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  You are in: Home > History >Juan Negrín  
 

Juan Negrín
Physiologist, Socialist, and Spanish Republican War Leader

Gabriel Jackson

Gabriel Jackson has published scholarly books and articles about modern Spain, medieval Spain, and twentieth-century Europe: also a short biography of Mozart, and three novels treating social and political problems. From 1983 to the present he has written “opinion” articles regularly for the Spanish newspaper EL PAIS, and book reviews for EL PAIS and for La Revista de Libros.

 

Dr. Juan Negrín Lopez (1892–1956) was a man of immense talent, energy, and socialist convictions who served the Spanish people in several widely differing capacities: as a physiologist of international reputation and as chairman of the medical faculty of the Complutense University in Madrid during the 1920s; as an active member of the Parliamentary wing of the Socialist Party during the years 1931–1936; then during the Civil War as Minister of Finance in the Popular Front government led by Francisco Largo Caballero (September 1936–May 1937); and as Prime Minister from late May until the bitter end in March 1939.

In all these roles he was highly competent: improving the laboratories and experimental methods in physiology, obtaining foreign scholarships for the best students, suggesting worthwhile subjects for doctoral theses, encouraging his students to learn foreign languages and read scientific literature in the language of the author, and also to think of public health as a national, public responsibility. As Minister of Finance he conceived of Spain’s relatively large gold reserve as the only means by which the Republic could buy the quality of modern arms that were being supplied to General Franco by Hitler and Mussolini. In European politics of the mid-1930s he understood much better than did the English, French, and United States political classes that Nazism and Fascism were a much greater threat to European democracy than was Soviet Communism. But the “appeasement” policy culminating in the Munich Pact of September 29, 1938 sealed the fate of the Spanish Republic as well as that of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

From 1940 onward Negrín was reviled in Franco Spain for having supposedly delivered the Republic into the hands of the Communists; many republican and socialist exiles also rejected him for continuing his Numantian policy of resistance when, after Munich, the military possibilities of the Republic were truly hopeless. In this award-winning biography (originally published in Spanish), Gabriel Jackson sets out to understand the moral and political thinking of Dr. Negrín – of those who supported him to the end and of those who felt that the last months of the war merely prolonged the useless suffering of the general population.

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies



Preface

1. Juan Negrín as a Human Being

2. His Career as a Scientist

3. His roles as Minister of Finance

4. Negrín and the Case of Andreu Nin

5. Governing without Tantrums

6. From Near Triumph to Near Catastrophe

7. The Relationship between Negrín and Prieto

8. The Policy of Resistance

9. Unresolvable Conflicts of Mission

10. The Emotional Impasse of August, 1938

11. D. Juan Negrín and His Kitchen Cabinet

12. Retreat, and Unaccepted Defeat

13. After the Civil War

Notes
Bibliography
Index


”Juan Negrín y López, the “enigmatic” leader of the Spanish Republic from May 1937 until its defeat in March 1939, had not been treated kindly in many histories of the Civil War. Some attacks have been personal, with critics scoffing at his “lavish spending … his delight in pretty women and his gargantuan eating the drinking.” Others have lambasted Negrín’s disorganized work habits and high-handed, dictatorial style. But it is Negrín’s role in the shipping of the Republic’s gold reserve to Moscow and his inability to prevent the persecution and murder of “Trotskyists” by Russian agents operating in Spain that have been particularly seized upon and have led to his denigration as a Communist stooge, a tool of Stalin’s apparent control of the Spanish Republic.

Gabriel Jackson’s new sympathetic biography of Negrín presents a rather different image of the Canarian university physiology professor: a highly intelligent, unassuming, and thoroughly decent man. Jackson recounts details of Negrín’s life before, during, and after the war, his intellectual background, and his personal life. However, though Jackson makes use of considerable previously unseen archival material, details are, on occasion, somewhat vague. As Jackson says, Negrín was a man “with an extremely reserved interior,” and documentary records appear to be almost as elusive as the figure himself. Negrín kept no diary and was not in the habit of saving his correspondence Many official papers were accidentally destroyed during the war, others afterwards deliberately by his lifelong companion, Feli, acting on Negrín’s personal instructions. The lack of sources means that the early chapters are frustrating, for we learn little about Negrín’s early life, and Jackson is often forced to guesswork. However, when we come to the Second Republic and the war itself, the book is on much firmer ground.

