REF: 2021

Impact case study

Reinterpreting Spain's 20th century


The works of Sir Paul Preston have succeeded in breaking the so-called ‘pact of forgetting’.

Antoni Bassas Onieva

Catalan broadcaster and recipient of the National Prize for Journalism

Professor Paul Preston

Research by

Professor Paul Preston

Department of International History

Professor Sir Paul Preston’s research has influenced Spain's reappraisal of its recent history and commemoration of the victims of the Civil War and Franco dictatorship. 

What was the context? 

Following the death of General Franco in 1975, Spain’s political elites agreed to el pacto del olvido (“the pact of forgetting”), a conscious decision not to address the legacy of Francoism as a way of smoothing the transition to democracy. While this pact served a useful purpose at the time, conversation surrounding the Civil War and the regime subsequently became inhibited, preventing Spain and its people from confronting and accepting its past. 

National understandings of the events and personalities of the Civil War and Franco period have often been based on misapprehensions and outright falsehoods. This permeates Spanish and Catalan public debate, and has an effect on current political controversies, including public reconciliation and commemoration of the atrocities of the era. 

What did we do? 

Professor Sir Paul Preston’s work has spanned the entirety of Spain’s 20th-century history. Published in a succession of monographs, his research has covered the Civil War and its origins, the Franco dictatorship, and the restoration of democracy. He has also written authoritative biographies of General Franco, King Juan Carlos, and Santiago Carrillo, who led the Spanish Communist Party between 1960 and 1982. 

Published in 2020, A People Betrayed provides a comprehensive and authoritative political history of Spain from the monarchical restoration in 1876 to the abdication of King Juan Carlos in 2014. It draws a contrast between the Spanish people and their ruling authorities, as traced through successive cycles of political corruption and incompetence. A central theme is the conflict between the political centre and regional separatism, including the Madrid–Catalonia relationship.  

In The Last Days of the Spanish Republic (2016), Preston reinterprets the closing phase of the Civil War, focusing on the military coup against the Republican government led by Colonel Segismundo Casado. It corrects the prevailing interpretation, based on Casado’s memoirs, that the coup was necessary to prevent futile slaughter. In reality, the coup closed off opportunities for a negotiated solution and thereby contributed to tens of thousands of deaths.  

The culmination of more than a decade of research, and The Sunday Times’s 2012 History Book of the Year, The Spanish Holocaust recounts in chilling detail the summary and extra-judicial killings of some 200,000 people by both sides (though three times more by the Nationalists than the Republicans) during and after the Civil War. The book also covers the cursory military trials, torture, systematic abuse of women and children, sweeping imprisonment, and horrors of exile. Those culpable for crimes committed are named; their victims identified.   

The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, Revenge, published in 2006 and fully revised in 2016, vividly recounts the political ideals and military horrors of the Civil War (including the notorious bombing of Guernica), tracks the emergence of Franco’s brutal and, ultimately, extraordinarily durable fascist dictatorship, and assesses the ways in which the Spanish Civil War was a portent of the Second World War.  

The most-sold and most-read book on the Civil War is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In his reappraisal of Orwell’s account, Preston finds it to be deeply flawed as a historical record, arguing it demonstrates little understanding of Spanish or Catalan politics and does not present a reliable analysis of the war’s broader politics or its international determinants.   

What happened? 

Over many years, Preston’s work has had a wide social impact and improved the reporting of Spanish history, both domestically and internationally.  

Preston’s research is well known to the Spanish public, having been cited frequently in newspapers of all political persuasions (as well as the international press). His contributions have been solicited by both Madrid- and Catalonia-leaning press as a non-partisan voice challenging previous understandings of the country’s history. Citing The Spanish Holocaust, former Spanish Ambassador to the UK (2008 to 2012) Carles Casajuana has described it as “a key instrument for all Spaniards wishing to come to terms with one of the darkest aspects of our history”. 

Notable contributions to the public discourse include during the contentious debate over the exhumation of General Franco from the Valle de los Caídos, which Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s announced in 2018. Interviews with Preston – in which he supported the case for removing Franco’s remains – were featured in El Diario, El Nacional, and El Confidencial.  

A more intimate example is in the 2019 letter Preston received from a Spanish psychologist and psychotherapist. This described a family whose grandfather had been murdered by Francoist forces during the Civil War. After reading The Spanish Holocaust, his granddaughter persuaded the family to break its silence, discuss the murder, and commemorate the victim. The letter recounted “the beneficial effect that reading [The Spanish Holocaust] had in a Spanish family that, like so many others, suffered the effects of the collective trauma constituted by the war.”   

A feature of Preston’s research is how it has challenged conventional narratives, prompting debate. Casajuana explained that in The Last Days of the Spanish Republic, Preston “has shed light on essential aspects of our recent past and rectified long-held assumptions”. Similarly, the rigour and novelty of Preston’s research has led to a reappraisal of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which was widely covered in the press, including in El País. Biographies of Santiago Carrillo and King Juan Carlos I (2004) have proven similarly instrumental in correcting long-held misinformation about their subjects.  

In 2016, Preston collaborated with best-selling Spanish cartoonist José Pablo García to adapt The Spanish Civil War into a graphic novel. Their objective was to offer new generations an accurate portrait of what happened. It has become a bestseller, and a 13th edition is in preparation. In 2017, Preston and García renewed their collaboration on The Destruction of Guernica, adapted from a digital book of the same name first published in 2012 and regularly updated. In 2019, Preston was one of three historians to receive the prestigious Gernika Award for Peace and Reconciliation, “for their work to bring to light the truth of the bombing of Guernica”.  

Preston has been recognised in Spain and the UK not only for the rigour of his research, but also for his influence beyond academia. This is evidenced by a succession of honours and awards. In 2007, he received Spain’s highest civilian honour and was made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Isabel la Católica. His cultural impact in Catalonia has also been recognised. In 2016, he was awarded the City of Barcelona Prize for International Projection. He has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Extremadura, Cantabria, and Liverpool. Finally, and not least, in 2018, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Preston was awarded a knighthood for his services to UK/Spain relations.