Interview: Professor Sir Paul Preston

Sophie Macdonald 17 March 2022
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Professor Sir Paul Preston, the most prominent and prolific historian on The Spanish Civil War, has dedicated the lion’s share of his academic life to writing both the domestic and international relations of twentieth-century Spain. His books include The Coming of the Spanish Civil War (1978); The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, (1986); The Spanish Civil War. Reaction, Revolution, Revenge (2006); and, most recently, A People Betrayed (2020). In an exclusive interview with TCS, Professor Sir Paul Preston spoke about his personal opinions and commitments to disinterring the truths about The Spanish Civil War.

As a man who has been dedicated to his study for over thirty years, I asked Professor Preston whether his support for the Spanish Republic, which he firmly states in his books, has ever wavered. “I still believe that the cause of the Spanish Republic was the ‘good’ cause,” he began, highlighting that “after all, Franco was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Professor Preston explained that the “intention of the military coup was to overturn the progressive  reforms of the Republic and their victory led to the slaughter of more than 150,000 innocent civilians and, after 1939, the imprisonment of nearly one million people, the forced exile of nearly half a million and the pauperisation of vast swathes of the population.” He continued that, to him, to “favour #franco is the equivalent of favouring Hitler or Mussolini,” but added that he is also “acutely aware of mistakes made by the governments of the Republic and analyse in my various books,” and notes that his book The Spanish Holocaust “is pretty hard on anarchist atrocities,” and “recount[s] the atrocities committed against the Catholic church, as well as attempting to explain how anticlericalism originated.” He added that in A People Betrayed, he also tries to “explain the complex origins of the war” in an incredibly nuanced manner.

One of Professor Preston’s most notable arguments regarding the Nationalist victory is that of international intervention and non-intervention in the war. Professor Preston believes that a “major factor in the eventual defeat of the Spanish Republic was the Anglo-French policy of non-intervention that emasculated the Republic by preventing it from exercising its rights at international law to buy weaponry.” He also emphasised the significance of “the policing of the non-intervention pact of August 1936 [being] placed partially but crucially in the hands of the navies of the Third Reich and Italy,” continuing that “ostensibly meant to prevent the escalation of the Spanish war into a wider European conflict, it permitted covert support for Franco,” and did nothing about the aggressive expansionism of the Axis and systematically hampered only the Republic.” He also claimed that “it treated the legitimate government as the equal of the military rebels and failed to prevent Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy providing uninterrupted support to Franco,” which, in turn, “threw the Republic into the arms of a reluctant Soviet Union, thereby confirming the view of the Baldwin government that the Republic was a Soviet puppet.”

Critical of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, Professor Preston also commented that “Chamberlain’s government, and Sir Samuel Hoare in particular, had permitted their class prejudices to consolidate a policy that went beyond appeasement,” and points out that “a British diplomat in Madrid said to the journalist Henry Buckley, ‘the Spanish war is a civil conflict and that it is very necessary that we stand by our class’.” He believes that “the only hope for the survival of the Republic was that the Western democracies could be alerted to the dangers facing them from the Axis and realize the Republic was on their side.” But, he claimed, “any such hopes were dashed when the Republic was virtually sentenced to death by the British reaction to the Czechoslovakian crisis,” highlighting that “when Chamberlain surrendered Czechoslovakia to the Nazis by signing the Munich Agreement of 29 September 1938, he struck a devastating blow to the Spanish Republic.”

Professor Preston is also “convinced that the Spanish war paved the way for WW2,” and believes that “If Britain, instead of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini, had supported the Republic, I think that it might have been possible to avoid the wider conflict.” He, however, does not believe that Franco had any special sway over the Axis dictators,” claiming that “intervened in Spain in the hope of undermining Anglo-French hegemony in international relations [… which] the British government effectively colluded in.”

Interestingly, Professor Preston’s personal connections with The Spanish Civil War can be traced all the way back to Liverpool. Born in Liverpool in 1946, Professor Preston stressed that “being born in a city, Liverpool badly hit by the Blitz during WW2 and thus developing an interest in the origins of the war,” was a factor for his inspiration to become a Spanish historian. He explained that, “after coming down from Oxford, I had the good fortune to do an M.A. in Reading where one of the courses was on the Spanish war.” He added that “it was taught by Hugh Thomas who was inspirational,” and this “led me to go to Spain, falling in love with the country and then going back to Oxford to do my D.Phil on the origins of the war.” Professor Preston also highlighted that his meticulous study of Spain has “given [him] a second identity, obliged [him] to acquire two other languages, Spanish and Catalan, introduced [him] to a rich literary, musical and gastronomic culture and given [him] some wonderful friendships.” Asked how he detaches himself from the horrors he spends most of his life studying, he responded that he puts “the horrors aside with the help of classical music, Leonard Cohen, nineteenth-century novels and too many TV sitcoms.”

Professor Preston has also been influential in his work with the International Brigade Memorial Trust, and has edited multiple books on the International Brigades, “particularly the medical services.” As a group of volunteers who bravely fought for freedom and democracy against the Nationalists, I asked Professor Preston whether, in lieu of recent, devastating, events, he can see any similarities between the sentiments that drove the International Brigades and the people who are willingly volunteering to fight in Ukraine today. Professor Preston stated that “there are similarities between what the Ukrainians are doing now and what the Republican population did during the civil war.” I also asked him how fundamental he thought fighting for freedom was to the cause of the International Brigades, to which he responded that “the volunteers of the IB were fighting to support them in their struggle for democracy and freedom but they were also doing so in the hope of stopping fascism being victorious and then moving on to France and Britain.” He also added that “in the case of the volunteers fleeing from Germany, Austria and Italy, they were also fighting to go home.”

I also asked Professor Preston whether he believes the remnants of tensions as a result of the Civil War can still be seen in Spain today, and how he thinks this may have affected Spain politically. Professor Preston commented that the Civil War “has deeply divided Spain to this day,” highlighting that “The Partido Popular has never condemned Francoist crimes and Vox uses Francoist rhetoric.” In this vein, I also asked Professor Preston for his opinion on Spain’s The Historical Memory Law, to which he responded that it’s “important but too little, too late.”

Professor Preston also offered some advice to current undergraduates who wish to pursue this study. He recommended starting “with a really reliable set of general books such as Helen Graham’s A Very Short Introduction to the Spanish Civil War or my own The Spanish Civil War and then move on to more specialised subjects according to your interests.” He also added that his “book on the war has a long essay on things that are worth reading on a whole variety of aspects of the war.”

He also warned to “never forget that so much of what has been written has an axe to grind,” adding that “even on the left, there is an assumption that George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is an objective work on the war when it has several axes to grind.”