This book is a magnificent achievement. By examining the lives of four women caught up in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, Professor Preston casts a fresh light on the bitter struggle between the Nationalist rebels and the defenders of the legal, democratic Republic, and also on the domestic faction fights that bedevilled each side. In all this, the author combines the skills of the professional historian with a profound understanding of women whose emotional lives were transformed or warped by war. The enduring fascination of this book lies in the fact not a happy life, but she endured it with her customary courage and optimism.
Pip went to Spain in a chauffeur-driven limousine, loaded with luggage. Nan Green travelled by train third-class with two battered suitcases. Her family had dropped out of the middle class into poverty, and her much-loved husband, George, was a struggling musician. Whereas Pip was a political innocent (sharing the views of her Francoist friends, who saw the war as an anti-Communist crusade), both George and Nan were well-read militant Communists. To go to Spain was an inescapable duty. Victory for the Republic would mean the defeat of Fascism in Europe. When George volunteered as an ambulance driver in the International Brigades, Nan left her children to join him as a nurse and hospital administrator. Like Pip, she faced dirt and squalor, nights without sleep and the malice and sordid intrigues of her critics. ‘Surrounded by the dead and the dying,’ Preston writes, ‘human beings often seek comfort in a life-affirming passion.’ A short affair with a that all his ‘doves’ were alike in their courage and independence of spirit, yet differed widely in their political convictions and social backgrounds.
Priscilla Scott-Ellis, known to her friends as ‘Pip’, was the daughter of one of Britain’s richest aristocrats, Lord Howard de Walden, an expert on heraldry and armour, and a friend of Augustus John. When the Civil War broke out, she was living the life of a girl of her class: deb dances, a round of parties from the great house in Belgrave Square and an idyllic country life on Brownsea Island, which her father owned. Her connection with Spain was the result of her family’s friendship with Alfonso de Orleans, cousin of King Alfonso XIII and husband to a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was hopelessly in love with their son, Prince Ataúlfo. By going to Spain, where he was serving in the Condor Legion, the air force sent by Hitler to help the nationalists, she would be able to meet him. This, combined with her love of adventure and an urge to escape from a social life that she found ‘sterile and pointless’, brought her to Spain as a nurse in Francoist hospitals. Almost every night, however weary, she wrote in a diary, a shortened version of which I edited. It is an astonishing chronicle of courage and optimism in the face of a world of blood, dirt, sleepless nights, bad food, and the petty intrigues of jealous colleagues. Scarcely surprisingly, she came home burnt out. Her pathetic love for Ataúlfo was rejected and she married a professional womaniser and second-rate writer. It was not a happy life, but she endured it with her customary courage and optimism.
Pip went to Spain in a chauffeur-driven limousine, loaded with luggage. Nan Green travelled by train third-class with two battered suitcases. Her family had dropped out of the middle class into poverty, and her much-loved husband, George, was a struggling musician. Whereas Pip was a political innocent (sharing the views of her Francoist friends, who saw the war as an anti-Communist crusade), both George and Nan were well-read militant Communists. To go to Spain was an inescapable duty. Victory for the Republic would mean the defeat of Fascism in Europe. When George volunteered as an ambulance driver in the International Brigades, Nan left her children to join him as a nurse and hospital administrator. Like Pip, she faced dirt and squalor, nights without sleep and the malice and sordid intrigues of her critics. ‘Surrounded by the dead and the dying,’ Preston writes, ‘human beings often seek comfort in a life-affirming passion.’ A short affair with a politically suspect friend led to her denunciation by a doctor whose advances she had rejected; she was accused of Trotskyism – the cardinal sin for hardline Stalinists – and of being an ‘adventurer’, the code word for sexual promiscuity. Like Pip, she was burnt out, and ‘the fun-loving woman became a serious-minded communist’. She confessed that she had lost her ‘blind faith’ but she could not denounce in public the errors of the party line. She worked tirelessly for Spanish Republican exiles and the returned International Brigaders. George was killed in battle. She could face his loss because ‘It was a good was to die. He believed it must come right. He was doing what he had to do and he believed the Republic would be victorious.’
The two Spanish ‘doves’ found themselves on opposite sides of the war. Margarita Nelken was a Jewish intellectual – she translated Kafka into Spanish and made her living as an art critic. A prominent feminist, she lived with a penniless sculptor and later with a married businessman. Scarcely surprisingly, she was denounced by the anti-Semitic Catholic Right as a whore. As a socialist deputy in the Cortes, she was passionately concerned with the sufferings of her peasant constituents and their repression by the Civil Guard. She came to believe that only an armed revolution would remedy their distress. This was a grave error, since such an armed struggle was doomed to failure. She joined the Communist Party in the mistaken belief that they were revolutionaries. Already, on a visit to Russia, she had written, ‘life is good and joyful in the Soviet countryside.’ If she had felt that the socialists had neglected her talents, she was outshone in the Spanish Communist Party by the infinitely coarser Dolores Ibirruri, La Pasionaria, whose fiery speeches made her the female icon of the Party. Margarita felt contempt for party bureaucrats, but, like Nan, she did not make her views public. She was a devoted mother, whose grief at the death of her son on the Russian front destroyed her and makes painful reading. Perhaps she could not bring herself publicly to criticise the Soviet Union, in whose soil her son was buried. Whereas Margarita was a Jew and violently anticlerical, Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller came from a family of Castilian landowners and was a practising Catholic, as was her husband, Onésimo Redondo. As early as 1932, he had written ‘the war is getting nearer, the situation of violence is inevitable’, and he set about fomenting it in the street fights in Valladolid between the fascistoid Falange, which he had joined, and the Socialists. Onésimo was killed i n the first days o f the war. Mercedes did not retire into the widowhood of a Nationalist hero. Troubled by the fate of orphans, whether their fathers were fighting at the Nationalist front or victims of Francoist executions, she set about creating from nothing the most important welfare organisation of the nascent Francoist state.
Inevitably she was caught up in the factional feuds of the Falange that broke out after the execution by the Republicans of its leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Preston’s detailed account of the poisoned atmosphere of the faction fights is a major contribution to the internal history of wartime Francoism. Onésimo the radical and man of violence had seemed suspect to the clique that surrounded ‘aristocratic’ José Antonio and his sister Pilar, who saw herself as José Antonio’s political heir. She strove to bring Mercedes’s now vast welfare organisation under her control. This clash of principles concealed a conflict of personalities. Mercedes was sexually attractive and believed that women should play an independent role. Pilar was a virginal icon who believed that women after the war should go back to their traditional role as wives and mothers. In their long struggle, Pilar won out. In the asphyxiating atmosphere of early postwar Francoism, Mercedes was honoured, but her achievements were written out of Falangist history. Wars give women a prominent and unaccustomed role. But as in Britain after 1919, in Spain after 1939 it proved to have been a photo opportunity rather than a feminist triumph. Academic feminist historians tend to be theorists. Preston is not a theorist; he may believe, like Proust, that theorists are out of touch with reality, the mess and complexity of human existence. This book is eminently readable – narrative history at its best.