With Spain’s economic crisis in the forefront of global news, it would be fascinating to see what a reporter of Henry Buckley’s stature would have made of its current predicament. He was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Madrid from 1929, who for a decade furiously filed dispatches from all corners of the country as its young democracy sparked, and eventually burst into civil war — finding time to swap stories with Hemingway over whiskies in between.
His eyewitness account of this conflict was never to see the light of day in book form after the London warehouse storing the copies awaiting distribution was bombed in 1940. But a handful did survive, and this posthumous publication of The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic (Buckley died in 1972) should go some way to establishing his reputation as one of the finest foreign journalists to write on Spain.
Arriving in Madrid, following a posting in Berlin, as a self-confessed ‘rather crotchety and thin-blooded virgin’, Buckley found himself in a Spain that was about to be ripped apart by its own unresolved social and economic tensions. Through countless conversations with politicians, generals and workers he paints a vivid portrait of a country where ‘the mass of the people were solid in their desire to fight for their independence and for the future of the Republic as opposed to feudalism’, yet the military superiority of General Franco was to crush the country’s first experience of democracy.
The resulting reportage is not only of great historical value, rightly praised by leading historians on the subject, including Paul Preston in his fine introduction, but also a model for foreign correspondents. There are numerous detailed portraits of the leading political figures of the Republic, many of whom Buckley knew personally, and who remain deeply controversial to this day in a Spain still struggling with the legacy of the civil war.
Though highly critical of the thugs hired by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the charismatic young leader of the fascist Falange movement, Buckley recalls fondly his conversations with the young lawyer and parliamentarian, referring to him as ‘one of the nicest people in Madrid’, and noting his ‘charming’ English accent.
But Buckley’s greatest quality as a correspondent is his sensitivity to both the human suffering and the broader significance of the conflict, his account being rich in colour and historical detail while retaining a deeply personal tone. As both a devout Roman Catholic and a reporter for a British newspaper, he faced multiple internal conflicts. He is dismayed by the position taken by the Church, and angered by British and French non-intervention, as Franco’s better armed and organised troops gain advantage over the internationally isolated Republic. He notes how the outcome of the war ‘depended almost entirely on Paris and London’, and how international financiers had effectively backed Franco over the Republic with their credit.
Most importantly, he chronicles events with honesty and humility, openly admitting when he cannot check things, and rigorously doing so when he can — often in chaotic circumstances — such as the vastly exaggerated Nationalist claims about the number of dead in Madrid ahead of the fall of the capital.
Just before his eventual escape over the Pyrenees with the defeated Republican forces in 1939, Buckley gloomily notes how democracy’s fight against the forces of Franco appeared doomed from the outset — the Republic’s disadvantages in ‘everything but manpower so overwhelming that it was inadequate to try and regard it as an equal struggle’.
It is increasingly rare for a book about the Spanish civil war — a subject so widely covered in the last 50 years — to generate much excitement, but the re-emergence of this account is a gift to both the specialist and general reader alike. It is also a reminder that the best frontline reporting endures long after the final shot has been fired.
Miles Johnson is Madrid correspondent at the Financial Times.