Jackson argues that though the much-derided Negrín was a determined war leader, he was no dictator, but was at heart a moderate socialist and a humanitarian. Like his fellow socialist, rival and one-time friend Prieto, Negrín did what he could to stop the paseos, the murder of imagined enemies of the Republic by “uncontrollables.” He issued passports and wrote personal letters to help political opponents flee Spain, and on one occasion, as Jackson approvingly relates, Negrín slept in a prison in order to limit the blood-letting. And while Negrín himself was secular, he firmly believed in restoring religious freedoms and worked hard to secure the release of imprisoned clerics.

Likewise, Jackson explains how Negrín’s lack of action over the murder of Andreu Nin by the NKVD and the Republic’s brutal suppression of the POUM need to be seen within the context of the Republic’s absolute dependence on Soviet military aid. Russia was the Republic’s only ally, and Negrín knew that meant he must do his utmost not to offend Stalin. This is not to say that Negrín, or Jackson for that matter, condoned the actions of the NKVD in Spain, but that unless Negrín was absolutely sure that the Russian agents were responsible for Nin’s disappearance and presumed murder, he could not afford to rock the boat.

On the infamous sale of the Republican gold reserves to Moscow, Jackson confirms that the impetus came from Spain, rather than from Russia as Negrín’s detractors would have us believe. Jackson tackles head-on the popular notion that the Republic’s war effort was dictated by Stalin, rather than Negrín. To Jackson, Negrín’s determination to maintain his – and Spain’s – independence has been sorely underestimated. Jackson explains why Negrín had such close links with Communists and why Negrín was determined to carry on fighting right to the end, when other senior Republicans such as Azaña, Prieto, and others knew that the game was up.

The answer, of course, was that Negrín and the Spanish Republic didn’t have the luxury of choice. Facing a superior army, boosted by troops from Morocco, Italy, Germany, and Portugal, and deserted by the countries that might have helped, Negrín and the Spanish Republic fought on because Franco could never have accepted a negotiated peace. Negrín was forced to accept whatever help he could get, however tainted and whatever the consequences for Stalin’s fourth internationalist scapegoats. Negrín worked closely with the Communist Party not because he was himself a Communist, or even a fellow traveller, but because they were the most resolute defenders of the Republic. Like them, he was determined to fight on until General Casado’s military coup on March 5, 1939, ended any pretence of continuing resistance.

This bleak reality provides the context for Jackson’s portrayal of Negrín. For Negrín, like the second Spanish Republic, there was no happy ending. Continuing squabbles with Prieto over Republican money ensured that Negrín was effectively sidelined after 1945, and he died of a heart attack in 1956. In this new biography Jackson argues that Negrín was treated unfairly. Some may disagree but, at the very least, Jackson’s study clearly shows that Negrín’s role in the final year of the doomed Spanish Republic has been worthy of reappraisal.

Richard Baxell, a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, writing in The Volunteer, is the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

“One of Gabriel Jackson’s major achievements in this engrossing biography is to move beyond the mountains of stereotype, slander and half-truths, and to use all the available evidence to paint the portrait of complex man facing extremely complex circumstances; a fundamentally honest and decent human being who sacrificed his health, reputation, and academic career in a failed attempt to save his country from disaster. Jackson’s book covers the whole of Negrín’s life, with the bulk of the chapters dedicated to the years 1937–39. As a biographer, Jackson brings to the table not only years of painstaking research – including new archival materials and dozens of interviews with Negrín’s friends, family members, colleagues and their children, conducted over a forty-year time span – but also a significant dose of human understanding and intuition, mediated through his knowledge of Spanish history as much as his own life experience as non-Communist social democrat barely thirty years younger than his subject. (For a political biography, Juan Negrín is in fact a remarkably personal book.) Indeed, Jackson is forced to engage in a fair amount of speculation, given the limited evidence available: in contrast to many of his colleagues, Negrín, an extremely reserved man, kept no diary and his extant correspondence is too scant and impersonal to give much insight into his emotional, sentimental, and philosophical state of mind. The result is an eminently readable, refreshingly straightforward account of an accomplished scientist and cosmopolitan intellectual who in normal circumstances would have never had to become a politician, let alone take his country’s reins during the most difficult years of its long history. Jackson’s Negrín is a welcome addition to other recent reappraisals of the Prime Minister’s life and career, including Enrique Moradiellos’ Don Juan Negrín (2006) and Ricardo Miralles’ Juan Negrín. La República en Guerra (2003). …

