More Writers of the Spanish Civil War

Experience Put to Use

by Celia M. Wallhead (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 372 Pages


Further to the first book, Writers of the Spanish Civil War: The Testimony of Their Auto/Biographies (2011), which featured the writings on the war (1936–39) of six key British and American authors: Gerald Brenan, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Stephen Spender and Laurie Lee, this new work studies the actions in the war of those physically involved and writings focused on the war, either at the time or later, by eight more foreign authors: Virginia Woolf, John Dos Passos, Franz Borkenau, V. S. Pritchett, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, Martha Gellhorn and Peter Kemp. In addition to comparing their autobiographies with what their biographers said, in order to show up any discrepancies, as had been done in the first book, here, the texts are scrutinized to detect use of stereotypes or adaptation of the material to other purposes in the writing. New perspectives are introduced now in that two of the authors are women, one writing from a distance but deeply affected by the war (Virginia Woolf) and one active in journalism on the spot (Martha Gellhorn), and our final author, Peter Kemp, went to Spain to fight on the side of the Nationalists under Franco as opposed to the Republicans.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) The Death of Julian Bell and Three Guineas (Juan Antonio Díaz López)
  • Chapter 2. John Dos Passos (1896–1970) Dubious films and lost friends (Laura Torres Zúñiga)
  • Chapter 3. Franz Borkenau (1900–1957) Microhistory in The Spanish Cockpit: Fusing Informed Perspective with Eyewitness Narrative (Melissa Leismer)
  • Chapter 4. V. S. Pritchett (1900–1997) The Spanish Civil War at a Distance (Celia Wallhead)
  • Chapter 5. André Malraux 1901–1976 Unveiling the Man and the Myth (Ricardo Marín Ruiz)
  • Chapter 6. Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) A Homeless Mind (Rosemary Masters)
  • Chapter 7. Martha Gellhorn (1908–1998) Objectivity Revealed: Propaganda and the Fifth Dimension in Martha Gellhorn’s Spanish Civil War Reportage (Mauricio D. Aguilera Linde)
  • Chapter 8. Peter Kemp (1915?–1993) A Francoist British Soldier and Writer in the Spanish Civil War (José Ruiz Mas)
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 →


The year 2016 saw the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and as each year passes, the ‘industry’ –as it might be called– of writings on the war grows. Ten years before, in a study on the English-speaking members of the International Brigades, the editors put the figure at possibly over 35,000 titles of all types of writing, from books, articles and doctoral theses to novels (Rodríguez Celada et al 2006, 89), and the figure has been steadily rising. Needless to say, the perspectives in this writing vary greatly. Rodríguez Celada and his co-editors in the work just mentioned have an interesting point when they quite rightly assert that the generally accepted notion that history is written by the victors, is not applicable in the case of the Spanish Civil War (89). More has been written by the defeated supporters of the government of the Republic than by the supporters of Franco. In his Author’s Note to They Shall Not Pass! The British Battalion at Jarama: The Spanish Civil War, Ben Hughes offers reasons for this, at least for the writings by British participants:

Although they won the war, the Nationalists1 lost the battle for hearts and minds that followed and therefore the market for their memoirs has been limited. Furthermore, after Franco’s death, Spain underwent a period of deliberate forgetting (el pacto del olvido) and as the veterans entered their twilight years, the desire to record their reflections was lacking. Finally, although several of the British veterans were well read and educated and predisposed to writing about their experiences, the men they faced at Jarama were from different backgrounds. (7)

But perspectives and attitudes vary not only in political stance but through a growing awareness that a black-and-white Manichean view does not approach the truth of the matter. In this last decade or so, research has been dedicated to showing the splits and inconsistencies on each side of the conflict. The editors of The Splintering of Spain: ← 7 | 8 → Cultural History and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (2005), Chris Ealham and Michael Richards, comment on their title, arguing that the ‘“splintering of Spain” resulted from the myriad cultural cleavages of society in the 1930s’ (i) and that this was a major factor in the run-up to the conflict. In the opening paragraph of Crusade in Spain, Jason Gurney’s account of his experiences in the Civil War –he was there from December 1936 to August 1937 when he was wounded at Jarama– the British sculptor puts forward this lack of unity on either side, quite apart from the division into two basic opposed sides, as the root cause of the troubles that led to the fratricide:

