BOOK REVIEW / A passionate dream: 'La Pasionaria' - Robert Low: Hutchinson, 17.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THANKS to George Orwell, we Brits came out of the Spanish Civil War rather well. But the Spaniards themselves, like most of the rest of Europe in the Thirties and Forties, could not afford the luxury of staying well out of it. Not the least of the merits of Robert Low's excellent biography of Dolores Ibarruri, better known by her pen name La Pasionaria or 'passion flower', lies in showing how difficult were the political choices facing ordinary people in Spain.

Born into a poor mining family in the northern Basque country, an early marriage offered even worse hardship. By the time Dolores was 33 in the early Thirties, she had lost four out of six children, and shortly afterwards experienced the callous repression of the miners' revolt in Asturias that marked the beginning of Spain's decline into barbarism.

La Pasionaria's choice led her to the Spanish Communist Party, which was committed to sweeping away the old, rotten order. She was a godsend for party propaganda: a genuine woman of the people with a great talent for oratory. Working at first in secret, she became a member of the Spanish parliament when her party joined in a Popular Front government to seek change by legal means.

It was during the short months of this ill-fated government in 1936 that she became the heroine for her own side, and the 'sadistic harpie' that the Francoists saw her as, especially for her role in the assassination of the conservative leader Calvo Sotelo. La Pasionaria is said to have remarked after one of his inflammatory speeches, 'that will be your last'; a few days later he was murdered, and the spark that provoked General Franco's revolt against the republican government had been provided.

Low's book is not an exhaustive, breeze block-size biography. At 200 well-written pages, it is essentially the work of a journalist. With regard to the Calvo Sotelo incident, for example, Low has not searched out new evidence but judiciously considers what others have written on the subject, reaching the conclusion that: 'It suits her defenders to portray her as a sort of secular saint, but a glance at any of her speeches of that time shows that she used language of the most basic and blood-curdling kind. . . . But a few speeches in parliament were not the sole causes of the Civil War. They could not compare, for example, to the bitterness and division left by the Asturias uprising. They were all part of the process of a society slowly destroying itself.'

After Franco's rebellion in July 1936, this process of destruction speeded up dramatically. Low traces La Pasionaria's devotion to the republican cause. On his account, she seems to have been tireless and fearless.

When the republic finally collapsed in 1939, La Pasionaria began another life in the Soviet Union. Once again, Low is even-handed in his view of the relations and compromises she was forced into during 17 years as head of the Spanish Communist Party in exile. He manages to interweave the political with the personal, suggesting that most of the fight went out of La Pasionaria after her last son, Ruben, was killed during the Nazi siege of Stalingrad.

Through the Sixties and Seventies she became an increasingly sad figure. But life still had one surprise left for her. Her bitter enemy Franco died in 1976, and 40 years after she had first triumphantly entered the Spanish parliament, La Pasionaria again became a member during the transitional years to democracy.

Here, too, Low is Orwellian in the coolness of his judgement, pointing out how the young Communists of Asturias, where she was elected, resented having this mythical figure from the past foisted on them. The new generation of Spanish politicians were anxious to get on with the possible, and La Pasionaria gradually faded from the public scene. She died just two days after the fall of the Berlin wall confirmed that the vast majority of her former comrades decided they wanted no more of her kind of dream. All that was left, as Low concludes, were a few ringing phrases: 'better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees'.