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 materiel; 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.
Nicholas Whitlam majored in history at Harvard. Four Weeks One Summer, his third book, is the product of a long-held interest in the Spanish Civil War, the Olympic movement and the politics of the 1930s.
Four Weeks One Summer: When It All Went Wrong is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing, at http://www.scholarly.info
Mark Colvin: Launch speech for Four Weeks One Summer: When it All Went Wrong
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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.
It was mostly a book of significant events attached to their dates: events and dates which we were expected to learn by rote. The Battle of Plassey, 1757. The Diet of Worms, 1521. The defenestration of Prague 1617. No context. You learned them first, almost like your alphabet, and expected that eventually, perhaps in your fourth or fifth year, someone would explain what they actually meant. 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…
In general the whole approach was remarkably reminiscent of Sellars and Yeatman’s great satire 1066 and all that, with its sweeping pronouncements on how any given King’s actions were A Good Thing or A Bad Thing — in capitals — and its summings-up of massive historical shifts like the English Civil War in a sentence: ‘With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).’
Even when I was a teenager, history, though less simplistic, was understood as a series of texts by great authorities, who once they’d ruled on a subject could be taken as gospel. G.R. Elton, for instance, was then much more famous as the author of England Under The Tudors than as the father of the creator of Blackadder, and what he said could be faithfully paraphrased if you wanted an A for your essay.
There were the Whig and Tory theories of history, competing with the Marxists of course — this was the sixties — but they all seemed to exist in separate boxes and there appeared to be little real dialogue or debate, and overarching all of them was the Great Man theory. History — whether it was about Kings and Queens or Prime Ministers and Presidents — was mostly about important guys doing important stuff which changed the world.
A lot about the writing of history has changed in the intervening decades, thank heavens. There was a huge shift away from the great men, for one thing, and towards a perspective that looked at the lives of ordinary people — a shift which radically changed our view of the events surrounding the French Revolution, for example.
There was a minor movement towards the counterfactual — what would have happened if the Germans had won the First World War, for instance — which forced some historians to re-examine some of their assumptions. And there were small books of powerful storytelling which could 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, which tells the story of how Churchill only narrowly defeated the appeasers and saw off Lord Halifax to become Prime Minister in May 1940, probably the single most world-changing political moment of the twentieth century.
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 or. 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?
In a quirk of history it’s Brundage of course, who goes on to create the massive international rort of International Olympianism with its quasi-State privileges, tax untouchability and group of leaders whose greed became unquenchable — and Samaranch to whom — if you’ll pardon the expression — he passes the Olympic torch.
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.
But it’s also the book of someone whose mother swam for Australia in the British Empire Games, and swam despite an infection for which there were then no antibiotics. If she’d been a couple of years older in other words, Margaret could well have been there in Berlin or Barcelona. With Margaret and Gough, twenty years after the events in this book, he watched the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
It’s the book, in other words, of someone who has always combined his interest in politics with a fascination with sport.
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’.
That reminds me of another anniversary which we’ve just commemorated — Moscow’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, exactly sixty years ago, which they were able to get away with because the world was focussed on the spectacular bungle being committed by France and Britain in Egypt over Suez.
Having just myself put out a book which begins and ends with the Cold War, I’m particularly conscious at the moment of the idea that there are eras with defined beginnings and endings.
I never for a moment subscribed to Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the ‘End Of History’, but I confess we had moved from one fairly lengthy era into another. It seemed to me until quite recently that the end of Marxism had catapulted us back into a period that would be much more like the late nineteenth century: great powers manoeuvring fairly cautiously around each other, perhaps in a new version of the Great Game: certainly a return in economic debate to the great Victorian era standoffs of free trade versus imperial protection or mercantilism.
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.
And he died in office, untroubled by opposition because he had crushed all opposition. I remember writing his obituary for [radio station] Double J, forty one years ago last month.
They say all great quotes end up being attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein or Mark Twain. Twain, it turns out, did not say ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes’: no-one’s quite sure who did. What he did write, though slightly less pithy, was this ‘History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.’
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’.