Jackson’s Negrín is no whitewash. The biographer has no problem acknowledging his subject’s significant weaknesses: his lack of organization; his impulsiveness; his habit to make important decisions without consulting his cabinet; his “wild side” or “mercurial streak” (128, 121, 295); his inclination to avoiding unpleasant but necessary topics of conversation; and his tendency to hide his “ambitions for personal power” by coyly stating that “he was not a politician” (123). On the human and moral side, however, Jackson forcefully rejects the image of Negrín as a poster child of the seven deadly sins. Negrín, he indicates, always treated his fellow human beings with utmost respect and was capable of a tremendous, self-effacing generosity. Not only did he place “a great deal of emphasis of good manners and personal courtesy” (10), and honoured those whose political and religious outlook on life differed from his; but in fact he was one of the very few among his colleagues never to speak badly about others as individuals. “There are lots of nasty anecdotes about Negrín,” Jackson points out, “but not by Negrín against others” 139).” Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

“One reason for the relative paucity of scholarship on Juan Negrín before the recent spate of biographies was the almost complete absence of primary source material. Negrín never kept a diary, wrote few personal, as distinct from professional letters and did not save his correspondence. His son, Juan Jr, exercised absolute control of his father’s papers and did not permit anyone to consult them before his own death in 2002. A few years after Negrín died in his Paris exile in 1956, his adopted granddaughter, Carmen, chanced upon his companion Feli López, with whom Negrín lived for thirty years, burning bundles of notes. Jackson therefore merits special praise for the meticulous way in which he has reconstructed Negrín’s eventful life – above all his early years as a scientist – from precious little detailed information.
What do we learn from Jackson’s labour of love about Dr Negrín’s personality and achievements? Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1892 to a well-off conservative family, Negrín always dressed well, frequented fine restaurants and stayed at the best hotels. An outstanding student, he studied in Germany where he completed doctorates in medicine and physiology. Having made a favourable impression on the Nobel laureate, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, he was appointed first director of the newly established Physiology department in the Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid. Between 1927 and 1931 he was active on the construction committee for the Ciudad Universitaria. ‘A man of tremendous (hetero)sexual appetite’ (10), he was a ‘very energetic, convivial, unhappily married man’ (11). Not a Marxist, but perhaps a freemason, Negrín joined the Socialist Party in 1929. In Jackson’s opinion, the single most controversial question about Negrín is the future prime minister’s attitude towards the Communist Party and Stalin’s Russia. Since the Western democracies had deserted the Republic in its hour of need, its defenders were presented with a stark choice: ‘work with the Russians and the Spanish party, be grateful that there was one major power providing weapons and military advice comparable to what the enemy was receiving; warn so-called Trotskyites if possible – but not risk the goodwill of the only power supporting us by publicly challenging [wild accusations that Trotsky and his miniscule “Fourth International” were agents of fascism]…’(24). …

Jackson’s nicely written volume, interspersed with personal anecdotes, including his own experiences as a fellow traveller in the 1930s and his encounters with exiled Republican leaders, makes for compelling reading.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies


 

Publication Details

 
Hardback ISBN:
978-1-84519-376-8
 
 
Page Extent / Format:
360 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
 
Release Date:
February 2010
  Illustrated:   Yes, and with maps
 
Hardback Price:
£35.00 / $34.95
 
 

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