C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

Both American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, named Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when asked recently by journalists to cite their favorite novel. McCain has said that during his captivity in North Vietnam as a POW he recited portions of the book to himself.

It’s intriguing that both McCain and Obama chose a novel set not in the United States, but in Spain during its fratricidal Civil War in the late 1930s. The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is an American, however, Robert Jordan, a leftist college professor and International Brigades volunteer who embarks on a dangerous mission to blow up a strategic bridge in the Iberian hill country. At least one conservative writer, Michael Knox Beran, has tartly suggested that McCain should find a different favorite, one that isn’t “a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.”

There is some irony in Beran’s critique of the politics of Hemingway’s novel, because the hard Left in the United States, including some of the American Communists who served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (part of the International Brigades), ferociously attacked the book (and its author) after its publication in 1940. These critics, among them former Lincoln commander Milton Wolff, objected to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Soviet motives and tactics in Spain and to his unsparing and harsh portraits of political commissar André Marty (known as the “Butcher of Albacete” for his purge of non-Communists in the International Brigades) and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, the Leftist icon also known as La Passionara. (Hemingway, never one to duck a fight, responded directly and profanely to those he called the “ideology boys.”)

Hemingway made a distinction between supporting the Loyalist cause, as did his fictional character Robert Jordan, and endorsing the Soviet strategy of deception and manipulation in dealing with the Republican government. Such an approach was anathema to the hardliners. There’s an amusing anecdote (recounted in Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War) involving the actor Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s choice to play Robert Jordan in the film of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alvah Bessie, a Lincoln veteran and screenwriter. During the filming, Bessie lectured Cooper about how the Spanish conflict hadn’t been a civil war, as Cooper believed, but instead was a German and Italian invasion designed to overthrow the legal government of Spain. Cooper’s laconic, and classic, response: “That so? That’s what so great about this country…a guy like you can fight in a war that’s none of his business.”

Art and the “Good Fight”

It’s not hard to see why the “Good Fight” (as the Spanish struggle was dubbed) inspired artists, poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers from the start. The conflict was rich with dramatic, and tragic, elements. Writers have been drawn by the idealism of many of the defenders of the Republic, and by the idea that the Spanish hostilities represented a dress rehearsal for World War II. Some of the best works about the conflict, such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s novel, have explored the tensions within the ranks of the Loyalists. This artistic and literary fascination with the “Good Fight” has continued into the 21st century as evidenced by a continuing stream of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, including English author C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a best-seller in Britain.

Sansom has set his fictional story in 1940 Madrid, a year after General Francisco Franco’s victory over the Loyalists, and Winter in Madrid shines brightest in its evocative portrayal of the grim life in Spain’s capital city: the compromises, and sacrifices, required for survival. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Brett, a veteran of Dunkirk, is recruited by British Intelligence to spy on a former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in shady business dealings with the Spanish government. Brett’s mission exposes him to the corruption and venality of the Nationalist victors, and to the growing rivalry between the Royalist and Falange wings of Franco’s regime.

Sansom’s characters reflect the range of British attitudes toward the Spanish conflict. Harry Brett is a self-described liberal Tory (“As far as I am concerned, Spain before the Civil War was rotten with chaos, and the Fascists and Communists both took advantage”). The crypto-Fascist Forsyth is balanced by a British Communist, Bernie Piper, an internationalist who embraces the Republican cause as part of a broader struggle against Fascism. And there is an English Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, an idealistic, but fragile, fellow traveler who becomes romantically involved with both Piper and Forsyth. The three men—Brett, Piper and Forsyth—have all attended Rookwood, a traditional British public school, and Sansom intersperses flashbacks of their school days throughout the pages of Winter in Madrid, linking past and present friendships and rivalries. That’s a lot of baggage for any novel to carry, and Sansom struggles to pull off the dual narratives.

He also misses the mark in his characterization of Forsyth, a straight-from-Central-Casting sadist, exactly the sort of predictable Fascist bad guy found in innumerable World War II thrillers. Franco’s Spanish supporters are also uniformly portrayed by Sansom as grasping, or evil, or both. Yet, it is possible for a novelist to write about the complex human dimensions of those loyal to a twisted ideology. For example, Alan Furst has created a number of fully-rounded characters drawn to totalitarian creeds in novels like The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, and Dark Star, and David Downing’s Zoo Station and Silesian Station give us flesh-and-blood Germans struggling to retain their decency in Nazi Germany. Winter in Madrid would have been better served by grays instead of black-and-white, and it would have been a much better novel if Sansom had risked more by creating less predictable, and less cliched, villains.

