For whom the bell tolled: Writers on the front line

The Spanish Civil War, which began 70 years ago, mobilised the literary elite. What made them put down their pens and take up arms?
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The Independent Culture

In September 1936, the literary magazine Contemporary Poetry and Prose gave the whole of its back cover to just six words: "Support the Spanish People against Fascism." The October issue carried the same stark injunction. By way of variety, the November edition directed its readers to "Support all meetings and demonstrations to end the farce of 'non-intervention'." Gradually the back-page advertisements got tougher; instead of asking for sonnets, villanelles and short stories, they started asking for money to buy guns. The words "Arms for Spain" appeared in block capitals. Eventually, in autumn 1937, it closed down with the words: "This is the last number of Contemporary Poetry and Prose as the editor is going abroad for some time."

"I am going out now and I may be some time" - the allusion to Captain Oates, and his noble suicide in the Antarctic, is unmistakable. With those coolly understated words, a non-military, non-combatant literary journalist went off to fight for a country that wasn't his own.

So did hundreds of creative figures - poets, artists and novelists - who joined the International Brigades. Some of them died, including Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf's brother), John Cornford and Christopher Caudwell. Some were injured: George Orwell was shot through the neck and nearly died. Some, like W H Auden, went there hoping to help out by driving ambulances. Many went along to watch, returned home and wrote large epic novels about it, most notably Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Andre Malraux's L'Espoir. So what was it that drew so many to volunteer for a war that wasn't their problem?

One answer is that the Spanish Civil War represented a battle against fascism that had been anticipated for many years by the British liberal intelligentsia. When a group of right-wing military men staged a coup against the Republic on 17 July 1936, it was a drastic response to the social, economic and cultural changes that had transformed Spain through the 1920s and 1930s - changes that mirrored the mass democratic movements in Italy and Germany which had been abruptly halted by the arrival of Mussolini and Hitler. And when, a week into the military coup, the rebel generals asked the Italian and German dictators for aircraft to transport their best troops across the blockaded Strait of Gibraltar (and Mussolini and Hitler were happy to comply) it seemed that a fascist Armageddon was in the wind.

The British Government declared its policy was not to intervene. British writers, by contrast, saw an epic enemy to be fought in huge metaphorical terms. "Spain has torn the veil of Europe," wrote the novelist Rex Warner. Cecil Day-Lewis, later to be Poet Laureate, said the coming battle would be a conflict of "light against darkness". Stephen Spender declared that the battle lines in Spain "offered the 20th century an 1848".

In the late summer, volunteers began to make their way to Madrid and Barcelona to join the International Brigades; by the end of the year, more than a thousand had signed up. Some were blue-collar workers, many more were earnest intellectuals.

W H Auden, the leading poet of his generation, was one. In a letter dated 8 December 1936, he told his friend E R Dodds that he was going to join the Brigade in Spain: "I so dislike everyday political activities that I won't do them, but here is something I can do as a citizen and now as a writer, and as I have no dependants, I feel I ought to go." Pressed by Dodds to explain why, he wrote: "I feel I can speak with authority about La Condition Humaine of only a small class of English intellectuals and professional people and the time has come to gamble on something bigger. I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?"

Speaking against fascism on behalf of the common man was no longer enough. The drift of writers to war was a classic case of praxis - the Marxist trope of "ideas in action". Another reason was the fascination, in the 1930s zeitgeist, for war as something bracing and purifying, a social upheaval that would bind the community together, eclipsing the selfish anxieties of individuals. Revolution and war, despite their filth and inhumanity, were seen as a kind of communal sacrifice. The exhortatory tone of Rex Warner's Hymn was typical:

Come then, companions. This is the spring of blood,
Heart's hey-day, movement of masses, beginning of good.

"Companions"? The Thirties was full of calls to arms, cries of camaraderie, of gangs and factions and clubs. The ragged army of Jarrow marchers seized the imagination of the public. Officer Training Corps could be found in the upper reaches of the top schools, as though the new generation of scholars should be poised for active service. Metaphors of battle and espionage invaded much 1930s writing: endless reiterations, even in love poems, of "enemy" and "struggle", "army" and "guns", "frontier" and "maps". The literary consciousness of the 1930s was stridently political. "It was the poets and not the politicians," wrote Ronald Blythe in The Age of Illusion, "who were first to sense a new climate of violence as reactionary elements the world over, but especially in Germany, saluted each other and fascism emerged. The poets had travelled and, on the whole, the politicians had stayed at home."

