Austrian sociologist and disillusioned former Comintern official Franz Borkenau visited Republican Spain between August and September 1936, and again in January-February 1937. The account of his first-hand experiences as an independent socialist observer in revolutionary Spain, ‘The Spanish Cockpit’, was published in the early summer of 1937, when it impressed and influenced the recently-returned POUM miliciano George Orwell who recommended it (in a letter dated 1 August 1937) as ‘an excellent book’ for anyone wishing to understand Spanish affairs.
“The amount of expropriation in the few days since 19 July is almost incredible. The largest hotels, with one or two exceptions, have all been requisitioned by working class organisations (not burnt, as had been reported in many newspapers). So were most of the larger stores. Many of the banks are closed, the others bear inscriptions declaring them under the control of the Generalitat. Practically all the factory-owners we were told, had either fled or been killed, and their factories taken over by the workers. Everywhere large posters at the front of impressive buildings proclaim the fact of expropriation… All the churches had been burnt. “ (The Spanish Cockpit, pp 70-71)
“The Spanish revolution and civil war of 1931-39 has produced an oceanic quantity of original source materials, including documentation and memoirs, along with secondary studies, seldom matched in 20th century historiography. It is a paradox of this topic that the ‘history of its history’ has been controversial and remains so, eight decades later.
“Archival material in Castilian and Catalan is little known in the rest of the world, where a ‘Spanish civil war industry’ of academics and hacks churns out ‘new’ books on the topic continuously. Many of these have perpetuated a ‘politically-correct’ discourse in which the Spanish Stalinist-Communist apparatus and the Soviet dictatorship played a crucial and laudable role in assisting the disadvantaged Spanish left. In such works, the revolutionary content of the Spanish opposition to Francisco Franco and his supporters is diluted.
“It is a further oddity that for approximately 40 years, the field of critical eyewitness to the revolution and observation of the negative Soviet role toward the Spanish side rested almost exclusively on a handful of early works published in English. These volumes were produced by journalists and authors who had lived in Spain or participated directly in the armed conflict.
“The earliest was the present book, The Spanish Cockpit, by the Austrian former publicist for the Communist International, Franz Borkenau (1900-57), issued for the first time in 1937. Borkenau used his experience with the Comintern to achieve an acutely authentic portrait of the dangers facing the Spanish left on their own terrain. This book was followed by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in 1938; then came The Spanish Labyrinth (1943) by the Bloomsbury intellectual Gerald Brenan (1894-1987), who had immersed himself in Iberian culture. The other great eyewitness work in English is Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, the definitive edition of which appeared in 2015.
“These four achievements are the pillars of truth-telling in English about the Spanish revolution. Much more material of value has appeared in Spain itself, and some books have been written, translated and published in English explaining the militancy of the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). Yet Borkenau’s account retains a uniquely fresh character.
“For many years the myth of Communist heroism in Spain dominated all discussion of the Spanish war. For those who came to know Spanish history it was clear there were two historical dimensions: that undergone by the Spanish people, and especially the left, and that fostered by outside interests to advance the prestige of Moscow.
“During those years the books of Borkenau, Orwell, Brenan, and Bolloten, plus a few more obscure works in English, provided a necessary alternative truth to the Stalinist lie. For that Borkenau deserves considerable honour, as well as a new reading.”
Stephen Schwartz, co-author with Víctor Alba Spanish Marxism Vs. Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM (1988)