In this chat we discuss journalism and the Spanish Civil War, exploring the role of correspondents is writing the ‘first draft of history’ and some of the debate surrounding their wartime roles. We also discuss how these debates can affect our memory of war and conflict.
If you are interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War I’d strongly recommend reading:
- Stanley Payne, The Spanish Civil War. An interesting overview of the conflict. Payne has also written on some more specific and focused aspects of the Spanish Civil War.
- Anthony Beevor, The Battle for Spain. If you just want to look at one book that covers a lot, then Beevor’s rather massive book (at over 600 pages) is worth reading. It is a very comprehensive and engaging account.
- Hannah Graham, The Spanish Civil War: An introduction. A much shorter and quicker, but no less scholarly, overview of the war compared to Beevor.
- Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty. An excellent discussion of the role of war reporters more broadly, but his chapter on the Spanish Civil War is full of rich examples of reporters as propagandists, myth makers, and truth-seekers.
- David Deacon, ‘”Going to Spain with the Boys”: Women Correspondents and the Spanish Civil War’, in Michael Bailey (ed) Narrating Media History. A more focused, but very interesting discussion into the role of female war reporters and the challenges they faced.
- Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War. An excellent collection of some of Gellhorn’s brilliant articles.
Special thanks to Ali, Robert and Rob for their help clarifying the figures!
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History Fireside Chats with Dr Kristopher Lovell:
Reporting the Spanish Civil War
Hello and welcome to History Fireside Chats. I’m Dr Kristopher an historian at Coventry University and today I want to use our time to talk about the Spanish Civil War – in particular the role of war correspondents in the civil war, how the war was covered by them and the debates surrounding objectivity in the face of atrocities. I also want to explore how media coverage of the Spanish Civil War has shaped our perception of the war today and the role that war correspondents play in society more broadly.
Prelude to the War:
The Spanish Civil War started 1936 and lasted for around three years. The road to the Civil War is a longer road than we can tread in this short chat with a long and deep history of division in Spain at the time between the rural areas and the cities, between modernism and tradition and religion versus atheism.
But one of the key moments was the election of February 1936 which seemed exemplify these cultural tensions across the country.
At that election the Popular Front, a coalition of various left-wing parties, narrowly won the election with around 47% of the vote. That narrow margin reflected that division and in the wake of the election there were great waves of political violence throughout the country, perpetrated by the left and the right. In addition to hundreds of political killings, the Right also sought to de-legitimize the new Republican Government as it tried to regain control and the Right tried to question the entire democratic process in Spain.
In July 1936, a failed right-wing coup attempted to seize power in Spain but the coup was successful in up dividing Spain up geographically into Republican and Nationalist (or rather rebel) territories, leading to the outbreak of Civil War. It also led to further violence as citizens across the country started targeting other citizens.
As Hannah Graham noted, violence occurred in different sides as but for different reasons and to different extents. Violence often occurred in Republican areas as the elements of the left sought to punish the symbols of the old order, symbols such as religion and the clerics – these were acts that the Republican government was unable to control because the coup had decimated the police and the military order. Violence amongst the rebels was often legitimised by the Nationalists who wanted to punish the new symbols of Republicanism in order to preserve the old. This included targeting people based on their gender or on their sexuality. This new wave of extreme violence tapped into the cultural cleavages that existed and also tapped into new fears as well. Violence was often perpetrated by people who feared a violent retaliation against them. Some people participated simply as a way of deflecting attention from themselves. This was especially if you were, say, a Republican sympathiser in a Nationalist region. But one key difference between the violence in these areas, was whereas the Republican government was unable to control the violence or to stem it, the Nationalist had the military and had the police force to quell the violence but they chose not to.
Within a week the war had become an international conflict by proxy as the rebels, the Nationalists, appealed to Hitler and the Mussolini for military support.
Throughout the war, both sides would receive foreign aid and support and many people across the world volunteered to fight including British journalists like George Orwell and Tom Wintringham. Though even though it was a civil war, it very clearly had international ramifications. And the ideological and international nature of the war has led some to characterise the Spanish Civil War as part of a wider fight against fascism – a prelude to or opening act of the Second World War if you will.
But for the purpose for this chat, I want to talk about how war correspondents brought the war home to its readers.
Journalism and the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War has been glamourized as a golden age for the war correspondent. Many accounts from war correspondents have romanticised the period as an age of heroism – a time when the correspondent risked their life riding into battle armed with nothing more than a notepad and pencil to bring truth to their readers at home. This can be seen not only in the reports of the time but also in media depictions ever since, with films such as Guernica and Hemingway and Gellhorn depicting cliched hard-drinking reporters doing anything for a story. However this depiction says more about the role of the correspondent as a myth maker than anything else. Philip Knightley discusses this excellently in his book.
There are several debates about the role of the war reporter that I want to explore briefly through a discussion of the Spanish Civil War. And that is whether the role of the war reporter is to be there simply as a mere objective observer, to not get involved in the conflict but to merely report it. Or do we need to have correspondents who are much more open and honest about their bias in order to present a more truthful and open view of the war? And where exactly is the line between news and propaganda?