In February 1936 there was a general election in Spain. The Popular Front Alliance won a victory over the National Front. But all this represented nothing at all. The whole country was divided and subdivided by so many different lines of allegiance that no single individual or party could claim a sufficient degree of support to form a stable government. (15)

He goes on to give a rough breakdown of the different groups. Before that, in his Preface, he had said that his actions were reported at the time, or rather misreported, ‘usually by dedicated Communists or by ex-Communists who had quarrelled with the Party or became disillusioned. Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that their writing was heavily coloured by a wish to make propaganda […].’ He calls what they wrote ‘a farrago of nonsense’ (13). As he says, ‘Thirty-six years later’ he wrote his own account. Crusade in Spain came out in the early seventies, shortly before his death, but at least he had finally got round to contributing to ‘a better understanding of what took place at that time’ (13).

For this reason, to attain a better understanding, Ealham and Richards maintain that their study ‘views the Civil War less as a single great conflict between two easily identifiable sets of ideas, social classes or ways of life, than historians have previously done’ (i). Politics were not the only dividing force: ‘The Spanish tragedy, at the level of everyday life, was shaped by many tensions, both those that were formally political and those that were to do with people’s perceptions and understanding of the society around them’ (ibid.). In their introduction in Chapter 1, ‘History, memory and the Spanish civil war: recent perspectives’, they make the assertion: ← 8 | 9 →

[F]or decades the historiography of the Spanish Civil War was dominated by ‘grand narratives’ which focused primarily on the conflict’s origins and outcome. Historical time in Spain was marked and measured according to the chronology of the rise and fall of the Franco regime (1939–75). Interpretation was primarily moulded by the unavoidable reality of the polarised positions of the war itself and judgements about each of the competing sides. (1)

In a note, they add that the work of their mentor, Paul Preston, has been fundamental in this shift: ‘This bipolar framework has begun to be critically addressed in recent years. See, e.g., Paul Preston, Las tres Españas del 36 (Barcelona, 1998)’2. In a later work, dedicated mostly to the deaths on both sides in the war, Preston shows how propaganda favouring Franco and his supporters held sway in Britain:

In fact, British diplomats rarely acknowledged atrocities on the rebel side and never saw the differences between what happened in each zone. While the rebel authorities actively sanctioned atrocities throughout the war and after, it was precisely the Republican government’s opposition to them that limited them to the first five months of the war. (2013, 369)

In part, this transition to a more detailed, nuanced perspective of the ‘truth’ –Ben Hughes calls it ‘far more convoluted’ (15)– condemning black and white views of the past, comes through greater knowledge, as contained in all the factual studies and accounts, but it is also due to a change in the times. In these postmodern or post-postmodern days, historiography and life-writing (autobiography and biography) share common ground in that both claim to attest to the truth without ever being able to truly achieve that elusive ideal. A so-called historical account is always someone’s point of view, more or less partial or biased. To reference Ben Hughes again, he affirms that his book on the Battle of Jarama is an attempt to give ‘an accurate description of the events of 12–14 February 1937’, yet he suspects that, in contributing to this ‘micro-history’ (8), for some subjects, ‘memories fade and some veterans may have embellished their exploits’ (7).

Because it is often difficult to get at the ‘truth’, especially when even an eye-witness account may not be reliable, our research group at the University of Granada, HUM 424 ‘Studies in Narrative in English: ← 9 | 10 → utopias, science fiction, ecologies and margins’, decided to look at what participants in the war from outside –British and American– said about their experiences. We did not expect to get a more objective view, as many who came already had a partial stance, mostly on the Left. But in order to get a hopefully more truthful view of the experiences of the most famous foreign writers, we decided to contrast what they said and wrote with what their biographers and other sources said about them.

