Journalism in the Spanish Civil War
In his most famous play, Look Back in Anger, first performed at the royal court Theatre in London in 1956, the dramatist John Osborne had his hero, the archetypal angry young man Jimmy Porter, declare the Spanish Civil War ‘The Last Great Cause.’
The fictional Porter, speaking after the Second World War, laments that he was not able to fight in Spain. “I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer,” he complains. “We had all of that done for us in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”
He feels diminished because he was not old enough to risk his life fighting fascism before that fight became a universal one.
That view of the Spanish Civil War as a great ideological battle between good and evil was widespread until relatively recently. Reporters, photographers and writers played a big part in creating it. Some believed so passionately in the cause that they abandoned any pretence of objectivity and chose to fight in it. George Orwell is among the most famous examples.
To any of you who have not already read it I recommend his ‘Homage to Catalonia.’ It is one of the greatest works of reportage of the twentieth century, and, like so much of Orwell’s writing, a masterpiece of plain, effective communication.
Ernest Hemingway’s fictional account, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” is also worthy of your attention. Later we will look at some of the most compelling accounts published as reporting – including the German writer Franz Borkenau’s “The Spanish Cockpit” and the young Martha Gelhorn’s pieces for the New York title Collier’s Weekly.
First: a brief explanation of the war. It raged between 1936 and 1939. On one side –according to the traditional narrative – were the ‘goodies’ in the form of the forces of the democratically elected Spanish Republic. On the other were the ‘baddies’ fascist nationalists under the leadership of General Francisco Franco. They were determined to topple the Republic which they perceived as a dire threat to traditional Spanish religious and social values.
Spain entered the 1930s in a backward condition. The economy was still largely agricultural. The class structure was rigid and divided the nation into categories including peasant, worker and grandee landlord. Classes were divided by income and education and the differences were large enough to foster resentment which often manifested itself as loathing.
The division of society into defined groups was reflected in the structure of
Spanish politics. Parties represented specific interests and rarely even tried to appeal beyond the group they had been created to champion. There was a party for Catholic small farmers – Accion Popular – another for urban workers, the PSOE or Socialist Party, and a large anarchist federation, the CNT, based in Catalonia with a broad base of support among peasants and poor workers.
To Spaniards of a conservative, nationalist, frame of mind the Catholic Church was a dominant influence in their lives. Their religious faith was accompanied by loyalty to institutions such as the monarchy and the officer corps of the armed forces.
Anarchists, communists and socialists were often hostile to the church – which many blamed for supporting and entrenching traditional social and economic structures that kept them in poverty. They tended to oppose the monarchy as well and to be resentful of hierarchy of any sort.
It is hard to imagine how the alliance that became the Republican side in the Civil War could have existed before the 1930s. It comprised every shade of opinion from moderate liberal republicans to orthodox communists and revolutionary anarchists.
In part it was the product of Communist orthodoxy, dictated in Moscow by Stalin himself. In the mid 1930s the Comintern, the international wing of communism first established in Moscow in 1919, encouraged a policy of broad alliances, Popular Fronts in the language of the Comintern, between parties hostile to fascism.
Moscow’s objective was to balance the Nazi threat to the Soviet Union. Among the results were some truly strange collections of bedfellows bound together by nothing more than mutual antagonism to Hitler and Mussolini.
Spain’ Popular Front was formed in November 1935, as an electoral alliance between Republicans, Socialists and the country’s very small Communist Party. The idea may have been advanced by Moscow – indeed Jacques Duclos, a French Communist member of the Comintern, made a special visit to the Spanish Socialists to promote it - but in this case there was indigenous Spanish logic at work as well.
Reform of the country’s antiquated land laws was desperately overdue to address the grinding poverty of landless peasants who eked out a living by selling their labour for a few pence a day and often went for long periods with no work and no means to feed themselves or their families.
So was fiscal, social and economic reform that could reduce the stark inequalities between Spaniards of different classes and raise standards of living among the urban and rural poor. There was widespread desire for an end to clerical control of education which was often so orthodox that it made young Spaniards learn the catechism before they learned reading, writing and arithmetic.
