Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Pen and the Gun: Journalism and the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939)

“Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death” Robert Capa, Sept’ 5th 1936. [Magnum Photos]

The Spanish Civil War was one of the most important conflicts in the twentieth century, not only because it was the first direct confrontation between the opposing ideologies of Communism and Fascism, but also because it saw the war correspondent become firmly cemented in the public imagination.
Before the war in Spain, war correspondents had been subject to heavy censorship, particularly during the First World War, as well as conflicts such as the Boer War - partly due to the still lingering memories of William Howard Russell’s reports on the Crimean theatre of war. His reports on the conditions of the British expeditionary force’s and the fighting they took part in shocked the public to the point of causing the fall of the then government.
When General Francisco Franco’s insurgent forces waged war on the Spanish government, The League of Nations remained neutral and the Western European powers such as Britain and France declared that they would not intervene despite the Fascist nations of Italy and Germany providing overt support for Franco. As a result of ‘Non-Intervention’, censorship in the popular press was not the problem it had been in previous conflicts and many Journalists flocked to Spain in order to cover the conflict and support the ideologies they believed in, and for the first time the horrors of a deeply divisive conflict were reported as they unfolded at the front.
Spain became the crucible for modern war correspondents - George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Martha Gellhorn were constantly amongst the republican troops and the populous of cites like Madrid and Barcelona. While Robert Capa forged the iconic role of the photo-journalist by capturing classic shots of the loyalist armies, and companies such as Pathé News inc. produced newsreels of actual footage rather than the previously staged footage of the great war.

The Western Journalist in Spain
The three names most synonymous with the coverage of the Spanish Civil War in the western media are George Orwell, Ernest Hemmingway, and Martha Gellhorn who‘s Essays, Journalism, and in the case of Hemmingway, Fiction, have all become the best known accounts of the conflict in the Western world.

George Orwell (back row, 3rd from right) with the P.O.U.M, 1936. [Hoover Institution Archives]

Despite not being an active war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell’s reportage Homage to Catalonia paints a vivid account of the writer’s experiences, not only amongst the Marxist militias on the frontline against Franco, but also of the complicated political in-fighting that plagued the republican side. These experiences had lasting effects on Orwell who wrote in a letter to his friend Cyril Connolly "I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before" 1 Orwell was wounded in the throat by a sharpshooter while at the front and shortly after his recovery had to leave Spain due to the forceful dissolution of the militia armies in favour of the international brigades. Upon returning to Britain Orwell was angered by both the left-wing press as well as the right for their continued distortion of the truth of the conflict he’d seen first hand - in New English Weekly in 1937, he wrote:

“…in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.” 2

Though Orwell is mostly identified with the last two great works of his life Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was his work as a journalist that he was known for during his life, and it was most certainly his reportage on the civil war that made his name as a polemic voice of dissent in the popular media. It was this sense of conviction, forged on the frontline of the Spanish Civil War, and so brutally re-assessed during the political upheaval in the republican side that followed, that planted the seeds of what would become his chilling vision of a future that still hangs over us today.

Hemingway (Center) in Spain, 1937. [jfklibrary.org - Public Domain]

Ernest Hemmingway’s most lasting commentary on the Spanish Civil War is the novel For Whom The Bell Tolls which follows the real events of the war through the personal experiences of an American named Robert Jordan, who fights for the Spanish Republic. While in Spain, Hemmingway wrote his reports for the North American Newspaper Alliance about the conflict. He would often turn a blind eye to any reports of atrocities committed by republican forces, and went so far as to lend his voice to the 1937 propaganda film The Spanish Earth. In a letter written to Carlos Baker in 1951, 11 years after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway wrote that “Politically, I was always on the side of the Republic from the day it was declared and for a long time before."3
Hemingway’s journalistic accounts of the action throughout the conflict are visceral in their descriptions, particularly in his reports of the shelling of Madrid, that was to secure the true horrors of war in the minds of his readers. His lexicon is technical and militaristic, yet the scenes described recall the literary flair seen in his short fictions that blurred the lines between reporting and literary narrative, such as in this dispatch during the siege of Madrid:

“During the morning twenty-two shells came into Madrid. They killed an old woman returning home from the market, dropping her in a huddled black heap of clothing, with one leg, suddenly detached, whirling against the wall of an adjoining house.”4

Hemingway’s obsession with all things Spanish had begun in the late twenties when he first experienced the spectacle of Bull fighting. But it was his civil war experience that was to drastically effect not only his political and religious beliefs for the rest of his life, but also go on to effect the world view of the next generations with For Whom the Bell Tolls - securing the sacrifice for the second Spanish Republic as the last great noble cause in the minds of many people around the world.

Gellhorn in Spain, 1937(?) [jfklibrary.org - Public Domain]

Martha Gellhorn is perhaps, one of, if not the most important war correspondent’s of the twentieth century, having reported on nearly all the major world conflicts that took place during her journalistic career. During the Spanish Civil War, she was employed by Collier’s Weekly to provide accounts of the conflict. Where Orwell’s experiences in amongst the P.O.U.M had turned him against Communism (particularly the kind the featured Stalin as it’s figurehead), Gellhorn’s experiences documenting the progression of the war alongside Hemingway would lead her to remain a supporter of the Stalin-backed republican government for the rest of her life - in a BBC radio four interview she said “There was a conviction that Fascism was a horrible and bad thing, and that this was the place to be to fight it. And it was an absolutely unbelievable, noble kind of experience.” 5
Gellhorn’s journalistic output was more geared towards reports on the daily life of the people of Spain, particularly those in the besieged capital of Madrid. She conveyed the humanitarian impact of the conflict and has since been described as technically similar to Hemingway‘s dispatches, but more powerful because of their human interest angles - as in this extract from a dispatch written during the siege of Madrid two month’s after the previous one by Hemingway:

“Later, you could see people around Madrid examining the new shell holes with curiosity and wonder. Otherwise they just went on with their daily routine of their lives, as if they had been interrupted by a heavy rainstorm but nothing more”6

Gellhorn’s influence on war reporting not only made it acceptable for women to become correspondents, but also to look at the events of war from the point of view of the people they effected. In Hemingway’s dispatches the casualties of war were a matter of fact, but in Gellhorn’s the human suffering of the conflict elicited an empathic response in her readers that as a journalistic device is used today in combination with television footage of the people themselves.

The coverage of Orwell’s reportage and essays, Hemmingway’s dispatches and fiction, and Gellhorn’s humanitarian angles on the conflict, have all come together to form what we see as modern war reporting in all journalistic mediums. Before the Spanish Civil War, never had a conflict been covered from the point of view of the front line fighter, or non-combatants but now reporters embedded with troops and ‘real life under fire’ reports are now the staple of modern conflict coverage.


1469 Words

End Notes:
1 Sedgwick, P. George Orwell International Socialist? (1969) (http://marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/orwell)

2 Orwell, G. Spilling the Spanish Beans. (1937) New English Weekly (http://netcharles.com/orwell/essays/Spanish beans)
3 From the Hemingway Collection quoted on http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/spring/hemingway.html
4 Hemingway, Ernest. N.A.N.A Dispatch: 11 April 1937. White, William (Ed). By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (1970) London: Penguin Books. P. 2495
BBC Radio Four Interview with Nigel Ford. Bookshelf, 4th January 1990. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/audiointerviews/realmedia/gellhornm/gellhornm3.ram)
Gellhorn, M. High Explosive for Everyone, July 1937. From The Face of War (1998) London, Granta Books. P 21.

Releated Links:


Post a Comment

Imago Alchemae: Imago Mortis on Tumblr

Twitter Facebook Tumblr Flickr Red Bubble