Delusional opportunist: Santiago Carrillo speaking in the Spanish Parliament in 1977 (photo: EPA/Alamy)
The name of Santiago Carrillo will not mean much, if anything, to visitors to Spain today but he played a significant role in restoring democracy to the country after the death of General Franco in 1975. As leader of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), he returned to Spain after nearly 40 years in exile to throw the weight of the Communists behind the movement to re-establish democracy under the recently restored constitutional monarchy of King Juan Carlos. In doing so he surprised and disappointed many of his own party members who had imagined that their veteran leader would hold out for, at the very least, the restoration of the republic overthrown by Franco in 1936 or, in their dreams, the dictatorship of the proletariat which Carrillo himself had championed from afar so vociferously and hopelessly for so long.
Carrillo's part in helping to usher his country back into the European democratic fold made him an unlikely hero to many in Spain and beyond who had hitherto regarded the Communists as an immovable obstacle to such an eventuality. In truth, as Paul Preston makes clear in this exhaustive and admirable biography, it was the only decent thing Carrillo did in a long and eventful political life characterised by treachery, lies, opportunism, ruthlessness, self-delusion, and almost certainly mass murder.
Let's deal with the last allegation first. Carrillo was a shooting star of the Left in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. His father, Wenceslao, was a leading member of the Socialist Party, so Santiago, born in 1915, was steeped in revolutionary politics from an early age. He became a leader of the Socialists' youth wing and, veering ever leftwards in the turbulent atmosphere of mid-1930s Spain, was talent-spotted by the Kremlin, always on the lookout for likely promoters of revolution overseas. After the Popular Front electoral victory in February 1936, Carrillo, barely 21, travelled to Moscow to be wined, dined and feted by the Soviet Communist leadership, and acquiring, says Preston, "a taste for vodka and caviar". His head turned, Carrillo returned to Spain to lead most of the Socialist youth wing into the arms of the Communist Party just before the Civil War erupted that summer.
With the besieging nationalists at the gates of Madrid, Carrillo was named Public Order Councillor for the city's newly-established defence junta on November 6. The prisons were full of recently arrested nationalists. The problem was what to do with them. The answer was the traditional Communist one. On November 7, the first batch of 800 was taken away in lorries which stopped near the village of Paracuellos, where the men were unloaded, lined up and shot by militiamen. These sacas, as the prison removals were called, went on until early December: the total number of Madrid prisoners murdered in this fashion during that period is estimated at 2,200-2,500. After reading Preston's meticulous dissection of events, there can be no doubt left that Carrillo was deeply involved in the murders and probably ordered them personally. He however denied any responsibility until his death aged 97 in 2012, but then he lied about almost everything throughout his life.