Anti-clerical death squad: Pacual Fresquet (centre left) and his Republican Guard mocking Catholicism
When I began to work on the history of the Spanish civil war in 1957, it was believed that the conflict had killed a million people. The gifted Catalan novelist José María Gironella entitled one of his books Un Millon de Muertos, and Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm also talked of a million being killed. So did the 1936-39 supplement to the great Spanish encyclopaedia published by Espasa Calpe.
I myself soon thought that this figure must be exaggerated. There was no sign of such a tremendous dent in the population statistics as a million dead would have caused. In appendix II to the first edition of my history I ventured to suggest that the figure must have been just over 400,000 killed in battle or behind the lines.
No reviewer or critic paid any attention to this piece of humane diminution. It was as if the two sides in the civil war were happy with malign exaggeration and as if Anglo-Saxon observers preferred to think of Spaniards as even more ruthless than they really were.
Professor Paul Preston would, I think, agree with my arithmetic and that I was the innovating humanist in this matter. What he has done in his new book is to investigate the deaths in the two rearguards. This is a really horrible task, though he has in general done what he can to adopt a balanced approach by telling us not only of the atrocious shootings in Seville under the auspices of that strange General Queipo de Llano, but also the murderous mass killings at Paracuellos after the Communists emptied the Republican prisons in Madrid in November 1936.
I have a number of observations. I am not sure that Professor Preston has quite entered into the minds of the Right in Spain, who from 1934 onwards felt threatened by a left-wing revolution on a Russian model. Even the British ambassador in Moscow, Lord Chilston, thought the civil war in Spain "likely to end in the establishment of a Communist regime". That had been tried out up to a point in 1934 when the Left recklessly refused to accept their defeat in the national elections of that year and embarked on a destructive rebellion causing among other things the ruin of the University of Oviedo. The Labour spokesman for foreign policy, Hugh Dalton, thought that the rebellion of 1934 removed the justification for anyone feeling outraged by the Right's rising of 1936.