The Spanish Civil War influenced the minds of an entire generation. The conflict escalated in 1936 and lasted until 1939. It was a war between the Second Spanish Republic and the fascist forces of Francisco Franco, who was an army general leading an insurrection to restore the monarchy and establish a military dictatorship, which he finally succeeded in 1939.
The war was perceived, among many intellectuals worldwide, as an act of violence by the army against the will of the people. The Nationalist forces led by Franco found their manpower in Spanish colonies such as Morocco and the south of the country while the Republic held the northern and central parts of Spain. An ideological divide between the right-wing Nationalists and left-wing Republic left the world divided as well, for the conflict escalated with many countries offering their support to each side.
International volunteers became the symbol of the fight for the Republic’s cause and among them were many writers, poets, journalists, painters and even film directors. Some fought in the trenches, others waged a war against the Nationalist propaganda, trying to gather support and understanding worldwide. Many died on the barricades of Madrid and in battles all across Spain. The ones who survived often saw that experience as pivotal for their work. In this list, we will mainly focus on the writers who participated in the Second Republic’s war effort.
1. Federico Garcia Lorca
Lorca was a prominent poet and playwright in the pre-war period. He managed a traveling theater in the Spanish countryside, promoting social equality by bringing theater into rural areas. In July 1936, he was arrested by a Nationalist militia and shot. There are a lot of theories concerning the death of Lorca since he was predominately an apolitical figure, but an open sympathizer of the Republic.
His death marked the rapid worsening of relations between the Republic and the growing nationalist organizations, such as the Spanish Phalange. The war broke out only three days after his assassination, overshadowing the mysterious murder case, for it was never determined what were the real reasons for killing Federico Garcia Lorca, nor was his body ever found. In a poem he wrote in 1929, Lorca described his own death and almost prophetically foreseen the mystery around it:
Then I realized I had been murdered.
They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries, and churches
…. but they did not find me.
They never found me?
No. They never found me.
2. George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair, or better known by his pen name, George Orwell, author of the classic novel 1984, survived his formative experiences in Spain. He arrived in 1936, eager to combat fascism, but had soon started to realize that the united front opposing General Franco was consisted of loosely tied factions with deep ideological differences. Among them were communists, socialists, anarchists, Trotskyst, Leninists and others. Orwell was a trained policeman before Spain and he worked for the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma.
He quickly advanced through the ranks and became an Assistant District Superintendant for the city of Syriam. His training gave him an advantage in Spain and he was immediately ranked Corporal of the Republic’s Army. Franco basically managed to separate the former army from the state and the men who defended the Republic were rarely professional soldiers, but rather workers, peasants, and foreign volunteers.
After spending time on the front, Orwell got caught up in a faction dispute in 1937 and was even called a fascist by the members of the Communist Party in Spain who were under the direct influence of the Soviet political police, the NKVD. The NKVD in Spain was trying to centralize the Republic’s forces into a puppet army that would only defend the interests of the Stalin’s Soviet Union and not the interests of the Republic. This caused many purges among the Republican’s and a general disappointment in the Soviet Union among the fighters.
After being slandered and witnessing such blind rivalry between factions, Orwell was disappointed in the cause and left home for Britain. His later novels reflected this experience in describing totalitarian regimes in an allegorical fashion.
3. Arthur Koestler
Koestler was a writer of Hungarian-Jewish origins who acted as an English journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He ended up in Spain in 1936, as a Comintern agent (Communist International), using his journalist credentials as cover. He used this cover to infiltrate General Franco’s headquarters and conduct an interview with him. Koestler played along as a huge sympathizer of Francisco Franco and his politics to gain his trust.
During the interview, Arthur Koestler acquired evidence that the Nazi Germany and the Fascist Italy directly supported Franco and his army with volunteers, guns and other equipment. After the discovery, he was recognized and denounced as a spy and barely managed to escape the headquarters.
Next year, Koestler was again in Spain, as a war correspondent. He was captured in Malaga by the Nationalist Forces and sentenced to death. Instead of being shot he was used as a high-value prisoner and got swapped for the wife of a Nationalist fighter pilot ace, who was captured by the Republic’s forces earlier. After Spain, Koestler, like Orwell became disillusioned with Stalin who offered to help the Spanish Republic, but instead became a significant factor in its demise. He wrote his novel condemning Stalinism, Darkness at Noon in 1941.
4. Andre Malraux
Malraux was a French novelist, art theorist and, later, the Minister of Culture in France. His involvement in the Spanish Civil War began in 1936 when he was given the responsibility to help reorganize the Republic’s, Air Force. Most of the pilots had joined Franco and took their planes with them.
The French government offered to send some out-dated planes to aid the Republic, but the obsolete models were often unarmed. France wanted to preserve its neutral stand in the war and so provided very limited help, even though many French citizens were involved in the war and were advocating it back home.
