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Scenes from the Spanish Civil War

Another in our occasional series to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. In July we published fine pieces by Vicente Navarro and George Galloway. AC / JSC

A complacent ass who was, temporarily, Propaganda Minister of Catalonia said to me, “This is the most photogenic war anyone ever has seen.”

Considering that people were dying all around us — many of them having come to meet death with extreme heroism because they believed this to be the final battleground where, as in children’s stories, the Good get to grips with the Bad — his remark was offensive. All the same, there was a streak of truth in what he so ineptly said.

That terrible war was also “photogenic” in the widest sense of the word. Not just the press photographers turned up — everyone turned up who wanted to be in on the decisive thing of the century, the thing that was going to prove either that Democracy was going to stand up the enemy there and then or else that Democracy — it was the phrase people used at the time and they believed in it — was going to take a terrible beating, and after that there would be a bigger and worse war.

The massacres and the battles and the subsequent massacres took place, too, in lovely surroundings.

I got there because I was a Red newspaper reporter and I had a job to do, but I do not share the sneers of those who, looking back, think disparagingly of a lot of people who really had no business to be in Spain at all but who went there because, intellectually, the affair was so photogenic.

It is true that after the defeat — and it has often seemed to me that intellectuals somewhat tend to exaggerate both defeats and victories, as though taking it for granted that either of them might be final — a lot of European intellectuals left their souls dead on the soil of Spain and never again were able to face the continuing realities of life. (There were also some intellectuals who faced the Spanish realities with such sturdiness that they left their bodies on that soil, too. These heroic men were the first proof to the 1930s that when some people talk about dying for a cause, they mean it.)

But the others — although many of them never found out what it was all about and, in their disillusionment, ended up by being a nuisance — set a good example too. They proclaimed, however briefly, that a moment comes when your actions have to have some kind of relation to your words.

That is what is called the Moment of Truth.

Naturally, the role of the intellectuals, the troubles and dissensions and heroisms of the intellectuals, were in reality matters of insignificance compared to the troubles, dissensions and heroism of the men who mainly fought the war. They ranged from peasants out of Almansa, who walked all the way to Madrid to fight, to a steelworker from Budapest who traveled all night hanging on to the undercarriage of the Orient Express so as to get to Paris and be sent on to fight, to men from Glasgow and Uverpool and Brooklyn and San Francisco who gave up everything they had to go out there and fight.

Nobody under the age of about thirty-five today has much notion of what the Spanish War meant to the people of that distant period in which it was fought, and nobody over that age will agree with any generalization anyone makes about it. I personally disagree with about half the generalizations I made about it at the time. The simplest and least controversial fact about that war is that the Fascists got there fastest with the mostest men. And the real wonder of it was not that the Republicans were defeated, but that they held on as long as they did. The revolt of the generals, the disruption of the army, the assault of the trained Moorish troops, the intervention first of Mussolini and then of Hitler, the arms blockade by Britain and France — it is a familiar assessment of the odds against the Republic. Other factors were more difficult to list at the time — for during a war, about sixty per cent of what is interesting and important has to be suppressed lest it give aid and comfort to the enemy. Nobody but an enemy agent would have wished to broadcast the degree to which the Republic forces were confused, mutually suspicious and riddled with treachery. Yet these are factors which inevitably must be present on the “popular” or “democratic” side in such a struggle. And their presence does not detract from but, on the contrary, enhances the achievement of those who, nevertheless, maintained their resistance for so long.

All wars are conducted in a savage muddle, and civil wars more than others. Perhaps it was because this came as a surprise to them that so many of the British and American intelligentsia declared themselves “disillusioned” by the course and outcome of the war in Spain. It was a blow, they averred, to their faith in whatever it was they had had faith in. The side of the angels should have conducted itself more nicely. A “reappraisal of fundamental values” had become necessary. And, indeed, defeat is a jolting experience. It is interesting to consider what a big “reappraisal” there would have been in some quarters if the South had happened to win the American Civil War.

On a person inexperienced in any kind of warfare, the ramshackle, sometimes Alice-in-Wonderland state of affairs naturally made a singular impression. I was sun-bathing on the beach at Salou, on the Costa Brava, when the guns went off and within three weeks or so had opportunity to observe four of our important military commanders.

The first was Durutti, the great Anarchist leader, profoundly revered in Catalonia, who was leading from Barcelona the column which was to cross the plateau of Aragon and recapture Saragossa. The column was composed of detachments of volunteers from all the anti-Fascist political parties and the trade-unions in Barcelona, traveling in trucks and delivery vans, private cars and taxicabs-most of them with feather beds strapped to the roof in case of aerial bombardment. The armament of the column ranged from army rifles to pistols to sporting guns. Its personnel had considerable experience of street fighting in Barcelona and almost none of any kind of warfare.

