Arturo Barea’s Struggle for the Spanish Soul

by William Chislett, pictured above in Faringdon, Oxfordshire.

The Spanish emigré writer Arturo Barea (Badajoz 1897-Faringdon 1957) is almost only known for his widely acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel, which was first published in England in the 1940s and has never gone out of print. It was not published in Spain until 1977, two years after Franco’s death. He is hardly known for the 856 broadcasts he gave in Spanish for the BBC’s Latin American Service, under the pseudonym ‘Juan de Castilla’ in order to protect his family in Spain, let alone for his pioneering studies of Lorca and Miguel de Unamuno, recently published in Spain for the first time. Now two of his essays (in English) on Spain have been reprinted by the adventurous Clapton Press for the first time in 80 years.

Barea and his second wife (also his superb translator into English), the Austrian Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar (1902-1973), arrived into exile in England in February 1939, several weeks before the end of the Civil War.

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In Barea’s own words, he was “spiritually smashed . . . I disembarked with nothing, my life was broken in two. I had no perspectives, no country, no home, no job.” When World War Two started in September that same year the sounding of sirens to warn of German bombing raids made him physically ill as it reminded him of the shelling of Madrid. Berea and Ilsa had met and fallen in love while working at the Republican government’s Foreign Press Censorship Office at the headquarters of Telefónica in Madrid during the War. As the highest building in the city, it was the frequent target of shells and bombs from Franco’s Nationalists. They left Spain in 1938 and spent a year in Paris. 

His output is remarkable for someone who came from a very humble background and was largely self-taught. His mother Leonor moved to Madrid with her three other children after her husband died when Barea was a couple of months old. She earned her living washing soldiers’ clothes in the River Manzanares. Barea had to leave school at 13 after the uncle who paid for his education died. The family needed him to work, and his first job was in a costume jewellery shop, where he also slept. 

Struggle for the Spanish Soul (1941) and Spain in the Post-War World (1945) are Barea’s only explicitly political writings, and in both of them he argues for Franco’s removal and the restoration of the Republic defeated in the war. Struggle almost did not see the light of day: the first proof was destroyed by German bombs which fell on the warehouse of Barea’s publisher in Plymouth. Fred Warburg, owner of Secker and Warburg, best known for publishing George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farmwrote to Barea asking him if he had kept a duplicate typescript. Luckily, he had placed carbon paper in his typewriter. 

Barea began to write Struggle during or just after the Battle of Britain that raged from June to the end of October 1940. The Civil War had left more than 200,000 died at the battlefronts, at least 150,000 murdered extrajudicially or executed after flimsy legal process in the Nationalist-held areas and 50,000 in the Republican territories, out of a population of 24 million. More than 250,000 Spaniards went into permanent exile and 33,000 children were shipped mainly to the Soviet Union, Mexico and Britain. The War brought the Spanish economy, in which around half the labour force worked in agriculture, to its knees. The GDP declined 36% in real terms between 1935 and 1938; it was not until 1953 that economic output recovered its pre-civil war level. 

The essay explores the ideological roots of Francoism, with chapters on Franco’s formative years in Spanish Africa (Morocco); the ruling caste in Spain; the Hispanic myth; fascism; the left and the destiny of a free Spain. Barea had been conscripted into the army in 1920 and served in Morocco at the same time as Franco, catching typhus after the Spanish defeat in the Rif War at Annual in 1921 in which 8,000 Spanish soldiers were killed. The book was reviewed in Horizon, the premier literary magazine, and hailed by the anonymous reviewer as “a little masterpiece of that new branch in writing: the hybrid between book and pamphlet.”

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It was Number 10 in the Searchlight series of essays by writers from the non-Stalinist left. These included Orwell, whose The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was the first in the series. The editors of the series sought to counter what they viewed as the excessive influence of communists on public opinion through Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. Barea himself had never been a communist: he had been a member of the General Union of Workers (UGT) trade union, founded in 1888 by Pablo Iglesias who also established the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Barea’s wife, Ilsa, had been a member of the Austrian Communist Party before breaking with it and joining the Social Democratic Party. 

Spain, co-written with Ilsawas published as a pamphlet by the Fabian Society, a Socialist organisation founded in 1884 and still affiliated with the Labour Party. The Allies’ victory in 1945 left Franco’s regime a pariah. The Spanish opposition in exile hoped the Allies would overthrow him. Barea caught the hopes of those expecting the removal of Franco in a passage in his only novel, The Broken Root (1951). Like so many exiles, Barea lamented the abandonment to fascism of the democratically-elected Republic by democracies such as Britain and France, under the guise of non-intervention. The only countries that actively supported the Republic and provided it with arms were the Soviet Union and, to a much lesser extent, Mexico. 

The pamphlet sought to influence the Labour government, which had swept Churchill out of power, and encourage it to take action against Franco. But Prime Minister Clement Attlee did not want to anger Washington and risk missing out on the 1948 Marshall Plan, the massive US aid programme to rebuild non-communist postwar Europe. Spain was excluded from it, though Washington saw Franco as a bulwark against communism.

The pamphlet begins with the statement by the National Council of Labour on 28 June 1944, disassociating itself from Churchill’s “kindly words” toward the Spanish government and recalling “those tragic years when the Spanish people were engaged in a bloody struggle in defence of their constitutional rights and liberties against military rebels under the leadership of General Franco, who with the aid of the German and Italian dictators threw the Spanish people back into physical, intellectual and political servitude.” 

Barea gives a broad picture of Franco’s Spain and the forces supporting him (the landowning class, the army and the Roman Catholic church), and in the economic part focuses to an exaggerated degree on the importance of German capital in Spain, to the exclusion of British and French capital which was also important and is hardly mentioned. It is as if Barea already sensed that the political question of Franco’s support for Mussolini and Hitler would not be enough to persuade the Allies to oust Franco. The pamphlet also looks at Spanish patent law, a subject dear to Barea as he had managed a patents office in Madrid between 1924 and the start of the Civil War, and how in his view German interests gained an important position in the Spanish economy during the 1920s and 1930s by various means. 

Barea takes the Allies to task over their policy of non-intervention, as a result of which “the present Spanish regime was established by aggression and is maintained by oppression.” Franco should be removed “with or without his consent, by negotiation, or by an army coup, or by discreet international blackmail” and the Republic restored on the basis of the 1931 Constitution. 

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Barea never ceased to call for Franco’s removal until his dying day, including on his visits to Denmark, the United States (he taught at Pennsylvania State College in 1952) and South America (during a two-month tour of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile in 1956 on behalf of the BBC). 

Barea’s connection with the Fabian Society probably came via Gavin Henderson, the second Lord Faringdon, a Labour politician, supporter of the Spanish Republic and Fabian stalwart. (He was chairman of the Society in 1960-61). In 1937 he converted his Rolls Royce into an ambulance and drove it to Spain where it served as a field hospital on the Aragon front. 

Barea and Ilsa moved to Middle Lodge, Eaton Hastings, in the county of South Oxfordshire, on the Buscot Park estate of Lord Faringdon, in 1947. Barea spent his last 10 years there. 

The two essays offer a fascinating insight into the Franco dictatorship. Barea could not have imagined it would be replaced in 1975 by restoring the Bourbon monarchy.