Spain was the story: Books and journalists

A Journal of People report

Many great books were written on the civil war in Spain. Famous authors and journalists took sides. There were accounts of incidents, historical thesis and fiction set during the conflict.


Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

This is the most famous novel to emerge from the Spanish Civil War.  Hemingway covered the civil war as a journalist for the North American Newspaper Alliance.

It follows the story of American Robert Jordan, fighting for the International Brigade, and attached to an antifascist guerrilla unit.

“If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” wrote Hemingway’s editor Maxwell Perkins after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.”


Dave Boling, Guernica  

This epic of love and war is set in the Basque town before, during and after it was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself in conflict with the Spanish Civil Guard and flees the Basque fishing village of Lekeitio to make a new start in Guernica, the centre of Basque culture and tradition. Once there, he finds more than just a new life – he finds someone to live for. Miren Ansotegui is the charismatic and graceful dancer he meets and the two discover a love they believe nothing can destroy.


C.J. Sansom, Winter in Madrid  

Samsom depicts Madrid in 1940, destroyed by the civil war that ended the year before.

The city forms the backdrop to a tense political thriller that follows reluctant spy Harry Brett, sent to Madrid by the British Secret Service to befriend his old school pal, Sandy Forsyth


Max Aub, Field of Honour

Spanish-Mexican author Aub’s masterpiece is a cycle of six novels – The Magic Labyrinth, written between 1943 and 1968, and based on his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

The first novel in the series, Field of Honour, has been translated into English and follows protagonist Rafael López Serrador, whose coming of age in Barcelona introduces a cast from all walks of city life – Catalan nationalists, anarchists, Falangists, government ministers and showgirls.

Just as central a character is Barcelona itself, lovingly depicted within the pages of the novel.


Jessie Burton, The Muse

In her latest novel, the most recent on the list, the author of the worldwide bestseller The Miniaturist tells the story of two young women; a Caribbean immigrant in 1960s London and a bohemian artist in 1930s Spain… and the powerful mystery that ties them together. Olive Schloss is the daughter of a renowned art critic and is living in rural Spain in 1936 when her world is turned upside down by artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister, Teresa.


Contemporary accounts 


Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War

One of the most famous war reporters of the 20th Century, Gellhorn travelled around Spain reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

“I wrote very fast, as I had to,” she said, “afraid that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures, which were special to this moment and this place.”


George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

The observations of the author’s experience fighting against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War was published in 1938 and gives a first-hand account of fighting for the Republicans.


Alvah Bessie,  Men in Battle

Novelist Alvah Bessie fought with the volunteer Lincoln Battalion in Spain and, upon his return to the United States, wrote this gritty memoir of the war.

Hemingway said of the book: “A true, honest, fine book. Bessie writes truly and finely of all that he could see… and he saw enough.”


A look back


Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War

Thomas’ classic account brings the Spanish Civil War to life and asks the important questions about the conflict: What was it that drove left-wing sympathizers from all over the world to fight against Franco between 1936 and 1939? Why did the British and US governments refuse to intervene? And why did the Republican cause collapse so violently?

Now revised and updated, The Spanish Civil War is an excellent introduction to the conflict.


Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War. A Very Short Introduction

Graham, within a very short space, narrates the entirety of the war, as well as its political motivations and the impact of the war on Spain’s transition to democracy and its contemporary political culture.


Ian Gibson, The Assassination of Federico García Lorca

The book charts the mystery surrounding the death of Spanish poet Lorca during the Civil War.

Gibson has also written the biography of Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War, aged 38 for, among other accusations, being a “spy for the Russians” and “homosexual”.


Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain

Based on documents from Spanish, German and Russian archives Beevor narrates the origins of the civil war and its dramatic course from 1936 – 39, analyzing the political and regional forces that played an important role in the war.


Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War Reaction, Revolution and Revenge

Preston describes the rise of Franco, and the new, horrific form of warfare that would come to define the 20th century.


Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain

Tremlett, a correspondent for The Guardian and The Economist, explores the effects the civil war has had on Spain and the people of the land down the generations. A fascinating insight into how the country brutal history has shaped the modern country we know today.



A Madrid datelined report in The New York Times said:

“It was ‘the golden age of foreign correspondents,’ the historian Hugh Thomas wrote, a period in the late 1930s when the literary elite descended on Spain armed with a lust for adventure and belief in a cause.

The “When Reporters Chose Sides: Spain Looks Back at Its Civil War” headlined report said:

“The lure was the Spanish Civil War. In February 1936 Spanish voters elected, by a small plurality, a center-left coalition of Socialists, Communists, Republicans and Anarchists. Then in July, Gen. Francisco Franco led an uprising against the five-year-old Spanish Republic that plunged the country into civil war.

“Mussolini and Hitler supported Franco, while Stalin sent advisers and arms to his opponents. The United States, Britain and France sat on the sidelines.

“The writers and foreign correspondents who came to Spain invented a new kind of war journalism, reporting in first-person, eyewitness accounts the brutal feel of the battlefield.

“Their two-and-a-half-year chronicle became something more, an intimate encounter with the great ideological battles of the time: between church and state; rich and poor; the aristocracy and the classless; democracy and fascism.”

