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Post Paul Preston on Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia": an LSE Lecture
Created by John Eipper on 02/14/17 4:25 AM

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Paul Preston on Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia": an LSE Lecture (Paul Preston, -UK, 02/14/17 4:25 am)

Given John Heelan's reference yesterday to Orwell, WAISers might be amused to know that on Thursday I am giving a lecture at the LSE on ignorance and prejudice that underlies his Homage to Catalonia.

The publicity blurb follows:

Lights and Shadows in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is probably the most sold and read book about the Spanish Civil War. It is included in most lists of important books on the conflict, despite being simply a vivid eye-witness account of two fragments of the war. It demonstrates no understanding of Catalan politics and does not present a reliable analysis of the broader politics of the war and particularly of its international determinants. Its underlying notion that the crushing of revolution in Barcelona would contribute to eventual Republican defeat makes it too easy to forget the contribution of Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and the pusillanimous self-interest of the British, French and American governments. Based on the partisan views of anarchist and POUM comrades as well as ignorance of the wider context, Orwell's analysis and prediction is a misleading contribution to the central debate over whether the priority of the Spanish Republic should have been revolution or a conventional war effort against Franco and his Axis allies.

Orwell knew nothing of the origins of the war, of the long-standing political conflicts in Barcelona and even less of the issues underlying the relations between the Republican government and the various forces in Catalonia. There are other reasons for questioning some of what Orwell wrote, particularly detailed descriptions of encounters that he could have done accurately only if he spoke fluent Catalan or Spanish. There is no evidence of him having any pre-war acquaintance with either language nor of ever reading a book in Spanish about the war or anything else. This lecture aims to raise awareness that the views expressed in his book are often wrong because they are based on insufficient information and prior prejudice.

JE comments:  It's a tall order to take on a literary icon for his poor grasp of history, but nobody is better qualified to do so than Paul Preston.  The central question:  do we expect too much historical accuracy from novelists who write about war?  Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms gives the reader the impression that the Great War mostly involved booze, women, hospital stays, and falling in love.  Or should we give more latitude to narrative fiction over explicitly subjective eyewitness accounts?

Best of luck, Paul!  Wish I could fly to London for the lecture.  Are they going to record it?

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  • Orwell as War Memoirist; Historical Novels and Factual Accuracy (Paul Preston, -UK 02/15/17 1:44 AM)

    There will be no recording of my LSE lecture, as far as I know. Of course, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is not a novel but a memoir with lots of questionable political judgements, many of which Orwell himself questioned in subsequent essays and private correspondence.

    As for John E's point about the factual accuracy of novels, it is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought and have also debated publicly with Spanish novelists including Almudena Grandes and Eduardo Mendoza. I don't think that there are any hard and fast rules. Of course, when we are dealing with novels that are set in periods about which we know little or nothing, it seems to annoy one hardly at all. Here I am thinking about Hilary Mantel's superb series about Henry VIII's factotum Thomas Cromwell. I actually did a dissertation on Cromwell and had a very different view yet found hers totally convincing.

    I absolutely love the novels of John Lawton, which are located largely in Britain and, to a lesser extent in Austria and Germany during the Second World War and Cold War. London and the period are a place and a time about which I know a fair amount. His depiction of time and place is uncannily convincing. All involve, albeit peripherally, real political figures and all are portrayed convincingly. Lawton explains at the end of his books when, how and why he has altered the chronology of real events for literary purposes, and it all seems totally forgivable.

    What infuriates me is when the novelists puts words into the mouth of a real person that, as an expert on that person, one knows could hardly ever have been spoken by them. I could give some cringe-making examples as I am sure many fellow-WAISers could too. In the case of Hemingway, I don't think that A Farewell to Arms gives a misleading view of what the Great War was like for the average foot-soldier. For Whom the Bell Tolls is more problematic for a number of reasons--the dreadful rendering of Spanish into English; the gooey romanticism, the highly implausible earth-moving sex for a recent rape victim and the totally apocryphal story of people being thrown into the ravine at Ronda. Having said that, when Hemingway does include barely disguised real people--Karkov, for instance, who is Mikail Koltsov, the real Pravda correspondent--their speech and actions are extremely plausible (in saying this, I speak after writing a short biography of Koltsov in my book We Saw Spain Die.