At sunrise, with the column strung out along a couple of miles of narrow road on the grassy plateau, two of Mussolini’s Capronis — probably with Spanish crews — came over from the west and dropped bombs. The bombs were very small. On the other band, the planes were flying at less than one hundred feet and very slowly. Most of the bombs, which were antipersonnel bombs with the effect of very large hand grenades, hit either the vehicles or the road just beside them, where hundreds of people were squatting around the cooking fires.

Hardly anyone present had ever been bombed before and many who had fought like tigers at Barcelona were now overcome by a horrible sense of helplessness. The road, which had been the road of victory leading to Saragossa, turned into a trap. The story that it really was a trap, that treachery had been at work again, spread like poison gas. I saw a group of tough fellows crouching in the shallow ditch repeating over and over, “We are betrayed. They’ve brought us here to kill-us.”

Some jumped onto the roofs of trucks and vans, firing pistols at the bombers. Some drivers, panicking, tried to turn their vehicles and instead overturned them. And the majority, bewildered but courageous and shouting “On to Saragossa,” were blocked at a score of points along the line. The whole outfit became a sitting target, and the Capronis sauntered up and down above it until they had used up their bomb supply.

I had only caught up with the column overnight and my car was caught at the tail of it. There was no possibility of the car moving forward, so on foot, trotting as fast as possible through the chaos of vehicles, wounded men and men firing impotently in the air, I made my way to the column’s head where, in a small farmhouse, which was also a low-grade inn, I found Durutti’s headquarters.

But before I realized this was the headquarters, I had run a little way past it — running, in fact, away from the column, in the direction of distant Saragossa. In a flash everyone could see that I was a spy — a man in foreign clothes running off toward the enemy to report upon the effect of the bombing. There were shouts, which I didn’t understand, and then shots, which I did.

At that time I did not realize that what people thought was happening was not in the least improbable. It was just the kind of thing that did happen in those days. And, since the revolt of the generals, people could smell treachery everywhere. I came back toward the farmhouse with my bands up but confident that within a few minutes everything would be explained. Half a minute later I realized that what was really going to happen was that I was going to be shot immediately — as surely as if I bad just jumped out of one of the Capronis.

Terrified as I was, I was saved by a wave of bitter, black bad temper. My mind was suddenly invaded and wholly occupied by a vast annoyance at the thought that these people, two of whom were pushing me against the farmhouse wall in readiness for execution, were shouting all the time in Catalan and I don’t understand Catalan. It seemed to me really too much.

I shouted and roared and swore, and sheer exasperation must have given to my imprecations some kind of strange, doubt-raising quality. One of the guards at the farmhouse suddenly raised his hand and seemed to be calling for a reflective pause. The volunteer firing squad stood close to me, glaring and fingering pistols.

Then a superior sort of guard came out and I told him in bad Castilian who I was and that I wanted to see Durutti. He went back to the door of the farmhouse and started to yell to someone inside. Then be yelled to the men who were holding me and they started to conduct me to the house.

“Now,” I thought comfortably, “everything will be all right.-” Durutti was seated behind the kitchen table — a man a little under average height, as I recall, but very strongly and lithely built, his face both rugged and aquiline with very large shining eyes. His heavy pointed chin was as blue as the overalls he wore.

He spoke to me in French and I realized that he was furiously angry. I banded him my credentials, supposing that this evidence of my having the capacity of correspondent of a “Red” newspaper would immediately appease him. He glanced at, them and threw them on the table and then in a low voice, vibrant with hatred, denounced the Communists and all their works. So far as he, undisputed Anarchist boss of Catalonia, was concerned, I might almost as well have been a Fascist.

The armed bodyguard standing by could not understand what he was saying but his tone told them this was an enemy. It was a time when enemies were shot quickly. I could feel the atmosphere in that kitchen becoming horribly cold. I had a clear conviction that Durutti was in the judgment seat and pronouncing sentence of death. For at that place and time, to be a member of a rival organization on the Republican side — to be ideologically at variance with the Anarchists — was, to the pure Anarchist, not verymuch different from being on the other side altogether.

But how in hell, I thought to myself, was I supposed to know all this? I who had been in Spain only for ten days or so, four of them before war broke out, and since then had heard nothing but public declarations concerning the unity of the Frente Popular? Once again I flow into a nearly hysterical tantrum. I interrupted Durutti’s deadly quiet flow of words by banging on the table and shouting. What the devil, I yelled, did he think he was talking about? One of the bodyguard grabbed my arm and threw me roughly backward a couple of paces. I continued to shout, as rudely as I could. Wasn’t the column outside a column of the Frente Popular? Wasn’t there even a Communist contingent in it?

Durutti shrugged and said something to the effect that that sort of thing could be dealt with later. I on the other band was an international Communist. A different pair of shoes. I shouted him down — not in the least courageously or with any tactical intention but simply because with me acute fear often produces almost insane bad temper.

It would be a lot better for all concerned, I said, if instead of sitting here jabbering about internal differences be went out and attended to his column, now facing aerial bombardment.

