This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 48: 12 – 19 June 1937

June 12

The Republican attack on Huesca begins in the hope of stalling the Nationalist attack on Bilbao. The XII International Brigade, now without their General, join Spanish Republicans under their General and storm Huesca, 300 kilometres southeast of Bilbao, and just 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza. Huesca has been held by the Nationalists through the war and while they lack the men the Republicans have, they are well dug into the area. The Republicans have 50,000 men, mostly anarchists and POUM members from Barcelona, sent after the May Days a month earlier. Thousands of Republicans men are cut down with machine guns and artillery fire in what will become a week-long offensive.

Republican/Basque fighters outside the Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 13

The battle of Bilbao sees fighting in the streets of the city, with Nationalist supporters rising up against their fellow Basques. The Republican/Basque army is in retreat, headed for Santander, and Nationalist sympathisers, Fifth Columnists, riot through the city and take strategic buildings. Anarchist militias, not fleeing with the army, fight back against the columnists and beat them back, with mass casualties on both sides. The Basque police force, still in the city, have to hold back the anarchist fighters as they try to storm jails to kill Nationalist prisoners.

Women flee in Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 14

Most of the city is now evacuated as the people of Bilbao flee ahead of the awaiting Nationalist army, who are already camped inside the Iron Ring. The government and army have completed much of their retreat and it is every man for himself as the Basque capital is about to fall.

Basque fighters outside Bilbao (via Robert Capa)

June 16

The POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) party is officially outlawed in Spain. Their leaders are rounded up mostly in Barcelona. Their official leader, Andreu Nin, is not yet found and caught.

Republican troops continue their offensive against Huesca, to draw Nationalist troops away from Bilbao. Republicans attack the villages of nearby Alerre and Chimillas, but are beaten back by the Nationalists. Around 9,000 Republican men are now dead and the offensive to take Huesca is all but over.

June 17

Andreu Nin is found in Barcelona and arrested. He, along the other POUM leaders are secretly taken by Communists to an illegal torture prison at Alcalá de Henares, just north of Madrid. Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov, a General for the KNVD (Soviet internal affairs), tortures Nin for days. It was admitted by Spain’s Education Minister, a Communist, that Nin was interrogated and would not talk. They then used torture in the form of peeling off Nin’s skin and tearing his muscles and they tried to get information out of him. Within days, Nin’s face was unrecognisable. Whatever the Communists wanted, none of the POUM either had it, or would give in.

Minster of Health Federica Monstseny, and others soon start asking the Spanish government if they know the whereabouts of Andreu Nin and his party members. A campaign named Gobierno Negrín: ¿dónde está Nin? (To the government of Negrín: where is Nin?) begins as rumours spread Nin was taken to the Soviet Union for execution, or that he was killed when the Germans tried to save him (thus making him a secret fascist). Rumours swirl Nin was either with Franco in Salamanca or with Hitler in Berlin. Nin is never seen in public again.

Bilbao is bombed with 20,000 shells as the capital city is destroyed. Basque President Aquirre makes a secret deal to send 900 Nationalist prisoners from jails and hand them to the enemy, in the hopes of saving some innocents who are being bombed.

Jaime I, a dreadnought battleship of the Spanish Navy, is destroyed in Cartagena. Bombed three times in drydock on May 21, it is beginning another round of repairs when an explosion happens without warning. Sabotage versus accident is never fully explained. All three of Spain’s dreadnought sister-ships are now destroyed.

Shells knock out bridges into Bilbao

June 18

The Basque government is ordered to destroy all its valuable factories in Bilbao, so the Nationalists cannot gain access. Bilbao has many strategic factories for the war effort and the Basque government refuses the command from the Republic Spanish government. The Basques believe European war will soon come and the Nationalists will be destroyed.

The Nationalists walk straight into Bilbao

June 19

Juan Manuel Epalza, working for the Basque government, leads 900 Nationalist prisoners out of prison in the night and hands them over the awaiting Nationalist army outside Bilbao. At dawn, the Nationalist troops walk into Bilbao without opposition. About 200,00 people have now fled, and the Nationalists start giving food to some left behind in the city. The Bay of Biscay is filled with boats as Basques try to flee the Nationalists. Many refugee boats are overcrowded and sinking, and the Nationalist Navy have ships waiting to round them up and send them home. Many boats attempt to float to France, and Non-Intervention Committee ships, mostly from Britain, watch them but do not go to their aid. Many sink are or are sent back to Spain.