The fruits of our research were published in a book which came out in 2011, Writers of the Spanish Civil War: The Testimony of Their Auto/Biographies. We found some ‘embellishing of exploits’, as Ben Hughes would have put it. The authors chosen were, in chronological order of their birth: Gerald Brenan, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Stephen Spender and Laurie Lee. Although two of these were apolitical –Gerald Brenan and Robert Graves– the others were supporters of the Republic. On taking on six of the most famous and prolific writers, we were left with no room for either women or supporters of Franco’s uprising, so here, in More Writers of the Spanish Civil War: Experience Put to Use, a second book in the same series, Spanish Perspectives on English and American Literature, Communication and Culture, we have attempted to redress this lack. Here we concentrate –depending on the author in question and the relevance of the views– both on contrasting what writers claimed with what others asserted about them, and on showing how far these writers were able to get close to the ‘truth’ of what was happening in Spain, or at least a more inclusive view of the panorama, and to convey it through their writings, and how far they were seduced by stereotypes or by partisan views. We take this further by looking at how they used their experiences in or of Spain to publish and further their own needs and reputations. In this book there are eight writers of five different nationalities, again placed in order of their birth: Virginia Woolf, John Dos Passos, Franz Borkenau, V. S. Pritchett, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, Martha Gellhorn and Peter Kemp.

To return to the first book, amongst the six authors, there are similarities and dissimilarities as regards the war. For example, those most engaged in the war either in the fighting or reporting of it at close hand, Orwell and Hemingway respectively, came to Spain from outside specifically to be there, whilst those who were there already, Graves, ← 10 | 11 → Brenan and Lee, all left, with only the latter returning to participate. Spender came to Spain for personal rather than for political reasons. The two older men who had been resident in mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands, Brenan and Graves, left upon the uprising as ‘their’ war had been the First World War, though Brenan sought to understand it and in the end contributed most to the writing on the conflict. At first, the Briton who knew most about the Civil War and wrote about it in the press was V. S. Pritchett, but in time, it was Brenan who studied the sources available and wrote at length in authoritative works. Brenan did have his problems of positioning, however, for he had to abandon his support for the Republic to try to be fair to both sides. As Tom Buchanan records, when The Spanish Labyrinth came out, Brenan commented to Leonard Woolf that he had written the book ‘full of the violent rages of the Civil War and had to make a great effort to be impartial’ (162).3

Back in England, Orwell was attacked in the press for his questioning of Communist solidarity. As David Boyd Haycock reminds us, he had difficulty in finding a publisher for his work on Spain, which he decided to call Homage to Catalonia:

‘The trouble is that as soon as anything like the Spanish civil war happens,’ Orwell complained to a friend, ‘hundreds of journalists immediately produce rubbishy books which they put together with scissors and paste, and later when the serious books come along people are sick of the subject.’ (298, no acknowledgement of source)

Kingsley Martin, editor of The New Statesman, and Victor Gollancz, who had previously published Orwell’s writing, refused to take his book on Spain because they both agreed that, in the words of the latter, they would ‘never publish anything he believed “could harm the fight against fascism” (even if it was the truth)’ (Haycock, 260–61). Their attitude was similar to that of Ernest Hemingway in his harsh words to his one-time friend John Dos Passos, whose writings on the war we will be examining in this second volume. Again, Haycock records the anecdote, but without divulging his sources: ← 11 | 12 →