He sat staring at me for a matter of ten seconds and I saw that he had suddenly made up his mind about something. He said something in Catalan to the guards and they laughed.

“All right,” he said abruptly to me, “but no tricks. No writing reports about the Frente Popular as the liberator of Saragossa. It will be the Anarchists that will liberate Saragossa. Understand?”

Too confused to play any game, I said I didn’t. Wasn’t the whole Frente Popular represented here? He shrugged hugely, made the motion of tearing his hair and said, “All right, all right. You don’t understand.”

He talked for a few minutes, answered a few questions about the military situation and then started to cross-examine me about the political situation in England, on some aspects of which he was a good deal better informed than I was. When I spoke of British public opinion, deep democratic sympathy for Spain, strength of the trade-union movement, be shook his head and his mouth twisted.

“Words,” he said, “Nonsense. Nothing will come of all that.” When I got up to go — the guards had long ago brought a chair for me — Durutti suddenly signaled me to wait a moment. He took a sheet of paper and started to write on it in vivid purple ink. He handed it to me with a rather grim grin. There were four or five lines in Catalan, which I could not understand, and underneath, marching slantwise across the page, the signature of this man who was then probably the most powerful individual in Catalonia — Durutti.

“Good-by,” he said. “Today you have been lucky. You understand, you might very easily be dead. We haven’t time to waste and we’re quick on the draw. We have to be. If you are remaining in Catalonia this will be of use to you.”
Later in the day I found someone to translate it for me. It said, “To whom it may concern: Comrade Coburn has a violent temper and offensive tongue, which may lead him into trouble. He is also ignorant of a great deal. Notwithstanding, it is desirable that all possible consideration should be shown to him.”

I saw him only once again, on a snowy day in Madrid, soon after he bad brought, against bitter opposition in Barcelona, the pick of his Anarchist fighters from Catalonia to assist the defense of the Castilian capital. The day after I saw him he was shot dead in the street — on the ground that he was about to sign a comprehensive agreement with the Communists-by members of an organization called the “Friends of Durutti.”

When I got to Madrid, the man everyone went to see, if they could, was General Mangada — the only army general who bad not joined General Franco’s revolt and instead bad remained loyal to the Republic. He was, I believe, a Cuban, or half a Cuban, and he looked strangely like some sort of cross between Gandhi and Gandhi’s goat.

The other man who drove out with me to see him at his head-quarters in the Sierra was a young man described as a “Mexican,” who, in reality, was one of the first of the Russian technical advisers sent to Spain. (This was at the early period when the Russians, who were rather naturally anxious to avoid doing anything that would give the Western governments an excuse to turn the Germans loose on them in a war which would be described as having been “Provoked” by “Red intervention” in Spain, were leaning over backward being discreet, while Mussolini’s bombers were already hovering above the supply routes of the Republican armies.)

General Mangada, after we had drunk a glass or two of sherry with him, asked if we would care to visit the front. We said yes. We walked for a mile or so across lovely, deserted country – partly a sort of parkland, partly mountain foothills, with outcrops of rock baking in the sun.

We passed small detachments of troops sitting in what shade they could get, and then-after another mile or so during which we had seen nobody — we saw, perhaps six or seven hundred yards away, a line of riflemen in open order, moving about on the low ground ahead of us.

“Those, I suppose,” said the “Mexican,” “are your advance patrols.” “Not at all,” said General Mangada, surprised. “Those must be the advance patrols of the enemy.”

For the “Mexican” and myself it was an ugly little moment. There we stood in no man’s land, and there seemed a high possibility that within about ten minutes Spain’s only Loyal general was going to be captured by the enemy, I was going to be shot as a Red Agent and the “Mexican” — unless his gullet was wide enough to swallow a lot of documents very fast-was going to be Exhibit Number One in a nasty international incident.

Awfully slowly, as it seemed to me, the general — who had the air of a man walking around his estate in Somerset on a Sunday afternoon — turned from his dreamy contemplation of the enemy patrols and we strolled back to his headquarters.

The “Mexican”, a conscientious young man, said that perhaps he might be privileged to meet the General’s Staff. General Mangada shook his head in his gentle manner. “No Staff,” he said. “In war, ‘Staff’ means betrayal.” The “Mexican” swallowed his astonishment with really creditable speed and said, “Well, I am afraid we do not have a great deal to offer, but we have made some remarkable progress recently in mapping and it occurred to me that our experience in that department might possibly be of some assistance to”

Mangada interrupted him. “No,” he said, “no maps.” He put his chocolate-colored hand on his left breast and tapped it gently. “In war,” be said, “the heart must be the map.”‘

My third contact-if one can call it that-with one of our key commanders in the field occurred only a short time later, on what was optimistically called the “Tagus Front,” southwest of Madrid. Our forces, almost untrained and hopelessly underarmed, had taken a fearful beating from the Moors and the Spanish Legionaires and were bumping back eastward in extreme disorder. Trucks, packed to capsizing point with militiamen, soldiers and debris, rocked bumper to bumper through the darkening dusk on a narrow, rutted road where the dust clouds half-fogged the feeble headlights.