    JE comments:  This is a topic that fascinates me as well.  I more or less subscribe to Hayden White's notion of all historical narrative having novelistic elements.  But at the same time, we expect real facts rather than "alternate" ones in our history.  I'll concur with Paul Preston here:  there are no hard and fast rules.

    Sorry to pester you again, Paul, but are there any "bad" (inaccurate or intentionally misleading) historians you enjoy reading?

    Best of success in the lecture tomorrow!

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    • "Bad" Historians vs Outdated Historians (Paul Preston, -UK 02/16/17 5:10 AM)
      John E asked me if I enjoy reading any bad or intentionally misleading historians. No, but I do often enjoy reading historians of an earlier age whose views have been undermined by subsequent research but who captivate by their narrative skills.

      The word "history" itself is usually the same as "story" in most languages. A good example would be G.M. Trevelyan's books on both Britain and Garibaldi, where the flaw is the ever onward and upwards Whig interpretation of history, the Risorgimento patted on the back, as it were, because the Italians were allegedly trying to emulate British democracy.

      JE comments: Excellent point. Historians of yore were often less timid about squeezing history into a master narrative or heavy-handed thesis.  These confident accounts can be a pleasure to read. I've been scolded for enjoying A. J. P. Taylor's revisionist views, but he boldly serves up eternal truths such as "men are not wise when they hear the call of nationalism."

      Paul: you must be leaving soon for this evening's lecture at the LSE.  Best of luck!  See announcement below:


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      • A J P Taylor (Robert Whealey, USA 02/17/17 3:37 PM)

        AJP Taylor was my favorite historian. His great work was
        The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954). That did not
        prevent him from writing 25-30 essays and book reviews about World War II,
        liberalism, British history and several other topics.

        "Revisionism" is a word for ideologues. It began during the life of
        Karl Marx. Just before he died, Karl Marx wrote "I am not a Marxist."
        Jesus of Nazareth never called himself a "Christian."

        In the case of Taylor, he in wrote an anti-German essay in 1945, The Course of German History. Sometime later, he wrote The Origins of Second
        World War
        (1961), which was written with the multi-causal, objective standards of World
        War I historiographical publications. It is obvious with later research that Hitler alone
        did not cause World War II. All good historians revise their previous works, if they
        live long enough.

        Ángel Viñas must have written his 18 of July book three or four times and revised
        his work frequently.

        JE comments:  Great to hear from Bob Whealey.  Shall we discuss the notion of historical "revisionism"?  WWII revisionism usually refers to some notion of lessening Hitler's responsibility, but should that be the only benchmark?  Aren't all histories revisionist in the literal sense of revising, correcting, or amplifying earlier work?  Otherwise, what is the point of writing them?

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      • A J P Taylor and Sir Alan Bullock (Robert Gibbs, USA 02/17/17 4:00 PM)
        Re: AJP Taylor. During one of my few dining experiences at St. Catherine's high table, I was asked what I thought of AJP Taylor's historiography. I answered that I liked reading and hearing him, but his conclusions (based on his writing) are incomprehensible to me and do not make sense.

        Sir Alan Bullock responded in thundering terms that most scholars have the same problem with him!

        JE comments:  I'm surprised how little A J P Taylor has come up in the last fifteen or so WAISyears.  One of the more interesting posts on the topic is from Harry Papasotiriou, 2006.  Note the nugget of RH wisdom at the end:  "The leaders of the [pre-WWI] alliances probably thought they were realists. This
        is a proof of the way humans can fool themselves. True realists do not
        fool themselves."

        AJP himself couldn't have said it more pithily.


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    • Ronda Massacre (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 02/16/17 5:42 AM)
      I did not understand what Paul Preston (I have a copy of his A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War) meant in his post on Orwell, 14 February. Paul wrote of the "totally apocryphal story of people being thrown into the ravine at Ronda."

      As far as I know, 512 people were killed at Ronda in the first month of the Civil War, while the churches were plundered, set on fire or used to house refugees from other places.

      Throwing people into the "foibas" or similar has been a practice commonly carried out by the "Reds." From what I witnessed in my home town, I tend to believe that it happened in Spain, even if the total number of killed did not reach 512. Furthermore the victim counts in civil wars are always difficult to determine.