Whilst Dos Passos was waiting to catch the boat train in Paris, Ernest Hemingway appeared. He too had recently left Spain, and would shortly be heading home. He demanded to know what Dos planned to write about the war when he got back to America. Dos was considering an article for the US press about what had happened to José Robles, and about how the Russians and communists were corrupting the Republican government in Spain. Like Orwell, he rejected the argument that anything critical written about the Republic would naturally aid the rebels.
       But Hemingway was not having it. ‘You do that,’ he warned, ‘and the New York reviewers will kill you. They will demolish you forever.’ He even raised his fists, as if he were going to hit his old friend, before he turned and walked away.
       Once home, Dos Passos agonized over what he should do. ‘You didn’t want to help the enemy,’ he admitted, by adding ‘to the immense propaganda against the Spanish republic fomented by so many different interests. At the same time you wanted to tell the truth.’ He decided that all he could do was describe what he had seen, and through ‘surface events’ hint at ‘the great forces working underneath’. (247–8)

It is this sort of dilemma that we will be focusing upon in this study, whereby authors often had to struggle with their own moral qualms over what to include and what leave out and over exactly what objective to aim at in their writing. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, were following utopian dreams for a better society after the ‘War to End All Wars’, or were dedicated to the struggle to protect what they considered the better aspects of the society which were vulnerable and at risk in the circumstances. But our hypothesis was vindicated: in comparing the autobiographical accounts with those made about them by others, it emerged that not all these famous writers told the truth about their exploits and experiences.

As Ealham and Richards show, the theoretically objective view of an observer from outside Spain was a fallacy, and adopting a one-sided or simplistic view naturally had moral connotations:

Within Spain, the official bi-polarity, as depicted in the 1940s and 1950s, verged on the metaphysical –the division was between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or ‘Spain’ and ‘anti-Spain’, the latter including regional nationalists, democratic liberals and working-class radicals singled out for repression. Outside Spain, simplistic Manichean myths were almost as persistent. In the extent of its over-simplification, the explanatory framework of ‘communism versus fascism’ went further than the other principal depiction of the war in the popular imagination as a struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘fascism’. (1) ← 12 | 13 →

In his work on the British volunteers who participated in the war, Unlikely Warriors, Richard Baxell offers a similar opinion, in that the veterans and their supporters, in the accounts made soon after the end of the conflict ‘maintained the view established at the time: that the International Brigades were solely comprised of anti-fascists, fighting for Spanish democracy.’ He goes on to cite Orwell: ‘However, George Orwell argued –and others have followed him since– that such simplistic and romantic notions of “good versus evil” or “democracy versus fascism” are problematic […]’ (8).

Another ‘bipolar’ view of the conflict concerned attitudes to the progress of Spain in Europe. As they say on the subject of backwardness or a desire to innovate and make new:

To an extent, this liberal-democratic framework overlapped with another rigid structure of interpretation that depicted the war as a struggle between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’. This way of looking at the conflict, though not without some merit, was weakened by the inherently normative nature of the key terms –‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’–which relied on a number of limiting assumptions. Republicans for example, have often been viewed somewhat uniformly and uncritically since they have been deemed to be on the side of ‘modernisation’. Recent analysis of the public values, collective action and symbolic expression of both Spanish republicanism and, indeed, Catholic ‘traditional’ political thought and action, have begun to modify our understanding of the various competing forces as portrayed by the modernisation theory of the war. (1)

Most foreign observers of the war upheld that Spain under a Republic would take its place in a modern Europe more easily than otherwise. Usually, however, they did not delve into the truth on this issue but were influenced by the stereotypical portraits of Spain, stimulated by the accounts of 19th-century travellers. What we understand by stereotype is, in the words of Eduardo González Calleja:

[…] a synthetic, generalising, simplistic or a critical concept, closer to falsity than to truth, of the features attributed to an individual, group or action […] a specific reflection of reality with the presence of an additional subjective factor, which comes in the form of emotional, normative and volitional elements that confer upon it a peculiar and unique character regarding knowledge and human behaviour. (24) ← 13 | 14 →

