Friday Book: Moderates in a time of extremes

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CARMONA RISES on a bluff above the Guadalquivir valley a few miles east of Seville, complete with Phoenician, Roman, Arab and Spanish Christian monuments; a place of narrow streets, steep uphill pulls and astonishing views out over the plain below. Apart from a plaque extolling a rightist hero of the Spanish Civil War - surviving into a more tolerant democracy - there is nothing to reveal that one of the most sordid incidents of the immediate post-war era took place here.

Julian Besteiro started out with the revolutionist's belief that Spain's Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) - of which, among a host of other high posts, he was for a time the president - should not be associated with the bourgeois republican governments of 1931 and onwards, but should stand instead for purer revolutionary action. As republic gave way to civil war, Besteiro travelled to the right, remaining a key figure in politics and government but also daring to dream of reconciliation as military defeat loomed at the hands of Franco and the rebel generals. In the end, when Madrid fell, only he of the 28 members of the ruling junta remained in the capital. Despite taking part in a foolish internal coup, he also tried to organise a peaceful handover to Franco on behalf of the city's people.

His reward for honesty and dignity and a deep sense of justice was a death sentence from Franco, commuted to 30 years' hard labour. It was in the prison of Carmona, in his 70th year, that he contracted blood poisoning from latrine-cleaning. His wife had to wait eight days to see him and did so only on the eve of his death.

"Besteiro's tragedy," writes Paul Preston, "was that, having lost what little faith he had in the Republic and his Socialist comrades, he chose instead to place his trust in his executioner." The inhabitants of Carmona do not care to talk about the war, but it is fitting that people should take up the theme again, in a wider Spain and internationally, now that Spanish democracy is a quarter-century old and Civil War enmities at last appear to be diminishing.

For it is stories such as Besteiro's, told with clarity and compassion in Comrades!, which bring home to the reader, whether abroad or among Preston's growing following in Spain, one of his central contentions. He argues that in the Civil War, a conflict known above all for its bloody extremism in the name of ideology and class, there were indeed a few who stood apart, achieving a humanistic overview of the disaster. They began to look for a better solution than the continued polarisation of the nation, reaching its most vicious right-wing version during the 36 years of dictatorship under Franco. The philosopher Salvador de Madariaga was one of them; even the republican President Manuel Azana, deep inside, was another. It is genuinely important to recognise that this tendency existed. And it is Preston, above all, who has brought the notion to the general reader - an admirable achievement for a serious historian.

With Besteiro, Madariaga and Azana at its centre, Comrades! consists of nine portraits, essentially political biographies with a human touch. They range from right to left across the Spanish spectrum of the Thirties. At one extreme is the bullet-rent, one-armed, one-eyed, entirely death- crazed General Millan Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion. It was he who taught the young Franco, his second-in-command, the systematic use of cruelty in war, a lesson Franco applied in peace as well. Later, he became a cringing Franco acolyte. His every act was proof that eccentricity is not confined to England.

At the other extreme is Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, the brilliantly emotional Communist orator who was a mother figure to the republican troops. Her days of war were followed by nearly 40 years of trimming to the dangerous winds of Stalinism in Moscow.

Both are described with shrewdness, La Pasionaria with obvious affection. Franco gets an essay, written with more elegance than Preston brought to bear in his huge biography of 1993. So does the fat, diabetic, ultra- energetic socialist Indalecio Prieto, struggling against the dead weight of his own pessimism. Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the great might-have- been of the Spanish right, is naturally a subject - though, maddeningly, we are never told what he in fact advocated. The most surprising essay deals with his sister, Pilar, and the part she played in exalting the domestic virtues in Franco's Spain at the expense of female advancement.

All in all, and with just a little forgiveness over Jose Antonio, the book is a fine and illuminating achievement. Political and personal motivation emerge clearly from the complex practical politics of the era.

Adam Hopkins