Who's Who

Beyond Death and Exile

Published in History Today

Communism in Spain in the Franco Era. The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez

Jorge Semprun

The fate of many Spanish Republican exiles after the Civil War of 1936-39 can be compared in its cruel, paradoxical twists with that of Poles who fought against the Nazis only to fall into the hands of the Russians, and Russian soldiers incarcerated by the Germans who then paid for this misfortune by having it repeated when the war was over, this time by suspicious Russian authorities. Thousands of Spanish Republicans who fought against Franco and his Nazi and Fascist abettors and then fled, defeated, to a reluctant France and its refugee camps, were trapped by the Nazi advance through France in the spring of 1940 and found themselves fighting again, if not deported to German concentration camps. No Wajda or Solzhenitsyn has appeared to immortalise their predicament or exploits on screen or in literature, but there is no dearth of memoir material from the survivors, much of which Louis Stein has used in his book. He has also drawn on the numerous studies of Spanish exiles published since the late 1960s.

To this wealth of information two significant contributions have been made by Mr. Stein's researches: an analysis of local French newspapers in the area in which the refugees were concentrated reveals the contrasting attitudes of different political groups in Perpignan, Pau and Toulouse as well as in Paris, while the accompanying study of local archives spells out the political and administrative problems caused by the influx of about half a million Spaniards into the department of Pyrenees – Orientales in January and February, 1939. It is not surprising that local authorities were unable to make adequate provision for refugees who outnumbered the settled population by two to one. But the difficulty was one of attitude as well as logistics in a society where much of the right-wing press regarded Spanish Republicans as a criminal rabble or Communists or both, and the Minister of Health pleaded inability to persuade the army to mobilise its resources on their behalf.

Any book which uncovers information about the exiles' experience and which offers tribute where it is long overdue, for example to their contribution to the Narvik landing and to the French Resistance, is to be welcomed. The rather dull, chronological structure of Louis Stein's book, however, and its emphasis on French attitudes and debates leave one with many questions about the Spaniards themselves. There is no discussion in depth, for instance, of the political tensions and activities inside the French camps, or of the inner organisation as opposed to the achievements of the Spanish Maquis. The shaky introduction on the Second Spanish Republic leads one to suspect that an in- secure grasp of the Spanish background to the exile experience may be the reason for such conspicuous omissions.

Jorge Semprun was one of the Spaniards to tread a bitter path to France in 1939. He joined the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the Resistance, aod at the age of twenty was deported to Buchenwald where he spent two years in constant contact with other European Communists, including the Czech Josef Frank who, in 1952, was liquidated by Stalin through the Slansky trial. In 1953 Semprun began clandestine work for the party in Spain, a task which required a new identity and brought into existence Federico Sanchez. Sanchez/Semprun became a member of the politburo and remained at the centre of Communist activities until the major showdown of l964 in which he and the distinguished Marxist theorist Fernando Claudin refused to drop their criticisms of party policy and were eventually expelled. The autobiography of Federico Sanchez, then, could not fail to be of absorbing interest. It begins and ends with the decisive meeting of the executive committee (formerly politburo) of the PCE in Czechoslovakia in April, l964, and explains that event by a series of subtly interlayered memoirs of both earlier and later developments.

Because of the complexity of this important book and its dual nature as autobiography and critique of the party, it can be read at many levels. It is a sustained attack on Santiago Carrillo, secretary-general of the PCE, mainly on grounds of gross misapplication or Marxist analysis to Spanish circumstances because of ignorance of the changing conditions of the Spanish working class in the 1950s and 1960s. And if Carrillo's refusal to accept the Sanchez – Claudin diagnosis of the appropriate strategy for a non-revolutionary situation is castigated as culpably blind, his later well-publicised moves in the democratic direction they had indicated are seen as opportunistic, belated and, at a more fundamental level belied by the continuing authoritarian style of leadership. Conversion to democratic methods, Semprun argues, has to operate within the party as well as without.

The book is much more, however, than a relentless, unanswerable – certainly as yet unanswered – attack on Carrillo, including a demolition of his Dialogue on Spain and Eurocommunism and the State, with side-swipes in passing at Fidel Castro and Louis Althusser. It is also a very moving, ruthlessly honest account of Semprun's own gradual assertion of personal and intellectual independence as his own militant's experience led him to de-mythologise the party, a process he himself likens to his earlier rejection of Catholicism. This is a courageous exercise to perform in public and the reader can hardly fail to admire his determination not to apply the tempting pain-killer of forgetfulness to embarrassingly exuberant and credulous earlier enthusiasm. The non-Marxist reader, however, may well be left wondering if the de-mythologising is yet complete while Semprun, having shed the identity of Federico Sanchez, still offers no explanation of the comparative failure of the PCE except its leadership's inability to discern the 'correct' interpretation of events in the 1950s and 1960s.

Helen R. Lane, in spite of occasional outlandish renderings, like 'happenstance' for 'causalidad', and the perennial problem of 'companion' as the hopelessly anodyne English version of 'companera', provides an accurate and fluent translation which at no point blunts the cutting edge of this 'perverse and sophisticated' marvellous book.

Frances Lannon

The Spanish Republicans in France, 1939-1955

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1979; viii + 306pp.

Communism in Spain in the Franco Era. The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez

Jorge Semprun - Harvester Press, Brighton, 1980; 271pp.

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