      The repression by the Rojos started on the very first day after the failed attempt of Lt Col Oliver Martínez to act on behalf of the rebellion. Some 2000 Republican troops reached town under the command of Miguel Escalante García of the UGT/PSOE. See: La Guerra Civil en Ronda: Memorias de Ronda (2010) by Lucía Prieto Borrego, Universidad de Málaga.

      Ronda is reported to be the town with the highest percentage of clergymen killed. The total number of clergymen/women killed reached 6844, which included 12 bishops, 283 nuns, 4184 priests, and 2635 monks: Some of them were later blessed by Pope John Paul. Unfortunately, because of a mistake of the German photographer Gutmann the photo of one of them, the priest Martín Martínez Pascual, is instead the photo of a Rojo.

      On 16 September 1936 Ronda was liberated and some of the Rojos were put in front of firing squads by the Nationalists.

      JE comments: "Reds/Rojos" and "liberated" are Eugenio Battaglia's words.  Time does a funny thing to language:  note how "Red [states]" and "liberty" mean very different things in today's US context.

      I'll defer to our many Spanish Civil War experts on the events at Ronda.

      How many know what a "foiba" is?  I did not.  It's a sinkhole of the type commonly found in the Slovenia-Croatia-NE Italy region, which were commonly used for large-scale human disposal in times of war.  On the other side of the world, the Mayans used cenotes (limestone sinkholes) for human sacrifice.

      Click and learn:


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      • Hemingway's Account of Ronda Massacre (Paul Preston, -UK 02/18/17 5:09 AM)

        Eugenio Battaglia (16 February) said he does not understand what I meant when I commented on Hemingway repeating "the totally apocryphal story of people being thrown into the ravine at Ronda." I did not say that no one was killed by "reds" in Ronda. What I meant is pretty clear. Those who were killed by anarchists were not thrown into the tajo, as the three-hundred feet deep ravine is known. I will quote a paragraph from my book The Spanish Holocaust in which, based on more than a decade of research, I examined the atrocities committed against civilians by both sides in the Spanish Civil War.

        "Ronda had suffered a pitiless repression at the hands of anarchists led by a character known as ‘El Gitano'. Initially, the CNT committee had maintained a degree of order although churches were sacked and images destroyed, but soon there were murders being carried out by anarchists from Málaga and also by locals. However, there is no substance to the claim, first made by Queipo in a broadcast on 18 August and popularized by Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, that large numbers of prisoners were killed by being thrown into the tajo. The many rightist victims were shot in the cemetery. Francoist sources claim that victims of the red terror from Ronda and the nearby pueblos of Gaucín and Arriate numbered over six hundred. On 16 September, when Varela took the town, the defenders fled and his forces suffered only three casualties in the assault. His men stopped and interrogated anyone found in streets and shot many of them."

        The numbers murdered by the anarchists were not known with any precision when I finished working on this some years ago, so I would be interested to know where Sr Battaglia got his figure of 512. I will check with local history groups and report back.

        JE comments:  How did Thursday's LSE lecture go, Paul?  I'll conclude with an image of Ronda's Tajo.  How breathtaking.  I was there once, in 1985.  One can understand why it would be an irresistible setting for literary embellishment.

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        • How Many Victims at Ronda? (Paul Preston, -UK 02/21/17 4:52 AM)
          Following up on my post of February 18th, I have now consulted the local experts on the Ronda killings.

          The latest figure based on the names in local registries are 188: 153 for Ronda itself and for the nearby villages of Arriate, 21, and Gaucín, 14--a total of 188. I took as a rule of thumb in my work for my book The Spanish Holocaust, that to be absolutely certain about numbers of dead one needed the names. This is infinitely easier for victims on the right than for left-wing ones. The Francoist state took massive trouble to name and commemorate victims of left-wing violence. It also, at best, went to no trouble at all to diminish the number of victims of Francoist violence. Subsequently, it has been almost impossible to ascertain the numbers, since in many places, there were large number of unidentified refugees present.

          This is one of the issues that plagues the issue of the numbers killed in the bombing of Guernica. Right-wing estimates, keen to diminish the atrocity, oscillate around 200, while Basque ones sustain the estimate made by the Basque government of 1654.

          JE comments:  There must be a whole actuarial science for the grim math of counting victims.  And with the chaos and displacement of warfare, how can you ever compile a complete list of names?  The exercise reminds us (sadly) of Stalin's quip about a single death being a tragedy, while a million is a statistic.

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