Jason Webster

One of history’s saddest chapters

Paul Preston returns to the Spanish Civil War to describe in harrowing detail its brutal — and farcical — closing chapter

One afternoon in the early 1990s, an elderly gentleman from Alicante told me of the tragedy that had occurred at his city’s port on the last day of the Spanish Civil War. He pointed towards the docks and in a hurried whisper spoke of the many thousands of desperate Republicans who had gathered there at the end of March 1939, their eyes searching the horizon for the promised ships meant to carry them to safety abroad. The rest of their territory had fallen to Franco, his execution squads busy eliminating remnants of the ‘anti-Spain’; Alicante would be the last corner to fall into the caudillo’s hands. Yet as the hours passed and no ships appeared, the would-be refugees lost hope. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, committed suicide on the spot, preferring death to capture. When the Francoist forces finally arrived, they took 45,000 people prisoner and placed them in a makeshift concentration camp. For many Republicans, it was a brief prelude to torture and summary execution.

Spanish attitudes towards the Civil War have changed since the 1990s and it is no longer quite the taboo subject it once was. Yet the emotional power of events from that time has not diminished. Episodes such as the siege of the Alcázar, the defence of Madrid or the May Days in Barcelona witnessed by George Orwell still resonate. Not least of these is the story of the final, desperate weeks of the Republic. By early 1939, following steady losses and defeats over two and a half years of conflict, Republicans had no hope of winning the war, yet the final outcome, as Paul Preston makes clear in this compelling and convincingly argued book, might well have been less ignominious and considerably less bloody.

Throughout much of 1938, the strategy of the Republican prime minister Juan Negrín had been to prolong the fight against the rebels in the hope that a greater European conflict might begin and finally bring Britain and France to his aid in an anti-fascist coalition.

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