Back to Index

Herbert Southworth and the Civil War

     News buzzes around the internet by zig-zags. News of the death of Herbert Southworth (1908-1999) came to me from Hoover Curator Helen Solanum. It was originally picked up from ALBA (Abraham Loncoln Brigade Archives), in itself proof that the Spanish Civil War divides scholars sharply, including WAISers. The obituary was written by WAISer Paul Preston, who admires Southworth:
     Herbert Southworth, a legendary book-collector and for many years the intellectual scourge of General Franco's dictatorship, has died in France aged 91. His book on the bombing of Guernica is one of the three or four most important of the many thousands of volumes written on the Spanish Civil War. [This puts him at odds with WAISer Brian Crozier, who in his biography of Franco repeated the story that the bombing of Guernica was the work of retreating Republicans.]
     His writings as a whole saw the Francoist Ministry of Information set up an entire department just to counter his demolition of regime propaganda. [The Minister was Fraga Iribarne, whose relationship with WAISer Burnett Bolloten was a tragedy comedy.]
     His extraordinary passage from poverty in the American West to crusading left-wing journalist during the Spanish Civil War had elements of a Steinbeck novel. His later transformation into successful radio station magnate and then into a scholar of world-wide reputation was reminiscent of one of Theodore Dreiser's self-made heroes.
     He was born in Canton, a tiny Oklahama town, on 6 February 1908. When the town bank, owned by his father failed in 1917, the family moved briefly to Tulsa in eastern Oklahoma. They stayed longer in Abilene, Texas, where his father prospected for oil. Herbert's principal memory of that time was reading his father's collection of the Harvard Classics. The theft of one of the volumes when he was twelve affected him so deeply that it was perhaps the beginning of his own obsessional book-collecting. He educated himself among the stacks of the Carnegie Public Library in Abilene. There, after months of reading The Nation and The New Republic, he decided to abandon Protestantism and the conservative Republicanism of the Bible belt. He became a socialist and an avid lifetime reader of what he joyfully called 'the muckraker's school of journalism'. It was to be the basis of his astonishing transformation into a formidable scholar in Europe.
     He went to secondary school in Abilene until the age of 15. He worked at various jobs in the construction industry in Texas, then in a copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. There, he learned Spanish working with Mexican miners. The collapse of the price of copper after the Wall Street crash left him unemployed. He then decided to work his way through Arizona University and when his savings ran out, he went to the Texas Technological College in Lubbock -- better known as the birth-place of Buddy Holly. [Never heard of him. The Stanford Information tells me that he was a rock and roll player who died in an airplane crash. Known to Paul Preston in London!] There, he lived in acute poverty, paying for his studies by working in the College library. He majored in History with a minor in Spanish. The work in the library had deepened his love for books. With the encouragement of the College Librarian, he left, in 1934, with only one thought in mind - to seek work in the world's most important book collection, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. When he finally got a post in the Document Department, it was at a salary less than half of what he had received in the copper mines. Yet, although it barely allowed him to eat, he was happy just to be able to pass his days among the bookshelves.
     When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he began to review books on the conflict for the Washington Post. Already emotionally affected by the struggle between fascism and anti-fascism, he always said thereafter that that the events in Spain gave direction to his life. His articles brought him to the notice of the Republic's Ambassador, Fernando de los Ríos, who asked him to work for the Spanish Information Bureau. He left his ill-paid but secure government post in the Library and moved to New York. There he worked with passion writing regular press articles and pamphlets, including Franco's Mein Kampf. During this time, he took a Masters degree at Columbia University and formed an enduring friendship with his colleague Jay Allen, the distinguished war correspondent.
     While in New York, he also met and married a beautiful young Puerto Rican woman, Camelia Colón, although it was not to be a happy marriage. Herbert was devastated by the defeat of the Republic although, after the war ended, he and Jay continued to work for the exiled premier Juan Negrín. He also wrote a book about the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, which was rejected by publishers on the grounds that it was too scholarly.
     Shortly after Pearl Harbour, Herbert was recruited by the U.S. Office of War Information. In 1943, he was sent to Algeria to work for the Office of Psychological Warfare. Because of his knowledge of the Spanish situation, he was posted to Rabat in Morocco to direct Spanish-language broadcasts to Franco's Spain. At the end of the war, he decided not to use his demobilization air passage home but stay in Rabat, partly to await the fall of Franco but largely because he had fallen in love with a strikingly handsome and powerfully intelligent French lawyer, Suzanne Maury. When both were free to do so, they married in 1948. Knowing that there were no controls on broadcasting from Tangier, Suzanne advised him to buy a quantity of US Army surplus radio equipment with which he founded Radio Tangier.
     During that time, he traveled regularly to Spain in search of material for what would become the largest ever collection of books and pamphlets on the Spanish Civil War (which now resides at the University of California, San Diego). The radio station was nationalized by the Moroccan Government at midnight on 31 December 1960. Herbert and Suzanne went to live in Paris. He lost money in an effort to launch the potato crisp in France. That, together with an incident in which he was beaten up by policemen during a left-wing demonstration, inclined him to leave the capital. [He invited me to his apartment, from the balcony of which we watched a Communist demonstration marching in good order from the Place de la République to the Place de la Bastille, followed by the trouble-making anarchist casseurs. This must have been before the trouble mentioned, which presumably took place on the street below his apartment. It looks as though he went downstairs and joined les casseurs.]