To his credit, Sansom gets his history right. There’s no whitewashing of Comintern treachery during the Civil War, and also no shying away from the post-war reality of Nationalist brutality. At one level, Winter in Madrid can be read as an indictment of Britain’s accomodationist policy toward Franco and the Spanish Right in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet Sansom acknowledges that by the time of the Battle of Britain, Whitehall’s options had narrowed. No matter how distasteful the Franco regime might be, keeping Spain out of an alliance with the Germans had to shape British policy.

Sansom’s imaginative leap in setting Winter in Madrid after the end of the civil war deserves praise as well. We see Spain confronting not only the human costs of its ideological death struggle—the shattered veterans, the orphans, the despairing widows—but also the grim prospects of life under a dictatorship. It is a fascinating, and haunting, story and Winter in Madrid tells it well.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

6 thoughts on “C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

  1. Your review is seriously marred by false statements. A few of them:

    * André Marty killed no one. The “Butcher of Albacete” slander comes from a pro-fascist propaganda work. French scholar Remy Skoutelsky established this in his book about the French volunteers, after thoroughly studying the archives in Moscow.

    * There was no “Communist treachery”. This is a canard most recently spread by Ronald Radosh’s book Spain Betrayed. I’ve demonstrated its dishonesty at http://eserver.org/clogic/2003/furr.html

    * Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is simply incompetent as history. Orwell was ferociously biased when he arrived in Spain. Speaking no Spanish, he understood little that he did not see for himself, even getting the forces involved in the “May Days” revolt in Barcelona wrong. At least he cautions the reader against his own bias at the end of his book — excellent advice, which you, sadly, have failed to heed.

    * Cecil Eby’s Comrades and Commissars is an anticommunist diatribe full of false statements. I have reviewed it at http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/pol/ebyreview.html and demolished one of the many false stories it contains at http://reconstruction.eserver.org/081/furr.shtml

    * William Herrick’s autobiography, to which you refer in your link to Milt Wolff, is full of false statements. I document some at the link above, but there’s far more — it’s simply larded with falsehoods.

    There’s more to say. Let me stop here, and refer the interested reader to one more article of mine at http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/research/response_to_flynn0408.html

    I’ve yet to read a single anticommunist work on the Spanish Civil War that is not filled with falsehoods, whether deliberate or just copied uncritically from similarly biased works.

  2. Dear Professor Furr,

    We agree to disagree.

    1. André Marty

    We have the testimony of André Marty’s International Brigades comrades (such as Gustav Regler, Ilya Ehrenberg, Louis Fischer, Jason Gurney, Hans Kahle, Gustavo Duran, William Herrick and others) of his paranoiac “spy-hunting” and his complicity in summary executions as Political Commissar of the Brigades. “Marty later admitted that he had ordered the shooting of about 500 Brigadiers, nearly one-tenth of the total killed in the war. Many claim that Marty’s figure is modest.” (See, Antony Beevor’s The Spanish Civil War (Penguin, 2001), page 27).

    Hemingway wrote his portrait of Marty, he explained to poet and Lincoln veteran Edwin Rolfe, “to make it impossible for Marty to get away again with the sort of executions he carried out in Spain.” (See Cary Nelson’s article “Hemingway, the American left, and the Soviet Union: some forgotten episodes” in The Hemingway Review 14.1 (Fall 1994) p. 36).

    2. Communist treachery

    The historical record suggests that, as Christopher Hitchens has written: “Moscow exploited the weakness of its Republican ally in order to fleece it through one-sided arms deals…it sequestered Spain’s gold reserves, and…it planted its own agents or nominees throughout the military and security services of the embattled Popular Front.” Further: “Stalinism in Spain had been not an ally of the Republic and the revolution, but a fatal metastasis of an already lethal Soviet despotism.”

    3. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

    There is a Plaza George Orwell sited near the Barcelona waterfront (as Hitchens has pointed out), hardly the sort of tribute you’d expect for an “incompetent historian” from the people most affected by the attempted Communist coup.

    4. Eby’s Comrades and Commissars

    I’ve found that Eby’s account of the Lincoln Battalion, while not perfect, is comprehensive and well-researched.

    5. William Herrick

    No historian accepts an autobiography on face value. But much of what Herrick has to say about the Stalinist control of the International Brigades is confirmed by other veterans and those, like John Gates, who eventually broke with the Communist Party.

    I will close by noting that Steve Nelson, a CPUSA hardliner and Spanish Civil War veteran, initially praised For Whom the Bell Tolls before “seeing the error of his ways” (under pressure from the Party.) Even Stalinists saw André Marty for what he was….


