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The Spanish Civil War brought to life

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Hotel Florida: Truth Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War. By Amanda Vaill. 436 pages. $30.00.

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The Spanish Civil War was fought between the forces of the Republic and the Nationalists between 1936 and 1939. It began after a left-leaning but democratically elected government took office and began a series of reforms. The Spanish Republic of 1936 dis-established the Catholic Church and forced many army officers to retire on half pay. It abolished the monarchy and seized land from wealthy land-owners to redistribute to the poverty-stricken peasants. This was too much for the Nationalists, who were mostly supported by the church, the army, the aristocrats and the industrialists. The Republic was supported by about half of the army as well as the communists, the anarchists, the liberals and the socialists.

When the Republic appealed for aid, Britain, France and the USA opted for a policy of non-intervention. The democracies feared that if the Republic won the war, Spain would become a communist country. When the Nationalists appealed for aid, both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent men, guns, ammunition and air planes all the while denying that they were doing so.

The only country to offer the Republic aid was the USSR, and the aid was a devil’s bargain. Republican Spain sent all her gold reserves to the USSR, and Stalin gladly accepted them, but charged against the gold hoard for the aid he sent. After Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia and it became clear that none of the western democracies were going to stand against fascism, Stalin negotiated his notorious non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and ceased sending aid to the Spanish Republic. By this time, Spain’s original $500 million in gold was down to about $100,000 anyway.

Idealistic young men and women came to Spain during the war, some to fight fascism as volunteers and some to fight fascism as journalists trying to tell the truth to a disbelieving world.

Most of the journalists stayed at the Hotel Florida when they were in Madrid. Among the many journalists who reported the war, six form the center of interest in Amanda Vaill’s book. Six journalists, three men, three women, three couples. The most famous of these were Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was a beautiful blonde, not yet thirty when the war began. Hemingway already famous, married to his second wife, Pauline, and in his late thirties. They spend considerable time in Spain covering the war, writing propaganda for the Republic, so much so that the FBI became interested in them.

Then there was Robert Capo and Gerda Taro, another pair of lovers, idealistic and gifted photographers, brave almost to the point of foolhardiness. Gerda Taro would die during the war, run over by a tank; Capa survived the war but was nearly destroyed by Gerda’s death and ultimately died in Indochina in the fifties when he went there to cover France’s war and stepped on a land mine.

The third couple consists of Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Barea was a minor official in the Spanish government’s office of press censorship. At the start of the war he had a wife and family, but when he met the also married Ilsa, they fell for each other, Barea divorced his wife, and he and Ilsa began to live together.

The book makes interesting reading; it is not so much history, though you do walk away from it with a much enlarged understanding of the Spanish Civil War, as it is a series of anecdotes, wonderfully drawn.

A fine read about an important time in history. One wonders what might have been had the western democracies made early common cause with the Spanish Republic against fascism. Would Hitler have backed off? Would Mussolini? Might Stalin have thrown Soviet strength into the war against fascism earlier? Unfortunately, we will never know. Also unfortunate was the cost of the war—at least 500,000 dead, many thousands more executed by the Franco government after he took charge of the government.

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