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Review of Sebastiaan Faber’s Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War

When General Franco died in November 1975, he was convinced that his regime would continue after him, that ‘everything is tied down and well tied down’ (todo está atado y bien atado). Yet within three years, Spain had – surprisingly peacefully – been transformed into a democracy. This transition, however, demanded a huge sacrifice from the victims of Francoism, asking them to set aside their grievances and sign up to el pacto del olvido, the pact of forgetting. Fearful of sliding back into dictatorship, Spaniards kept the pact, though two generations later the consensus has essentially broken down. Grandchildren of the victims, far removed from the years of civil war and dictatorship, are proving to be less restrained than their parents and are demanding answers. For them, difficult and painful memories, like the thousands of unmarked graves by Spanish roadsides, are something to be unearthed, not forgotten.

Unsurprisingly, efforts to establish the truth behind the murder and persecution of thousands of victims has encountered considerable resistance from certain quarters in Spain. Consequently, battles over very different historical interpretations, the so-called ‘memory wars’, are currently being heatedly fought out within Spanish culture and society. It is onto this battlefield that Sebastiaan Faber, co-editor of ALBA’s excellent magazine, The Volunteer, and author of Anglo-American Hispanists of the Spanish Civil War has bravely ventured.

Laid out in five main sections, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War is an attempt to find answers to three key questions: How have fiction and photography shaped memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the civil war, the dictatorship and the transition and, finally, how have media producers and academics engaged with the process of ensuring that Spain progresses as a unified functioning democracy?

Sebastiaan begins an erudite, wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion with a re-examination of the work and impact of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim), and the great Catalan photographer Agustí Centells. He amply demonstrates how the meaning of an image changed dramatically during the war, depending on its use and its context within a photographic montage. However, the author is no doubt correct when he argues that fascinating though they are, the images are unlikely to actually change historians’ view of the civil war.

The second section of the book tackles the central theme of historical memory and the conflicting narratives that exist in Spain, the argument between the value of recovering historical memory and the dangers of reopening of old wounds. As the author states, witnesses to the past, including historians, can also be witnesses in a trial of Francoism. Books such as Paul Preston’s Spanish Holocaust certainly provide ample evidence for the prosecution.

Alongside Helen Graham, Angel Viñas, Gabriel Jackson, and Pablo Sánchez León, Paul Preston appears in the third section, an examination of how current historians are interpreting, or ‘reframing’ the past. As you’d expect from this stellar collection of voices, there’s much of interest here. Angel Viñas is in typically bombastic form and I enjoyed Helen Graham’s optimistic assertion that history ‘is the ultimate antidote to any kind of over-simplification.’ While all historians choose the stories they want to write about, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing so fairly and – relatively – objectively.

After a discussion of the contribution of three Spanish intellectuals, the book’s final section examines the role of fiction. It concludes with a look at some of the work of Javier Cercas, who has been widely translated into English. Cercas offers good advice, noting that ‘the first thing to do when reading a novel is to distrust the narrator.’ The same could be said of history itself, of course, where the eminent E.H. Carr famously advised students to ‘study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’

This book should prove to be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of (the history of) Spain and provides ample evidence that artists and writers are not neutral bystanders in these contemporary ‘memory wars’. It also asks intelligent questions of historians and academics: What is their role in all of this? Should they just comment from afar? Or should they positively engage? Sebastiaan Faber’s involvement with the Contratiempo collective and the open-access Universidad del Barrio in Madrid show his views clearly enough and will, I suspect, chime with many members of the IBMT. As the author states, ‘fields like history and politics are not just too important to leave to the experts; they are fields that should be of interest to everyone because they are everyone’s concern.’

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 2:2018, pp. 19-20.

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.

