In Hiding – The Life of Manuel Cortes by Ronald Fraser - review by Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor

Spain’s Forgotten Years

In Hiding – The Life of Manuel Cortes


Penguin 238pp £2.50 order from our bookshop

This account of a socialist mayor hidden by his wife for thirty years after the Spanish Civil War was compiled just over ten years ago. It is now almost tempting to see the book as a prototype for Ronald Fraser’s subsequent masterpiece of oral history The Blood of Spain – undoubtedly the most innovative and illuminating work on the war. In précis, the story of Manuel Cortes might well appear to be worth little more than the colour supplement article which appeared prior to publication. But this remarkable book developed from Ronald Fraser’s recognition of the potential which lay behind a news item. With his local knowledge, patience and understanding he won the confidence of Manuel Cortes and his family. The result is not only an extraordinary story of human resilience, but also a valuable document of political and social history. It brings southern Andalucia to life from the days of Alfonso XIII until ‘the foreigners began to arrive’, and also helps to explain much wider issues, particularly the vital question of agrarian reform.

The only other personal account of such quality to appear in English about the civil war was A Guerrilla Diary of the Spanish Civil War by Francisco Perez Lopez. Both men were calm and practical characters who had made the very best of a minimal education, and both possessed impressive insight. For example in 1969, four years before the recession, Manuel Cortes analysed the underlying weakness in Spain’s boom and pointed out how the reliance on tourism, remittances and foreign investment made the country one of the most vulnerable in Europe.

Although never missing the news on the radio, this sleepless Rip van Winkle emerges to gaze with amazement at the new skyline of the Costa del Sol. He also finds the local youth totally ignorant of the past and only interested in having a good time. Subjected to Franquist propaganda, religious history and the recitation of catechisms at school, their cynicism for all politics and belief is still a shock to him. I could not help thinking how Manuel’s reaction might well have been similar to that of a Trotskyist hidden since the Stalinist purges, who emerges to find Muscovite youth only interested in foreign records, jeans and sunglasses.

All dictatorships depend on apathy, ignorance and a manipulated fear of fresh convulsions far more than on active support. They only need ‘to administer the silence’ as Contreras, the chief of Chile’s DINA put it. Franquism and Communism appear as reverse images of each other in so many ways. Both regimes needed each other as propaganda targets in the early Cold War years and both imposed intellectual cordons sanitaires while rewriting history. And as we are reminded in this book, job applicants in Spain usually needed a certificate of spiritual, and thus political, cleanliness from their priest just as Russians needed a harakteristika guaranteeing their reliability.

Manuel, a deeply conservative and patriarchal socialist, also gives us an excellent picture of life in rural Andalucia. As a young man he would never smoke in front of his father, and if he happened to walk into a bar where he was, Manuel would leave immediately. ‘These were marks of respect a son pays to his father.’ In the asphyxiating atmosphere (to an outsider at least) of a pueblo on the slopes of the sierra, the rules of courting and the restrictions on women were almost Moorish. Manuel and his wife, Juliana, also record the poverty of those times in a remarkably philosophical fashion. Juliana was lucky to work as a maid earning only fifteen pesetas a month because she was fed. In the fields, union organisers risked the attentions of the cacique’s toughs armed with shotguns.

In April 1931 the cacique of Mijas declared the results of the key municipal elections in the monarchists’ favour without counting the votes. But, as Manuel recounts, the inhabitants listening to the radio in the cafe, soon rushed cheering into the plaza when Alfonso’s abdication was announced following the national results. They soon realised however, that the ancien régime had not accepted defeat. The new government’s labour measures were thwarted while the proposals for agrarian reform were no more than ‘an aspirin to cure an appendicitis’ as the socialist leader Largo Caballero said. Even the conservative CEDA leader spoke of the landlords’ ‘suicidal egoism’.

When the military rebellion came in July 1936 Manuel tried to stop the killing of local right-wingers, but the exaltados ‘had no political consciousness’. As mayor of Mijas he was to be held responsible by the Nationalists, so when the province of Malaga was over-run by Nationalist and Italian Fascist forces under the Duke of Seville in February 1937, Manuel took part in the horrific flight to Almeria along the coast road. He was right to flee. In the province of Malaga 1,005 people had been killed by the left, according to official Nationalist sources. But even though one might assume most of those responsible to have fled, the Nationalists still shot 20,452 people in the province between February 1937 and August 1944.

Although the worst repression of the whole civil war, Ronald Fraser hardly hints at its scale, which is surprising. The only other criticism which could be made of his book is that he does not correct Manuel’s account in his notes. Obviously there is not room for a potted history of the war, as Fraser says, but it would be useful if mistakes like Manuel’s reference to the officer shot on April 14th, 1936 were pointed out, if only to underline the confusion of the time. Also Manuel was a committed supporter of Negrín, the prime minister backed by the Communists, so his view of intra-Republican disputes is highly coloured, like his accusation of Colonel Casado’s treachery.

Perhaps the most useful, and moving, parts of the book are the descriptions of ‘the hunger years’ in the aftermath of the civil war when Juliana used to walk several hundred kilometres a week buying eggs locally and selling them in Malaga to keep the family alive. Even after such intense international interest in Spain, it was inevitable that the world war would make it a forgotten period. Spanish Republicans like Manuel listened secretly to the BBC, their hope surging with Operation Torch, Stalingrad and D-Day. For them the fall of Franco’s allies meant the fall of Franco. They were cruelly disappointed.

The foundation of Ronald Fraser’s reputation was laid with the appearance of this book in 1972. Why did Penguin wait until after his triumph with The Blood of Spain to bring it out in paperback?

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