The report by Elaine Sciolino quoted Carlos Garcia Santa Cecilia, a former journalist:

“The best writers came to tell the world what was happening in Spain. They felt a compulsion to be here, to bear witness, to fight for their beliefs. It was the first time journalists said, ‘I must write what I see, what I feel.’

“The aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew in on his own plane. George Orwell took his pen to the battlefield and nearly died when he was shot through the neck. Arthur Koestler was locked up by Franco supporters.”

The report dated January 30, 2007 said:

“Kim Philby, The Times of London correspondent, was already a Soviet agent gathering information under the cover of his job as a reporter. Ernest Hemingway posed for one report for The New Republic holding a rifle while lying on the battlefield.”

It said:

“This is the most painful story it has ever been my lot to handle,” The Chicago Tribune’s Jay Allen wrote at the start of his report on the massacre in Badajoz in August 1936. ‘I write it at four in the morning, sick at heart and in body in the stinking patio of the pension central.’

“Badajoz was one of the first big towns to fall to Franco’s offensive from the south, and Mr. Allen managed to find an alternate way to send his story after it was blocked by government censor. ‘They are burning bodies,’ he wrote. ‘Four thousand men and women have died at Badajoz since Gen. Francisco Franco’s rebel Foreign Legionnaires and Moors climbed over the bodies of their own dead through its many times blood-drenched walls.’

“A two-page exclusive interview with Franco by Felix Correia for Diario de Lisboa, in Portugal, in August 1936, a month after the civil war began, revealed the rebel leader’s plans for a dictatorship that would protect the Roman Catholic Church and private property.

“In her dispatches Barbro Alving, a Swedish foreign correspondent known as Bang, described how schools and hospitals struggled to stay open during the war. Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s lover and his future (third) wife, chronicled daily life in Madrid in a four-page article in Collier’s in 1937 that established her as a serious journalist.”

The NYT report said:

“Not all the correspondents took the Republican side. Harold Cardozo of The Daily Mail, a Franco supporter, traveled with him.

“Three journalists — Edward J. Neil of The Associated Press, Richard Sheepshanks of Reuters and Bradish Johnson of Newsweek — died near Teruel in northern Spain after their car was hit by Republican fire while they tried to report from Franco’s side. Mr. Philby, who was also in the car, survived. Franco gave him a medal.

“In a two-part series headlined ‘Spilling the Spanish Beans’ in The New English Weekly in July 1937, Orwell laid bare the divide among anti-Franco republicans between the workers he defines as true revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionary Communists he accused of selling out to ‘bourgeois reformism.’

“His complex, often ambiguous analysis won him the vitriol of both the left and the right. It also formed the basis for his book ‘Homage to Catalonia,’ in which he wrote, ‘As for the newspaper talk about this being a “war for democracy,” it was plain eyewash.’

It added:

“Langston Hughes, the American poet, playwright and novelist, came to Spain ‘to write for the colored press,’ he wrote in The Afro American newspaper. ‘I knew that Spain had once belonged to the Moors, a colored people ranging from light dark to dark white.’ He described the importation of Moorish soldiers from Spanish Morocco and their slaughter on the front lines on the side of the Franco offensive.”

The report said:

“The German aerial bombing that destroyed the Basque village of Guernica in 1937 was the worst atrocity of the war, the first blitzkrieg; it also may have been the most sensitive military operation.

The Times of London buried George L. Steer’s powerful eyewitness account — alerting the world that Hitler was helping the Spanish Fascists — in a single column on Page 17; The New York Times ran it at the top of the front page. ‘Britain didn’t want to upset the Germans,’ Mr. Garcia Santa Cecilia said.

“Most of the journalists took refuge in Madrid at the Hotel Florida, which was shelled regularly. It is now the site of a department store.

“John Dos Passos wrote an article for Esquire in 1938 from there, ‘Room and Bath at the Hotel Florida,’ that included the line ‘When the shells keep coming in, a man somehow feels safer to be shaving and sniffing the familiar odor of the soap.’

“It was here that Hemingway, whose connections with both the Spanish government and the Russians kept him stocked with food and brandy, would have breakfast prepared for him every morning. It was also here that he romanced Ms. Gellhorn.

“‘There was not one journalist in Spain who spoke well of Hemingway” Mr. Garcia Santa Cecilia said. “He betrayed his friends. He was arrogant. He hoarded food. He was the only one with a car — and gasoline.’

“The hotel was close to the Telefonica building, where journalists had to submit their articles to an official censor before dictating them back home. The exhibition has reconstructed the operator’s desk, with one telephone headset for the journalist and another one for the censor.

“It took 18 months to locate the photographs and articles — most of them originals — for the exhibition. Along the way the researchers tracked down Geoffrey Cox, who was then 26 covering local news when The News Chronicle of Britain sent him to Madrid. He is now 96 and living in a British nursing home.

“‘I had no doubt that I was reporting on an event of capital historical importance,’ Mr. Cox said in an interview included in the exhibition catalog. ‘For the first time a force rising from the people was capable of resisting fascism.’

“Spain, he added, ‘was our story.’


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