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ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY


Hugh Thomas gave the Spanish back their history. For as long as Franco ruled — and he ruled for a very long time — the bloody conflict on which the Caudillo’s dictatorship was founded was too dangerous for Spaniards to interpret or even chronicle with any degree of honesty. The Spanish Civil War (first published in 1961, revised in 1965 and republished, greatly expanded, in 1977) was not only immediately recognised as a classic of historiography, but proved to be a major contribution to the restoration of Spanish democracy. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that no history book published since 1945 has had a greater impact on the contemporary world. 

This magnum opus of a thousand pages remains its author’s monument. On Franco’s decision not to enter the Second World War on Hitler’s side, he cited Goethe: genius is knowing where to stop. Thomas himself was a genius who never knew when to stop. In nearly 60 years as “a historian in private practice”, he wrote many major works on many other subjects: Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom (1971); An Unfinished History of the World (1979); The Conquest of Mexico (1994); The Slave Trade (1997); and his trilogy on the Spanish Empire: Rivers of Gold, The Golden Age and World Without End (2003-2014). He also wrote shorter books — on Suez, the Cold War, John Strachey and Goya — as well as novels and journalism, including several contributions to Standpoint.

The range and richness of his writing on the Hispanic world is without parallel in any language; his death last month was front-page news wherever Spanish is spoken. This achievement alone entitles him to be ranked among the greatest of British historians. Having been lavished with honours by the Spanish, the Mexicans and the French, this former Labour candidate accepted a peerage from Margaret Thatcher, the only British prime minister for whom he had much respect. Yet he was underrated by the British establishment. There was something splendidly quixotic about his long campaign to stop the British Library abandoning the Round Reading Room at the British Museum, but he never stood a chance against the mandarins. Having denounced state funding of culture, he turned down a lucrative Arts Council award. But he was never offered the chairs and fellowships and prizes with which academics reward one another. True, he was a professor at Reading from 1966 to 1975; it speaks well for the loyalty he inspired from his pupils that the most left-wing of them, Paul Preston, not only devoted his career to the Spanish Civil War, but overcame their political differences to write an admiring obituary for the Guardian. But Thomas was never at home in academic life. His expansive style — in person, in politics and on the page — was anathema to the cult of specialisation that gripped universities during his lifetime. The other historians who became his friends were either dons of the old school, such as Raymond Carr, or polymathic freelances like himself. He even liked Eric Hobsbawm.

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