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When Reporters Chose Sides: Spain Looks Back at Its Civil War

Sonia Perez Marco/Instituto Cervantez
An exhibition in Madrid recalls the reporting of the Spanish Civil War.




Published: January 30, 2007




MADRID — It was “the golden age of foreign correspondents,” the historian Hugh Thomas wrote, a period in the late 1930s when the literary elite descended on Spain armed with a lust for adventure and belief in a cause.

The lure was the Spanish Civil War. In February 1936 Spanish voters elected, by a small plurality, a center-left coalition of Socialists, Communists, Republicans and Anarchists. Then in July, Gen. Francisco Franco led an uprising against the five-year-old Spanish Republic that plunged the country into civil war.

Mussolini and Hitler supported Franco, while Stalin sent advisers and arms to his opponents. The United States, Britain and France sat on the sidelines.

The writers and foreign correspondents who came to Spain invented a new kind of war journalism, reporting in first-person, eyewitness accounts the brutal feel of the battlefield.

Their two-and-a-half-year chronicle became something more, an intimate encounter with the great ideological battles of the time: between church and state; rich and poor; the aristocracy and the classless; democracy and fascism.

A traveling exhibition organized for the inauguration of the new headquarters of the Cervantes Institute in Madrid commemorates that journalism with original news clippings from publications as different as Esquire and Pravda. Titled “Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” it is part of a vast soul-searching throughout Spain over the terror of the 1936 uprising and civil war that brought General Franco to power and kept his dictatorship in place until his death in 1975. The exhibition, which runs until Feb. 25 in Madrid, was shown last year at the institute’s New York offices and in Lisbon. It will travel next to three cities in France, two cities in Poland and one each in Stockholm and Moscow.

“The best writers came to tell the world what was happening in Spain,” said the exhibition’s curator, Carlos Garcia Santa Cecilia, a former journalist. “They felt a compulsion to be here, to bear witness, to fight for their beliefs. It was the first time journalists said, ‘I must write what I see, what I feel.’ ”

The aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew in on his own plane. George Orwell took his pen to the battlefield and nearly died when he was shot through the neck. Arthur Koestler was locked up by Franco supporters.

Kim Philby, The Times of London correspondent, was already a Soviet agent gathering information under the cover of his job as a reporter. Ernest Hemingway posed for one report for The New Republic holding a rifle while lying on the battlefield.

In recent years Spain has begun to shake off the collective amnesia that had gripped it since Franco’s death. Books, exhibitions, documentaries, television series and films have given stark, eloquent testimony to the Franco’s silent victims.

A project to locate and dig up the hundreds of mass graves left by the firing squads of Franco rule is actively under way. Parliament is locked in a contentious debate over legislation to recognize the suffering of the victims.

The exhibition captures the power of the written word in telling the stories. “This is the most painful story it has ever been my lot to handle,” The Chicago Tribune’s Jay Allen wrote at the start of his report on the massacre in Badajoz in August 1936. “I write it at four in the morning, sick at heart and in body in the stinking patio of the pension central.”

Badajoz was one of the first big towns to fall to Franco’s offensive from the south, and Mr. Allen managed to find an alternate way to send his story after it was blocked by government censor. “They are burning bodies,” he wrote. “Four thousand men and women have died at Badajoz since Gen. Francisco Franco’s rebel Foreign Legionnaires and Moors climbed over the bodies of their own dead through its many times blood-drenched walls.”

A two-page exclusive interview with Franco by Felix Correia for Diario de Lisboa, in Portugal, in August 1936, a month after the civil war began, revealed the rebel leader’s plans for a dictatorship that would protect the Roman Catholic Church and private property.

In her dispatches Barbro Alving, a Swedish foreign correspondent known as Bang, described how schools and hospitals struggled to stay open during the war. Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s lover and his future (third) wife, chronicled daily life in Madrid in a four-page article in Collier’s in 1937 that established her as a serious journalist.

Not all the correspondents took the Republican side. Harold Cardozo of The Daily Mail, a Franco supporter, traveled with him.

Three journalists — Edward J. Neil of The Associated Press, Richard Sheepshanks of Reuters and Bradish Johnson of Newsweek — died near Teruel in northern Spain after their car was hit by Republican fire while they tried to report from Franco’s side. Mr. Philby, who was also in the car, survived. Franco gave him a medal.

In a two-part series headlined “Spilling the Spanish Beans” in The New English Weekly in July 1937, Orwell laid bare the divide among anti-Franco republicans between the workers he defines as true revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionary Communists he accused of selling out to “bourgeois reformism.”

His complex, often ambiguous analysis won him the vitriol of both the left and the right. It also formed the basis for his book “Homage to Catalonia,” in which he wrote, “As for the newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy,’ it was plain eyewash.”

Langston Hughes , the American poet, playwright and novelist, came to Spain “to write for the colored press,” he wrote in The Afro American newspaper. “I knew that Spain had once belonged to the Moors, a colored people ranging from light dark to dark white.” He described the importation of Moorish soldiers from Spanish Morocco and their slaughter on the front lines on the side of the Franco offensive.

The exhibition captures the high-stakes international diplomacy of the war. The German aerial bombing that destroyed the Basque village of Guernica in 1937 was the worst atrocity of the war, the first blitzkrieg; it also may have been the most sensitive military operation.

The Times of London buried George L. Steer’s powerful eyewitness account — alerting the world that Hitler was helping the Spanish Fascists — in a single column on Page 17; The New York Times ran it at the top of the front page. “Britain didn’t want to upset the Germans,” Mr. Garcia Santa Cecilia said.

Most of the journalists took refuge in Madrid at the Hotel Florida, which was shelled regularly. It is now the site of a department store.

John Dos Passos wrote an article for Esquire in 1938 from there, “Room and Bath at the Hotel Florida,” that included the line “When the shells keep coming in, a man somehow feels safer to be shaving and sniffing the familiar odor of the soap.”

It was here that Hemingway, whose connections with both the Spanish government and the Russians kept him stocked with food and brandy, would have breakfast prepared for him every morning. It was also here that he romanced Ms. Gellhorn.

“There was not one journalist in Spain who spoke well of Hemingway” Mr. Garcia Santa Cecilia said. “He betrayed his friends. He was arrogant. He hoarded food. He was the only one with a car — and gasoline.”

The hotel was close to the Telefonica building, where journalists had to submit their articles to an official censor before dictating them back home. The exhibition has reconstructed the operator’s desk, with one telephone headset for the journalist and another one for the censor.

It took 18 months to locate the photographs and articles — most of them originals — for the exhibition. Along the way the researchers tracked down Geoffrey Cox, who was then 26 covering local news when The News Chronicle of Britain sent him to Madrid. He is now 96 and living in a British nursing home.

“I had no doubt that I was reporting on an event of capital historical importance,” Mr. Cox said in an interview included in the exhibition catalog. “For the first time a force rising from the people was capable of resisting fascism.”  Spain, he added, "was out story."


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