From my place beside the driver of one of these trucks, I saw to my astonishment the beam of a powerful headlight — the search-light type-moving toward us — a vehicle, in fact, headed west-ward, the only one on that road that night. At the same time could be heard the imperative howl of an exceptionally powerful horn, and to our astonishment we saw that despite the near-panic hurry to get away, the trucks ahead were one after another pulling as far over to the roadside as they could get to let the oncoming car inch its way past. And as it reached the trucks immediately ahead of us, we could bear the men, standing in them or clinging onto them from the outside, cheering.

It was a huge Hispano-Suiza limousine and the light was on inside. Alone on the spacious back seat, his head resting against an elegant lace antimacassar, sat the finest-looking officer you ever saw — a colonel of the regular army. His cloak, lined with scarlet, was thrown open. Open on his knees was a large map. In his gloved right hand he held a brandy bottle, keeping it steady and upright on the seat. Beside him on the other side was a large square tin.

No wonder the men cheered. Here was the colonel, cool as a cucumber, on his way to rally the front.

“Just look,” said the truck driver to me, “how calm he is. That’s what regular-army training does, I suppose.”

And, indeed, during the few seconds that the car was stationary, waiting for the truck behind us to move over, the colonel took a slow swig from the brandy bottle and then picked from the tin a biscuit, which he nibbled delicately.

“That,” said our driver as we got going again, “was pretty encouraging. Unless, of course . . .” By then it was too late to speculate upon the alternative, which turned out to be correct, for it emerged later that the colonel, on hearing of our defeat, had decided he would have a better time with the enemy and was driving over to join them, taking with him the most up-to-date military maps of our area and dispositions as a good-will offering.

It was in these circumstances that the reorganization of the Republican Army began.

In the vast requisitioned convent in northern Madrid, where was being organized at nearly breakneck speed the Fifth Regiment which was to become the model and nucleus of the New Army of the Republic, I talked one night with the commander and organizer-in-chief. At that time I knew this husky, bullnecked man, who combined almost superhuman driving power with an unbreakable gaiety, simply as “Carlos,” and all I knew of his past was that he had once been a steelworker in Chicago. Later, he turned out to be an Italian called Videla, who was supposed to have organized the assassination, in Mexico, of Leon Trotsky.

He spoke of the problems of the New Army, and while he was talking one of them blew up right outside the room. From the former chapel of the convent we heard first the sound of shooting — volley after volley — and within minutes the barrack square was a scene of the wildest riot and turmoil. We rushed out, Carlos carrying a pistol in each hand — and he needed them, because what we ran into when we got outside was a mob of armed militiamen milling about in the moonlight, looking for the commandant and threatening to lynch him. By an extraordinary effort of domination, and the help of the pistols, Carlos held them at bay long enough to get them sufficiently calmed down so that they allowed the man who seemed to be their leader, or one of them, to start to explain what it was all about.

The men were recruits — very poor peasants from somewhere in the south who had, of their own free will, marched halfway across Spain to join the New Army and fight for the Republic. They had reached Madrid and the convent late in the evening and had been hastily bedded down for the night on the floor of the chapel. They had fallen into exhausted sleep, but a couple of hours later, when the moon rose, two or three of them had awakened and what they saw was the moon shining upon the statues and images of saints which it bad not occurred to anyone to remove. The men’s reaction was one partly of terror, partly of rage — terror because these images could ill-wish them, could be far more dangerous warriors than the Franco troops they expected to meet on the battlefield, and rage because they believed that they bad been lured into a trap — whoever was responsible for exposing them to these deadly powers must be an agent of the enemy.

The first men to wake up grabbed their old rifles or sporting guns and started firing at the images and statues, yelling to the others to wake up and help them fight their way out of the trap. Everyone started firing at the saints and then rushed out to find the commandant and kill him, too.

“You see,” Carlos said, when things bad quieted down under a powerful jet of oratory and exhortation from himself, “our problems are not quite simple.”

They changed, but they got no simpler. When I, some weeks later, joined this same Fifth Army as a private and went to the Sierra Front with a company of barely trained peasants, the first time we went into action (our commander, a former captain in the Foreign Legion, soon deserted to the enemy and in his capacity as military saboteur had ordered us to charge straight up a bare hillside against a fort full of Moorish machine gunners), a lot of the men charged, holding their rifles high above their heads with one hand and giving the clenched-fist salute with the other.

It emerged that they had taken the highly stylized and symbolical posters designed by the Madrid intellectuals, showing a soldier of the Republic in this posture, as illustrations of correct military practice.

When they saw me dodging along, bent half-double and taking whatever cover there was, they thought the posture unworthy, despicable. A lot of them were killed or wounded before they got converted to the idea that, as instructional diagrams, there was something wrong with those posters.

