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Taro readings

On 16 January 2018, Sir John Kiszely (@JohnKiszely), the former Director General of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom and National President of the Royal British Legion, posted a photograph on twitter, showing a doctor tenderly caring for his patient. She looked to be a young woman, lying prone with her eyes closed, arms folded across her abdomen and with blood flowing from her nose and mouth. She appeared ominously still. The gentle doctor, Sir John recounted proudly, was his father, who was working for the Spanish Republican medical services during the civil war of 1936-39.

Hungarian Doctor Johnnie Kiszely with patient (presumed to be Gerda Taro), July 1937.
Hungarian Doctor Johnnie Kiszely with patient (presumed to be Gerda Taro), July 1937.

As is often the case when photographs of international volunteers are posted – particularly by family members – the image proved immediately popular, with numerous users expressing their gratitude for the father’s efforts on behalf of the Spanish Republic and remarking on the sensitive and powerful nature of the image. However, one sharp-eyed user (@barne065) stunned those taking part in the discussion, by suggesting that the young woman in the photo could be Gerda Taro, the famous photo-journalist, who was tragically killed during the Battle of Brunete in July 1936, aged only 26. Following a number of eager requests, John posted an image of the rear of the photo, on which had been written a brief pencilled note:

Frente Brunete Junio 37.
(En Torrelodones)
Mrs Frank Capa = of ‘Ce Soire’ of Paris.
Killed at Brunete.

Possibly written later, the caption is incorrect in a number of details (the Battle of Brunete was in July, not June 1937 and Gerda Taro was the girlfriend of Robert Capa, rather than ‘Mrs Frank Capa’), but was nevertheless strongly supportive of the theory that the image was of Gerda Taro.

At this point, the discussion was picked up by the wider media. The journalist and author Giles Tremlett (@gilestremlett), who knows a good story when he sees one, quickly put together a piece for The Guardian. Having talked to historians and the author and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska (@janerogoyska), who is a published expert on Gerda Taro, Giles came to the conclusion that the photograph was genuine. There were clearly a number of unanswered questions and more research needed to be done, but it was Taro.

However, not everyone was convinced. A Spanish biographer of Taro, Fernando Olmeda, penned an article for the Spanish New Tribune listing his reasons to believe that (probably) the woman in the photo was not her. He pointed out the lack of signs of serious injury, inconsistent with someone who had been crushed by a tank, as Taro was known to have been. He also noted the obvious errors and inconsistencies within the text on the reverse and wondered not just who had written the text, but who had taken the photo? Was it an amateur, or was it, as the careful and elegant composition might suggest, a professional photographer? And if the latter, why did it not appear in the media at the time? After all, Gerda Taro was a major celebrity and her tragically premature death received widespread coverage. Olmeda concluded, not unreasonably, that with so much unclear or unknown, there was little possibility of a firm identification.

Rear of photo, identifying patient as ‘Mrs Frank Capa of “Ce Soire”. Killed at Brunete.’
Rear of photo, identifying patient as ‘Mrs Frank Capa of “Ce Soire”. Killed at Brunete.’

What Olmeda and other commentators may not have been aware of, is that the Hungarian Doctor, Janus (known as ‘Johnnie’ after the famous Hungarian Tarzan, Johnnie Weismuller) Kiszely was interviewed in 1992. The tape forms part of the Imperial War Museum’s Spanish Civil War Collection in London. According to the interview, the wounded young woman was rushed into the operating room at Torrelodones, to the west of Madrid, where Kiszely worked alongside British medics. He remembered her being ‘more or less dead when she came into my hands’. At that stage, he admitted, ‘I did not have a clue who she was … nor did the person who took the photograph.’ All Kiszely knew was that she was some kind of reporter. It was only later that he was informed of the identity of the mortally wounded young woman who he had just treated.

She was then taken away (if it were Taro, it would have been to the main 35 Division hospital at El Escorial, just under 20km away, where she later died), but Kizsely had no time to spend thinking about her. With more than 10 000 casualties passing through the hospital during the battle of Brunete, it was rare to have the time for anything but responding to the urgent needs of patients. Lacking the resources to treat everyone, Kiszely recounts how a number of French doctors went round at night, giving lethal injections to those who had been mortally wounded and had been left to die in the open air, ‘covered in flies and dust … not even cleaned up properly’.

Despite the widespread surprise at the photograph turning up so long after the event, it has in fact, appeared before, as a number of twitter users (@RevistaFv and @alexis_nogeur) have pointed out. The image (or a slightly less tightly cropped version), can be found in a chapter by the famous Catalan surgeon Moisès Brioggi, within a study of the Republican medical services, Sanidad de las Brigadas Internacionales. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add any further details, nor does it reveal the identity of the photographer. Sir John cannot add much to the story either, for the photo is the only image he possesses of his father in Spain. It didn’t arrive into his hands until after his father’s death, when it was passed to him at an International Brigade Association commemoration event.

In situations such as this, with so much unknown, it’s very difficult to categorically identify the woman in the photograph. Equally, however, it’s not possible to say that it definitely isn’t Gerda Taro. All that can reasonably be stated is that, based on the currently available evidence (Johnnie Kiszely’s plausible account, the text on the reverse of the photo and the similarity in appearance of the young woman to Gerda Taro) it is more likely to be her, than not.

BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra

On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemman’s daughter, Jane Bernal. The event was a Radio 3 Proms extra, presented by Clemency Burton-Hill and produced by Karen Holden.


