We Saw Spain Die, By Paul Preston

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Much of what we think we know of the Spanish Civil War is framed less by political history than the literary diaries of foreigners who joined the international brigades, then wrote books about the events they witnessed or wished to record. Among the best-known are, of course, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos and Herbert Matthews from the US; George Orwell, Stephen Spender and WH Auden from the UK; Antoine de Saint-Exupery, André Malraux and Simone Weil from France. While they may have enlisted to serve the Republic, many in effect joined the ranks of some 1,000 newspaper correspondents – at least five of whom were killed. They held the tragically mistaken belief that if only Western democracies could awaken to the disaster in Spain, their governments would be prepared to fight to prevent it becoming their own.

Instead, Republican Spain could count on no allies (and no arms), while Franco's Falange was backed by Italian and German military might in the dry-run for the Luftwaffe's blitzing of cities. France attempted to turn back and starve out those pitiful refugees who made it across the Pyrenees. Britain affected a veneer of neutrality amid much washing of hands; and the US became so preoccupied with the search for "red devils" that it was aggressively investigating every half-decent anti-fascist returned from Spain even as it signed up to war on Fascism.

What We Saw Spain Die gives us is many of the words and something of the lives of lesser-known war correspondents: Louis Fischer, George Steer, Jay Allen, Henry Buckley and Herbert Southworth among them. The complexities of their commitment in the search for truthful reporting – struggling against the black propaganda by the right-wing press abroad and erratic censorship exercised in the name of national unity at home – is epitomised in the surprising Lawrence Fernsworth.

Described as a "Conservative democrat of the old school, who had become a staunch defender of the new Republic", Fernsworth was grey-haired, wore a pince-nez and, a devout Roman Catholic, contributed to the Jesuit weekly America. Yet rather than lurid, unsubstantiated tales of torched churches and raped nuns, he wrote a careful account of the plight of fleeing refugees from Almeria for The Times. Despite the provision of sworn statements, The Times refrained from publication in favour of a denial from its correspondent. No act of faith must be allowed to get in the way of the facts – even when Fernsworth knew those facts "would be harmful to the Republican cause for which ... I felt a deep sympathy. But it was the truth and had to be told".

Being in Spain rendered the war correspondents prescient. In Martha Gellhorn's words, "Western democracies had two commanding obligations: they must save their honour by assisting a young, attacked fellow democracy, and they must save their skin, by fighting Hitler and Mussolini at once, in Spain, instead of waiting till later, when the cost in human suffering would be unimaginably greater." To this pragmatic dimension was added the ethical one, which Matthews described: "All of us who lived the Spanish Civil War felt deeply emotional about it ... It was, on balance, the cause of justice, morality, decency". In the minds of these correspondents, the quest for truth was not compromised but enhanced by commitment. This testament to their testimony could not have been supplied by a more erudite expert. Preston is a peerless historian of Spain, and the only one who writes as readably as a professional journalist.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation