, arguing:  'Those who are concerned with human affairs are committed to the use of the moral categories and concepts which normal language incorporates and expresses … (historians) need not – they are certainly not obliged to – moralise:  but neither can they avoid the use of normal language with all its associations and “built in” moral categories.'   For to seek to avoid to do this would be 'to adopt another moral outlook, not none at all.' 
Bearing all this in mind, I would not wish to challenge Pro. Preston on grounds of what some may call his prejudices, that is his passionate dissection of the atrocities associated with the regime of General Franco nor would I desire to tackle him here at length for his broad-brush approach in holding the anarchists of the FAI responsible for much of the killings on the side of the Republic because Preston at least grasps the central importance and significance of the anarchists and their huge trade union federation on the Spanish republican side.  Preston makes his own position clear: 
'There would be no end to the internal violence until the Republican state had been rebuilt...' and 'the conduct of a modern war required a central state.' 
And he quotes approvingly: 
'Companys (the Catlan President of the Generalitat) had effectively ensured the continuity of state power and, in the long term, the eventual taming of the revolution by manoeuvring the CNT into accepting responsibility without long-term institutional power.'      
Earlier Professor Preston rather gives the game away by displaying his own instincts as an English municipal Fabian type liberal/ socialist when he writes: 
'The victory of the working-class forces (in defeating the military rebels in Barcelona) posed a significant problem for President Companys, who was leader of the bourgeoisie party, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalonya.'  
My profound problem with Professor Preston's book is with what is the 'keystone' of his whole hypothesis which is contained in Chapter Two entitled 'Theorists of Extermination':  the focus of this chapter dwells on a kind of potted psychology, biography and anthropology of some elements of the Spanish right most hostile to the Second Republic.  Preston in the first line of his Chapter Two writes:
'Africanista officers and Civil Guards were the most violent exponents of right-wing hostility towards the Second Republic and its working-class supporters.' 
He then makes the allegation that:
'They insinuated the racial inferiority of their left-wing and liberal enemies through the clichés of the theory of the Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy.'
 Preston here needs to show a link between Hitler and the German Nazis, and the mentality of the of the Spanish right-wing in the 1930s, and he claims:
'The idea of an evil Jewish conspiracy to destroy the Christian world was given a modern spin in Spain by the dissemination from 1932 onwards of one of the most influential works of anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' 
 Preston finds that the leader of the military rising against the Second Republic, General Mola, had read The Protocols and praised Hitler in his book The Past, Azaná and the Future.  Gil Robles, leader of the Catholic party, the CEDA, Preston tries to show as being a closet Fascist and he quotes from El Socialista as describing one of his speeches as an 'authentic fascist harangue'.  Preston also puts work in to show that Franco was influenced by the anti- Jewish-Masonic tendency on the Spanish right.  In his anxiety to show that the Spanish right is indistinguishable from what was happening in northern Europe, Preston is ignoring the culture and anthropology of Spain which if he examined the roots of what he is talking about he may be forced to arrive at different conclusions.  
In fact, Freemasonry was brought to Spain by the English, and the first lodge was founded in Madrid in 1728 and, even though it was forbidden by the Inquisition, it was popular among the enlightened aristocracy and ministers of Charles III.  When the Second Republic was founded in the 1930s most of the most senior Army officers were masons, and it is said that the King was a mason.  On this point Gerald Brenan in footnote in his book The Spanish Labyrinth is worth quoting at length: 
'A great deal has been made of the freemasonry of the Republican parties.  As a matter of fact nearly all the Monarchist politicians and most of the Army generals before 1931 were masons.  The King himself is said to have been one and practising Catholics often occupied high positions in the lodges.  That is to say, freemasonry had ceased to have any political or anti-clerical connotations and had become a mere friendly society as it is in England.  Then towards 1930 the Republicans began to invade the lodges and made their business to restore them to their old function.  During the first years of the Republic the Madrid lodges formed a convenient meeting-place for Republican politicians and link between the radicals and the groups that followed Azaña.'
 Preston has none of Brenan's sophistication when considering the Freemasons in Spain and he writes:  'In this paranoid fantasy [of an evil Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christian Europe], Freemasons were smeared as tools of the Jews (of whom there were virtually none) in a sinister plot to establish Jewish tyranny over the Christian world.'   
Here Preston is trying to place a phenomena which has its origins in a particular Spanish context and struggle going back to before the Spanish Inquisition, into the realm of the politics and ideology of Mein Kampf and the Third Reich, while Brenan simply traces the foundation of the Spanish Liberal Party to Freemasonry. 
It is his frantic search for symmetry to a historical narrative that fits a parochial cookbook for his English readers that disturbs me about Professor Preston's book.  The Conservative politician and architect of what in 1874 of what was to become known as The Restoration, Antonio Cánovas said:   'Son espanoles los que no pueden ser otra cosa'  ['Spaniards are those people who can't be anything else'}.  It seems to me that the danger of the kind of top-down moralistic historical narrative of  the Spanish Civil War used by Preston is that it can be pushed so far that it begins to border on the grotesque.  Too many of the English historical critics, both professional and amateur, in their analysis of the war tend to neglect anthropological nature of Spanish condition:  they seem to end up arguing that the Spaniards should be more like the Germans or the English.  Often these criticism are disguised by blaming the Spanish anarchists or the Catalan nationalists for being instinctively in favour of decentralisation and against a centralised state, when as Pro. Preston says  'the conduct of a modern war required a central state'.  
