Could there be a war in which a sensitive but noble spirit could truly fight on the side of the angels? Not Vietnam, not Korea, not even WW2, compromised by Hiroshima and Dresden. In fact only one conflict of the twentieth century comes to mind. In 1936, a broad liberalish-socialistic coalition was elected in Spain. This was in February. In July, buoyed by the success of Hitler and Mussolini elsewhere, General Francisco Franco invaded the Spanish mainland. Franco headed an anti-liberal reaction of the religious and political right, which considered subversive the idea that a democratic system might throw up a result they disagreed with.
With no help from the democratic countries, defence of the Republic fell to disparate and bickering groups of militiamen, journalists, drifters, artists, spies and intellectuals. They lost. Against peak European fascism they couldn’t not lose. Not that this killed their passion. Maybe it even added to it. Perhaps four thousand Britons picked up guns and went to Spain. Orwell took a bullet to the throat. John Cornford was killed in Córdoba a day after his twenty-first birthday. None was more keen than Ernest Hemingway, who roared to an audience at Carnegie Hall that ‘When men fight for their freedom of their country against a foreign invasion, and when those men are your friends… you learn, watching them live and fight and die, that there are worse things than war.’ As the title of Amanda Vaill’s study suggests, the war had a salon feel. Even as the falangists closed in there’s an air of hard drinking, laughter and song, bohemian infidelities (‘I suppose Ernest is busy again helping Miss Gellhorn with her writing,’ Pauline Hemingway remarked, rather acidly, to a friend after the novelist and Martha Gellhorn began an affair in Spain). Vaill’s access to private papers give a ‘what a lovely war’ tone to all this. Orwell said he came to Spain to fight against fascism and for ‘common decency’. Or as Sara Murphy said: ‘It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young.’
The great powers watched all this with interest. Then (and as now with Syria and Iraq) the democratic countries sat on their hands. France and Britain arranged a non-intervention pact. Neither an Axis victory nor a communist-backed Republic appealed. Let the two totalitarianisms fight it out in microcosm. The Soviet Union was technically on the Republic’s side. After all, a Fascist victory in Spain would leave Hitler free to attack Russia, so probably best avoided. But if the Republicans won outright, Germany would be heading east anyway. Vaill sums up Stalin’s thinking: ‘A continuation of the conflict, however, would deflect attention from Stalin’s own ongoing purge of old Bolsheviks; and it might even make possible a world war that would consume Germany, Italy, France, and Britain, leaving Russia unscathed and dominant.’ Let the Spanish destroy each other and then pick the bones. For his generosity with materiel Stalin took Spain’s gold reserves. The gold was flown to Moscow in October 1936. Stalin had a dinner party to celebrate. Raising his glass to an appreciative (and perhaps terrified) audience, Stalin toasted ‘the Spanish gold… which for the Spanish people would be like the ears on their heads: they would know it was there, but they would never see it again.’
Realpolitik adds a spooky underlay to Vaill’s portrait. People just disappear, and not all of them because of fascist bullets. The writer and engineer Arturo Barea, bitching to an anarchist companion about a problematic friend, was startled when the anarchist said that ‘People sometimes disappear here in Valencia… They’re taken to Malvarrosa, or Grau, or the Albuféra, get a bullet in the neck, and the sea carries them away.’ Hemingway went to parties with Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda’s representative in the Republic. He regaled Hemingway with a story of having to poison Russian tank officers before Franco took Madrid. Wasn’t that tricky, Hemingway asked. ‘Not when you always have the cyanide with you, [Koltsov] said, showing them the little vial tucked into his cigarette case. And laughed again.’
Vaill’s book is not a history of the war, more a study of the relationship between fiction and propaganda. Koltsov gave a keynote speech at the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, to denounce a book by André Gide, Retour de l’U.R.S.S., which had dared to point out that ‘all wasn’t perfect in the Workers’ Paradise that was the Soviet Union’. A Dutch communist filmmaker told Hemingway: ‘Simplicity is what works… The Nazis lie, the Russians tell the truth.’ But nothing was simple. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, intended as a dispatch from the front, ended up a discursive study of truth and propaganda in which the germination of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be discerned. If the Stalinists had got Orwell, they would almost certainly have tortured him to death, as they did the Catalan leftist Andrés Nin. Except for Nin’s deviationism even death by torture wasn’t enough. The NKVD staged a ‘fake escape’ with mock Nazi soldiers and then put it out that Nin had fled to the Axis.
Hemingway had little time for grand ideologies. He just wanted to write ‘one true sentence’. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for a time where leftist intellectuals did positive things about the state of the world instead of organising pointless demos and appearing on Russia Today – but I felt Vaill was a little hard on Hemingway. He was bombastic, arrogant, insecure – what is there that we didn’t know? I went on thinking that until I read Hemingway’s line, in an angry letter to the novelist John Dos Passos: ‘Do you know where Nin is now? You ought to find that out before you write about his death. But what the hell.’
Where truth and fiction and propaganda intersect – that’s the terrain of Vaill’s book, along with the villages and roads and cities of Spain. The actual Hotel Florida is long gone. But reading Vaill feels just like being there.