For people who, like myself, have a claustrophobic distaste for organization and discipline, this makeshift, ramshackle quality of the Spanish War, which could be terrifying because it kept reminding one of the odds against our sort of forces being victorious over the trained troops of the other side, was also a factor compensating the periods of terror and the periods of tedium which are, alternately, so large a part of any war.

Also the nature of my job kept me moving fairly briskly between Madrid, London, Paris, Geneva and Gibraltar — where I went to do a mixed job of propaganda and espionage and escaped being assassinated only because a pro-Republican waiter in the hotel where I stayed warned me just in time to get out of town. I was afraid at the time I might be taking unnecessary precautions, but years later I met one of the organizers of the attempt who assured me the waiter’s warning and my own fears had been perfectly well grounded.

I had been only a few weeks at the front and had been promoted corporal after two of our sergeants followed the Foreign Legion captain across the lines to the enemy, when I was summoned abruptly to London to take a hand in the campaign to influence the policies of the Labor Party and Trade Union Congress against nonintervention. Despite my protests, I was billed as the star speaker at an enormous meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall — a grave mistake, because I am one of the worst public speakers who ever bored and exasperated an audience. I always bad the feeling that no member of the audience at any of these meetings would ever read my written reports with much confidence again.

I was thankful when I was summoned to the Communist Party Headquarters by Mr. Pollitt and ordered to write a book about the Spanish War instead. “We need it,”‘ said Mr. Pollitt, “in a hurry.” “How much of a hurry?” “Before the end of the week,” said Mr. Pollitt, and I was locked into a bed-sitting room in a nursing home run by a friend of mine and told not to come out until the book was done. A nurse was in attendance to give me shots in the arm in case I fell asleep or dropped dead from exhaustion.

When I returned to Spain, the atmosphere was a great deal more harsh, the aspect of the whole war more grim than it bad seemed in the summer but — although Franco was literally at the gates of Madrid-hardly anyone, I believe, even imagined that we could be defeated.

I have hardly ever kept a diary, for the reason that I could never think of what one could put in it that would not be, on the one band, tedious or, on the other, incriminating. People used to tell me I could keep it locked up, but I knew well enough that sooner or later it would drop out of my pocket somewhere, causing distress in one’s domestic or professional life. I have a great deal of sympathy with those officials who, to the derision of the public, so often leave top-secret documents in taxicabs. Later, when one had to live on the assumption that one’s effects might any night be rifled by the police or the agents of someone or other, I became less inclined than ever to write down anything, anywhere, that I didn’t want other people to know.

However, in those horrible stretches of boredom and inactive waiting, which are inevitably so large a part of war, I did, in Madrid, keep a diary for a short while, and although most of it got torn up at successive moments of boredom or panic, a little of it survives.

“Those of us who are here,” I wrote, at the time when the arrival of the first contingents of the International Brigade was still not allowed to be published, “will never be able to convey, and nobody who is not here will ever be able fully to imagine, the emotions and significance of this moment. Last night, at University City, for the first time in Europe and in the history of Europe, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians and Rumanians went into action together. The contingents were small, rushed up prematurely from Albacete to prevent a total break-through into Madrid. The Moors had no idea what had hit them. The night battle was brief and savage. As a percentage of their numbers, the losses of the International Contingents were heavy. Yet, at advanced HQ in the University buildings there was an extraordinary atmosphere of elation, exhilaration. As though something enormous were being celebrated. Somebody said to me, ‘Nothing that happens later can spoil this.’ I heard that be was killed in the second part of the action a few hours later.”

“Snowing again” was a fairly frequent entry about that time. “Late yesterday evening I was on the outer boulevard in the snow and beard noises of song and dance coming from what seemed to be the outbuildings of a small former convent. I went there and found gathered in the kitchen, what seemed, at first sight, to be half our military notables.” (Here follows a list including two full generals and a half-dozen colonels of the Republican Army, half a dozen high-ranking officers of the International Brigade, Andre Marty and a couple of other French Deputies and two former Communist members of the Reichstag.) “It seems they had been beetling about on the boulevard, inspecting the ‘front,’ which is a mile or so away at the moment, and in full view of the higher buildings and had gathered here to eat, get warm and compare notes. Somebody had rounded up some goats from God knows where, and an enormous stew was cooking in a caldron. Not having had a hot meal for two days, I was happy to join them. The conference was over now, and everyone singing and drinking wine. Reports from patrols came in at intervals stating that it was a pitchy thick night, and all quiet on the front below. About two in the morning someone found a disused dormitory with beds intact in it, and most of us decided to spend the rest of the night where we were. I certainly didn’t want to trek back home across the city with the high probability of being shot by some understandably trigger-happy street patrol. Just at dawn, a sentry rushed in in near-panic. One of the Spanish colonels — I never got his name — and myself were sleeping nearest the door and he shook us awake.

