[Marxism] Ronald Fraser, People’s Historian, Dies at 81

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 20 07:08:04 MST 2012


NY Times February 20, 2012
Ronald Fraser, People’s Historian, Dies at 81
By DOUGLAS MARTIN

Ronald Fraser, an English oral historian known for his deftness at 
collecting and presenting ordinary people’s experiences during 
momentous events like the Spanish Civil War, died on Feb. 10 in 
Valencia, Spain. He was 81.

Tariq Ali, a friend and colleague, announced the death. He gave no 
cause.

Mr. Fraser used transcriptions of interviews, the oral historian’s 
principal tool, to write books chronicling working-class life, the 
ways of a Spanish village, the 1968 student uprisings in the 
United States and Europe, and even his own life.

His most influential book was “Blood of Spain: An Oral History of 
the Spanish Civil War,” a 628-page work published in 1979 that 
Paul Preston, a historian of the Spanish Civil War, said in The 
New York Times Book Review would “take its place among the dozen 
or so truly important books about the Spanish conflict.”

Time magazine said, “No other volume on the Spanish Civil War can 
surpass the power and detail of this one.”

Reviewers said “Blood of Spain” read like a novel, with a single 
event viewed from many angles. The siege of a barracks in Madrid, 
for example, is recounted by three people: a student who supported 
the insurgent general, Francisco Franco; a captain loyal to the 
leftist government; and a 15-year-old boy who was just trying to 
stay out of the line of fire.

One passage tells of a nobleman who is saved from certain death at 
the hands of left-wing partisans by a leftist mason whose 
commitment to people in danger is greater than his political 
loyalties. In another section, a man recounts the chilling 
childhood memory of spending a night in a prison courtyard with 
his father, who would soon be executed.

Mr. Fraser did two years of interviews for the book, compiling 2.8 
million words and finally selecting just 10 percent of them. In 
the foreword, he emphasizes that oral history by itself cannot 
properly explain the broad tides of history. But he contended that 
it could contribute to a deeper understanding of the social 
“atmosphere.”

Mr. Fraser, though a staunch leftist himself, interviewed people 
of all views. He began in 1973, as Spanish society relaxed in 
anticipation of the death two years later of Franco, who had 
become dictator after the civil war. He found Spaniards eager to 
talk with a sympathetic listener as a way to put “ghosts” to rest.

Mr. Fraser’s first book on Spain, “In Hiding: The Life of Manuel 
Cortes” (1972), had told the story of just one man who lived in a 
small village. The book’s subject, Manuel Cortes, a barber and a 
socialist who had been elected mayor, found himself a hunted man 
after Franco’s fascists won the war. He went into hiding and did 
not leave his home for 34 years. When he emerged in 1969, he could 
not bear to wear shoes because he had been wearing slippers for so 
long.

“Ronald Fraser makes no overt claim to having created a novel, but 
it reads like one,” the playwright Arthur Miller wrote in The New 
York Times Book Review. “In the mountain of books about the war 
there cannot be another one so brief and yet so complete, so 
unguarded and yet so subtle, so movingly human as this.”

Ronald Angus Fraser was born on Dec. 9, 1930, in Hamburg, Germany, 
where his English father worked for a shipping company. In 1933, 
the family fled Hitler and used Ronald’s mother’s fortune to buy 
an estate in the English countryside. His relationship with his 
parents was troubled as he grew dismayed at what he said was their 
dissolute lifestyle. He found solace in friendships with the 
family’s eight domestic servants.

As an adult, he said, he wanted to come to terms with “the 
intimate sense of nullity that an English childhood left me with.” 
After extensive psychoanalysis and in-depth interviews with former 
servants, he did so by writing a memoir that doubled as an 
examination of the English class system, “In Search of a Past: The 
Rearing of an English Gentleman, 1933-1945” (1984).

Paul Bailey, writing in the British newspaper The Observer, called 
the book “wholly engrossing — social history viewed from the angle 
of deep personal anguish.”

After attending upper-class schools, serving in the British Army 
and working briefly for Reuters, Mr. Fraser moved to Spain in 
1957. He lived there the rest of his life, except for periodic 
stays in Paris and London. He was involved in groups that helped 
shape the politics of what came to be called the New Left, and 
with eight other authors wrote “1968: A Student Generation in 
Revolt” (1988), which described student radicals in the United 
States and other countries.

He wrote a half-dozen books, the last of which was a history of 
the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, “Napoleon’s Cursed War: 
Spanish Popular Resistance in the Peninsular War, 1808-1814,” 
published in 2008. Critics said his mining of archives for 
personal accounts gave the book the feel of oral history.

Mr. Fraser’s survivors include his wife, Aurora Bosch, a 
historian; a son; and a daughter.




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