     The problem of housing his by now enormous library saw him move south. In 1962, he and Suzanne bought the run-down Château de Puy in Villedieu sur Indre. Some years later, they moved to the faded magnificence of the secluded Château de Roche, in Concrémiers near Le Blanc [south of Tours]. In the centre of the house was a relatively modernised core, the equivalent of a four-bedroom house where they lived. On the third floor and the other wings, lived the books and the bats.
     Once established there, he wrote a series of books which obliged the Franco regime to change its falsified version of its own past. The most celebrated was The Myth of Franco's Crusade, a devastating exposé of right-wing propaganda about the Spanish Civil War, published in Spanish and French by José Martínez of Ruedo Ibérico, the great anti-Franco exiled publishing house. Smuggled into Spain and sold clandestinely, its impact obliged the then Minister of Information, Manuel Fraga, to set up a department solely dedicated to the modernization of regime historiography. Its director, Ricardo de la Cierva, in a losing battle with Southworth, went on to write eighty books in defence [American: defense] of the Franco regime.
     In 1965, Southworth wrote a second book, Antifalange, also published by Ruedo Ibérico, a massively erudite commentary on the process whereby Franco converted the Falange into the single party of his regime. Based on a staggering array of sources, Guernica! Guernica! A Study of Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda and History (Berkeley, California, California University Press, 1977) is an astonishing reconstruction of the effort by Franco's propagandists and admirers to wipe out the atrocity at Guernica. On the advice of the great French historian, Pierre Vilar, the manuscript was presented in 1975 - successfully - as a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. [Vilar, great? Possibly, but not pleasant--a sour Marxist.]
     Southworth had already lectured in universities in Britain and France but this was the beginning of a belated academic recognition of Southworth's work in his own country. In the mid-1970s, he became Regents Professor at the University of California.
     Herbert was never fully welcome in the U.S. academic community, because of his inveterate subversiveness and his mischievous humour. [Well, he did not have scholarly even-handedness and fairness; admittedly plain dullness is often a substitute for this.] He made no secret of his contempt for Washington's policies in Latin America which evoked for him the betrayal of the Spanish Republic. Everyday, as an avid observer of what he considered to be the hypocrisy of political theatre, he devoured a stack of French and American newspapers. Along with his political passion, he had a wonderful sense of the absurd and an irresistibly infectious laugh. He was particularly keen on multi-lingual puns, never ceasing to be tickled by the delivery to any restaurant-table in Spain of a bottle of fizzy water with its label 'sin gas'. I remember on one occasion at a conference in Germany, the assembled participants were led by the director of the host foundation to see a sumptuous carpet which we were proudly told had once belonged to Adolph Hitler. Herbert dropped to his knees and began shuffling around, peering closely at the pile. Herr Direktor asked with concern what was the matter and was completely nonplussed when Herbert replied in his slow Texan drawl, 'I'm looking for the teeth marks!'
     His demolition of the fake scholarship of others was often extremely amusing, most notably in his chapter entitled 'Spanica Zwischen Todnu Gabriet', in which he traced minutely how Francoist author after Francoist author cited a book which they had never read (Peter Merin's Spanien zwischen Tod und Geburt --Spain between Life and Death), but merely mis-copied its title. He once asked me to ensure that his gravestone carried the epitaph 'HIS WRITINGS WERE NOT HOLY WRIT / BUT NEITHER WERE THEY WHOLLY SHIT'. Despite his austere inquisitorial style, he was a rotund and jolly trencherman.
     After the death of Franco, Herbert was regularly invited to give lectures Spanish universities where he was a major cult figure. His influence was seen in the work of a new generation of British and Spanish scholars.
     Southworth's remorselessly forensic writings imposed new standards of seriousness on writing about the war. A pugnacious polemicist, he regularly took part in literary arguments, most notably with Burnett Bolloten and Hugh Thomas [both WAIS Fellows- Paul Preston likes Southworth much more than I do. He was cock-sure, and his criticism hurt my close friend Burnett Bolloten, who was more even-handed and careful about facts.]
     Southworth ceased writing for a time. In 1970, he saw that his outgoings on books dramatically exceeded income and he decided that he must sell the collection. It was sold to the University of California at San Diego as 'The Southworth Collection' and remains the world's single most important library on the Spanish Civil War. With income from savings dwindling, he and Suzanne also had to sell the Château de Roche in 1978.
     I had assumed that, as they had both entered their seventies, they would move to a modern house. Instead, they bought a medieval priory in the village of St Benoît du Sault, an intriguing but inconvenient house in which every room was on a different level and whose stone spiral staircase led to another bat-infested study. Inevitably, Herbert began to rebuild his collection and had started to write again. He enjoyed the friendship of the Pierre Vilar, of numerous Spanish scholars and of the venerable Dutch anarchist thinker, Arthur Lehning. They lived happily in St Benoît until Suzanne's health broke down in the 1994. Herbert nursed her devotedly until her death on 24 August 1996. He never recovered fully from that blow and, after a stroke, his health deteriorated. Although bed-ridden, with the devoted help of an English neighbour, Susan Walstra, he continued to research. Only three days before his death in the hospital at Le Blanc, he delivered a more fitting epitaph than that quoted above, in the form of the manuscript of Conspiracy and the Spanish Civil War: The Brainwashing of Francisco Franco, which will be published in Spain by Editorial Crítica and in England by Routledge next year.
     [Paul Preston sounds as devoted to Southworth as I was to Bolloten.]

Ronald Hilton - 11/22/99