“We followed the sentry as he led us to the door at the back of the convent and signed to us to take a quick look up the street which led, at right angles from the boulevard, toward the center of the city. We looked, and what we saw in the very dim light was a patrol of Moors, a dozen of them I should say, moving quietly away from us up the street in two single files, keeping close to the housefronts on either side.

“It was immediately and unpleasantly obvious that under cover of darkness and snowstorm, the ‘front’ had shifted.” (There was at that time no trench system on the terrain below the boulevard as there was later, and it was not too difficult for this sort of penetration to be made.) “The question was bow many more patrols were moving up the other streets leading from the boulevard. We went back to the dormitory and roused the others. I had expected some sort of huddle to be held. Consultations. A plan made. Nothing of the kind. I had forgotten that for most of those present this sort of situation was not particularly novel. Also, they were armed to the teeth, most of them with submachine guns. With hardly a word spoken they crept out of that place into the snow. Some moved left and right to the points where other streets left the boulevard, the others advanced stealthily a little way up the street where we could see the Moors.

“Then for a few minutes there was a dazing uproar of sub-machine-gun fire-left, right and center. And in a few minutes, it was all over. There had been four other Moorish patrols, and not one man of any of them survived. It was hard luck on them, I suppose, to have kicked over such a hornets’ nest, a dormitory packed with a whole lot of the most experienced street fighters in Europe. Also, I can’t help thinking, rather lucky for our side that the nearest of those patrols did not realize who and what was in that dormitory before the sentry had time to give the alarm.”

About this time, an immense sensation was caused — particularly in International Brigade circles — by the arrest of an officer of the Brigade whose girl friend, a journalist, whom he insisted on having to stay with him at the Albacete base camp, had been denounced as a spy.

Both were interrogated by the Security people of the Brigade but for reasons of tact, before the girl’s expulsion from Spain was demanded, it was necessary to have them interrogated by the Spanish counter-espionage people too. I had occasion to meet the Spanish counter-espionage man in charge of the case and read his report.

He was a vigorous young man, not more than twenty-two or twenty-three, very much determined to show that the Spaniards, despite comparative inexperience and a reputation for slapdash, could conduct this sort of inquiry just as dryly and carefully as the Russians. The report, as my diary noted, was a model — a model, in fact, of a Russian report on this kind of case. There were pages and pages of question-and-answer, past life and associations of prisoner, recent movements, political opinions, etc. etc. All very correct.

“The final note of the interrogator on the subject of the girl prisoner,” I noted, “seems not quite in keeping with the rest. ‘I am not satisfied,’ he writes, ‘with the prisoner’s sincerity. Sbe states that she is in love with the man. This is impossible. He is half-bald and has false teeth.”‘

The food had now become scarce and abominable and the shells from the batteries outside the city kept falling in the Gran Via and around the Telefonica building where the correspondents had to go to transmit their messages. At breakfast one day in his room at the Florida Hotel, which more or less overlooked the nearest part of the front, Mr. Ernest Hemingway was very comforting about the shelling. He had a big map laid out on the table and he explained to an audience of generals, politicians and correspondents that, for some ballistic reason, the shells could not hit the Florida. He could talk in a very military way and make it all sound very convincing. Everyone present was convinced and happy. Then a shell whooshed through the room above Mr. Hemingway’s — the first actually to hit the Florida — and the ceiling fell down on the breakfast table. To any lesser than Mr. Hemingway, the occurrence would have been humiliating. While we were all getting the plaster out of our hair, Mr. Hemingway looked slowly round at us, one after the other. “How do you like it now, gentlemen?” he said, and by some astonishing trick of manner conveyed the impression that this episode had actually, in an obscure way, confirmed instead of upsetting his theory — that his theory had been right when he expounded it and this only demonstrated that the time had come to have a new one.

Everyone was very happy to have Mr. Hemingway there, partly because he was obviously a fine man to have around when there was war and trouble and partly because to have so famous an author there, writing on behalf of the Republic, made people feel less alone in the world. In a sense, which was no fault of Mr. Hemingway’s, it helped to foster the illusion that sooner or later the “world conscience” would be aroused, “the common people” in Britain and France would force their governments to end non-intervention and the war would be won.

The Russians, who lived in the Palace Hotel at the other end of the Gran Via, seemed to be the only people who could do without this illusion and still not become defeatist. Although they wrote as big words as anyone for publication, they could get along without them in private conversation. They had an attitude which could be called cynical, or just tough. They were refreshing because there were so many people about at the time-particularly the Visiting Firemen, VlPs of one kind or another from the United States and Britain — who seemed to have an irresistible need to use phrases as though they were facts, and if anyone punctured their phrases, they became distressed and frightened about the future.

I spent a great deal of my time in the company of Mikhail Koltzov, who then was foreign editor of Pravda and, more importantly still, was at that period — he disappeared later in Russia, presumed shot — the confidant and mouthpiece and direct agent of Stalin himself. He was a stocky little Jew, from Odessa, I think, with a huge head and one of the most expressive faces of any man I ever met. What his face principally expressed was a kind of enthusiastically gleeful amusement, and a lively hope that you and everyone else would, however depressing the circumstances, do your best to make things more amusing still.