Franco now has the multiple steel and mine factories in Bilbao in his hands. But he has to give two-thirds of all production to Hitler. With Hitler is making his own preparations for war, Franco owes Hitler for all the German planes, weapons and killing that has been done on Franco’s behalf.

Rumours continue about the possible death of Andreu Nin, who may or may not still be alive in Alcalá de Henares. Many do not know officially of his secret arrest yet, but are well aware the Communists have pounced.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: ‘Falling Soldier’ by Robert Capa – 5 September 1936

“With lively step, breasting the wind, clenching their rifles, they ran down the slope covered with thick stubble. Suddenly their soaring was interrupted, a bullet whistled — a fratricidal bullet — and their blood was drunk by their native soil” – French magazine Vu 23/9/36

The Falling Soldier, Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936

The Falling Soldier is one of the world’s best known war photographs of all time. Taken by Robert Capa on 5 September, 1936, during the battle for Cerro Muriano, a town 20 kilometres north of Córdoba.

The man in the photo is Federico Borrell García, a 24-year-old man from Alcoy/Alcoi in the Valencia region. He had traveled as part of the Columna Alcoiana sent to Córdoba to help them fight off the ever-advancing Nationalist forces. Borrell, nicknamed Taino, was shot at around 5pm at La Loma de las Malagueñas, a hill outside the town of Cerro Muriano, when the column was attacked from behind. He was the only man in the Columna Alcoiana to be killed that day.  The photo is listed to show a man from the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL), but Borrell, an anarchist, was later identified through the photo by his brother, Everisto.

Falling Soldier shows Borrell at the moment of death. He was shot through the head (some reports say the heart), killing him before he even fell. The photo was one of seven taken in sequence quite by luck (on Capa’s part at least) before Borrell lands on his back, with his rifle still slipping from his hand. At the time, Robert Capa was in a gully/trench on the hill, hidden from the enemy fire, holding his camera high above his head to capture the fighting. Soon after, Falange members from the Nationalists claimed the photo was a fake, but for forty years, the photo was considered one the best war shots of all time (the other great shot, also Capa’s, was of soldiers landing on D-Day).

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Posing in the gully – Borrell is the man on the left above, and then the man below –

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These photos, shot six and seven in the sequence, are of another man, the man third of the left in the top photo –  

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Since 1975, complaints about the photo have raged. Capa, (who died in 1954 when he stood on a landmine in now-Vietnam), was defended by his brother, stating the photo was authentic. Capa’s famous photograph sidekick, Gerda Taro, died during the war in 1937. Many photos in the Spanish Civil War were staged because journalists and photographers couldn’t get to the front lines to see the action. Capa had been forced to stage before, and on this very day, said he had been relaxed with the soldiers during a quiet period before an ambush.

Capa always claimed the photo was taken at La Loma de las Malagueñas outside Cerro Muriano, but naysayers claim it was taken at Espejo, over 50 kilometres south from Cerro Muriano. It is also stated that Borrell is not the man in the photo, despite being identified by his own brother.

In 2009, José Manuel Susperregui Echeveste, a professor from the University of the Basque Country, released Sombras de Fotografía (Shadows of Photography – well worth a look, along with many of his books). The professor studied the backgrounds of Capa’s photograph, and worked with historians in the area of Córdoba to determine the landscape, and it was Espejo, not Cerro Muriano, that was claimed in the shots.

Susperregui’s theory maintains that the Falling Soldier shot was staged, but the others in the sequence are real. Also to back up the professor’s claims, is the fact the Capa gave contradicting statements on the events of the day. Capa is recorded as saying Borrell was shot by a sniper, and another time by machine-gun fire. He also spoke of taking the photo, both in and out of the gully on the hillside.  As the landscape of Espejo hasn’t changed from 1936 to present day, reporters have been out photographing the region in an attempt to find the exact location, with many claiming success.

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1936 ‘Cerro Muriano’ and 2009 Espejo, by Magnum Photos

Others also claim that perhaps Borrell was killed by a sniper while posing for photographs for Capa. Susperregui addressed those rumours as well, claiming there were no snipers in the Córdoba area at the time, a suggestion difficult to verify. The inconsistencies also lead people to suggest the photo was taken by Gerda Taro, not Capa, as has been discovered in Capa’s collection in recent years. Some claim they saw Borrell get shot, others claim Borrell was posing for a photo and was killed, leading Capa to rarely speak about the events.