Malraux was personally dedicated to the Spanish cause and he acted without the support of his government, even though some claimed that France was directly sponsoring him, thus breaking its neutrality claim. He became one of the prominent leaders in the war and was very respected and loved by the Spaniards. In 1938, he toured the United States to raise funds for the cause. That same year he published a novel, A Man’s Hope, concerning his war experience.
5. John Dos Passos
In 1937, an influential American modernist writer, Dos Passos found himself in the midst of the civil war, on the Republican side. He was an observer and a correspondent, spending his time in the rural areas. Dos Passos admired the Spanish common folk in the countryside, as they resisted the poverty and extremely bad living conditions during wartime. He worked as a screenwriter with Ernest Hemingway for a film titled The Spanish Earth, directed by a Dutch documentary filmmaker, Joris Yvens.
He changed his views on the Soviet involvement in the conflict after his friend Jose Robles was accused of treason and shot. Robles was a Republican intellectual and a translator of Dos Passos work on Spanish. After this occasion he broke his relationship with Hemingway who advocated war as an act of chivalry. John Dos Passos wrote after his disappointment:
“I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GRU (Soviet military secret service) methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all-powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there’s no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that’s what’s happening in Russia.”
6. Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway became famous for portraying his life experience in the First World War in his book Farewell to Arms. In Spain, he was sent as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Agency in 1937. Together with a Joris Yvens and John Dos Passos, he produced a film, The Spanish Earth.
He was joined by Martha Gellhorn with whom he started an affair. Martha Gellhorn also worked as a war journalist and she continued to pursue her career on battlefields all over the world, after the war in Spain.
Hemingway spent the siege of Madrid in late 1937 writing his play The Fifth Column while the city was being bombarded. He left Spain after the battle but returned two more times in 1938. He was present at the Battle of the Ebro, which was one of the Republic’s last stands and was among the last English and American journalists to leave Spain, right before the inevitable defeat.
7. Emma Goldman
Although she wasn’t a fiction writer, Emma Goldman became one of the icons of the feminist movements across the globe. She was born in Russia but emigrated to the US, where she was well known for her speeches during worker strikes. Her political orientation was anarchism and she came to Spain to support the ongoing anarchist revolution that was happening during the war.
She lived in a commune and was responsible for the English language version of the Information Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Spanish anarchists. She, like many others was lifted by the idea that the class difference between the rich and the poor was finally being eradicated. In 1937, the anarchists formed a coalition with the Republic. Goldman saw this act as treason of one of the main principles of anarchism ― abstaining from state structures.
She wrote that cooperating with Communists in Spain was “a denial of our comrades in Stalin’s concentration camps”. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, refused to send weapons to anarchist forces and disinformation campaigns were being waged against the anarchists across Europe and the US.
Nevertheless, Emma Goldman remained loyal to the anarchist cause and retreated to London where she officially represented the movement.
8. Tristan Tzara
One of Europe’s most prominent surrealist poets and the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, a Romanian by origin, fought for the Republic’s cause on several occasions during the civil war. He lived in France when the war broke out and in 1937 participated in the defense of the city of Madrid during the siege conducted by Franco’s forces.
After surviving the siege, he wrote a collection of poems titled Conquered Southern Regions. Some of his poems were included in a publication called The Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People.
As the war became plagued with foreign political interventions and accusations of treason, Tzara took a more ambivalent stand towards the Communist Party of Spain. He would often make unsuitable statements which made him untrustworthy by the Communists.
Then again, he was known for following the Party Guidelines promoted by Stalin, as he was one of the architects of an informal trial against the painter, Salvador Dali, who was accused of being a Hitler sympathizer. Soon after the Spanish Civil War, France was occupied by the Nazis. Tzara joined the French resistance and spent the war in hiding.
9. Ilya Ehrenburg
Ehrenburg was a Soviet journalist and writer who came to Spain as a reporter and ended up as a fighter. Prior to the war he lived in Paris and associated with painters like Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Diego Rivera and influenced the political radicalization of the French intellectual elite.
As a friend of many of the European Left, Ehrenburg was frequently allowed by Stalin to visit Europe and to campaign for peace and socialism, as the relations between Europe and the Soviet Union stood on shaky ground. He too was present at the siege of Madrid and fought together with Tristan Tzara.
Ehrenburg became a controversial figure after WWII as he advocated genocide of the German people and approved the Soviet mass rape campaign.
10. Pablo Neruda
The famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, held a diplomatic position on behalf of his homeland in Barcelona, Spain. There he befriended Federico Garcia Lorca.
As Spain became engulfed in civil war, Neruda became intensely politicized for the first time. His experiences of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath moved him away from privately focused work in the direction of collective obligation.
After Lorca was executed, Neruda became committed to fight against fascism. By means of his speeches and writings, Neruda threw his support behind the Spanish Republic, publishing the collection Spain in My Heart, 1938. He lost his post as consul due to his political militancy.
When the Republic lost the war, Neruda conducted a daring evacuation of 2,000 refugees from Spain, mostly fighters, and their families, saving them from certain retribution by the fascists. He helped them secure political assylum in his home country, Chile.