He had a savagely satirical tongue and an attitude of entire ruthlessness toward people he thought either incompetent or even just pompous.

People who did not know him well-particularly non-Russians-thought his conversation, his sharply pointed Jewish jokes, his derisive comments on all kinds of Sacred Cows unbearably cynical. And others, who had known them both, said that he reminded them of Karl Radek, an ominous comparison.

To myself it never seemed that anyone who had such a powerful enthusiasm for the humor of life, for all manifestations of vigorous life, from a tank battle to Elizabethan literature to a good circus, could possibly be described properly as “cynical.” Realistic is perhaps the word-but that is not quite correct either, because it implies, or might imply, a dry practicality which was quite lacking from his nature. At any rate, so far as his personal life and fate were concerned he unquestionably and positively enjoyed the sense of danger, and sometimes — by his political indiscretions, for instance, or his still more wildly indiscreet love affairs — deliberately created dangers which need not have existed.

As the Spanish War ground its way to its gruesome conclusion and all over Europe people who had supported the Republic became truly cynical, despairing, without faith or enthusiasm for anything, I found myself looking forward more and more eagerly to conversations with Koltzov, journeys in his company, estimates from him of the course of affairs. He was a man who could see the defeat for what it really was, could assume that half the big slogans were empty and a lot of the big heroes stuffed or charlatans, and yet not let that bother him at all or sap his energy and enthusiasm.

The propaganda battle outside Spain was growing fiercer and fiercer week by week. I was sent off again to collect various materials in Tangier and Gibraltar. The British ship in which I traveled from Gibraltar toward Marseille was torpedoed by an Italian submarine — one of those “unknown” submarines which kept up the sea blockade of Republican Spain while arms from Germany poured in, unimpeded, to the other side. There were already, a Russian told me at that time, “enough Russian tanks on the floor of the Mediterranean to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria.” And it was self-evident that if the Russians were to start sending ships with armed escorts, the not-long-delayed result would be the exact situation toward which Hitler was always maneuvering — that is to say, a situation in which the Axis Powers could make an open attack on the Soviet Union, with Britain and France sitting happily on the sidelines, watching with benevolence the progress of the “anti-Bolsbevik crusade.”

At two o’clock in the morning our vessel was beached at Port Vendres, on the Franco-Spanish border. I telephoned the news to the office in Paris of the Spanish News Agency-a comprehensively cosmopolitan outfit financed by the Republican Government and organized and directed by Otto Katz, a Sudeten German who years before bad been the pupil and right-hand man of Willi Muenzenberg in the days when Muenzenberg was the star propaganda organizer of the German Communist Party.

Otto Katz — who was now internationally known as Andre Simon — was a propagandist of genius. He had started his working life as cashier of a theater in Teplitz, where Marlene Dietrich worked at some very early age. Katz — whether truthfully or untruthfully, I do not know — always claimed to have been the first husband of Marlene Dietrich. I do know that whereas in every other connection you could call him a liar, hypocrite and ruffian of every description without his turning a hair, if you appeared to doubt this assertion about Marlene he would fly into a passion, white with rage. It is true that he made love to every good-looking woman he met and was a great deal more than averagely successful. He was a middle-sized man with a large, slightly cadaverous bead in which the skull bones were unusually prominent. He had large melancholy eyes, a smile of singular sweetness and an air of mystery — a mystery into which he was prepared to induct you, you alone, because be loved and esteemed you so highly.

And, in point of fact, he was at the heart of a lot of important and secret affairs. He was the most successful man of his period in the mobilization of non-Communist and even Conservative opinion on a broad anti-Nazi basis. He presented himself quite openly and frankly as a Communist, employing none of the schoolboy ideological disguises which ignorant sensationalists like to suppose are used by the organizers of “broad fronts.” Confronted once in London by a very hostile newspaperman from a newspaper of the extreme Right who demanded to know what he was up to, be smiled his sweet smile and said, “You may say that I am seeking to avoid a rift between the Dupes and the Fellow Travelers — in fact, you must say it, because these are the only terms your readers under- stand.”

He could even get British labor leaders to listen to him with attention and sympathy. He had similar successes in the United States. Prince Loewenstein, who bad accompanied him thither on some mission, once said that he was still suffering from vertigo after seeing Otto Katz genuflect three times and kiss the ring of a reputedly progressive cardinal.

After many years of exile, he returned after the war to Prague, where he was for a time foreign editor of the Communist Rude Pravo. Some time after the Communists took power there, he was tried and hanged as a foreign agent. In his final confession he said he would have been loyal and true bad be not been politically seduced and guided years ago by the particularly sinister organizer of Western intelligence services, Colonel CLAUD COCKBURN.

