Doubt cast on account of heroic defence of liberal values written by father of Michael Portillo
Sam Jones in Madrid
On 12 October 1936, Miguel de Unamuno stood in the assembly hall of Spain’s oldest university and delivered a premature but prescient lament for the triumph of might over right and militarism over reason.
The Spanish civil war was not quite three months old but the elderly writer and philosopher had already foreseen its outcome.
Angered by the anti-Basque and anti-Catalan mood, by the pro-Franco sentiments expressed and – perhaps most of all – by the presence of General José Millán Astray, the one-eyed, one-armed founder of the Spanish Legion and his chant of “Death to intelligence! Long live death!”, the rector of the University of Salamanca offered a bitter prophecy.
“This is a temple of intelligence and I am its high priest,” said Unamuno. “You are profaning its sacred precincts. You will win because you have an abundance of brute force, but you will not convince. To convince, you need to persuade, and to persuade you need something you lack: reason and right in the struggle. It seems to me to be useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.”
Or had he? Eighty-two years after the legendary confrontation between the academic and the soldier, a Spanish researcher is casting doubt on the authenticity of the most famous speech of the civil war.
Severiano Delgado, a historian and librarian at the University of Salamanca, argues that Unamuno’s stirring words were put in his mouth by one of his friends and acolytes at the university, Luis Portillo.
Portillo, a professor of civil law and a poet, served the Republican government until its defeat in 1939, when he fled to the UK, married, and had five sons – including the broadcaster and former Tory MP Michael Portillo.
In 1941, possibly with some help from George Orwell, Luis Portillo published a piece in the literary magazine Horizon, entitled Unamuno’s Last Lecture.
Portillo had not witnessed the showdown that had taken place five years earlier, but he knew the university and many of those involved well. His article was, at best, a reconstruction based on what he had heard of the events of that evening. Unamuno’s intervention was not reported in the Spanish press, but the rector was removed from office the following day.
“It’s obvious and undeniable that there was a very fierce and violent verbal confrontation between Miguel de Unamuno and General Millán Astray,” said Delgado.
“I am not disputing that at all – it’s an objective fact. The thing is that a very bombastic speech is attributed to Unamuno, where he ends up talking about the temple of intelligence and being its high priest. But, in reality, Unamuno didn’t deliver that speech. It was invented and written by Luis Portillo.”
According to Delgado, Portillo’s account of the speech acquired unstoppable momentum when the British historian Hugh Thomas came across it in a Horizon anthology while researching his seminal book, The Spanish Civil War, and accidentally treated it as a verbatim account.
“Up till then, nothing had been written about the events of 12 October – apart from Portillo’s piece,” said the librarian.
“Thomas took a knife to the article to pare it back to just the meeting of Unamuno and Millán Astray. He then copied out Portillo’s account of Unamuno’s speech pretty much from beginning to end and cited it as translation of Unamuno’s speech. That was the great misunderstanding; a misunderstanding that has gone on for years.”
The Portillo/Thomas version was accepted by historians in Spain and around the world and has endured to this day.
Delgado, however, is keen to stress that neither man ever sought to deceive anyone.
“What Portillo did was come up with a kind of liturgical drama, where you have an angel and a devil confronting one another. What he wanted to do above all was symbolise evil – fascism, militarism, brutality – through Millán Astray, and set it against the democratic values of the republicans – liberalism and goodness – represented by Unamuno. Portillo had no intention of misleading anyone; it was simply a literary evocation.”
Michael Portillo remembers his father talking about Unamuno, a mentor to whom he was devoted and “someone who was held in universal respect at a time and in a place where intellectuals were valued”.
He also remembers his father talking about the article he wrote in 1941. “The interesting thing from my point of view is that here we are in 2018, wondering exactly what was said in October 1936. The one thing my father did do by writing the article was to give the context and therefore to underline the importance of this event.”
But, as Portillo points out, his father was not present, wrote his article years later and never claimed to be a historian. “I’ve always assumed that my father drew on what people had told him and then, as it were, wrote it up as best he could.”
By a curious coincidence, the former MP is travelling to Spain this weekend to collect a painting he commissioned from an artist in Seville.
Its subject? Unamuno’s last lecture.
“While this controversy rages, I’m taking delivery of my painting, which I’ve not seen,” said Portillo.
“With a touch of poetic licence, my father has been put in the picture, not because the artist had any misunderstanding – he knew perfectly well that my father wasn’t there – but because he felt that in some way my father ought to be a ghostly presence.”