González Calleja has taken his definition from a translation of Adam Schaff4 for his study which forms the second chapter of Ealham and Richards’ The Splintering of Spain: ‘The symbolism of violence during the Spanish Republic in Spain, 1931–1936’. Calleja actually traces an increasingly subjective four-stage route to coming to a prejudicial stance on our perception of reality: we start with an opinion, next we have an image, then we accept the stereotype, before finally coming to hold a prejudice. This he defines as ‘an arbitrary conviction, categorical and unconditional, created from a number of stereotypes and based on the selective generalisation and exaggeration of certain favourable or unfavourable attributes’ (24). While some authoritative writers on Spain knowingly and deliberately purveyed erroneous, prejudiced views, others did so through ignorance. González Calleja has collected the negative epithets (apart from ‘outward-looking’, perhaps) that were used on the two sides of what he calls ‘Spain and anti-Spain’, the symbolic confrontation between ‘Spain’ and the ‘Republic’ or ‘anti-Spain’:

Spain (Nationalist, seen by the Left): (the ‘inquisitorial’, ‘dictatorial’, ‘rotten’, ‘absolutist’, ‘intransigent’, ‘fanatic’ or ‘intolerant’ Spain […])

Anti-Spain: ([…] the ‘outward-looking’, ‘anti-Catholic’, ‘atheist’, ‘Masonic’, or ‘Marxist’ Spain) (32)

The purveying of false or distorted views may have been due to ignorance, but in Britain, at least, there may have been another reason. Tom Buchanan suggests that perpetuating the stereotypes related to Spain helped people to see more clearly what was difficult for them to understand:

The fact that even sophisticated commentators on Spanish affairs tended to rely heavily on clichés about the ‘Spanish character’ was attributable not only to the ubiquity of such stereotypes of the Spanish within British culture, but also to the fact that the British public was thought likely to find many aspects of the Civil War alien, incomprehensible, and even repugnant, and would have need of such aids to interpretation. (4)

In Chapter 8 of The Splintering of Spain, Rafael Cruz pens the study ‘Old symbols, new meanings: mobilising the rebellion in the summer of 1936’. He shows how symbols were pressed into service to differentiate one side ← 14 | 15 → from the other. He writes that as there were differences within each side, the icons or symbolic rituals were heterogeneous: ‘On the rebel side in the Nationalist zone: Carlists, Falangists, Renovación Española monarchists, Acción Popular Catholics & the Church’ (162). The symbolic rituals on the Nationalist side were: ‘the “mobilisation of Virgins” (especially Nuestra Señora del Pilar), solemn blessings of flags (the two-colour ones, not the Republican flag) and weapons, field masses, ringing of church bells to warn of planes, singing of Falange and Legion anthems at the consecration of the Host in mass, protective medals and crosses’ (174). Further, ‘The “meta-narrative” of the war was defined in relation to the notion of the “crusade”’ (175). Though heterogeneous, these visual strategies could promote homogeneity, and in general, there was more uniformity on the side of the rebels than in the ranks of those who supported the Republic. Where the splintering was too great, epithets to do with the breakdown of the family, such as ‘orphan’ or to do with getting lost on the battlefield, or wandering into ‘no man’s land,’ could be used. A disappointed Communist like George Orwell would identify with the following feeling expressed by Claudio Magris:

During the years of Hitler and Stalin, it was above all faith in Communism which collapsed in the hearts and thoughts of many. The deserter from the Party, it is said in a novel by Manés Sperber, set in Vienna, is orphaned by the whole: when the clandestine Communist militant, who has sworn fidelity to the Revolution and is operating in countries dominated by Fascist dictatorships, discovers Stalin’s perversion of the Revolution, he finds himself in a no man’s land, alien to all societies and exiled from life itself. (197)

Biographical notes

Celia M. Wallhead (Volume editor)

Celia Wallhead taught Spanish at Auckland University, New Zealand, and is currently Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Granada. Author of books and articles on contemporary writers A.S.Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon, she is responsible for the research group HUM 424 «Studies in Narrative in English» and edited the group’s first book on the Spanish Civil War.


Title: More Writers of the Spanish Civil War