There was an additional, specifically Spanish factor. Conventional democratic parties had failed to win the Spanish poor to the cause of parliamentary democracy. Among those who were politically active revolutionary socialist and anarchist views were common. To such people parliament – the Cortes - looked like a means of preserving middle class power – not a mechanism that could change society profoundly and for ever.
Spain had witnessed militant strike action in the 1930s as workers oppressed by appalling wages and conditions sought radical change. In 1934 a strike by coal miners in the Asturias region had turned to outright rebellion when the miners used dynamite from the pits to seize two arms factories over which they declared military and political control.
On that occasion the ruling Conservative coalition, advised by General Franco, sent in Foreign Legion and Moorish troops to crush the rebellion. Many prominent socialists were arrested. The Civil War might have been averted if the constitutional right had followed the crushing of the Asturian miners with a raft of reforms to satisfy moderate working class demands. But it didn’t.
Instead, in 1936, the Popular Front idea offered liberals, socialists and others on the broad reformist wing of Spanish politics the prospect of achieving change without violence. Neither liberal republicans nor socialists had proved able to win general elections alone. But now, united as a Popular Front, these parties agreed to fight Spain’s 1936 General Election as a unified list.
The anarchists did not formally join the Popular Front at this stage. But they did abandon their traditional “Don’t Vote” appeal to members. This new attitude to democracy – albeit hesitant – increased support for Popular Front candidates in regions where anarchist influence was strong.
Spain’s electoral system – which divided the country into large electoral districts and elected one Deputy/MP for each 50,000 votes – also helped. It meant that unified lists of candidates based on broad alliances received a built-in electoral bonus.
To win a majority in the Cortes the Popular Front needed 237 deputies. It won 34.3% of the national vote. The Right – also running as an alliance of like-minded parties – won 32.3%. The vagaries of election law gave the Popular Front 263 seats, the Right 133 and the Centre grouping 77. Clearly no emphatic mandate existed for left or right. But the Popular Front had a workable majority – and the Right responded by declaring that Spain was in imminent danger of “Bolshevisation.”
This was a wild exaggeration. The government that took office in Madrid in February 1936 was not a radical one. It was mainly made up of middle-class Republicans. Not a single Marxist held ministerial office. The Socialists had agreed to stand on the Popular Front ticket – but they were internally divided between a faction that believed real change could be achieved by constitutional means and one that insisted revolution would, still, be necessary in the end.
The sticking point was that although the government itself contained no socialist or communist ministers, the Republicans needed socialist votes in the Cortes to pass their legislation and ensure the appointment of their nominees to top jobs. For reasons that remain obscure to this day, the Socialist Deputies chose to destabilise the government they had helped elect.
In April 1936 they voted to remove the President of the Republic, Alacala Zamora, and replace him with Manuel Azana, an intellectual with a long record of anti-clerical activism and hostility to the Spanish military.
The right was already deeply worried by the election result. Now the ousting of an experienced and cautious president in favour of a man who had earned the enmity of the church and the army was highly risky. The challenge Azana posed to Spanish traditionalists was exacerbated by the Prime Minister who was appointed with him. Casares Quiroga was a liberal who had previously been responsible for reduction in the size of the Army and for legislation which offended the church.
Now things began to run out of control. Poor Spaniards were impatient for change and wanted immediate action from their new government. When it did not happen, a wave of strikes began in the cities. This industrial militancy was amplified by competition between the two main trade union groups, the Anarchist CNT and the Socialist UGT. As these two competed to prove they were the most effective voices of working class protest outbreaks of violence became common in Spanish cities.
The situation in the countryside was even more chaotic. Here some peasants simply occupied their landlord’s estates. And, torn between its belief in land reform and its duty to maintain order, the government did nothing to stop them. It sent right-wing military officers such as General Franco to postings outside metropolitan Spain – i.e. in the Spanish colonies – to make military repression of the land seizures less likely.
Problems as profound as land ownership and land reform obviously needed long-term solutions. But the Spanish right, wedded as it was to the existing order in which a minority of wealthy grandees and the church hierarchy controlled the land, was not interested in compromise with the land-hungry peasants. It wanted them evicted, punished and forced into submission.
