Herbert R. Southworth (1908-99)

Paul Preston, March 2000

Herbert Rutledge Southworth, a legendary book collector and for many years the intellectual scourge of General Franco’s dictatorship, died in France at age 91. His book on the bombing of Guernica is one of the most important of the many thousands of volumes written on the Spanish Civil War. His writings as a whole saw the Francoist Ministry of Information set up an entire department just to counter his demolition of regime propaganda. 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 worldwide reputation was reminiscent of one of Theodore Dreiser's self-made heroes.

Southworth was born in Canton, Oklahoma, on February 6, 1908. When the town bank, owned by his father, failed in 1917, the family moved briefly to Tulsa, then to 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 12 affected him so deeply that it was perhaps the beginning of his own obsessive 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 abandoned 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.

Southworth went to secondary school in Abilene until the age of 15, then worked at various jobs in the construction industry in Texas, then in a copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. There, he learned Spanish while working with Mexican miners. The collapse of copper prices after the crash of 1929 left him unemployed. Southworth worked his way through the University of Arizona and when his savings ran out, went to the Texas Technological College in Lubbock. There he lived in acute poverty, paying for his studies by working in the college library. He majored in history and minored in Spanish.

Working in the library had deepened his love for books, and with the encouragement of the college librarian, Southworth left in 1934 to seek work in the world's most important book collection, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Herbert began to review books on the conflict for the Washington Post. Emotionally affected by the struggle between fascism and anti-fascism, he 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 Rios, who asked him to work for the Spanish Information Bureau in New York. There Herbert worked with passion, writing press articles and pamphlets, including Franco’s Mein Kampf. During this time, he took an MA 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 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 Harbor, 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 to stay in Rabat, partly to await the fall of Franco but largely because he had fallen in love with a 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 U.S. 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.

The radio station was nationalized by the Moroccan Government in 1960. Herbert and Suzanne moved to Paris, where he failed 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. In 1962, he and Suzanne bought the rundown Château de Puy in Villedieu sur Indre. Some years later, they moved to the faded magnificence of the secluded Château de Roche, in Concrémiers. The center of the house was a relatively modernised core, a four-bedroom house where they lived. On the third floor and in the other wings lived the books and the bats.

There Southworth wrote a series of books that 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 exile publishing house. Smuggled into Spain and sold clandestinely, its impact obliged 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 80 books in defense of the Franco regime.

In 1965, Southworth wrote a second book, Antifalange, also published by Ruedo Ibérico, an 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 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 successfully presented in 1975 as a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. He had already lectured in universities in Britain and France, but this was the beginning of 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 humor. He made no secret of his contempt for Washington’s policies in Latin America that evoked for him the betrayal of the Spanish Republic. Every day, as an avid observer of what he considered to be the hypocrisy of political theatre, he devoured a stack of French and American newspapers. 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 that they had never read (Peter Merin's Spanien zwischen Tod und Geburt), but merely miscopied its title. Despite his austere inquisitorial style, Southworth was a rotund and jolly trencherman.

After the death of Franco, Herbert was regularly invited to give lectures at 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. However, he ceased writing for a time. In 1970, he saw that his expenditures on books dramatically exceeded his income and decided to sell his collection. It was bought by 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.

In 1978, he and Suzanne sold the Château de Roche and 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 Benoit until Suzanne's health broke down in 1994. Herbert nursed her devotedly until her death on August 24, 1996. He never recovered fully from that blow and, after a stroke, his health deteriorated. Although bedridden, with the devoted help of an English neighbor, Susan Walstra, he continued to research.

Only three days before his death on October 30, 1999, in a hospital at Le Blanc, Southworth delivered a fitting epitaph, in the form of the manuscript of Conspiracy and the Spanish Civil War: The Brainwashing of Francisco Franco, which will be published by Routledge next year.

—Paul Preston, London School of Economics
Reprinted (in part) with permission of the Guardian