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My country right or left

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On July 18, 1936, fascist army officers launched a coup against the socialist government of Spain. This was the beginning of a three-year civil war. The fascists immediately seized control of large swaths of the country, including the city of Valladolid, the de facto capital of the the northwestern region of Castile and Leon.

My maternal grandfather was a professor at the university, founded in 1241, and naturally considered a hotbed of communism by the fascists. My grandfather was not a political man by nature, but he supported the elected government of the country, which instantly meant he was a traitor in the eyes of the fascists who had taken control of the city. Fascist thugs came over to my grandparents’ apartment and ransacked it in front of my grandmother and her four-year-old daughter — my mother — and her two-year-old son.

It so happened that on that day my grandfather was administering an exam to students in Santander, in the Basque Country, 150 miles away, and close to the French border.

My grandfather had a student who was particularly devoted to him, and who was also a hardcore fascist. After the apartment was ransacked, this student visited my grandmother — this was a dangerous thing to do — and told her that her husband would certainly be shot immediately if he were to return to Valladolid, which I suspect did not come as any great shock to her (her husband’s brother would be murdered shortly after). Together, they concocted a scheme. The telegraph office was in the hands of the fascists, so a direct message was out of the question. Instead, my grandmother sent a telegram reading, “The children have the measles. Don’t come back until they are well.”

My four-year-old mother and her two-year-old brother had both had the measles already, so my grandfather understood what he was being told. Over the next few days, he somehow procured a fake Basque passport, and crossed the border into France. My grandmother followed shortly after, taking her two children, one suitcase, and two blankets.

They spent a year in Paris, courtesy of my grandfather’s professional colleagues, and then emigrated to Mexico, whose government was just about the only one in the world taking in Spanish refugees at that time. (It’s worth noting under present circumstances that the National Review reflected William F. Buckley’s love affair with fascist Spain until the regime’s dying day, and beyond).

All this happened literally overnight. One day my grandfather was an internationally-known professor, a respected figure at one of the oldest universities in the world, and the next day he was running for his life.

Prior to July 18, 1936, Spain was a normal country, with normal problems, at least by the standards of mid-1930s Europe. On that day, the blood started running in the streets, and didn’t stop for three years. It was the frontline in the international war against fascism, but it wouldn’t be fully liberated for 40 years, which is when my grandfather saw his homeland again for the first time since the third week of July, 1936.

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. But I don’t pretend that that is the emotional basis of my actions. What I knew in my dream that night was that the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through had done its work, and that once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage. But let no one mistake the meaning of this. Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same, like the devotion of the ex-White Bolshevik to Russia. To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. Within two years, maybe a year, if only we can hang on, we shall see changes that will surprise the idiots who have no foresight. I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood. All right, let them, if it is necessary. But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England I was taught to love so long ago for such different reasons is somehow persisting.George Orwell, “My Country Right or Left”

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