If that sounds absurd, it is worth noting that it reflected recent reality in Spain. Only a decade earlier the country had been ruled by a dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera. Primo de Rivera had governed ruthlessly enough to earn the nickname “iron surgeon.” To right wingers in politics, the church and the military his term in power had been a golden era of peace and tranquillity. In other words he had kept the peasants and the workers firmly in their place, praised the church and worshipped the army.
Now right wing members of the Cortes, led by Gil Robles, the head of CEDA the Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas – the country’s largest right-wing group – initiated plans to restore military rule. Robles had hoped to create a democratic, Conservative Spain. But his failure to win the 1936 election had left him frustrated and impotent in the face of changes he deplored.
Inside the military a group of junior officers – the Union Militar Espanola – with links to the Falange, a Fascist political party established in 1933 by the former dictator’s son Jose Primo de Rivera, was already contemplating a coup. The UME had been small and probably not representative of mainstream military opinion until 1936. But the Popular Front victory won it many new recruits.
Some historians estimate that after the election as many as 50% of officers on active duty in the Spanish Army became members of the UME. Passionately anti-socialist and pro-church they were led by a handful of senior generals including Generals Fanjul, Goded, Mola and Franco.
Popular Front leaders recognised the threat. President Azana responded by moving General Franco to Tenerife and General Goded to the Balearics. General Fanjul was retired and General Mola was ordered to move from Morocco to Pamplona. But before they moved to their news postings, these senior officers met together in Madrid and agreed that, at some point, they would all be prepared to support a rebellion against the legally elected government.
The Generals began to take soundings in military garrisons in Spain and North Africa to identify which junior officers would support an armed rebellion and how many men they might be able to bring with them. In politics Gil Robles and the leader of the Falange, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, began to brief their supporters, urging them to back a rebellion and offering strong hints that one was imminent.
Now all that was needed was a pretext to launch the rebellion. It was provided by a pair of assassinations. On the evening of July 12 1936, Jose Castillo, a socialist officer in the Assault Guards, was shot dead as he left his home in Madrid. His friend, Captain Condes of the Civil Guard had no doubt about who was responsible. He went first to the home of Gil Robles – but the CEDA leader had left Spain in anticipation of violence. So Condes abducted another right wing politician, Calvo Sotelo, leader of the Monarchist Party, and killed him with a gunshot to the back of the head.
To right wingers, the murder of the monarchist leader while he was in the custody of a member of the state’s own security forces was proof that public order had collapsed. From his new headquarters in Pamplona, General Mola, the organiser of the military rebels, sent a series of telegrams informing supporters that the rising would begin on 18 July.
Then things began to go wrong for the conspirators. At Melilla, a Spanish military base in North Africa, the coup plans were betrayed to supporters of the legitimate government and the conspirators had to move fast to protect their own lives. They were ruthless – killing opponents in the army and civilian supporters of the Popular Front. But although General Franco now flew from Tenerife to the mainland – aboard a chartered British owned Dragon Rapide aircraft flown by a British pilot – the coup was not going smoothly.
Where the military was united in support of the UME and led by generals who were enthusiastic about the plot, towns and cities fell to the plotters with remarkable speed and ease. But this was not the case everywhere. In Barcelona troops who attempted to take the city centre were driven back by Assault Guards loyal to the Republic.
In Madrid General Fanjul and 2,500 supporters seized the Montana Barracks, but left-wing army officers from the Union Militar Republicana – a group set up in 1934 to counter the influence of the UME – immediately attacked them. The government issued arms to workers who rushed to support the left-wing soldiers and the barracks were recaptured. Many of the coup supporters were massacred on the spot. General Fanjul was saved to be court martialed and executed later.
In Valencia the local army commander, General Martinez Monje, declared for the Republic. Elsewhere the armed police of the Civil Guard supported the Republic and gave it the armed force to resist the coup.
The plot had failed to strike a decisive blow. By July 20 the rebels controlled western Andalusia, Galicia, western Aragon and towns in Castile, Extremadura and Navarre, but only one major city, Seville, had fallen, Madrid, Barcelona, Santander, Malaga and Valencia were still under the control of the government. So was the great port city of Bilbao.
The majority of senior army officers had remained loyal to the elected government but two-thirds of junior officers had joined the conspirators.
