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British historian Hugh Thomas dead at 85

British historian Hugh Thomas in 2008 after being

British historian Hugh Thomas in 2008 after being awarded Commander in the Arts and Letters in Paris. Photo Credit: AP / FRANCOIS MORI

The Washington Post

Hugh Thomas, a historian who wrote sweeping accounts of rebellion, conquest and struggle, particularly about parts of the world touched by the Spanish empire, and who was an adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, died May 6 in London.

He was 85, and his family said he had a stroke.

Thomas wrote two novels before gaining acclaim as a historian in 1961 with “The Spanish Civil War.” Memories were still fresh about the war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, and his narrative flair and political analysis gave his book the quality of a modern-day epic.

“The Spanish Civil War exceeded in ferocity most wars between nations,” Thomas wrote. “It was, for the Western World at least, a most passionate war.”

In popular memory, the war seemed to be a dramatic enactment of a clear moral choice between a Marxist-inspired democratic left and the military might of a repressive fascist-aligned regime. Thomas realized that perception was, at best, incomplete.

“The Spanish War,” he wrote, “appeared as a ‘just war,’ as civil wars do to intellectuals, since they lack the apparent vulgarity of national conflicts . . . It looked, at least at first, when all the parties of the Left seemed to be cooperating, as the great moment of hope for an entire generation.”

In the end, the left-leaning groups were defeated by the nationalist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco, who went on to rule Spain as an autocrat for almost 40 years. Thomas’ book portrayed the vast complexity of the Spanish Civil War, with its background of feudalism and religious fervor, but it was also seen as the chronicle of a noble but failed cause.

For that reason, his book was banned under Franco’s regime until after his death in 1975.

“The Spanish Civil War” was the first of more than a dozen large-scale historical studies by Thomas, including books on European history and on the origins of the Cold War.

His 1997 book “The Slave Trade” was “the most comprehensive account of the Atlantic slave trade ever written,” UCLA scholar Robert B. Edgerton wrote in the National Review.

Thomas was best known for a series of books about the Spanish-speaking world, including a monumental, 1,700-page history of Cuba, published in 1971. (When Thomas turned to “The History of the World” in 1979, he covered the subject in a mere 700 pages.)

In the 1990s, he published a book on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, followed by an his ambitious “Spanish Empire” trilogy, the final volume of which, “World Without End,” appeared in Britain in 2014 and in the United States a year later. His overtly popular style of writing, filled with vivid characters and action, led to sales in the millions.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Vanessa Jebb; and three children.

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