It's as if Preston has never read Richard Ford, or George Borrow's 'Bible in Spain' or even Gerald Brenan, and that he hasn't yet grasped what Brenan wrote in 1943:
'The Catalan question is, to begin with, merely one rather special instance of the general problem of Spanish regionalism.'
Unless the commentators on Spain, whether it be Professor Preston or Bill Alexander of the International Brigade, understand that, they will never come close to grasping what is going on in Spain and the reluctance of Spaniards fighting in the Civil War to move far from their own regions.  This regionalism has the effect of the kind of transferred 'racism' or 'xenophobia' that Preston alludes to when he writes: 
'Conservative intellectuals argued that through various subversive devices the Jews had enslaved the Spanish working class' and an 'alleged consequence of this subjugation was that the Spanish workers themselves came to posses oriental qualities' .
Not just the conservative intellectuals, but the ordinary Spaniards I worked with in the 1960s as an electrician in the fishing village of Denia in Alicante, would accuse the inhabitants of the rival town of Pego as being the historical descendants or 'los Moros', and he would even condemned another village Pedruguer for having 'the character of the Jew' because they, unlike the inhabitants of another pueblo Ondra who like good Spanish Christians spent their spare money eating tapas and drinking vino in bars, were miserable and miserly and bought land.  Much more can be understood about these village attitudes and customs in Spain by reading anthropological accounts given in Brenan's own description of the two years he spent in Yegen in South from Granada or Julian Pit-Rivers' book The People of the Sierras about the Cadiz village of Grazelema.
Preston writes of the Jews in Spain in the 1930s 'of whom there were virtually none', but in so far as there were Moors on the Spanish mainland in the Civil War they were bought in as mercenary fighters by General Franco in his army in the south.  There are several strong words of insult in Spain – 'cabrón' (cuckhold), 'bastardo' (bastard), and 'Moro' (Moor).- but 'Moro'  for the Spaniard becomes like a bogey-man; thus the popularity of ham and pork dishes in Spanish cuisine born of a people who wanted to historically prove their Christianity by hanging legs of pork outside their houses for curing in the sun.  It may be as Preston writes that some on the right were suggesting that members of the Spanish working-class were the descendants of 'Moros', but it is equally probable that the left was accusing the right of being 'amigos de Moros'.  Certainly, I seem to remember that Arthur Koistler (then a member of the Communist Party) in his book The Spanish Testament condemned Franco and the rebel generals for bringing 'black troops' (Moors) to fight in Europe;  racism and xenophobia is not confined to the right.    
When one understands this anthropological background of Spanish customs and culture the whole architectural model of Professor Preston's book as built up in his Chapter Two Theorists of Extermination begins to crumble.  Significantly Preston writes: 
'The identification of the working class with foreign enemies was based on a convoluted logic whereby Bolshevism was a Jewish invention and the Jews were indistinguishable from Muslims and thus leftists were bent on subjecting Spain to domination by African elements.'  
Preston keeps mentioning 'Bolshevism', 'Marxism' and 'communists', but apart from there being few if any Jews or Muslims in Spain in 1936 there wasn't that many communists either and their influence in the big trade union confederations UGT (Socialist) and CNT (anarcho-syndicalist) was minimal Gerald Brenan writes:  'During the Dictatorship the Communist Party was so insignificant that that Primo de Rivera did not think it worth while suppressing it and the Communist press continued to appear as usual.'  All Spaniards use the rhetoric of insults and abuse with great aplomb and the Spanish film maker Luis Bunuel said in his autobiography My Last Breath that they are world masters of the art of blasphemy, thus because Spaniards throw around words and phrases like 'Moros' and 'character of the Jew' that has its roots in Spanish antiquity and the Inquisition, against people they don't like it tends to weaken Preston's 'Holocaust' model.  Preston's claim that Franco 'was a subscriber to Acción Española...' or that both he and General Mola, who became director of the military rising in 1936, were 'avid readers of the anti-Communist journal …, the Bulletin de l'Entente Internationale contra la Troisième Internationale',  hardly stands up as strong evidence that what was happening in Spain was anything other than another pronunciamiento, of which at one time in 19th century Spain, according to Brenan, there was an  average of one every twenty months. 
I would expect anarchist and libertarian critics, and those who sympathise with the position of the POUM, to suggest that Preston is bias in his presentation, and that others would challenge his broad- brush use of the term 'Holocaust'.  For me it is the architecture of the whole edifice of the Preston historical model of Franco being a little Hitler that is built on an anglo-centric account that is dodgy, and ignores the anthropology of Spanish society:  it is one that will however appeal to his liberal-leftist readers in north Europe.  Clearly Nazi Germany was a more scientific than England, as Orwell wrote 'The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there...' and Mussolini's Fascists had the Futurists, whereas the Spanish regime under Franco was not modern, and was more a product of a medieval mentality going back to El Cid and the Spanish Inquisition.  The problem with Professor Preston's book is not that he is being judgemental as well as employing his undoubted skills as a detective, but that in The Spanish Holocaust he slips into polemics and journalism to such a degree that makes his model not just false, but absurd, and perhaps even grotesque.  As Isaiah Berlin wrote in another context:  '… the culture of the Renaissance is not merely different from, but represents a more mature phase of human growth than, that of Outer Mongolia two thousand years ago (at the time of Genghis Khan)'; in the same way the totalitarianism of the Third Reich differs from the authoritarianism of the Spanish Inquisition and those in modern times like Franco and Mola who were its legitimate children.  Preston may well be a great historian both as a detective and judge, but unlike Brenan who lived in Spain for most of his life, he somehow lacks a feel for Spanish civilisation and society.

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