Spain was set for a bloody confrontation that would pit privilege against equality, Catholicism against secular ideology and, ultimately, Fascism against Democracy. I do not have time here to teach the narrative of the war, though I recommend reading a brief narrative history if you have time.
Suffice it to say that soon after the fighting began General Franco won the active support of the European dictators – Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom sent armaments and men to fight the forces of the Republic.
Meanwhile the legally elected government of Spain – the Popular Front government elected by due process in February 1936 – was starved of the resources it needed to defend itself by the imposition of the 1936 non-intervention agreement – a formal agreement by which the European powers agreed to leave Spanish disputes to Spaniards and to offer no support to either side.
Democratic Britain and France applied the letter of the agreement and refused to arm the Republic. I have already said that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany sent arms and men. In other words their leaders said one thing and did the opposite. It would not be the last time the Dictators would treat formal diplomacy with contempt while abusing its conventions to advance their interests.
The Soviet Union ignored the non-intervention agreement too – which had the effect of driving the Republic into Communist hands. The Spanish Communist Party was insignificant in 1937. Before the Republic was defeated in 1939 its government had come to be dominated by Communists. That was Stalin’s reward for the arms and Red Army expertise he provided to the people fighting for democracy against fascism..
Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia offers a compelling glimpse of the consequences Communist control had on the Republican side. In the first months of the Civil War a social revolution took place in Republican territory. Land was taken into peasant control, factories placed under committee of workers, class distinctions abolished and women liberated to fight alongside men.
The Communists found all of this threatening to their control. They knocked the heart out of Republican idealists – and particularly out of the Anarchist militia who fought bravely against the Fascists until they were suppressed by Communist forces in what is often referred to as the civil war inside the civil war. Orwell, who fought with the Anarchist POUM against the Fascists, describes this awful episode as an eyewitness who almost became a victim of communist repression.
But that came later. By the end of 1936 the cause of the Spanish Republic had gripped the imagination of idealistic anti-fascists throughout the developed world. Young men and women flocked across the Pyrenees to join the fight or to lend it their support. 32,000 socialists and trade unionists from countries including Britain, America, France, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy joined the International Brigades – Communist organised military units which were among the most effective troops on the Republican side.
The names of these brigades reflected the national origins of their members. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was mainly American, the Ernst Thalmann, named after a German Communist detained for eleven years in Buchenwald before Hitler had him murdered, was predominantly German, the Andre Marty Brigade was made up of French and Belgian volunteers and the Thomas Mann Century was British.
Many of these volunteers lost their lives in battles against the Spanish, Italian, Moroccan and German forces fighting for General Franco. If you inspect the International Brigades Roll of Honour – which can be found online – you will almost certainly find the name of a dead volunteer from your home town. There are several from the Medway towns and other parts of northern Kent. Fred Felton of Rochester and Fred Robertson of Rainham both died on Jarama Ridge in February 1937. Norman Brookfield of Maidstone fell on the banks of the Ebro River in September 1938.
Why were ordinary young men willing to travel hundreds of miles to give their lives to defend democracy in Spain?
It is hard to exaggerate the passion aroused by the cause of the Spanish Republic. Intelligent young people – some of them, such as the poet John Cornford, a graduate of Trinity College in the University of Cambridge, were barely out of their teens. Cornford got to Spain by masquerading as a reporter. He crossed the border from France in August 1936 carrying a press card that identified him as a free-lance working on assignment for the News Chronicle.
Such young people saw Spain’s civil war as a microcosm of the struggle they believed would determine the future of civilisation - the confrontation between socialism and fascism. In those days idealists could still join the Communist Party, and many did because they perceived it as the only effective bulwark against Hitler and Mussolini.
Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian born British author said
“Spain caused the last twitch of Europe’s dying conscience”
Koestler was captured by Franco’s forces during the Civil War. His memoir Spanish Testament (1937) relates his experiences.
John Cornford died too, killed on his 21st Birthday while fighting to defend Madrid against the Fascists at Christmas 1936. His girlfriend, Margot Heinemann, like Cornford a Communist, responded to the news by writing a poem of her own – “Grieve in a New Way for New Losses.” It tried to explain why a young man as gifted as John Cornford had to die to defend the Spanish Republic. Heinemann’s answer was that “the best world” would not be created by the sacrifice of “wasters and “second rates.” The project demanded “the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.”