  3. My reply:

    1. André Marty
    There is NO evidence that Marty killed anybody.
    Rémy Skoutelsky, the expert on the French volunteers, author of a book on the subject (L’histoire guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires français dans les Brigades Internationales 1936-1938. Paris: Grasset, 1998 ) and a scholarly article specifically on this very “Butcher of Albacete” question (“André Marty et les Brigades internationales”, Cahiers d’histoire 67 (1997), 103-124) demonstrates that there no evidence Marty ever killed anybody.

    There is evidence that the story of Marty as the “butcher of Albacete” and general all-round killer, was fabricated by the Francoists — fascists. Carlos Serrano, L’Enjeu espagnol: Le P.C.F. et la guerre d’Espagne (Paris: Messidor, 1987), also studied this very question (pp. 124-128). He concluded that these allegations “seem to be a simple invention of Francoist propaganda right after the war.” (128)

    Beevor’s claim that Marty “later admitted that he had ordered the shooting of about 500 brigadiers” (The Battle for Spain , p. 161) is, in plain English, a lie. Beevor’s footnote at this point does not cite Marty. Marty never admitted anything of the kind.

    Indeed, had he done so we would not be having this exchange. Beevor as much as admits it by following his false statement with the words “but some question this figure” (161). If Marty had “admitted” it, who would “question” it? Certainly not a visceral anticommunist like Beevor!
    Another example of Beevor’s dishonesty: he claims that he has discovered a communist atrocity, the execution of 400 deserters from Lister’s (Spanish) division after the Battle of Brunete (“The callous betrayal of anti-Franco forces”, Times Online (London) May 24, 2006. Beevor repeats this charge in Battle for Spain p. 282 citing a footnote to a document in a Soviet archive (p. 479).
    My point here is that a significant historical discovery such as this alleged atrocity should at least be accompanied by reproduction of the document in the book or on the Internet, as is commonly done.
    The very fact that Beevor cites a Moscow military archive is suspicious. When my Moscow colleague checked this document for me, he found it is a report on a Curtis-Wright aircraft engine!

    Since he permits his fanatical anticommunism to mar his research at every turn (as does Eby; see below) Beevor’s entire work is virtually worthless.

    The concluding remark in your post, “Even Stalinists saw André Marty for what he was…” is just a cheap shot. For the question you raise is: Just what was he?

    Was he a murderer or not? No matter how difficult and unpleasant many people found him – and not everybody found him thus, for Beevor himself cites some who admired Marty greatly (197) – “difficulty” is not relevant to the charge of murder.

    2. No “Communist treachery” – Capitalist treachery

    Christopher Hitchens, whom you cite here, is no scholar of the Spanish Civil War but is a fiercely biased anticommunist. The fact that he says anything is not evidence.

    Iurii Rybalkin, ¬Operatsiia ‘X’. sovetskaia voennaia pomoshch’ respublikanskoi Ispanii (1936-1939), Moscow, 2000, pp. 90-103, uses documents from Soviet archives to argue that the Soviets did not overcharge Spain for arms.

    Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), p. 153, writes:

    In 1936 the Soviet government would dispatch at least 50 per cent (and probably more) of its precious total annual production of military aircraft to Republican Spain. Later in the war too the Soviet government would provide substantial credits to the Republic when it knew that it had virtually no chance of recouping them.

    (For the “capitalist treachery”, see next section.)

    3. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

    The fact that a Plaza George Orwell exists in Barcelona attests only to the fact that there are pro- and anticommunists in Spain. The Spanish government has also honored the International Brigades several times, and will do so again this October on the 70th anniversary of their despedida or “farewell” in 1938.

    But citing the existence of a street name is not historical evidence for anything.

    In Section 6 of his 1943 essay “Looking back on the Spanish War” Orwell withdraws his earlier judgment that the Republic lost through “disunity” or “sabotage”, and states clearly that it was lost in “London, Paris, Rome, Berlin”. “…the Government could not win the war unless there were some profound change in the international set-up”, he wrote, and that meant: support by the U.K. and France, lack of which guaranteed that the fascists would win.

    To charge Stalin and the USSR for “betraying” the Spanish Republic when in fact Stalin, the USSR, and the Comintern were its staunches allies, spending thousands of lives and immense treasure to aid the anti-fascist cause while the Allies covertly aided the Fascists, is a grotesque anticommunist falsehoods. It’s “the Big Lie”, as typical as it is brazen.

    4. Eby’s Comrades and Commissars

    I agree that Eby’s book is “comprehensive and well-researched.” The problem is that in his zeal to trash the role of the USSR, Comintern, and CPUSA Eby abandons objectivity in interpreting the evidence his research has uncovered. This fatally mars his work, as it would the work of any scholar who permits his bias to override his judgment.

