BETRAYED FROM WITHIN
Jonathan Steele in the Guardian, September 29, 1995
Veterans of the Spanish Civil War have been inspired to speak publicly about the true story of their struggle by the success in Spain of Ken Loach's new film, 'Land and Freedom'
'I WAS amazed and scandalised when I first saw it done,' George Orwell revealed, soon after he reached the front-line in the Spanish civil war. The 'it' was the way both sides would spend much of their energy shouting propaganda across the trenches. Men with the best voices would be given megaphones to ensure their slogans reached the Fascist lines. 'Such a proceeding does not fit in with the English conception of war. The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him! . . . It made us feel that the Spaniards were not taking this war of theirs sufficiently seriously,' Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia. Sometimes the slogans hurled at Fascist conscripts were political: 'Don't fight against your own class'. Often it was just abuse: 'Fascist idiots'.
One man took direct aim at the soft underbelly of enemy morale. 'Buttered toast!' he boomed. 'We're just sitting down to buttered toast over here. Lovely slicesof buttered toast!' In Land and Freedom, Ken Loach's new film about the Spanish war, there is a similar scene. But this time it's an Irish volunteer, not a local Spaniard, who shouts across the trenches, and his invitation to the Fascists to desert their posts is more proletarian. 'The food here's fucking brilliant,' he yells.
Ever since its appearance in 1938, Orwell's memoir of the civil war has been a model for generations of British foreign correspondents, and not just because of its sharp evocation of the unromantic confusion of war. Orwell's stance and tone seemed to represent an ideal. There is emotion, even anger in Homage to Catalonia, but it is heavily outweighed by Orwell's sardonic, low-key, Old Etonian detachment. Take that telling phrase - 'this war of theirs'. Moreover, if the book has a prevailing mood, it is a very English attitude of mild pessimism. That is the last charge which could be laid against Ken Loach. Optimism and political engagement shine through all his work, one of the reasons, perhaps, why he continues to be so much more warmly acclaimed on the Continent than in Britain. At Cannes this summer, Land and Freedom won the International Jury Prize and Loach was greeted by adoring crowds. In Spain, where the film was released in May, thousands of people, mainly young, have been besieging the movie-houses to uncover the secrets of what their grandparents really did in the war.
The film is the nearest thing to an epic that Loach has made. The hero, David, is not a middle-class journalist . . .a la Orwell, but an unemployed youth from Liverpool, who joins the first stream of volunteers going out to Spain after Franco's mutiny against the elected Republican government. This was before the fully -fledged International Brigade was set up. 'We wanted him to be working class, and not an intellectual,' says Loach, 'because in the popular conception it was (people such as) Orwell - artists, writers, and painters - when actually it was mainly working-class lads who went there.' Strictly speaking, Land and Freedom is not about the civil war at all. It is subtitled 'a story of the Spanish revolution' and only covers a few months in Barcelona and the Aragon front in 1936. This was the period when grassroots resentment at the feudal institutions of Spanish society, the army, the church and the big landlords, was bursting uncontrollably to the surface. Factories and large estates were spontaneously collectivised by their workers. Church property was ransacked or seized. When Franco launched his counter-attack in July, hundreds of young Spaniards joined militia brigades in which the traditional rank structure of the army was thrown out of the window, women carried rifles on a par with men, and everyone called their officers 'comrade'.
Like the other foreigners who dropped into this chaotic environment, David stares with amazement at first but is soon infected by the climate of freedom and equality. Orwell wrote: Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine'. The camaraderie and enthusiasm as people discover a world of alternatives give the film its emotional force - plus, of course, the questions which loom larger as the film reaches its climax. Was the revolution viable, or was it betrayed? The Republican side eventually lost the war in 1939 after Britain and France insisted on 'non-intervention', even though Hitler and Mussolini were openly helping the Fascists. But in Loach's analysis, the cause had already been betrayed by June 1937, when the Communists gained the upper hand within the disparate movements of the Left.
Land and Freedom's central theme, which emerges in the second half of
the film, is a betrayal within a betrayal. Stalin, who had tight control over the Spanish Communist leadership via his many agents in Barcelona and Madrid,
wanted to reverse the revolutionary advances. He hoped that a moderate form of
Republicanism would gain more support from the Spanish middle-class and
make the Soviet Union more acceptable as an ally for Britain and France. The
Communists in the Popular Front government started a campaign of repression
against the Anarchists and the activists of the revolutionary militias, known as the POUM.
Many Spaniards are still stunned that it has taken a foreigner to lift the veil so dramatically on their own past. Until shortly before Franco's death in 1975, any positive treatment of the Republican cause was obviously taboo. The surprise is that the transition to democracy in the two subsequent decades has not produced any extensive re-writing of history. An embarrassed silence is a fairer description of what happened. The day on which the Republic was proclaimed in April 1931 is no t officially commemorated in today's Spain, nor is the installation of the Popular Front government (a coalition of Republicans, Socialists, Communists and Syndicalists) in 1936. If you go into any bookshop in Barcelona, and ask for books on the civil war, they refer you to foreign authors like Hugh Thomas or Raymond Carr. School textbooks peter out with the first world war.