In his book about the way writers and artists perceived the war, which is called The Last Great Cause, Stanley Weintraub writes:
“At perhaps no other time did the makers of art feel so strongly that art could be a weapon. Writers brandished their typewriters against the enemy, and many went even farther, putting down their overheated typewriters and picking up rifles they had at first no idea how to use. And if the Cause later betrayed them or was itself betrayed in a complex international ballet choreographed outside Spain, it remains suffused with a nostalgia beyond ideology and politics.”
Journalists made a passionate contribution to this impression of the Civil War as a glorious crusade for absolute good against utter evil. Some did so from the Fascist perspective, depicting the Republicans as evil Reds and Franco’s forces as virtuous heroes defending ancient values against Godless barbarism.
Martha Gelhorn said “Spain was the place to stop fascism. That was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.”
Nearly forty years after he returned from Spain, Herbert Matthews of the New York Times explained, “Today, wherever in this world I meet a man or woman who fought for Spanish liberty, I meet a kindred soul. In those years we lived our best and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again.”
Phillip Knightley in the First Casualty introduces an important note of scepticism. Spain certainly acted as a magnet for great writers and because of the urgency of war, many who were not merely journalists contributed to newspapers in order to get their opinions heard while there was still a chance that what they said might make a difference.
So, in Knightley’s words:
“From all over the world, thousands of young men who saw the war as an ideological one made their way to Spain to fight in the International Brigades, the sort of personal commitment to the fight against fascism described by Ernest Hemingway in his famous Spanish civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. This voluntary involvement in a war that really did not directly concern them in turn exercised a fascination for some of the most articulate and talented writers of the period, men like Malraux, Orwell, Dos Passos, Spender, Hemingway, Bessie and Koestler. Their writing had a direct influence in creating, in the United States, France, Britain, and South America, public concern about the war and persuaded newspapers to send to both sides their best correspondents.”
It is true. Within months of the first fighting the most talented correspondents in the world were scattered across the Iberian peninsular.
There was a paucity of objectivity. George Orwell wrote, rather bitterly I think, that
“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”
Orwell travelled to the Civil War to report for the New Statesman. As you know he also fought valiantly with the POUM Militia. Ernest Hemingway, officially in Spain as the Correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, offered weapons training to International Brigade recruits. Claude Cockburn, Editor of the British title The Week fought on the Republican side, but continued to file for his magazine and for the Communist daily newspaper the Daily Worker. Many other journalists covered the war with a notebook in one had and a rifle in the other.
Some of these correspondents were partisan but honest. They took the view that a reporter can express her opinion without distorting her story if she makes her position clear in advance and conveys facts accurately. You must form your own judgment about that. For what it is worth I believe that it is possible to be partisan but honest – possible but very difficult. The temptation is always to omit facts that contradict your opinion and as soon as you do that your reporting is no longer accurate.
Many correspondents in Spain went much further than simply ignoring facts they did not like. They invented facts to serve their ideological bias. In his excellent chapter Commitment in Spain 1936 – 1939 Phillip Knightley cites numerous examples including Claude Cockburn’s decision to invent a battle and write an eyewitness report of fighting that had not happened.
The battle that never was is, in my opinion, a clear example of something journalists should never do – namely lie in the pursuit of a political outcome. Claude Cockburn believed the ends justified the means. On this occasion I think he was wrong.
This is what happened. Communist Party officials working to support the Republic were anxious to devise ways in which the French government could be persuaded to allow arms shipments to the Republicans to cross the Spanish Border – a breach of the non-intervention principle.
The officials, under the brilliantly Machiavellian leadership of the German Agitprop chief Willi Muenzenberg, had been impressed by lies invented by the fascist side and widely reported in newspapers – particularly Catholic newspapers. Muenzenberg cited one example, for which there is no hard evidence, which was published in the Nazi newspaper Berliner Nachtausgabe on November 4 1936. It said:
“The red militia issues vouchers to the value of one peseta. Each voucher is good for one rape. The widow of a high official was found dead in her flat. By her bedside lay 64 of these vouchers.”
