Photo by Richard McCrann
Historian Paul Preston has devoted much of his professional life to chronicling Spain’s recent past. His classic tome The Spanish Civil War (1986, revised 2007) describes how the conflict escalated into a new and horrific form of warfare, which was fought out by the great European powers, and presaged the Second World War.
Preston, 61, gained a degree and PhD from Oxford University before becoming a university lecturer. In 1991, he joined the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he’s currently the Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies. His acclaimed book about Spain’s dictator, Franco. A Biography (1993), is an illuminating account of one of Europe’s most despised as well as best-loved 20th-century figures. This was followed by a biography on the current Spanish monarch: Juan Carlos. A People’s King (2004). In this book, Preston shows how a prince seeped in the beliefs of authoritarian rule and right-wing politics eventually sided with democracy.
Preston has also explored the role of women during the Spanish Civil War in his thoughtful book Doves of War. Four Women of the Spanish Civil War (2003). In 2005, Preston was awarded Catalunya’s most prestigious academic prize, the Premi Internacional Ramon Llull. He’s a frequent visitor to Barcelona and Spain.
How might Catalan nationalism develop over the next decade?
At the moment it appears that the relationship between Spain and Catalunya is getting worse by the day; and if the issue of the railways isn’t resolved soon the relationship could diminish even further. The problem that nationalists need to overcome is the divide between the left and the right—it stands in the way of unity. But I don’t think they’ll resort to violence; they’ll act within democracy.
How has Barcelona changed over the past 40 years?
I’ve been visiting the city since the late Sixties when it was a dark and lugubrious place. When Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, however, it opened up and has since transformed itself into a great European city. The influx of tourists has, I believe, created a Disneyland situation, which isn’t a good thing.
What happened during the failed 1981 coup d’état in Spain?
I was flying back from Spain to the UK when the coup took place. When I arrived in London I was swamped by reporters wanting a reaction to events. In fact, it was a complicated affair as there were three parallel coups going on at the same time; each feeding off one another. The moderate coup was led by General Alfonso Armada—he wanted a de Gaulle-like situation of a coalition government with a military presence. Then, there was the Pinochet-type coup organised by General Jamie Milans del Bosch, and finally the wild and savage plan hatched by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero—he wanted a massacre. They were all united in the belief that the current Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, was behind the uprising.
No! Research proves he had nothing to do with the military coup. He’s a great patriot and regarded the coup as unpatriotic as well as humiliating for Spain.
Did women play a significant role in the Spanish Civil War?
Spanish women paid a high price during the war in terms of their own and their family lives. They were living in extreme times and were all linked by courage and the sacrifices they were willing to make. Their story during the conflict is about the rights they earned during the Spanish Republic before Franco took these rights away after he won power.
As a football fan (and Everton FC supporter) do you think Barça could win the Champions League this season?
Even though the club has got many internal problems, the team should go far in the competition. I’m not sure, however, they’ll win it—just as long as Liverpool doesn’t lift the trophy.