Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War
by Ronald Fraser
Pantheon, 628 pp., $15.95
Clearly Mr. Fraser feels the need to justify another 300,000 or so words on the Spanish Civil War. “It would be vain to hope to add,” he writes, “anything new to the overall map of the period.” His purpose is distinct. He set out to find something that “has remained unarticulated: the subjective, a spectrum of the lived experiences of people who participated in the events,” in order to “reveal the intangible ‘atmosphere’ of events.”
His technique is oral history: a wide range of interviews with survivors fitted with skill into a general narrative. Forty years after the Civil War these interviews often represent what people thought had happened, above all what they now think should have happened then, Hence so many of his interviewees are former Falangists, now bitter critics of the domesticated Falangism of the Franco regime which abandoned their “pending revolution”; or they are Stalinists converted to Eurocommunism who are now anxious to prove the Party’s consistent support of democratic pluralism; or repentant anarchists and so on. Their present views are nevertheless, as Mr. Fraser rightly maintains, in themselves “historical facts.” Memories of the Civil War, stereotyped and manipulated to present circumstance though they may be, are still an active element in the Spanish political mind. But memories lack the immediacy of the interviews in Mr. Fraser’s Tajos—in my view the best book yet published on Francoism in its process of decomposition, a book for which I have an intense admiration. Blood of Spain is much nearer to traditional history, and Mr. Fraser is an excellent traditional historian. His section on “Points of Rupture” is a perceptive and valuable piece of straight history.
Oral history of the past is a tricky business. When I went back to Spain and France in the early 1950s to collect testimony on the Civil War I found minds already set in defensive mythologies. There were some surprises. Communists might lie like troopers over the assassination of the POUM leader Andreu Nin but their memory for hard facts and statistics that did not compromise the Party line was infallible. Liberals were already lost in a vaguer, defensive vision. What did numbers matter in the war of ideas?
There were other surprises. The most outspoken critics of Francoism still allowed to survive in Spain were disillusioned Falangists (now enjoying a literary vogue in Marsé’s novel Girl with the Golden Panties) and disappointed Monarchists. Even Civil Guards, to the opposition symbols of Black Spain, grumbled about a mean government that would not pay them a living wage for sustaining it—one of Mr. Fraser’s informants asserts that to make ends meet they sold arms to the guerrillas they were fighting.
What worried me about my own research during the 1950s were the discrepancies between what was already in written sources and what people said. General Rojo, Chief of Staff of the Republican Army, whom I knew during his retirement in Madrid, was no longer the savage critic of …