    My article on the Oliver Law issue in Reconstructions 8:1 (http://reconstruction.eserver.org/081/furr.shtml ) gives a detailed examination of one example of how Eby’s bias leads him completely astray, despite his wide knowledge of the subject.

    5. William Herrick

    In the course of researching the death of Oliver Law I found so many outright falsehoods in Herrick’s memoir (Jumping the Line. U. Wisconsin Press, 1998) that I am preparing a review of this decade-old book. Herrick demonstrably lied about his own experiences in Spain. In addition he lards his book with anticommunist canards and Cold War falsehoods. Nothing Herrick says can be taken as factually true without thoroughly checking it up. Fortunately, most of what he says about his own life is of no interest to any but, maybe, his family.

  4. Dear Professor Furr,

    1. André Marty

    The idea that Andre Marty’s horrific reputation was a creation of the Francoists, as suggested by revisionist historians Skoutelsky and Serrano, is not supported by the historical record.

    The reality: Marty’s paranoia and complicity in the summary executions in the International Brigades of suspected POUM members, Trotskyites, dissidents, etc. has been testified to by his contemporaries.

    The documentary evidence is ample.


    As a war correspondent, Hemingway covered the International Brigades and could describe Marty’s behavior from that experience. He was on close terms with many of the IB staff officers (Hans Kahle, General Walter Swierczewski, General Paul Lukas, and Gustavo Duran) and had detailed knowledge of what was going in the International Brigades. Further, it is clear that he had an inside source feeding him information on Marty. James R. Mellow’s 1992 biography on Hemingway notes: “Josie Herbst, remembering that Evan Shipman, who had joined the International Brigade and been assigned as “some sort of secretary” to Andre Marty because of his fluent French, suspected that it was Shipman who was the important source of Hemingway’s inside information.” (p. 519)


    The foreign correspondent Herbert Matthews described Marty as “’brutal and half mad.” Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg on Marty: “a mentally sick man.” Lincoln volunteer Morris Maken called Marty “a menace.” “His own men referred to him as ‘the hangman.’” as noted by Victor Alba, Transition in Spain: From Franco to Democracy (1978) page 163.

    Hemingway’s portrait of Marty in For Whom the Bell Tolls rang true to the numerous SCW vets who read the galleys before publication, to the volunteers who read it once published, including hardliners Steve Nelson (who I have already pointed out praised the novel before he was told by the CPUSA to recant) and Mirko Markovich.

    Did Marty personally kill anyone (as opposed to ordering the executions)? The only eyewitness account to Marty pulling the trigger I know of is a Welsh IB volunteer, Lancelot (Lance) Rogers who gave an interview in the 2000 documentary Extranjeros de si Mismos saying that he saw Marty shoot several shell-shocked Spanish volunteers at the battle of Brunete; Skoutelsky claims Marty was in Moscow at the time, based on Soviet records. Rogers remained a dedicated Man of the Left his entire life: why would he fabricate the story about Marty? Was it a different battle? Or a different IB officer?

    2. Communist treachery

    Christopher Hitchens may not have a PHD in history but he is a skilled journalist and has studied the life of Orwell.

    A more scholarly assessments which backs up Hitchens’ view of Soviet treachery is Stanley G. Payne’s The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism (2004).

    3. Orwell

    The central contention of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains historically valid.

    4. Eby and 5. Herrick

    We disagree.

    If you truly wish to defend the actions of André Marty, SIM, the NKVD and other Soviet-directed actors in the Spanish Civil War, I think you should embrace Auden’s position: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”


  5. On a specific point: Lance Rogers was lying about Marty. He himself had a nervous breakdown or catatonic collapse (or even shell-shock) within minutes rather than hours of arriving at the battle-zone of Villanueva de la Cañada on the first afternoon of the Brunete campaign. He was carried away to the rear. Unless he was faking his condition (by no means impossible) he was never in a position to observe anything thereafter. In any case, the alleged Marty killings took place at a significantly later point in the campaign – several days, perhaps a week or more. Rogers’s evidence (i.e. various interviews given and recorded over a period of thirty years) is studded with evasions, contradictions and outright deceptions. Moreover, as Skoutelsky states, Marty was in Moscow at the time.
    However none of this means that Marty was entirely innocent. As Joel Hurstfield said many years ago: ‘there may be no smoke without fire, but there may also be a great deal of smoke caused by a very small fire’. Rogers, like the rest of us, was perhaps overcome by the smoke.

  6. I thought Marty left teh PCF in the fifties and became close to one wing of French Trotskyism

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