Lessons of The Spanish Civil War, Eighty Years On

By Kevin Rabalais

In Madrid during those first months of the war, you could catch a tram to the front line and be seated back in the hotel bar in time for evening drinks. “[P]eople joked that [trams] were the safest way to get to the front, because if you took the Metro, the city’s subway system, you might well find yourself emerging on the other side,” writes Adam Hochschild in Spain in Our Hearts. From 1936 to 1939, writers and soldiers, nurses and other volunteers from around the world travelled to Spain to help the Republicans prevent that other side—the Fascists—from seizing control of the country. The war that lasted one thousand days ended, however, with that other side prevailing. As Albert Camus wrote:

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward. It is this, without a doubt, which explains why so many men throughout the world regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.

Hochschild’s title echoes Camus (“Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts”) and Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection about the war, España en el Corazón. Spain in Our Hearts offers one history of the war. Hochschild writes about the more than 35,000 international volunteers who went to Spain to fight fascism, focusing, specifically, on American volunteers.

Several other new or recent books remind us of the war’s significance in twentieth-century politics and culture.

In Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, Amanda Vaill examines the lives and work of several of the war’s correspondents. At the book’s center are three couples: Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway; the journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar; and the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.

Gellhorn and Hemingway met only months before they decided to travel together to Spain. There, in Madrid’s centrally located Hotel Florida—the base for many of the international correspondents who went to Spain out of political ideology or in search of adventure or fame—“Papa” soon discerned Gellhorn’s talents as a writer. Taro, often called the “Joan of Arc of the Spanish Civil War,” gets her own well-deserved, albeit slim, biography in Out of the Shadows. In that book, François Maspero writes about Taro’s early days in Germany and Paris, where she met the young and disheveled Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann, whom she refashioned as the world-class photographer the world remembers as Robert Capa. In her brief life, the feisty Taro—a.k.a. “The Little Red Fox”—proved herself every bit Capa’s equal behind the lens. Most sources cite her as the first woman to cover battle and die while doing so. The Spanish novelist Susana Fortes’s Waiting for Robert Capa, which covers Taro’s relationship with Capa, appeared in English in 2011.

¡No Pasaran! contains nearly forty excerpts, stories or articles by writers who were in Spain or whose lives were forever altered by the war. The latter include Juan Goytisolo, whom many critics consider to be Spain’s greatest contemporary novelist. Goytisolo, whose mother died during a bombing raid over Barcelona, writes about the war’s living legacy in Spanish culture. The book also provides work from some of the most recognizable names that we associate with the war, among them George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Jean-Paul Sartre, Curzio Malaparte, John Dos Passos, Leonardo Sciascia, Arthur Koestler, Mercè Rodoreda, Luis Buñuel, André Malraux and Langston Hughes.

we saw spain die cover .jpg

Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die provides an indispensable history of the numerous international figures to cover the war as correspondents. The war was the first in which correspondents could leave the front lines and file their work only to have it read, moments later, on other continents. Among those writing in 1936 was the young poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser, who arrived in Barcelona in the early days of the war. Several years ago, a researcher discovered Rukeyser’s previously unpublished Savage Coast, an autobiographical novel about this period in her life, which finally appeared in 2013.

In the collective psyche, World War II has eclipsed the Spanish Civil War. Even seemingly well-informed political pundits today have difficulties discussing the differences between Communism and Fascism. With the recent presidential election in the United States, however, the latter of these words, along with all it entails, has reentered our discourse. The figures at the center of the above books remind us of the importance of putting our energies where our beliefs reside.

“The past is never dead,” as Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” 



To receive updates from Sacred Trespasses, please subscribe or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.