You Who Stand at Your Doors – Randolph Swingler (CE)

George Orwell – On what the International Brigades were fighting for (CE)

Why Go to Spain? – Explanation by London volunteer, Jason Gurney (CE)

Dance of Death – W.H. Auden (CE)

The Volunteer – Cecil Day-Lewis (CE)

Excited to arrive in Spain – Nottingham volunteer Walter Gregory (CE)

General Emilio Mola – On the Rebels’ deliberate use of terror (CE)

No Pasarán – Speech by Dolores Ibárruri (YV)

Poem (Heart of the heartless world) – John Cornford to Margot Heinemann (JB)

Farewell to the International Brigades – Passage from Dolores Ibárruri’s famous speech in October 1938 (YV)

George Orwell – On the horror of war (CE)

The Long View

Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View
Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View

On 30 July 2014, I joined Usama Hasan, Shiraz Maher, Meirian Jump, Judith Kravitz-Lesser and Samuel West for an episode of Jonathan Freedland’s, The Long View. Somewhat controversially, the programme examined similarities (or not) between British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and for Syria today.

The programme was recorded on Thursday 24 July 2014, on location at 1 Litchfield Street WC2 (formerly the office of the International Brigades’ Dependents’ Aid Committee), the Marx Memorial Library and at the monument to the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, in London’s Jubilee Gardens.

You can find out more about the programme here.

In conversation with Robert Elms

Robert Elms, presenter on BBC London 94.9
Robert Elms, presenter on BBC London 94.9

To commemorate seventy-five years since the end of the Spanish Civil War – and to publicise the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors – I was invited by Robert Elms to join him on his lunchtime show on BBC London 94.9. Robert owns a house in Spain, speaks the language and has long been a supporter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Even so, he proved to be an extremely well-informed interviewer. As one commemtator put it to me admiringly,

I’ve just listened to the whole interview and thought how skilfully you were given the opportunity by a sympathetic interviewer to put the story across and present the International Brigaders in the favourable light they deserve.

Sadly, as I stated in the programme, there are no longer any of the British volunteers left in Britain to tell the story for themselves, so it was good to be given the opportunity to talk about them. Thanks, Robert.

Click the media player above to listen to the interview, recorded on 7 April 2014.

Volunteers in Syria and the Spanish Civil War

Michael Petrou, author of <i>Renegades</i>, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War
Michael Petrou, author of Renegades, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

In May 2013 an article entitled, ‘Homage to Latakia’ appeared in the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine Maclean’s. Written by historian and journalist, Michael Petrou, the piece argued passionately for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds and drew comparisons with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when the western powers had refused to intervene. However, in the six months since the article appeared – chemical weapons inspections aside – the west has not shown any great enthusiasm for doing so.

While debates on the advisedness – or not – of intervention continue, so does a tendency, within the media in particular, to view the Syrian conflict through the prism of the Spanish Civil War. As with many of these comparative exercises, while it’s interesting to engage in, I’m not convinced how useful it actually is.

There are certainly parallels which can be drawn; the most glaring being that in both Syria and Spain foreign powers provided significant military support, while the western powers watched on. The disparate and fragile nature of the coalition facing Assad’s military junta seems, on the surface, to echo Spain, but here too we should exercise caution. (It seems to me the situation in Egypt is actually a closer parallel, where a military coup was launched against a legally elected government).

The most recent attempt to compare Syria with Spain was on 24 November 2013, when I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend (you can listen to my brief interview by clicking the audio-player above). The interviewer, Shaun Ley, was particularly interested to know, first, why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain, given that it was a country of which most of them knew very little and, second, in the light of the experiences of those returning from Spain seventy-five years ago, how any survivors from the 200 or so Britons presently fighting in Libya might be viewed on their return.

Answering the first question is straightforward and clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of comparing British Islamic jihadists fighting in Syria with the men and women who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The overwhelming majority of volunteers in Spain were there because they had watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism across Europe in general and in Britain in particular. For these anti-fascists, determined to do what they could to halt the fascist tide, Spain was just the latest battlefield in the wider war against fascism. As George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, explained in a letter home to his family:

“Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.”

The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched
The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched

Interestingly, Shaun’s second question did tease out one similarity. As I explained, when the veterans of the Spanish war returned to Britain in December 1938, they faced grave suspicion from many within the British government and security services. Though the government recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting volunteers for Spain under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, this should not be seen as a general sympathy for their cause within the British establishment. On the contrary, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked and others described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. Whether any of the 400 or so British Muslims fighting in Syria will ever return to Britain is not clear. However, it is probably safe to say that, if they do, the British security services will view them with every bit as much suspicion. In 1938 the veterans were described as having been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’; in 2013 they will have been ‘radicalised’. The language may be different but, in this aspect at least, the experiences of the two utterly different groups of volunteers may be very much the same.

Radio Four’s War of Words

Discussion with John Simpson on George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Broadcast on 10 August 2012 as part of Radio Four’s series, ‘War of Words’, in which John Simpson tells the stories of the correspondents who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The entire series of five episodes is currently available on BBC iPlayer: War of Words

Have we under-estimated the number of volunteers?

In June 2011, the National Archives’ release of a list of 4000 names of those the British Security Services belived to be on their way to fight in Spain, created a bit of a stir. Tom Buchanan wrote a piece for The Guardian and I was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news.

It was a good story. However, the over-zealous spooks included reporters, war-tourists, visitors and holiday makers on the list, so historians agree that there’s no reason to discount the previous estimates just yet.

The last of the International Brigades

On 26 February 2011, I was a contributor to a Radio 4 programme on foreign volunteers in Spain, hosted by D.J. Taylor for Radio Four’s Archive Hour, called The Last of the International Brigades. More information about the programme can be found on the BBC’s website, here.

Click on the audio player below to listen to a short excerpt from the hour long programme.