Muenzenberg considered this a brilliant piece of propaganda, perfectly calculated to inspire loathing of the Republican forces by stigmatising them as brutal, sexual fiends with animal appetites. He wanted Republicans to invent something equally effective. In short he wanted them to make it up. Claude Cockburn happily assumed the role of propagandist and, working with Muenzenberg’s own assistant, Otto Katz, he helped to devise a tale designed to convince the French that Republican soldiers were brave and disciplined – but too poorly equipped to defeat the Fascists unless new arms were supplied to them.
The fictitious battle report included lots of names and precise locations to lend authenticity. It depicted the Republican forces as being engaged in a heroic but unequal struggle. It was, in Cockburn’s own words, factual, inspiring and sober. It was also entirely invented, a tapestry of lies wrapped up in nonsense and crowned with tripe.
That proves how compelling invention can be to a reader who believes it is true. When one invents news, as Cockburn’s propaganda illustrates, one can iron out many of the inconsistencies and confusions that so often exist in reality.
I have told you before that entirely coherent, internally consistent writing is not a guarantee of accuracy and may be a clue that something dishonourable is happening. Some of the most compelling writing from Spain stands witness to this depressing reality.
Other examples of propaganda involved the invention of atrocity allegations. There were numerous examples of this. Phillip Knightley quotes Willie Muenzenberg telling a reporter how to do it roaring “Hit them! Hit them hard. Tell the world how they run over their prisoners with tanks, how they pour petrol over them and burn them alive. Make the world gasp with horror. Hammer it into their heads. Make them wake up..” By which he meant write the most compelling propaganda you can invent because the defeat of fascism justifies any lie you care to tell.
I disagree. It was not necessary to make up atrocity stories in Spain. They happened for real on both side in the Civil War. Anarchist and Communist militia fighting for the Republic murdered priests, nuns and landlords with ruthless cruelty – many of them in the first months of fighting.
The months after the coup began were a period of “Red Terror” in Republican held territory. The Popular Front government was still dominated by moderate, democratic politicians. But the land was now seized by anarchist, socialist and communist militia forces armed to defend the Republic but at least as determined to use the fighting as a pretext for social revolution.
Estimates are that 60,000 men and women deemed enemies of the people were killed in cold blood including 283 nuns, 4,184 priests and 2,365 monks. A similar frenzy of killing took place in Nationalist/Fascist held territory with anarchists, socialists and communists killed simply because of their beliefs. 3,000 of these victims died – shot in cold blood - after the southern city of Malaga fell to the Fascists. We have a sober, accurate and objective account of that battle.
It was written by Franz Borkenau, a German sociologist and former Communist, who though not employed as a reporter, considered his duty to do what a good reporter should always do – i.e. to report what he actually sees, irrespective of whether what he sees is what he would want to see. Borkenau travelled in Spain as a journalist in the sense that he carried press accreditation. He worked as a journalist should work.
His account of the fall of Malaga to the insurgent Nationalist/Fascist army appears in his book, Spanish Cockpit, which was published while the war was still raging. The book is superb – eyewitness reporting at its very best. It is in the library. I can only give you a brief flavour of it here.
Borkenau travelled to Malaga from Valencia when he heard that the Fascists would attempt to take the town. On his journey he witnessed conditions in the southern held area of Republican Territory. He describes in detail his impression that the early anarchic imposition of worker and peasant control – what he calls the system of Spanish Soviets – was now over. The Republic had imposed its authority on its supporters. Popular enthusiasm for the cause appeared to have diminished as a result.
He also describes the soldiers of the Republic. These are no longer militia volunteers, nor are they primarily motivated by politics. They are professional soldiers, led by an officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Villalba, whose manners render him indistinguishable from former colleagues on the other side of the conflict.
Borkenau laments this officer’s refusal to engage the people of Malaga in their own defence. Villalba is determined to treat the battle for the town as a purely military challenge; He neglects the powerful repository of popular anti-fascist sentiment which might, if harnessed properly, make his defence robust.
