17 JULY 1976, Page 22

The best and the brightest?

Phillip Knightley

The Distant Drum: Reflections on the Spanish Civil War edited by Philip Toynbee (Sidgwick and Jackson £5.50) It is forty years this month since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and this book is intended to mark the occasion and to reflect upon it. Although there is a section devoted to historical reinterpretation, most of the book has been written by eyewitnesses, 'more concerned with trees than with the wood'. This is as it should be, because it is easier to place the war in twentieth century history than to explain the deep and lasting passion it aroused in those who took part. 'In those years we lived our best,' Herbert Matthews (who reported the war for the New York Times) has written elsewhere, 'and what has come after, and what there is to come, can never carry us to those heights again.'

Matthews was clearly not alone with his total commitment : what emerges from these accounts is not how the writers' views have altered under pressure from time, knowledge, and experience, but how they have been reinforced. On matters of fact, Peter Kemp, who fought for Franco, still clings to his view that the German Condor Legion did not bomb Guernica, and that the towp was gutted by the retreating Republican forces, despite evidence to the contrary, presented in two recent books, La Destruction de Guernica, and The Day Guernica Died.

On the emotional level, John H. Bassett, who fought in the International Brigades still believes 'it was a time of hope when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs,' whereas it is clear, from reading other contributors, that the men with rifles were simply dumped when they had served their purpose. Yet, in the end, that is what is so interesting about this book. Much of it could have been written in the flush of the moment and not forty years later; for a feeling of what it was like to be there at the time it is an invaluable contribution to the history of the war.

The reader can join Claude Cockburn reporting for the Daily Worker, or tour Madrid with Michael Koltzov, foreign editor of Pravda, who had a direct line from his room at the Palace Hotel, Madrid, to Stalin's desk at the Kremlin, and shouted down it three or four times a week. Or he can fight with Peter Kemp at Teruel against the International Brigades, 'by far the best troops in the Republican Army', an assessment which would have amused John Lepper, a British volunteer in the Brigades. He used to greet recruits at the Brigade headquarters outside Albacete, with 'Welcome to the biggest shambles in Europe.'

He can travel from Paris to Malaga, with Sheila Grant Duff, ostensibly a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, but actually on a spying mission for Otto Katz, the Comintern agent. (It is enlightening and somewhat alarming to realise how many journalists in Spain were also up to something else— Grant Duff, Arthur Koestler, Claude Cockburn, Koltzov, Kim Philby, Louis Fischer.) Or he can stand alongside Derrick Ferguson, the flotilla signal officer on HMS Codrington—under the command of Captain Geoffrey Miles—as he orders the Spanish cruiser Miguel de Cervantes—under the command of a committee of forty anarchists—to cease detaining a British freighter en route from Morocco to Gibraltar. Although this British naval officer found the war somewhat bewildering—'The revolutionaries were the smart well-equipped, well-led, and disciplined force; the Government forces badly led, ill-equipped, and apparently undisciplined'—he did see its historical significance: 'The gathering storm, as Winston Churchill so aptly named the era, was just off our quarterdeck.'

The only trouble with these visits is that they are too brief. I would have liked more of K. P. Bond, the dedicated member of the Bromley branch of the Communist Party, who wrote to his comrades back home just two weeks before he was killed at the Ebro: 'I came out here for I realise the importance of waking the working class up from their slumbers. . . . How's the branch going? Have you been able to settle down and turn Bromley red ?' Imagine a debate. between Bond and the Spanish militiaman in the dug-out north of Madrid who has listened all evening to the Republican radio announce either imaginary victories or 'rectifications of the line'—meaning by that defeats and retreats. 'You understand I'm ready to die to save Madrid . . . to save democracy and civilisation from fascism. he tells his comrade. 'But I'm damned if rtn going to die just to prevent a rectification of the line.'

Professor Hugh Thomas can see the war in its wider context, as 'a time when the Spanish conflicts by an unhappy juxtaposition of international accidents were rendered international in character.' Brian Crozier—one of the few to have reversed his views on the war—can offer the contentious conclusion that Franco's victory, bY denying Germany passage through Spain to take Gibraltar, helped to defeat Hitler. But what one remembers, after reading this book, is the idealism which motivated most of the contributors andwhich, from their observations, was also strongly held by the Spaniards.

Philip Toynbee, who concludes the book with an honest weighing of the young and naïve revolutionary who went to Spain over Christmas, 1936, against the wiser sixty year-old who has learnt the lessons of revolutionary history, writes of the ecstatic sense of old and bad things put away, new and splendid things begun, that the workers'-controlled Barcelona evoked in him: 'Whenever I have been tempted to fall into political cynicism I remember the joyful militia of Barcelona ... the delight of, liberty, equality, and fraternity in action. The communists, the most active group orl the Republican side, may have ended uP more intent on stamping out the independent left than in fighting the Nationalists; Stalin may have raised and used the International Brigades for his own devious purposes; but the men and women wb°, fought for Spanish liberty were not soiled by being used. Even those who realised at the time that their idealism did not extend upwards through the ranks, came away' glad that they had taken part and, like Orwell, with more not less belief in tile decency of their fellow man. 'The men began to sing in eyed language', writes John H. Bassett. 'One tune, in Spanish, everybody sang. Wher:. the polyglot army sang "The Crossing 01 the Ebro" with its plaintive "Y Manuel° .• • y Manuelo" the shivers ran up and do"'" my spine, and I knew that I had found small place in history.' Indeed he had.