Capa’s shots in the gully, the theory is some carried on down the hill, some were drawn back, including Borrell when he was shot

It was the Mexican Suitcase discovery in 2009 that then further discredited Falling Soldier. In 2009, a suitcase was found, holding Capa’s negatives from his career, which were sent to Mexico after the war. The photos of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour were all thrown in together. The incredibly talented Gerda Taro died just short of her 27th birthday in 1937, in an accident with a Republican tank. The immense David Seymour, or David Chim, ran Magnum Photos until his death by machine gun during the 1956 Suez War. What the Mexican suitcase showed, that while there were negatives of the sequence of the Falling Soldier, photo number five of seven, the famous shot, was missing.

The Mexican Suitcase tour was a huge success, with the photos in galleries widely seen. Other photos in the sequence were also displayed, including shot five, despite no negative found. The negatives in the suitcase have been analysed, and results show it is Espejo, not Cerro Muriano in the background. Because the sixth and seventh shots show a dead soldier, someone other than Borrell, leads many to say the famous photo was staged. Meanwhile, many others claim it is still completely real, based on the angles, the recollections of Capa, and the details of fighting on September 5, 1936. The photo shows a scene far removed from traditional war shots and different to other staged photos of injured men, meaning there will probably never be a real answer to what killed Borrell, when, where, or if it is really Borrell at all. We will never really know.

Me? I like to believe the photo is real. Why? my own personal sense of whimsy. I would like to believe maybe Gerda Taro took that photo, hence why Robert Capa couldn’t recall the details correctly. Gerda Taro was the first female war photographer, brilliant and daring in her short lifetime. After all, who is Robert Capa? Not an American photographer, rather Endre Friedmann from Hungary, the same way Taro was Gerta Pohorylle from Germany, the pair having to flee their homelands and invent Robert Capa in Paris. Her work was often used under the name Robert Capa. History isn’t fond of powerful women. My theory is total speculation, based on nothing but my own ideas and a love of feminism. Maybe the theory of them all, thinking they were safe, outside the town, were talking and taking photos when a bullet really did strike down Borrell, and no one wanted to talk about it.

Perhaps it is a fake, something that had us all fooled for 80 years. If Falling Soldier isn’t real, it is still a posed shot to display what happened to so many Spaniards, that even now there isn’t an agreed figure on the number of dead. No one who has seen Capa’s collection can doubt his abilities, and is it really that hard to believe that a photo can be taken at that moment when life is taken away?

Either way, rest in peace, Federico Borrell García of Alcoi, Valencia – January 3, 1912 – September 5, 1936

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This is not a full detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of Falling Soldier and its authenticity. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

 Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

If you are new and don’t understand the Basque country, it is an independent region of Spain in the far north. It is (roughly on the above map) the green and two smaller red locations to its left, at top under France. Today it is fully restored to its people.

September 5

The beautiful Basque city of Irún, in Spain’s north, is destroyed in battle. The city is in a pivotal location on the coast, and on the borders of both France and the Spanish region of Navarre. As Navarre is a stronghold for the Carlists on the Nationalist side, the 3,000 Republican fighters need to hold Irún in order to gain supplies from France. Nationalist destroyers and battleships have been bombarding the town for almost a month, and also have planes, tanks and 2,000 well-trained soldiers. German and Italian planes bomb the town, and drop pamphlets, warning the population of mass executions like in the town of Badajoz. Most of the battle takes place on the south side of the city near the Convento de San Marcial, where Republicans fighters, made up of Basque nationalists, miners of Asturias (who are akin to fighting), and communists volunteering from France, are alongside the locals. However they lack training and weapons, with only some guns, dynamite, and eventually reduced to throwing rocks.

Republicans surrender in Irún

Fighting goes on throughout the day, and the Republicans shoot vicious Nationalist Colonel Alfonso Beorlegui Canet in the leg, on the international bridge of Irún (he will die a month later of gangrene). But the Republicans are forced to retreat and abandon their city. Anarchist militia set fire to many key locations in the city as they flee, so they cannot be used by the Nationalists. (This decision would lead to many propaganda scenarios throughout the war, as Nationalists would then destroy a town and say ‘the rojos did it, just like in Irún, despite the fact it was untrue) Many of the population flee either to the safety of France if they can, or retreat further into the Basque country. Nationalist forces can now continue on towards the critical port city of San Sebastian, just 20 kilometres away. The Basque country is already cut off from a rest of Republican Spain and is set to become a guinea pig for German bombers practicing for WWII.