Borkenau illustrates the strength of anti-fascist sentiment in the area by describing the way peasants in the villages outside Malaga work unpaid to built fortifications. When he asks them why they are doing it they shrug their shoulders and say “For liberty.”
But when Franco’s tanks advance the defences collapse almost immediately and Malaga is left wide open – its civilian population unarmed and not organised to fight. Borkenau writes:
“Villalba ordered a general retreat; no attempt at a counter-attack was made. Worse, no attempt was made to organise a desperate resistance near the town itself…he had left out the political factor. The insurgents, who were little afraid of his troops, were afraid of one thing only: of a fight of desperation…a fight to the finish backed by popular enthusiasm has always a chance in this civil war, where popular forces are at least as important as military ones…A command determined to stay and die on the spot rather than leave it, and prepared to call the people to its assistance, had still a chance. But in order to launch such a defence the various sections of the political movement must co-operate.”
They do not. Malaga falls. Borkenau regrets it. He is not neutral. It is plain that he would prefer to see Republican forces win. But when they fall apart in chaos he makes no attempt to pretend that they have fought effectively. He describes reality, warts and all and reveals the jealousy, incompetence and factionalism that undermined the ‘goodies’ and made the military efficiency of the Fascist forces hard to beat.
Borkenau called his work “a descriptive scientific field-study of events.” It is nothing more or less than rigorous reporting.
Given the passion it aroused – and the way it was interpreted as a dress rehearsal for a bigger conflict between fascism and its opponents even before the Second World War had actually started. Such reporting from Spain is rare.
Neither side trusted reporters who had previously worked behind enemy lines. Reporters who attempted to achieve balance by moving from Republican held to Nationalist held territory, or from Nationalist to Republican, were likely to be shot as spies. Very few tried.
Three journalists — Edward J. Neil of The Associated Press, Richard Sheepshanks of Reuters and Bradish Johnson of Newsweek — died in northern Spain after their car was hit by Republican fire while they tried to report from Franco’s side. Kim Philby of the Times later exposed as a Soviet Spy and part of the infamous Cambridge spy ring that undermined British intelligence services in the 1950s was also in the car. Philby survived and his cover was so convincing that Franco gave him a medal.
Franz Borkenau was arrested and held in jail after a Communist he met denounced him to the Republican authorities as an “unreliable bastard who is not all that he seems.” His sin was to try to remain objective and to ask hard questions of all the factions on the Republican side. He was lucky to escape with his life.
Some newspapers maintained staff correspondents with the high commands of both the Republican and Nationalist armies. The New York Times did. It decided to give each correspondent equal space in the newspaper – thuds attempting to achieve perfect balance by giving exactly equal prominence to the Republican and Nationalist versions of events.
Initially this appeared clumsy because the reporter on the Republican side –Herbert Matthews – was a much better writer than his counterpart with the Nationalists, William P. Carney. Soon it proved the foolishness of imagining that editorial balance can be achieved by purely arithmetical means.
In December 1937 the Nationalists issued a press statement claiming that they had captured the town of Teruel from the Republicans. Carey reported the alleged victory, adding in some imaginary colour about cheering crowds welcoming their liberators and giving the Fascist salute to Nationalist soldiers arriving in the town centre. It was invention. Carey had not been to Teruel. He was not just with the Fascists – his sympathies lay with them as well – probably because he was a devout Catholic.
But Carey’s invention was soon exposed. Herbert Matthews travelled to Teruel with his photographer – the famous Robert Capa – and found it still in Republican hands. He filed a story rich with real colour and accurate detail which the New York Times duly published. The Catholic History Association condemned Matthews as a “Rabid Red partisan” and the Knights of Columbus – another Catholic organisation – presented Carney with a gold medal “for distinguished services to journalism in reporting the Civil War.”
It is not hard to decide who was the better journalist. Matthews did not pretend to be impartial. He wanted the Republic to win and made his feelings plain in his copy. But he did not lie to promote the cause. Carney clearly did. He was not alone. Spain attracted more committed journalists than any previous cause. In our seminar this we are going to look at some of the work they produced. Please read the relevant chapter of Phillip Knightley’s book - Commitment in Spain. We will discuss the bombing of Guernica in particular.