In the summer of 1936, over just four weeks, it all went wrong – for democracy and for Spain, even for the British royals. Politicians failed, and Hitler was emboldened to plan a new European war, and more.
When some army generals sought to overthrow Spain’s elected government Francisco Franco quickly emerged as their leader; Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported him with men and matériel; pusillanimous politicians in Britain and the United States, even in France, turned a blind eye – and the Spanish Civil War was on. Edward VIII took a scandalous holiday cruise with Mrs Simpson, Berlin staged the greatest sporting event of modern times, the alternative Peoples’ Olympiad never came to be, and Barcelona was transformed into a unique workers’ paradise. All this in four weeks. It was an incongruous, at times brilliant, juxtaposition of events.
This is an edited version of the speech made by Mark Colvin, Presenter of the ABC’s PM Program, in launching the book.
When I was a small boy at an English boarding school, our main history text was a small book by one of the masters, Harold Hartley, who made a tidy sum over the years as a result. We learned the names of the Kings and Queens of England by means of the mnemonic rhyme
Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three,
One, two, three Neds, Richard two,
Henries four, five, six – then who?
Edwards four, five, Dick the bad,
Harries twain and Ned the lad … and so on …
A lot about the writing of history has changed in the intervening decades, thank heavens…. there [are] small books of powerful storytelling which [can] give you a whole new window into a moment or a sweep of history. I would include in that category Dava Sobel’s Longitude, on the otherwise dry subject of timekeeping and naval warfare in the 18th century, Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, in which the history of a single chemical illuminates much of human existence, and John Lukacs’ Five Days in London.
It’s among that distinguished company – and in that category – that Nick Whitlam’s book comfortably fits. Because it takes history day by day, switching focus between places and people, it reads almost filmically.
It is not just a book about the Spanish Civil War, or the rise of Fascism in Europe, the degree to which sport can ever be apolitical, or the responsibilities of a young man like Edward the Eighth within the confines of a modern constitutional monarchy. It is – to borrow the title of a BBC Radio series – a book about “The things we forgot to remember”: a book about some things we think we know well and others we may never have heard of. Everyone remembers Jessie Owens’ wonderful victories at the Berlin Olympics and the challenge they presented to Hitler’s insane race theories – but who has ever heard about the Popular Olympics in Barcelona, the anti-Olympics if you like? I certainly hadn’t until I read Nick’s book.
Similarly we all know the name of Juan Antonio Samaranch, because it became synonymous with the corruption and authoritarianism of the International Olympic Committee. But where else but in this book can you find him as a 16-year-old fascist preparing to fight for Franco at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, while in a parallel narrative, Avery Brundage is shepherding the American Olympic squad across the Atlantic by ship towards Hitler’s festival of Aryan supremacy.
If you believe in genetics, probably no-one but Nick Whitlam could have written this particular book. It begins with a story about his late father and a certain characteristic finickiness about the title of the Duchess of Windsor, and it goes on to be – unmistakably – the book of someone who grew up surrounded by politics in practice and in theory.
This is also a book which forces you to ruminate on history’s turning points. It occurs in the year after Mussolini has gone to war in Abyssinia , a few months after Hitler has taken the Rhineland. The decisions taken by the German and Italian dictators at this time, supporting the Francoists, and by France’s Prime Minister Leon Blum, supporting the Republic, were in retrospect early signs of the long manoeuvring that led up to the Second World War. Similarly, Britain’s inaction, obsessed as the Government was with the Abdication crisis, provides a melancholy foretaste of the moment less than two years hence when Neville Chamberlain would dismiss Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The parallels I didn’t see coming were the ones with the Thirties, in particular the return of a type of populist nationalism to which you can give many labels. Let’s face it, the American term alt-right is a euphemism for a host of nasties, from racism to straight out fascism.
We’ve long been warned against comparing anyone too easily to Hitler, and mostly rightly. But it’s not hysterical to note that authoritarians who run up against economic difficulty tend to react by military adventurism. Mussolini invaded Abyssinia – Putin invaded Crimea.
It’s not too much to note that Hitler came to power with considerably less than a majority of the popular vote, and that the establishment fatally miscalculated that it – and the institutions of the State – could control him.
It’s not too much to note either that a leader who comes to power on an authoritarian platform – as Franco did and as Trump has if we take many of his speeches literally – will not necessarily bring about his own downfall through war or incompetence. Franco came to power in the Spanish Civil War and he remained in power, playing a canny game on the national and international stage, for nearly four decades.
This is a book of kaleidoscopic combinations.
It is constructed, eighty years being several generations, from what might seem to us at first to be broken fragments of antique legends.
But in Nick’s work, this piece of history suddenly speaks to us as if it were yesterday or today.
Draw your own conclusions, draw your own parallels, but I urge you at least to read it. You will be, to borrow a phrase from the ABC Charter, educated entertained and culturally enriched.
You can buy “Four Weeks One Summer” at good bookstores, via Amazon or Book Depository – or direct from the publisher: www.scholarly.info/book/517.webloc for $44.