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.”
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