From Writing to Fighting. Foreign Writers in the Spanish Civil War
From writing to fighting – the Spanish Civil War turned many foreign writers into anti-fascist fighters
The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 has left deep traces on the cultural memory of the anti-fascist movement. One of the reasons is the wealth and breadth of the artistic works produced by supporters of the Spanish Republic during and after the war years. Besides contemporary photographs and films there are thousands of journalistic and literary documents that keep alive the collective history of the violent attack launched by General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) and his Nationalist Army and of the courageous defence organized by the left-wing parties and labour unions in the Republican Government. A considerable amount of these writings came from the pen of foreign authors.
Hundreds of foreign writers rushed to Spain in the summer of 1936 when the Nationalists were, with the military assistance of their fascist allies from Germany and Italy, seizing the entire Southwest of the country. High-quality papers, journals and magazines sent well-known authors such as George L. Steer (1909-1944), Antoine St-Exupéry (1900-1944), Ilja Ehrenburg (1891-1967), and Matthew L. Herbert (1900-1977) to cover the fighting at the front and the civilian life in the hinterland. Their photo reports in The Times, Paris-Soir, Izvestia, and New York Herold Tribune provided a more balanced view of the stories published by the conservative foreign press about atrocities committed against Catholic priests and the collectivization carried out in industry and agriculture, with their biased presentation of the civil war as a righteous crusade against Bolshevism.
Arthur Koestler’s “Spanish Testament” (1937) is not only a personal chronicle of the last days of Malaga but also a meticulous report on the political terror practiced in the areas occupied by the Spanish Nationalists. The famous Austro-Hungarian writer (1905-1983) with a Jewish liberal family background went to Spain at the special request of the Communist International, disguising himself as a reporter for the British News Chronicle. When the fascist troops were overrunning the city of Malaga, he was arrested and sentenced to death for espionage. Transferred to the prison in Seville, he experienced the horrors of confinement and witnessed the execution of thousands of detainees for a period of ninety days.
It was not long until foreign writers felt an urge to do more than just report on the Spanish Civil War. Their resolution to support the Republic soon led them to join the militia instantaneously set up by anarchist, socialist, and communist organizations throughout the country. Only later, when the Soviet Union gave advice and arms and started the worldwide recruiting of volunteers for a Republican Army, they could also enlist in the newly formed international brigades. These military units were predominantly made up of French, German, Italian, Polish, British and American battalions and had an average force level of 18,000 troops. A total of 40,000 combatant volunteers participated in the fighting between 1938 and 1939, with almost half of them falling in action.
George Orwell (1903-1950) was one of the first foreign writers who decided to fight for the Spanish Republic. The Englishman came to Barcelona in December 1936 to join the militia of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification. The combat units of this revolutionary socialist group were positioned at the northern frontline in the Spanish province of Aragon. Although the militiamen were feeling an atmosphere of equality and fraternalism, their material situation was characterized by poor equipment and insufficient provisions. Back in England Orwell wrote his documentary report “Homage to Catalonia” (1939), which covered his participation in the fighting for the city of Huesca, his convalescence after being wounded at the throat, and the armed conflict between pro- and anti-Stalinist forces in the Catalan capital.
Write or fight, this crucial issue was discussed at the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in June 1937. More than two hundred poets and writers from thirty countries had been invited to attend the two-week conference held in Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. Many internationally recognized authors such as Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) from Chile, Rafael Alberti (1902-1999) from Spain, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) from Great Britain, Nicolás Guillén (1092-1989) from Cuba, Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989) from the United States of America, Octavio Paz (1914-1998) from Mexico , Mikhail Koltsov (1898-1940) from the Soviet Union, and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) from Germany discussed the function of literature and the role of the writer in a world increasingly confronted with fascism. The end of the congress saw the release of a public statement in which they not only declared their solidarity with the Spanish Republic but also called on their colleagues to take action and fight fascism.
As part of the organizing team, André Malraux was responsible for preparing the agenda of the conference. The French communist author embraced antifascism and strongly advocated an active commitment to fighting among leftist intellectuals, journalists and writers. He himself had supervised the organization of the Republican flying squadron España in July 1936. Once it was integrated into the Spanish Popular Army the following year, he went on an extensive lecture tour across North America, seeking political and financial support for the Republican cause. Later on he used personal experiences and historical events as inspirational sources for composing a modern epic novel. “L’Espoir” (1937) unfolds an authentic panorama made of characters, dialogues, and scenes against the backdrop of the heavy fighting for Toledo and Madrid.
Fictionalization was a common way for writers to prove their anti-fascist attitude. Whereas German communist authors such as Willi Bredel (1901-1964) and Gustav Regler (1898-1963) followed the rules of socialist realism in writing their novels “Begegnung am Ebro. Aufzeichnungen eines Kriegkommissars” (1939) and “Das große Beispiel. Roman einer internationalen Brigade” (1940), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) developed new methods of writing. The famed American writer had come to Spain in March 1937 to work as a war correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance and as a screenwriter for The Spanish Earth, a propaganda film produced by the Dutch documentarist Joris Ivens (1898-1989). Although he never took an active part in the fighting at the front, he succeeded in writing the most popular novel on the Spanish Civil War. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940) features a gripping story, a range of memorable characters, and a terse style of writing.
Several writers were haunted by the Spanish Civil War for decades. They put their memories down on paper many years after General Franco had defeated the Popular Army and had established a long-lasting fascist dictatorship in Spain. Their autobiographical writings reflect not only their military commitment during the war but also their political and ideological disappointment thereafter. The German author Ludwig Renn (1889-1979) reports his own experiences as an officer of the international brigades at the frontline in “Der spanische Krieg” (1955), the German journalist Alfred Kantorowicz (1899-1979) relates the growing communist influence on the Republic Government in “Spanisches Kriegstagebuch” (1966), and the English poet Laurie Lee (1914-1997) reveals his personal entanglement in the deadly schemes of the Soviet secret service in “A Moment of War” (1991). Their memoirs, and many other factual and fictional works produced by foreign writers, commemorate anti-fascist fighting in the Spanish Civil War to this very day.