Books: A killer afraid of the dentist

Comrades: Portraits of the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston HarperCollins pounds 19.99
The conventional view of the Spanish Civil War is that it was the classic struggle of Right and Left. This is true, but neither side was monolithic and there was often as much hatred within the warring factions as between them. In the Nationalist ranks there were at least four distinct groups: the Falange or Spanish fascists properly so-called, the Army, the monarchists and the right-wing Catholics of the GEDA party. The Republicans for their part were split between liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists and Trotskyists. Now Paul Preston introduces yet another nuance: the "Third Way" of uncommitted or neutral Spaniards, who ended up being hated and despised by both sides.

In this series of nine Plutarch-like biographical vignettes, Preston is at pains to stress that only three of the featured players, Franco, Milln Astray and Dolores Ibrruri, were exponents of war to the knife. The other six, to one degree or another, were all natural compromisers. To represent the neutral Spanish intellectuals such as Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, Preston provides a persuasive portrait of Salvador de Madariaga, later a diplomat, academic and biographer. Madariaga was a cosmopolitan elitist who took fright when the logic of his views led towards fascism and declared a plague on both houses when the Civil War broke out. His anti-Franco stance after the Second World War was severely compromised by his close links with the CIA and, as presented by Preston, he emerges as not so much diplomatically naive as a political moron.

Even more gullible - or maybe simply intellectually arrogant - was Julin Besteiro, president of the Cortes of the Second Republic and an incorruptible man of peace, which made him still more hated by the Francoists. Staggeringly naive about what a victory by Franco would mean, he stayed in Madrid after the Republican surrender and was then surprised to find himself sentenced to 30 years hard labour at the age of 69. Broken by scrubbing floors and cleaning lavatories, he died a year later.

However, Preston shoots himself in the foot by including in his list of possible compromisers Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange. As Preston shows, he was an unregenerate man of the Right, whose reflex action was to solve all problems by violence. A fascist snob of the sort that beguiled the English upper classes in the 1930s, he had one good quality: he loathed and despised Franco, and we may speculate El Caudillo was not unduly concerned when he heard that the hero of the Falange had been executed by the Republicans in November 1936.

It is astonishing to learn from Preston how defeatist the most able Republican leaders were during the Civil War. Indalecio Prieto, in some ways the most interesting human being of those portrayed here - a man of the people, hedonist, wit, bon viveur, vulgarian, from a background of poverty and deprivation - was particularly pessimistic about the outcome and was eventually sacked from the Republican cabinet by his old friend Juan Negrn: a justifiable action that led Prieto to turn on Negrn with bitter hatred. Even more astonishing is the pessimism of the most able of the Republicans, Manuel Azana, successively prime minister and president. The deviser of the Popular Front of 1935, which enabled the demoralised Left to bounce back and win the election of 1936, Azana is the person who gains most stature in Preston's account. A reluctant politician, really a scholar who wanted to withdraw from the fray to read and write, Azana was possibly the greatest Spanish political figure of the 20th century. He stood for law, reason and logic against Franco's brute force but, deeply bourgeois, he had no real idea how to deal with fanatics like Franco and quailed at the prospect of having to arm the workers to fight him. Like Leon Blum, another deviser of Popular Fronts, Azana was a conciliator who had no meaningful role once war broke out.

This takes us to the three really committed actors. Dolores Ibrruri, aka "La Pasionaria", was one of the most important women of the century, an icon to the Left, but to the Right a mannish, "unnatural" virago. A great orator and radio broadcaster, she was the heart and soul of the Republican movement. Such was the power of her rhetoric that she was able to make retreating men turn round and face the enemy again when the front was crumbling. One of the great speeches of the century is her address to the departing International Brigades in October 1938. Preston perhaps devotes too much attention to her sad later life as a Stalinist hack and Moscow mouthpiece, but he cannot conceal his admiration. She was truly significant but I am not convinced that Primo de Rivera's sister Pilar, head of the Francoist women's movement, really was, and suspect that Preston has included her for "balance".

Finally, the real villains, Jose Milln Astray, founder of the Spanish Legion, really nothing more than a band of thugs and cutthroats sicklied o'er with a phoney samurai ethos, was a genuine monster, well summed up by his ludicrous slogan Viva la muerte ("Long live death!").

Absurdly sycophantic towards Franco, this murderous bully, who once made a Patton-like attack on a wounded man in a military hospital, spent his time browbeating waiters and bullying academics, but when visiting the dentist gripped the dental chair as if being electrocuted. His raping and slaughtering Legionaries were courageous only when high on alcohol, cocaine or morphine. Like his master, Milln Astray always justified his men's atrocities as part of the "crusade" for civilisation.

As for Franco, Preston has already demolished this avatar of evil comprehensively in his brilliant 1993 biography, so the portrait here is little more than a mopping-up operation. A sexually repressed, cruel, intellectually mediocre, unimaginative master of political manipulation, he was allowed to survive with supreme power for 36 years by the West's moral cowardice and his alleged usefulness in the fight against Communism. Preston makes the point that this fanatic executed 200,000 people after the Civil War and starved another million to death in labour camps as part of his crazed programme of "redemption through suffering". Preston's admiration for the moderates and compromisers in the Spanish Civil War does not mean he is incapable of savage indignation, and his horrific portrait of Franco is simply the best thing in an excellent and entirely successful book.