The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic: A Witness to the Spanish Civil War; Henry Buckley; first published 1940, re-published 2013.


Reviewed by Graham Mulligan


This is an important book. Although Buckley published his account of the Spanish Republic in 1940, the book had ‘disappeared’ in the chaos of the World War. All but a few copies were destroyed in a warehouse during the London blitz. Now, re-published in 2013, we can read this journalist’s account of this important period of European history. Buckley had been in Spain since 1929 and was writing for the English paper Daily Express and later the News Chronicle. The Spanish Republic came into being in 1931 when Buckley was just 27.


I was drawn into the story by Buckley’s quaint writing style, conversational and intimate like a gossip. He names many of the personalities of the time as though he knew them on a first name basis and stitches together the sequences of events with the chronology of the political world he inhabited. He unravels many of the complex layers of Spanish political life at the time in telling this story. He was mostly in Madrid where the population held out against the uprising of the Generals and the Army led ultimately by Franco. He travelled to Valencia and then Barcelona as the war closed in on the Republicans. Throughout all this emerges the picture of how journalists like Buckley covered the war, going out to look at this battle or that siege always from a safe distance and returning to telegraph or phone in his report to the London based editors.


Buckley throughout the book gives his opinion of the causes and context of the Civil War. He saw Spain as a feudal society emerging late into the modern world. A small working class existed alongside an equally small middle class. The large, very poor agrarian peasant population was dominated by the Catholic Church and landed aristocrats, backed up by the army.


The Popular Front was a shifting alliance of forces (see Wikipedia) supporting the Republican government of Spain. Interestingly, two literary classics written contemporaneously with Buckley can give us a different picture of the conflict. Earnest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fictional account of an American hero fighting with the International Brigade. For me it reads like a Cowboy Western, lots of action, love, and tension with a sad ending. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is more realistic in my opinion. Orwell actually fought in the trenches and his tribute to the fight against fascism contains lengthy analysis of the political situation, particularly in Barcelona.


Two of Orwell’s chapters, five and eleven, are written as necessary background information for the reader to understand the depth and complexity of the political situation at that time. Conversely, Buckley never writes from an ‘insider’ perspective about the Communists he met or the Communist Party he observed, although it was the largest and most effective force in Spain on the Republican side. For Buckley the greatest tragedy was the failure of the Democracies, especially Britain and France, to stand up for their achievements embodied in Empire building. The looming war with Fascism and Nazi Germany was still ahead.


You can watch a six-part documentary of the Spanish Civil War on-line.

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