Enric Casanas, an elderly Anarchist, now pushing 80, is a wild fan of Loach's film. But he is deeply scornful of the Spanish Communists, whose soft tactics since their return to legality after 1975 has done little to help their electoral fortunes. 'We never had a rupture with Francoism, as the Germans had with the Nazis after the war,' he says. 'Our transition was an arrangement. The Communists, when they came back, did not demand major changes in the textbooks. They wanted to be accepted by the powers that be.' His bitterness towards the Communists is a key part of Ken Loach's film just as it was of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. The seeds of the anti-Stalinism, which was later to produce Animal Farm and 1984, were planted when Orwell saw the Spanish Communists in action in 1937. Loach's anti-Stalinism is also deep-seated, which is, he says, another reason why he wanted the film to have a proletarian hero who would start out as a member of the Communist Party and gradually change his views. In a provocative scene towards the end of the film, David tears up his Party card.
Only two or three of the film's 'militia', including David, were professional actors. Several were trade union activists. The dialogue in some key scenes was allowed to emerge unscripted and the film was shot in chronological sequence without the actors being told the whole plot. This allowed the suspense to build, so that their reactions at key moments, such as the death of a militia comrade, pack a greater punch.
No group is more delighted with the film, for obvious reasons, than the small cohort of ageing POUM and Anarchist activists who still live in and around Barcelona. Loach and his team consulted many of them to get the authentic story.
Driven into exile like the rest of the Left after the Fascist victory, fewer of them returned with democracy, apparently fearing that Communist hegemony on the Left would deny them a voice. The irony is that in the 1930s the Anarchists were more numerous than the Communists. It is a quirk of European history that anarchy put down its deepest roots in one of the Continent's least industrial countries. Even today, Spain's main trade union organisation, the CNT, is a successor of the Anarchists.
One reason for their strength was their energy in setting up alternative schools and promoting adult education in a heavily illiterate society. Some people had no chance to go to school as children. Others had parents who rebelled against Church control of the schools and kept their children away. Concha Perez came from such a family. Well into her seventies, she still runs a street stall, selling jewellery, a job she half-ridicules as 'rather bourgeois'. 'We called the Anarchist schools ateneos, a high-falutin derivation from Athenaeum. They were really workers' cultural centres,' she remembers. 'No one can refute Ken Loach's film,' she goes on.' It represents the climate we lived through. There was a real sense that ordinary people were taking things into their own hands.' In a book-lined apartment in the holiday resort of Sitges, heavily shuttered against the blazing sun, Victor Alba steers me to a seat close to his left eye. The right one has not worked since childhood, a handicap which kept him in the offices of La Battalla, the POUM newspaper, rather than joining the fighting at the front. But Alba has few regrets except that he did not make a lot of money out of his chance meeting with Orwell. 'I was one of the few who spoke French. The Journalists' Guild contacted me to say there was an English journalist who had no Spanish but some French. Would I show him round Barcelona? I spent two half-days with him. He was a pain in the neck, said almost nothing, asked very few questions. They were good ones but quite conventional. I kicked myself later for not discovering he was an interesting fellow. I could have invented a book Conversations with Orwell.' Alba came from a middle-class Republican family. He was in high school when the King fled Spain in 1931. 'Class distinctions in those days were very visible. People dressed differently, spoke differently, reacted differently. It was natural that middle-class kids would be attracted by the ateneos. This phenomenon of workers educating workers was going on all over Spain. I found it exhilarating and stimulating.'
He remembers the way the people took the factories into common ownership after Franco announced his mutiny in July 1936. 'Owners just abandoned their factories. The problem was who would pay workers their wages. The workers' assemblies simply decided to take them over. Although a quarter of all males over 15 were in unions, it wasn't the unions who decided. The ateneo tradition worked.' The same happened in the countryside. 'It was easier there, since Catalonia had a long tradition of peasant militancy.' Alba advised Loach on one of the film's most effective scenes, a collectivisation debate in the dining-room of an abandoned estate after the militias seize a village from the Fascists and kill a priest. 'It's good that he showed a priest being shot, because we did shoot priests. We were no angels, but then the priests weren't, either.' After the Fascists won, Alba was arrested and jailed until December 1944. He walked across the Pyrenees to France, took a boat to Mexico, and eventually ended up teaching history at Kent State university in Ohio, where he co-authored his main work Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism. He retired in 1982 and returned to Spain. 'The Communists didn't want POUM people to come back. They said I was a CIA agent. I asked a student why he thought so. 'Because you taught at an American university.' That was all!' POUM militants such as Alba argued that the revolution and the civil war must go hand-in-hand. Without the revolution's social advances and its collective decision-making, people would not be motivated to fight. 'Our strategy was to compensate for lack of weapons with enthusiasm, sacrifice, and voluntary discipline - what the others called voluntarism,' Alba recollects.