Irún post-siege

September 5 – 6

The battle of Cerro Muriano commences in the province of Cordoba, in Spain’s south. Following the battle in the city of Cordoba in August, outlying areas are now ready to be taken by the Nationalists, with Cerro Muriano just 20 kilometres north of the city. The Columna Miaja, which have up to 3,000 Republican fighters in the region, engage in a 36-hour siege between them and violent Regulares soldiers from Morocco and many Spanish Legion troops. The battle leaves a huge number of men dead in the town. The Republican side is completely eliminated while the Nationalist take the town with few deaths.

The battle of Cerro Muriano includes the moment captured of the iconic ‘Falling Soldier’ photograph by Robert Capa, and will be covered in a ‘This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra’ post.

Falling soldier by Robert Capa

September 6

Italian aircraft arrive on the island of Mallorca to set up new bases, so they can begin serious bombing campaigns on the mainland, especially targeting Barcelona.

September 8

Portuguese sailors on two navy vessels mutiny against their officers, so they can seize the ships and go to Spain, to help the Republicans. But the mutiny is crushed by men who are loyal to Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. The mutiny only strengthens repression against communism and left-wing ideals in Portugal.

September 9

The first Non-Intervention Committee meeting is held in London. The meeting has 23 countries represented, with only Mexico supporting the Republicans. But because the borders are closed and ships patrol the coast, Mexico cannot give the Republican government support or supplies. Larger South American nations such as Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina support the Nationalists, and Germany and Italy are part of the committee, yet their dictators continue to aid the Nationalists. Britain and France are sitting on their hands like naughty children, the US is trying to keep clear, but Russia want to help communist interests within the Republic.

Meanwhile, in Toledo…

Destruction of the Alcázar over September

September 9

The battle of the Alcázar in Toledo has been running since July 21, with 1,000 Nationalists  trapped inside (and two-thirds of them too young/old/female to fight), while the Republicans are unable to breach the castle walls. Republican Major Vicente Rojo Lluch, one of the most prodigious military left-wing men in the war, walks blindfolded with a white flag to the Alcázar to negotiate surrender with Nationalist garrison leader, José Moscardó Ituarte, 1st Count of the Alcázar of Toledo. The Alcázar is now badly damaged but not yet fully breached, with two of its corner towers still standing. Moscardó has already sacrificed his teenage son to the Republicans in July (who held him hostage and let him call his father while being threatened with death. His father told him to die like a patriot and the son was killed one month later) and refuses to surrender the Alcázar to the Republicans. However, Major Rojo does allow for a priest (hard to find since Toledo’s have already been murdered or have fled) to go into the Alcázar and baptise two babies born inside during the siege.

The destruction of one of Spain’s most amazing sights

September 11

A priest with left-wing views (and thus, not yet murdered) arrives from Madrid. Vázquez Camarassa goes inside to do the baptisms and give absolution to those in the Alcázar. That night, Major Rojo and Colonel Moscardó meet again, to negotiate the release of the 500 women and children. The women refuse to leave, opting to take up arms and die rather than surrender to the Republicans. Overnight, grenades are thrown at the Alcázar, cutting off all communication with Colonel Moscardó, which would make a surrender negotiation with the Chilean ambassador the next morning impossible.

Nationalist women and children participate in the siege

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War’ by Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call “the decisive thing of the century”—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of Madrid’s loyalist foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause—a struggle that places both of them in peril.
     Hotel Florida traces the tangled wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history. As Hemingway put it, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could anywhere in the world.” From the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it out, telling it, and living it—whatever the cost.

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I rarely read reviews before I start reading a book, so they don’t influence my opinion while reading. However, Hotel Florida seemed to pop up everywhere just prior to its release, with reviews written by those with advance copies and the like. Once I received my own copy of the book, I already had the opinions of others going around in my head. For once, it’s not a big deal, and the word that seems to be thrown at this book is ‘compelling’. With characters like Hemingway, Capa, Taro and Gellhorn, how could it be anything but compelling? Given that these characters are not new to anyone, how can pre-conceived stereotypes of characters not interfere with reading? There was only one way to find out.

For those without knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, the book starts out with timelines and facts of the who/what/ where/why’s of the conflict. I must confess I skimmed over these since I already knew the details, but this would prove invaluable to those who need to be shown the way through the civil war. They immediately show a reader that the author has gone to a great deal of effort to produce a quality read.

The book has a stellar cast – Ernest Hemingway, (the man who needs no introduction, booze, girls, writing and fighting), Martha Gellhorn (the hardest character to like, known for being lazy and lying), Robert Capa (brilliant but also fluid with the truth), Gerda Taro (young, intelligent, easy to root for, killed in her prime), Arturo Barea (a budding Spanish writer, a character who could have a whole book to himself) and Ilsa Kulcsar (a brave and intelligent Austrian leftist assisting Barea in his pursuits).

