Review: Doves Of War By Paul Preston Essay, Research Paper
Love and death on the front line Doves of War: Four Women of Spain Paul Preston 471pp, HarperCollins Little has been written about the role of women in the Spanish civil war. If quizzed about it, most of us would probably have exhausted our knowledge after invoking the name of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri. Certainly she eclipsed her sisters, whether as the Republic’s Joan of Arc or as the Amazon who, according to nationalist mythology, bit a monk to death in a Madrid street. But in any case, the sisterhood was not powerful. The last great cause was largely a male affair, with women acting as bit-part players. Yet they also served and suffered with the men, and their distinctive achievement merits the recognition Paul Preston gives it in this scholarly and sometimes moving book. He resurrects four women who were caught up in the Spanish struggle, which even then was visualised as the dress rehearsal for the second world war. They are well chosen: two Spaniards and two Britons, one of each pair on opposing sides. All possessed rare courage, compassion and determination. All became victims of misogyny: these intruders into a man’s world were denounced as whores, or lesbians, or both. All were born around the beginning of the 20th century, and all had their lives blasted by the war. Priscilla Scott-Ellis was probably the least intelligent and idealistic of the quartet. She was the daughter of Lord Howard de Walden, a Blimpish magnifico who occasionally read the Times dressed in a full suit of armour. Pip, as she was called, left Benenden interested in little but “hairdressers, young men and cream buns”. Aged 20, though, she fell in love with a Spanish prince named Alfonso de Orléans Borbón, known as Touffles. Lamenting her attraction to this “begoggled, mother-ridden poop”, who was apparently homosexual, Scott-Ellis nevertheless followed him to Spain and enlisted under the nationalist banner. She worked as a nurse in a number of front-line hospitals, living in what she described as “an eternal whorl of blood, pain and death”. In some ways, the experience hardened her: she reviled wounded “niggers” and was callous about the summary execution of republican prisoners. But in other respects she seems to have been traumatised. The rest of her life, particularly after her marriage to another Spanish toff, who fleeced her and boasted of his infidelities, was a tragic mess. Nan Green, who came from a shabby-genteel background (disguised as proletarian when she joined the Communist party in the early 1930s), also nursed heroically in Spain. But she served the republic and answered the red call of duty. Described as a “brisk, efficient, dedicated, no-nonsense woman of beauty and intellect”, Green left her two children, who were sent to the progressive school Summerhill, their fees paid by a wealthy comrade. She went to join her husband, who was killed in 1938 while fighting at the Ebro with the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Green sought to exorcise her grief through lifelong commitment to the Communist party, even though she herself had been the victim of cruel and unjustified anti-Trotskyite persecution in Spain. Preston plausibly suggests that she was suffering from “survivor guilt” (like Cambridge historian Margot Heinemann, who remained a propagandist for communism all her life, following the death of her lover, poet John Cornford). Green coined a phrase that poignantly summed up her condition: “My heart became a clenched fist.” Similarly, when the right-wing husband of Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller was killed at the start of the civil war, she threw herself into social work with all the passion she had devoted to her marriage. As a result, this well-educated rentière became one of the most important women in Franco’s Spain. She founded a welfare organisation, based on the Nazis’ Winter Help scheme, to look after the orphans and other victims of war irrespective of their origin. Auxilio Social, as it was called, attracted criticism from the start: “First the fathers are shot, then the children get charity.” Sanz-Bachiller cleverly conciliated the Catholic church, which wanted a monopoly on charity, and the fascist state, which denied women a significant political role. Yet she maintained too independent a stance. At the end of the war she was removed as head of the Auxilio Social, now officially damned for encouraging “scroungers”. Subsequently, Franco’s regime airbrushed her out of history. It has taken Preston to restore her. He has also done a good job of conjuring up the tempestuous spirit of Margarita Nelken, who was more a hawk than a “dove of war”. A brilliant Jewish intellectual, Nelken distinguished herself as an art critic, feminist, polemicist and politician. She is the most remarkable figure in this foursome, partly because she was in so many respects far ahead of her time. An outspoken believer in (and practitioner of) sexual equality as well as a dauntless champion of social justice, she grew increasingly enraged about the condition of pre-1936 Spain, where priests told women how to vote and half the population went to bed hungry each night. Elected to the Cortes as a socialist deputy, she moved towards the revolutionary left and eventually joined the Communist party. Her finest hour, as Preston says, was when the government fled from Madrid and she stayed behind to help organise the resistance. Later, though, if Nelken did not sell her soul to Stalin, she suffered a still more terrible fate. Exiled in Mexico after the civil war, she learned that her son Santiago, whom she had imbued with her communist convictions, had been killed fighting for the Red Army against Hitler. The main count against this book is that it is so badly written that it is a serious effort to read. There is scarcely a sentence that does not cry out for the attention of a competent editor – who might, incidentally, point out that “hecatomb” does not mean large tomb. Still, it is worth struggling with the style because the content is so rich. These buried lives, unearthed with such meticulous care, reveal a vital new aspect to the endlessly fascinating saga of the Spanish civil war. • Piers Brendon is the author of The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (Pimlico).