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Why intellectuals got involved in the Spanish Civil War

Interview: Klaudia PrevezanosJuly 15, 2016

From the Spanish Civil War to the Middle East conflict, war has always drawn writers and photographers like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, author Amanda Veill tells DW, though it hasn't done them much good.

Ernest Hemingway (center) 1937 with Ilya Ehrenburg (Russian author, left) and Gustav Regler (German writer, right) during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), (c) picture-alliance/CPA Media
Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media

DW: In your nonfiction book "Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War" you write about three couples that participated in the war, which began 80 years ago on July 17, 1936: The writers Ernest Hemingway (pictured, center) and Martha Gellhorn are the most famous ones, followed by photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Why did you choose these perspectives when writing about the Spanish Civil War?

Amanda Vaill: I've long been attracted to the ways in which culture changed over the course of the 20th century, and the Spanish Civil War seemed to offer an especially dramatic look at that. It was the first major conflict to be covered on the spot, at the front lines, by journalists and photographers.

As an ideological conflict between the right and the left, it attracted not just run-of-the-mill war correspondents but a number of the most important writers and cultural figures of its day, all of them determined to cover what one of them, the journalist Claud Cockburn, called "the decisive thing of this century."

To bring the conflict and its coverage to life I chose to write about two of the most celebrated artists involved in it: Ernest Hemingway - whose most successful book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," was based on his war experience - and Robert Capa, whose reputation was established by the extraordinary photographs he took during it.

To provide the Spanish viewpoint, without which I couldn't have written the book, I included Arturo Barea, whose career as a writer began as a result of his dangerous and courageous work in the war.

And to counterbalance these men - because the Spanish Civil War was also the first conflict in which women served in the military and as combat journalists - I wrote about the three women involved with them, each of whom did work that was just as outstanding: Martha Gellhorn, Gerda Taro, and Ilsa Kulcsar.

Finally, I took as an inspiration something Hemingway said: "It is very dangerous to write the truth in war." Each of these men and women was trying, after his or her fashion, to tell the truth about something very complicated, and the ways in which each succeeded, in their work and in their lives, was a story I wanted to write.

Amanda Vaill (c) Xanthe Elbrick
Amanda VaillImage: Xanthe Elbrick

Compared to World War I and II, knowledge of the Spanish Civil War (July 17, 1936-April 1, 1939) is not particularly widespread. In your narrative historical book, you describe how the first internal conflict of Spanish Republican troops struggling against the fascist dictator Francisco Franco takes on a bigger focus. Why was the Civil War in Spain relevant for what happened afterwards in Europe?

The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 when pro-fascist Nationalists under the leadership of Francisco Franco, encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church and the country's landed aristocracy, staged an armed rebellion against Spain's democratically elected but emphatically Socialist-leaning coalition government. At this point, years of worldwide economic depression had left many in doubt about the wisdom of free-market capitalism; National Socialism for some, and communism for others, appeared to offer alternatives, and Spain became a proxy battleground where these ideologies could be tested militarily.

It wasn't an equal struggle, though. The western democracies, which were still traumatized by the carnage of the Great War of 1914-1918, imposed an official arms embargo on both sides in Spain; but Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy immediately sent men and material to Franco.

Although the Soviet Union began advising and arming the Loyalists and urging unofficial brigades of left-leaning foreigners to join them, the Loyalists were still at a severe disadvantage. Three years and 400,000 lives later, they lost the battle. But the war itself continued, as Hitler and Mussolini applied the military lessons they'd learned in Spain - including how to exploit the passivity of France, England, and the United States - to launching the Second World War.

Ernest Hemingway was the most prominent foreigner among the writers, journalists and actors that sided with the Spanish Republicans and traveled to Spain. Also present where the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the British writer George Orwell, the German actor Ernst Busch and the writer Erich Weinert. Was it the first time that so many international people, especially from cultural fields, supported one side in a war?

Intellectuals have often involved themselves in war, at least retroactively, but because the Spanish Civil War was primarily about ideas and not territory it seemed to demand intellectual or artistic commitment.

On the left, the Comintern - the worldwide union of domestic Communist parties - and other groups organized numerous congresses and conferences of concerned intellectuals, such as the meeting of the League of American Writers addressed by Hemingway in New York, and the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture held in Valencia and Madrid. Left-leaning periodicals such as "Ce Soir" in France and "Ken" in the United States were founded to spread news and opinions to like-minded readers, and left-wing filmmakers such as Joris Ivens made documentary films in support of the Loyalists.

Although they were countered on the right by many establishment newspapers such as "The New York Times," by publications of the Roman Catholic Church, and by groups such as Action Française, the left seemed to win the battle of numbers intellectually. It didn't do them a lot of good, obviously. But on both sides, whether the work was manipulative propaganda or a sincere attempt to grapple with serious issues, it did provide an example of public intellectualism that was carried on in the days after World War II by the Existentialists and, in the United States, by both the New Left and the Neo-Conservatives, by those writers and artists involved with the Baader-Meinhof gang [in Germany], and many others.

The violence in the Middle East certainly attracts intellectual involvement, or at least comment, today, and I think that some of the ambiguity and difficulty of the issues in the Spanish Civil War is reflected there as well.

Ernest Hemingway (2. v. links) und der holländische Filmregisseur Joris Ivens (li.) besuchen die internationalen Brigaden (c) picture-alliance/Judaica-Sammlung Richter
Ernest Hemingway (second from left) and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (left.) visit troops during the Spanish Civil WarImage: picture-alliance/Judaica-Sammlung Richter

During and after the Spanish Civil War the way of reporting from a war changed because young photographer Robert Capa and Gerda Taro started to get close to the action. Capa carried on this new method of war photography during World War II and became the most significant war photographer of the 20th century. Martha Gellhorn started her long carrier as a war correspondent in Spain. Does their new war journalism still have an impact on today's way of reporting from wars and conflicts?

Capa famously said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Certainly he lived and died by that maxim - as did Gerda Taro, who was killed in Spain covering the Battle of Brunete. It has become more and more dangerous to write the truth in war, as Hemingway described it, and correspondents are often killed covering their stories. Capa, Taro, Ernie Pyle, George Steer, Dickey Chapelle, Marie Colvin, Anja Niedringhaus - the list is long and getting longer, since the conflict in the Middle East today has claimed more journalists' lives than any other.

In the name of a full and accurate picture of what is happening, we now ask those reporting on war to be on the firing line with combatants, to expose themselves to the same risks. Unless and until drones are used for combat photography I don't see things getting less dangerous and probably not even then.

Amanda Vaill is the author of "Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanisch Civil War" and numerous other biographies and works of non-fiction. Up until 1992, she was an editor at Viking Press, where she worked with authors such as Ingmar Bergmann and T.C. Boyle. Amanda Vaill lives in New York City.