These three couples don’t have a large deal of interaction in the books, and the reader gets to jump from the mind of each character chapter by chapter, in a book which moves at a quick pace. The danger faced in Spain as intensely real and would leave a mark on each of these people forever. Hemingway folds into the role he is known for – brash, loud, writing well enough to tell the world what was happening in Spain, but also jealous and petty around other people. Gellhorn wiggles her way into Hemingway’s life, and his marriage, always possessing the air of someone who can’t be trusted, but could be a good writer with more effort. No one could ever suggest going to Spain during the war was an easy task, and these two were changed by their experiences, but at times seemed to be enjoying the war. It was a grand adventure, of front line reporting and loud Madrid parties. Fans of Gellhorn may enjoy her role in this book, though to the less informed reader, she seems like a privileged girl who lives on her whims. Only after her time in Spain did Gellhorn really come into her own, which only served to crush her marriage to Hemingway.

Capa and Taro are an infamous pair, escaping unsafe homelands in Germany and Hungary, changing their names, and setting out to make a massive impact on how the world saw the Spanish Civil War. The iconic moment when Capa (may or not may not – the book doesn’t say) faked the shot of the falling soldier weaves its way into the narrative as the pair photograph the war. It’s been said that Taro was the genius of the pair, but her death was cruel and left a deep wound in Capa, who had found a soul-mate in Taro in more than a romantic sense. The pair makes for reading that would interest even those who don’t know their exploits and photographs.

Arturo Barea is the best character in the book. The Madrileño, who opens the book contemplating how he doesn’t love his wife or mistress, has a quality different to the others. Barea has more faith in the telling the truth and doesn’t enjoy twisting the facts to make reports sound more favourable for the ever losing Republicans. While Hemingway, Gellhorn, Capa and Taro are not fixated on the truth, rather getting published, Barea is left at odds with them all. Barea finds Hemingway and is ilk to be ‘posturing intellectuals’, and Barea better understands what is stake during the conflict. The Spaniard can see the fate of the Republicans as the war unfolds and realises all Spaniards are going to pay and suffer as a result of the fighting. While others can flee, it is Barea’s home that has to live with the realities of war. He engages in an affair with Ilsa Kulcsar, who had come to Spain from Austria in an attempt to aid the Republicans, and Barea divorced his wife to be with Ilsa, which meant he never saw his children again. By the end of the war, Barea and his disdain for the war and those around him made him an outcast, and he and Ilsa had to flee to Paris with little more than the clothes on their backs. They made lives in Britain with their knowledge of Spain, war and languages in what appeared as a life long love affair.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when reading Hotel Florida – fitting all these larger-than-life characters into one book can’t be easy. It is described as ‘a narrative rather than an academic analysis’, which gives the possibility for rich, engaging characters. All the reviews I have read rave about the work, no doubt because of the level of effort Vaill has exuded while writing. While reading, I couldn’t be sure how I felt about the book – the pace made me feel as if I had fact after fact tossed to me, with so many details to absorb as the characters sped along. The book has an ode to Hemingway with some  long sentences – I counted one at 76 words, just as in the style of the big man himself. Being a narrative, I expected to be shown the story rather than to be told the tale, but this did not happen. The story of Hotel Florida is told to the reader; it does not unfold in any way, rather all the details are laid out and presented. Readers do not need to imagine anything, nor put the pieces together, rather everything is laid on the table with sharp sentences. While you cannot doubt the level of devotion Vaill has for her characters, they don’t have personalities, and readers need to rely on the details given out when engaging with these well-known people. Anyone who has edited a book knows the irritation of having to reduce adverbs or fix sentences ending in a preposition, and these basics haven’t been done in this book, but it makes the story more relaxed as a result.

The book ends with forty pages of notes (around 25% of the book on my Kindle), which shows how much effort the author put into this book. The attention to detail is meticulous, and much credit should go to Vaill for her hard work and commitment to perfection. If you are looking for a sweeping tale of wartime Spain this may not be the book for you, but if are looking for a tell-all of famous faces, then you have come to the right place. An added bonus is the cameo roles of powerhouses such as George Orwell, Kim Philby and others who also made their names in Spain in this era. Whether you want war, idealism (foolish or otherwise), love, lust and sex, or celebrity jealousy and pettiness, Vaill has rolled them together in Madrid’s Hotel Florida.