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During the war, they used paper, pens, typewriters

A traveling exhibition by Spain's Cervantes Institute is devoted to foreign correspondents of the country's Civil War. Hemingway and Orwell are included.

December 29, 2006|Ciaran Giles | Associated Press

MADRID — It was a war that fueled passion and anger like almost no other, spurring thousands from all around the globe to come and fight for their ideals.

But instead of weapons, many used pens and typewriters.

Spain's Cervantes Institute has captured a unique period in modern history by organizing a traveling exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the country's three-year Civil War. The show features 30 original clippings of news articles and dispatches from a selection of the famed journalists, writers and intellectuals who came to cover the conflict.

"The '30s constituted the golden age of correspondents," historian Hugh Thomas says in the catalog. "From the end of July of 1936, and for the next 2 1/2 years, it was common to find the greatest journalists in the world south of the Pyrenees."

The civil war erupted when rebel generals, among them future dictator Francisco Franco, rose up against a democratically elected, left-leaning government. It became a battlefield of ideas and beliefs -- church against the state, the landed against landless and most of all, democracy against fascism.

Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini responded generously to rebel pleas for armed assistance and the Soviet Union sold weapons to the Republican government. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe and the United States opted for nonintervention, not wishing to confront fascism just yet.

However, a groundswell of popular support led to thousands joining international brigades to help the Republic while a few others joined Franco's crusade.

The phenomenon was mirrored in the foreign press.

"The journalists didn't just come to exercise their profession, but to fight for their ideas," said exhibition curator Carlos Garcia Santa Cecilia. "It was a war in which the future models and values of society were at stake."

From America came writers Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles; from Britain, author George Orwell, and Harold "Kim" Philby, who gathered experience on his road to become one of the world's most famous spies. French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery flew himself in.

All were deeply affected by what they witnessed.

"This is the most painful story it has ever been my lot to handle," the Chicago Tribune's Jay Allen wrote of a July 1936 massacre in the southwestern city of Badajoz. "I write it at four in the morning sick at heart and in body.

"They are burning bodies. 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."

The show features clippings from Swedish journalist Barbro "Bang" Alving, who reported about how schools and hospitals managed to function during the war, while Mikhail Koltsov's articles for Pravda told millions of readers in the Soviet Union of the Republican struggle.

Other gems include Felix Correia's interview with Franco a month into the war for Portugal's Diario de Lisboa. In it, the general lays out his plans for a future dictatorship that would respect private property and the Roman Catholic Church.

Then there are American poet-playwright-novelist-essayist Langston Hughes' observations on the racist treatment of Franco's Moorish troops for the Afro American newspaper.

"There was such a richness of names, the best writers about and the best intellectuals," said Garcia Santa Cecilia. "They came because they felt the necessity to explain to the world what was happening."

There were those who took their political commitments to the battlefield, such as Orwell, who fought in the northeast Aragon region and witnessed bitter internecine fighting on the Republican side in Barcelona. His "Spilling the Spanish Beans" dispatch to the New English Weekly was the basis for his novel, "Homage to Catalonia."

Most of the correspondents at one time or another ended up staying at the Hotel Florida, just off the capital's Gran Via and a walk way from the Telefonica building where they filed their dispatches after vetting by the censor.

The exhibit features a telephone operator's desk and typewriters used by war correspondents.

Hemingway was among the better heeled in Spain, writing for North America Newspaper Alliance publications.

According to Garcia Santa Cecilia, he was one of the very few who had his own car and gasoline.

The show includes some of his dispatches published in the New Republic next to a photograph of Hemingway handling a rifle while lying on the ground in the battlefield.

There was tragedy for some correspondents.

Three journalists -- Edward J. Neil of the Associated Press, Richard Sheepshanks of Reuters and News-Week's Bradish Johnson -- died near Teruel in the north of Spain after their car was hit by Republican fire while they tried to report from Franco's side.

Philby, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963 after a career in British intelligence, received a medal from Franco for surviving the attack.

The exhibit shows a New York Times clipping with an AP photo of the shrapnel-riddled car. Correspondent Geoffrey Cox was 26 when Britain's News Chronicle sent him to Madrid.

"I had no doubt that I was reporting on an event of capital historical importance," Cox, now 96, said from a retirees' residence in England, an interview that was included in the show catalog.

"I am proud to have belonged to that club, the best club in the world. Without a doubt, Spain was our story."

Titled "Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War," the show, which has appeared in New York and Lisbon, Portugal, runs in Madrid until Feb. 25.

It will then travel to Toulouse, Bordeaux and Lyon in France, Krakow and Warsaw in Poland and Moscow.

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