When one rang up the Paris headquarters of the Spanish News Agency, it was always a little difficult to know what language to use. If one spoke in Spanish, the person at the other end would be apt to about “Oui, oui, but please speak Deutsch.” I gave them the news of this Italian sinking of a British ship and then Otto himself came on the telephone. Would I please hire a fast car, drive immediately to Toulouse and take the first air-plane to Paris? I protested. Why not stay in Port Vendres, interview outraged British passengers demanding firm action against Mussolini? “I’m not talking about that,” he said. “Something bigger. If there is no plane from Toulouse, charter one. Get here. I need you. I reached Paris in mid-afternoon and Otto met me at the airport. “You are,” be said, “the first eyewitness of the revolt at Tetuan.” “Never been in Tetuan in my life. Explain.”‘

He explained. This was the moment when the Spanish Republic was preparing the build-up for the first battle of Teruel. It was a crucial battle which just possibly might prove a turning point in the war. The Republicans were still desperately short of artillery. In railroad sidings on the French side of the frontier, the guns were available — plenty of guns. But because of “nonintervention” they could not leave France. But from time to time Leon Blum, then Socialist Premier of France, was willing — under this or that type of pressure or in pursuit of this or that tortuous intrigue — to shut an eye, to allow an order to be circulated to the frontier control to shut both eyes so that every so often a more or less important consignment of arms did roll across the frontier between Cerb’ere and Port Bou.

Now then, the next day at about eleven a.m. a strong delegation from the Communist Party and left-wing Socialists was due to visit Blum and urge him to shut his eyes tight for a few hours and let those guns get across. It was going to be touch-and-go. But everyone knew that Blum was, on the one band, extraordinarily sensitive to what be read in the newspapers and, on the other, lived in perpetual fear that, in pursuing the policy of nonintervention, be might, after all, be backing the wrong horse. Supposing, despite nonintervention, Franco were to collapse — what then?

And supposing, precisely in tomorrow morning’s newspapers, Blum were to read news which would cast grave doubts on the stability of Franco and his forces, would not that — even if only momentarily — incline him to grant the request of the delegation? Useless, of course, to put out in the Spanish News Agency’s service to the Paris papers some story of an imaginary Republican victory on the front. Both sides had issued far too many of those already and it would cut no ice. But how would things look to Blum if it suddenly appeared that the Franco front was crumbling, so to speak, from behind? Its power falling to pieces in the very place from which it had started, Spanish Morocco?

“Believe me,” said Otto, “the psychological effect upon Blum of a rising against Franco in Morocco would be absolutely immense. And that is why you arrive here, so providentially, as the first eyewitness of the great revolt in Tetuan.”

There did seem just a chance that it would work, and for me, who had briefly fought in Spain and watched so many battles as a noncombatant, the idea of actually helping to roll those guns toward the front was exhilarating.

We spent hours on that story. Neither of us bad ever been in Tetuan and we knew nobody who had. In any case, we could hardly, in the circumstances, have broadcast requests for elementary information about the place. We had the Guide Bleu and a couple of other guidebooks which might be seriously out of date, and Otto had been to one of the big libraries and copied a few facts from books not obtainable in the bookstores. From one of them he had slashed, with a razor blade, a street map of Tetuan.

Unfortunately, there was nowhere any clear indication of contours, so that there was always the danger that we would have the alleged rebels — Moorish and European soldiery joining in democratic indignation against miserable conditions and hopeless war — firing at the Fascist forces along some street which had a great hump in the middle of it.

It was a long and detailed story of battle, with the outcome still uncertain. It was important, Otto pointed out, not to claim too much of a victory. We must admit some setbacks. Lieutenant So-and-So’s heroic attempt to capture Such-and-Such strong point had ended in failure and the death of the gallant lieutenant. Many names were given, but I insisted we should display some frank uncertainty — “thought to be under the command of Captain Moreno, who was among the leaders of the revolt in Seville in 1936 and now believed to have turned in disgust against Franco. It is not, however, certain that this is the same Captain Moreno…”

It emerged as one of the soundest, most factual pieces of war correspondence ever written.

As late as we dared, so as to minimize opportunities for verifications and denials, we issued it to the press. The newspapers of the Left next morning naturally gave it banner headlines. Commentaries were written on its far-reaching significance. Nor could it be suppressed in the other newspapers, though they naturally did their best to throw doubt upon it-the source from which it came, the probability that it had, in any case, been a minor affair.

When the delegation arrived to see Blum next morning, there he was, staring at all those headlines and talking about them, questioning everyone as to their views on the revolt in Tetuan. When the delegation made its request he listened, still peering at the headlines, and, after very little argument, granted it. The guns went through. And the Republic won the first battle of Teruel

From A Discord of Trumpets (1956) the U.S. edition of the first volume — In Time of Trouble — of CLAUD COCKBURN’s memoirs. Claud added these pages on the Spanish Civil War to the U.S. edition. (A footnote: This same US edition was reviewed favorably in The Nation by Kingsley Amis, later to become a splenetic right-winger.)

 

 

 

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