The Communist argument was that victory over Fascism must come first. The struggle was between Fascism and democracy. Only later could one talk of revolution. The passion of the split still rages today. A group of International Brigade veterans, mainly with Communist sympathies, was invited to a preview of Land and Freedom in London last month. Afterwards, they rounded on Jim Allen, the screenwriter, and Loach himself. The film focused on a tiny part of the war, they said. It pretended the Brigaders were dupes of Stalin. It implied that arms were deliberately held back from the revolutionary militias by the Communists when in reality everyone was without arms until aid from the Soviet Union started to arrive.
'Many people who were in no political party before the civil war joined or identified with the Communists because the Soviet Union provided the only arms we had. When our lads who'd had rifles dating back to 1890 were given a Soviet rifle, they said 'Good Old Joe', said Bill Alexander, leader of the British Battalion, to Loach. The Spanish people also felt gratitude to the Soviet Union, which was one reason why the Communists, who had got a negligible score in the 1936 election, later grew rapidly. 'We were never stooges of Stalin, because what was happening in Spain fitted in with our own experience.' The angry veterans concluded that the POUM had opted out of the combined struggle by trying to advance its own agenda, and Loach's argument about betrayal was therefore a travesty. One veteran even said he hoped his grandchildren would not see the film.
With hindsight, many on the Left have argued that if the world had supported the Republican side with sufficient arms and aid to defeat Franco, the second world war might never have started. Parallels are made with the current war in Bosnia. Interestingly, this is no longer the view of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was never a POUM fan and took the Communist line at the time.
In Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century he still finds the social revolution which was unleashed in Spain in 1936 'a terrifying episode' since it was 'so unstructured'. Political order and authority suddenly evaporated. On the other hand, he writes, 'contrary to the beliefs of this author's generation, the Spanish civil war and the victory of General Franco, who cannot even be described as a Fascist, had no significant global consequences. It merely kept Spain isolated from the rest of world history for another 30 years.' Equally interesting with hindsight, the period covered by Loach's film shows the degree to which Stalin subordinated bigger issues to his obsessive feud with Trotsky. Spanish Communist leaders, working closely with Stalin's agents from the Comintern, denounced the POUM activists as Trotskyists or even as Fascist agents and collaborators. Newly discovered material from the Soviet archives proves that Andres Nin, the POUM leader, was murdered on Stalin's orders. In fact, the POUM was not a Trotskyist organisation. Nin had broken with Trotksy in 1933. In his colloquial American-English, Victor Alba drawls, 'Trotsky was a son of a bitch. He criticised the POUM even after it was criticised by the Communists, at a time when that kind of criticism meant death.' We can see now that Stalin's orders to repress the POUM activists was his first export of the purges outside the Soviet Union, a practice he was later to follow in Eastern Europe after the war. (The surviving British International Brigaders are innocent of this. Most were in and around Madrid, not Barcelona, or came to Spain after the summer of 1937. They were not involved in repression.) Had Stalin's purges been more vigorously denounced at the time, perhaps he would not have dared to kill so many members of the Soviet High Command before the war. This might have saved the Red Army from its rapid collapse in the face of the Nazi advance in 1941.
At 80, Joan Rocabert still kits himself out in a smart blue safari suit and carefully strokes his strong white hair with the pride of one who led a centuria, a group of 10 activists and 90 volunteers in the militias. It is his memory of being arrested when the regular Republican army disarmed the militias which laid the basis for the climactic scene in Loach's film. 'If the Communists had won the civil war, not one POUMist would have been left alive,' he says. 'Under the Fascists at least we could change our names and hide, and thus survive. I am sorry to have to say this.' Rocabert was one of the few who came back to Spain under Franco. He was jailed for a year in 1947.
'After that, I gave up clandestine activities. I became bourgeois and started a workshop making hot-water boilers in a small town. I was a refuge for other returning exiles, and gave them jobs. The local mayor knew I was a Republican but turned a blind eye.' For Pilar Santiago, another POUM militant, her second worst memory is the charge that the POUM collaborated with the Fascists, an accusation she heard on a local radio station at the time. 'We found it was being broadcast by POUM people who had gone over to the Communists - typical Stalinist smear tactics.' A catch still comes into her voice when she recalls the worst thing, her first husband's death in 1937. A POUM activist, he was sent with two comrades on a mission to the front. All three were shot. She is convinced the Communists killed them. The next day she was arrested by the Communist police chief of Barcelona and detained in a disused convent. She was saved by an uncle, a general on the Eastern front, who sent her with a group of war orphans to the safety of France.
She welcomes Loach's film as a 'window of opportunity', provoking a belated historical debate in Spain. Rocabert, too, believes that the tacit agreement not to talk about the civil war after the peaceful transition from Fascism after 1975 should lapse now. He is thrilled that young Spaniards are flocking to see Loach's film. 'I think I could start a political party based on this. It's generated so much energy and given us a lot of hope. Young people must have hope.' Whether the film can repeat its Spanish success in Britain is difficult to judge. 'Popular cinema has become more and more like American comic books,' Loach says. 'To intervene there is very hard. If it gets into the multiplexes and the big cinemas, it's a question of surviving the popcorn, really.'
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