Review of Serge Alternês & Alec Wainman’s Live Souls

When the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, many saw the conflict not as a remote war in a far-away country, but as the latest battlefield in an ongoing struggle between fascism and democracy. As the western powers sat on their hands, thousands became consumed with a burning need to act, to do something, in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republic. Famously, some 35 000 of them went as far as volunteering to fight in the International Brigades. Others, however, turned their efforts towards trying to help alleviate the suffering of those caught in the turmoil, either by collecting money for medical supplies or, in the case of more than 200 men and women from Britain and Ireland, by going to Spain to join the Republican medical services. One of these was a young Quaker from Northallerton in Yorkshire, called Alec Wainman. Lacking medical knowledge, but able to speak both Russian and Italian, Wainman volunteered to drive an ambulance in Spain, bluffing the recruiters that he was a qualified driver, fluent in Spanish…

The full review appears in the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies: Vol. 41 : Issue 1, 2016, Article 20.

Len Crome 2014 & launch of Unlikely Warriors paperback

Flyer for 2014 Len Crome lecture in Manchester
Flyer for 2014 Len Crome lecture in Manchester

For the second year running, the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s Len Crome memorial Lecture was held in the Manchester Conference Centre. While last year’s event was an examination of the role of George Orwell in the war and its historiography, this year focused on the involvement of artists and writers in the Spanish Civil War. As before, there were four speakers, expertly chaired by Professor Mary Vincent from the University of Sheffield. Sadly, there was one other echo from the previous year: Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics was unable to attend due to illness. Professor Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English language and literature fellow of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, very generously agreed to take his place.

The event began with Royal Holloway’s Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom discussing Republican arts initiatives between 1931 and 1939. Arguing that they were an essential part of the Republic’s humanitarian and democratic programme of reforms, he presented an astonishing statistic from 1937: that the Republican Ministry of Fine Arts had a larger budget than the Ministry of War. Even when qualified by the observation that the Republic had deposited their gold reserves in Moscow, it is pretty amazing. ‘No wonder they lost’, commented one wag.

Carl’s forensic presentation was followed by an illustrated lecture by Dr Carmen Herrero, Principal Lecturer on Spanish Culture and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, outlining recent portrayals of the International Brigades in cinema. One of her examples was Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela! – as Carmen pointed out, it’s a great shame that is so hard to get hold of, for it’s a terrific film. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom was also raised – perhaps bravely- though it’s always interesting to hear how the much-admired director works. Whatever you think of the film, Ken Loach’s enthusiasm for allowing actors to ad-lib made the (long and convoluted) discussion over the issues of collectivisation in a small Spanish village extremely lifelike and convincing.

Signing pre-release paperback copies of <i>Unlikely Warriors</i>
Signing pre-release paperback copies of Unlikely Warriors

During the lunch-break, the organisers kindly allowed me time to launch the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, due to be officially released on 1 April, 75 years to the day since the end of the Spanish Civil War. My thanks to all involved in the Manchester event for this.

The afternoon session opened with the writer and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska’s overview of the Gerda Taro’s contribution to the canon of photography of the civil war – both by taking photographs herself and by enabling her lover Robert Capa to do so. She explained how the identity of Robert Capa was a deliberate construction, a means by which the Hungarian Jewish migrant Andre Friedmann could overcome his background. Gerda Taro also changed her name (she was born Gerta Pohorylle), and the intelligent and multilingual Taro initially began by acting as Friedmann’s business manager. However, as the war progressed, and she moved from using a square-format Rolleiflex, to the 35mm Leica, her photographs became every bit as good as – and often indistinguishable from – those of Robert Capa.

The afternoon finished with a lecture on the ‘aestheticising of tragedy’ by Valentine Cunningham. Initially a bewildering barrage of names of the (mainly) English poets and artists who (mainly) supported the Spanish Republic, he moved on to a soaring and erudite discussion of the, perhaps understandably, elegiac nature of much of the writing. There was so much in the lecture to discuss, that I felt it would have been churlish to point out that there were in fact 35 000, not 60 000, volunteers for the International Brigades and though the English writer and poet Laurie Lee was undoubtedly one of them, to cite his A Moment of War as a reliable account is unwise, to put it mildly.

My thanks go out to the IBMT in general and the Manchester organisers in particular. The event was, I think, a great success.