What prompted you to write your book about the Spanish Civil War? Politics or history?

The idea that the book could have been ‘inspired by politics’ never crossed my mind.footnote1 I’ve written a lot about Spain, past and present, and always as a historian; and Spaniards of every kind, of varying opinions and in every situation, have said they are grateful for that. At the time of the fiftieth anniversary, in 1986, I was approached to write a short popular book about the War, and I was happy to be able, for this occasion and within the stipulated limits, to set down what it seemed to me useful, first, to recount and second, to explain, for a public now at risk of forgetting the event or drowning in a bibliography of unheard-of scale. Of course, having lived in Spain between 1930 and 1936, I experienced the Spanish war of 1936–39 as an intimate event, and I don’t conceal this. Does that disqualify me as a historian? If I ask myself, fifty years later, what I made of those events at the time, what I felt—whether I was seriously mistaken in my judgements and forecasts—it seems to me that can only assist my historical insight. Writing about Spain’s Golden Age or about the resistance to Napoleon, I have a greater chance of misrecognition than in an episode that I experienced in its beginning and followed closely as it unfolded.

That said, I don’t want to avoid the meaning of that question: it may indeed appear to a reader of my book that I have no political ‘position’ at all, but I don’t claim complete abstention from choice. It should be evident that I’m not a ‘Francoist’. In my view, responsibility for the war, frightful as it was in many respects, lies with those who launched it—that is, a certain military complex, encouraged by all the conservative classes imbued with a frozen image of traditional Spain, opposed to all reform, religious, political or social, be it by reason of direct interest—the haute bourgeoisie and big landowners—or because of a customary ideological formation, as in predominantly peasant regions obeying the clergy. I don’t ‘condemn’ that Spain; its existence is explained historically. But that it sought to impose itself by force of arms in the face of any transforming impulse and found itself drawn towards the ‘fascist’ formula that had triumphed elsewhere in Europe: that didn’t delight me, either when I lived in Spain or in the historical reconstructions I’ve attempted.

What shocks me most in the recent historiography of the Spanish war is the tendency to feign objectivity as a means of erasing the memory of past attitudes. In my book I allowed myself to be, if not severe, then at least ironic in dealing with what might be called ‘neo-Francoist historiography’: men who assumed high office (in the military especially) and who for forty years persisted in the most blatant falsehoods, now play ‘historians’, suggesting an objective truth that goes as follows: Spain was divided into two camps of equal good faith, and between them everything is to be shared fifty-fifty: supporters, strengths, external assistance, crimes. So, let’s forget the past! This way of avoiding the apportionment of responsibility seems to me the opposite of objectivity. Certainly, it’s important to establish the figures, where that’s possible. But this shouldn’t encourage the belief that the figures are already truly established. And the figures aren’t everything: I’ve tried to show that in the ‘disasters of war’, as Goya had it, the forms as much as the quantities clarify causes and shape memories. It’s necessary, then, where possible, to proceed by qualitative analyses, sometimes descriptive, to reach mentalities. My book is far too short for any hope of having done this. I had to rest content with suggesting themes, opening pathways.

It is true that another aspect of my sketch may imply ‘political’ positions of another kind: that is, the presentation of the internal divisions evident in the republican camp. We can discuss this later on; for now I will limit myself to indicating the nuances that distinguish historical analysis aimed at demonstrating a political thesis from political analysis of a historical situation.

You show that the two sides in the Civil War presented opposed profiles, in each case with a particular social and cultural background. Was it a case of two nations in one?

I confess the question surprises me. It’s not necessary to invoke Marx to understand that there are always ‘two nations in one’: that’s the whole problem of history, the fundamental problem of the relation between class struggles and struggles between groups termed ‘national’. In fact, it’s often a question of ‘states’, where the ruling classes work hard to persuade the ensemble of classes of their fundamental solidarity, in spite of internal conflicts of interest. In certain historical conditions they succeed, but not in all. The phenomena of division and relay between social classes, and those internal to them too, in the face of external threats, military defeats and foreign occupation—these are the essential matters of history. Think of France in 1870–71 and between 1935 and 1945.