Some writers went with mixed motives. George Orwell went to Spain in December 1936, and joined POUM, the anti-Stalinist Workers' Party of Marxist Unification. He hadn't set out to do so, but was swept along by the egalitarian spirit that pervaded Barcelona. "I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles," he wrote in Homage to Catalonia, "but I had joined the militia almost immediately because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle ... Waiters and shop-workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou' and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias.'... There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." For an Old Etonian with a profound class complex, it was a vision of heaven.

Did everyone agree that it was "a state of affairs worth fighting for?" In an unprecedented move, the opinions of the nation's poets, dramatists, novelists and essayists were directly canvassed in a questionnaire. The idea was a joint effort by Auden, Spender and Nancy Cunard, the society hostess. Bluntly claiming "it is impossible any longer to take no side", they asked (betraying their own sympathies a touch): "Are you for, or against, the legal Government and People of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?"

The results were published in the Left Review, under the heading, "Authors take sides on the Spanish war", and made riveting reading. Of 148 writers who replied, 127 were for the government and against the generals. Evelyn Waugh stood up for Franco, but explained, "I am not a Fascist, nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism." Roy Campbell, the South African poet, also supported the coup (and wrote a 5,000-verse racist epic called Flowering Rifle). Hilaire Belloc, the Catholic author of the Cautionary Tales, called the civil war "a trial of strength between Jewish Communism and our traditional Christian civilisation".

Some writers damned the whole Iberian adventure: Ezra Pound told the Left Review, "Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes." Perhaps surprisingly, Orwell refused to participate, dismissing the questionnaire with: "Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish ... If I did compress what I know and think about the Spanish war into six lines, you wouldn't print it."

Aldous Huxley hedged his bets by saying he was opposed to Communism but sympathetic to anarchism. Samuel Beckett sent a telegram containing a single portmanteau word: "¡UPTHEREPUBLIC!" And 120 other writers earnestly and passionately pledged their support for the forces of democratic change.

After all this idealism, the comedown was painful. Many writers who enlisted with such high hopes returned disillusioned by the reality of life among the Republicans: the burning of churches in Barcelona, the torture and murder of bishops, monks, nuns and parish priests, the uselessness of the government under Manuel Diaz, the casual execution of political opponents, the shooting of anyone half-suspected of treachery.

There was no clarity about who were the good guys and who the bad. "Was there ever a people," asked Robert Jordan, Hemingway's alter ego in For Whom the Bell Tolls, "whose leaders were as truly their enemies as this one?"

"Just seeing what civil war was like was a shock," wrote Auden. "Nothing good could come of it. One asked oneself, did one want to win?" He failed to find employment with the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, visited the front but found nothing happening, and returned home, where he rarely spoke about the war.

Spender wrote Poems from Spain, but was shocked by the International Brigade's executions and left the Communist Party soon after. Orwell watched as the Communists turned on the POUM and seemed keener on suppressing other factions of the left, including Trotskyites and anarchists, than destroying fascism. "I suppose," he wrote in Homage to Catalonia, "there is no one who spent a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree disillusioned. As for the newspaper talk about this being a 'war for democracy', it was plain eyewash."

The last word should go to the poets. It was their own special conflict, perhaps the first time a small army of untrained and physically unco-ordinated writers joined in a fight in a foreign land, as intellectual mercenaries, as literary crusaders. In his Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice wrote about his visit in 1936:

And the day before we left
We saw the mob in flower at Algeciras
Outside a toothless door, a church bereft
Of its images and its aura.
And at La Linea, while
The night put miles between us and Gibraltar,
We heard the blood-lust of a drunkard pile
His heaven high with curses;
And next day took the boat
For home, forgetting Spain, not realising
That Spain would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations;
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstones, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,
Its body in a rag-tag army.