And these were all issues that were played out, almost in real time, during the Spanish Civil as multiple correspondents had different views of their own roles. Some correspondents were more objective than others, some were more active, some were participants. And others were little more than propagandists for the left or the right – a few journalists were all of these at various different times.
We often assume that objectivity is essential for a journalist and for an historian for that matter. However, war correspondents during the Spanish Civil War differed in their pursuit for objectivity. Objectivity could, it’s been argued ever since, limit a journalist and claims of objectivity often mask bias rather than remove it. Herbert Matthews, of The New York Times rarely trusted anyone who claimed to be objective, arguing instead that the reader needs to be made aware of a reporter’s bias: “A reader has a right to ask for all the facts; he has no right to ask that a journalist or historian agree with him” 
For correspondents like Matthews, the most important thing was that their bias were well known and honest. In his own words, ‘I would always opt for honest, open bias. A newspaperman should work with his heart as well as his mind’. 
The brilliant reporter Martha Gellhorn who would go on to report on the Second World War and the Vietnam War, put the debate much more succinctly: “I never believed in all that objectivity shit” she said.
Gellhorn’s reports from the war sought to present the reader with a greater sense of truth – a sense of the war from the perspective of the victims, often overlooked in war reports of fellow correspondents who favoured a discussion of military tactics and the minutia of battle rather than how the war effected the ordinary person.
To this day her reports remain immensely readable and give the reader a sense of the experience of war without the sort of voyeurism of war correspondence. Take for example, her opening passages of an article penned in July 1937:
At first the shells went over: you could hear the thud as they left the Fascists’ guns, a sort of groaning cough; then you heard them fluttering towards you. As they came closer the sound went faster and straighter and sharper and then, very fast, you heard the great booming noise when they hit.
But now, for I don’t know how long – because time didn’t mean much – they had been hitting on the street in front of the hotel, and on the corner, and to the left in the side street. When the shells hit that close, it was a different sound. The shells whistled toward you – it was as if they whirled at you – faster than you could imagine speed, and, spinning that way, they whined: the whine rose higher and quicker and was a close scream – and then they hit and it was like granite thunder. There wasn’t anything to do or anywhere to go: you could only wait. But waiting alone in a room that got dustier and dustier as the powdered cobblestones of the street floated into it was pretty bad.
I went downstairs into the lobby, practicing on the way how to breathe. You couldn’t help breathing strangely, just taking the air into your throat and not being able to inhale it.
Martha Gellhorn was one of the few women who played a vital role in reporting on the war. Other figures included Hilde Marchant, Dorothy Parker, and Barbo Alving. These reporters predominantly wrote for left wing papers and they often wrote more human-interest stories than their male counterparts.
Whilst there is a debate about whether this stems from key differences in reportage style of men and women, there were some key practical differences that gave female war reporters in the Spanish Civil War a bit more freedom. They were often overlooked and unappreciated by their employers, and this lack of prestige and status, according to David Deacon, gave them a bit more freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing their stories and writing more human interest stories. This was because they did not face the same pressures to meet certain deadlines. Whilst this was very disheartening for them it did inadvertently allow them more time to focus on the human side of the war, on what has been termed the softer news. And as the war progressed, it was these reports that were taken more and more seriously by readers who took an interest in the human side of total war — a new kind of war that they thought would soon come to their shores in Britain and America.
Some reporters such as Claude Cockburn and Arthur Koestler however completely forwent any debates about objectivity in favour of working as propagandists. Koestler used to intentionally complicate his reportage by including complete fabrications given to him by an agitprop agent, that is a Soviet political propagandist, into his real reports about Nationalist atrocities. Cockburn used to write thrilling accounts of battles and reports based entirely on his imagination and travel guides. For him the role of the war correspondent was more about getting support for the right side – in his case the communists – and not about reporting truth to his readers.
Correspondents were often unintentional propagandists. As Knightley notes, ‘The drawback of reporting with heart as well as mind is that if the cause is basically just, as the Republicans one undoubtedly was, the correspondent tends to write in terms of heroic endeavour, rather than face unpalatable facts, and to mislead his readers with unjustified optimism.’ The great Ernest Hemingway failed to disclose his knowledge about executions by the Political Commissars and often saved the best of his reportage for his novels and not for journalism.
The blurring of the lines between news and propagandists on both sides has left to some historiographical problems. The inflated, exaggerated and sometimes fabricated reports of atrocities and have made it very difficult to ascertain the truth regarding atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. And they devalue honest reporter’s work such as that of Jay Allen who bravely risked his own life to report on the massacre of 1,800 prisoners at Badajoz in August 1936.
The total death toll for atrocities is hotly contest with some claiming atrocities were committed equally on both sides, with others claiming that the Nationalists killed over twice as many. And part of this confusion stems from the unclear reportage at the time – this is exemplified by the Bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937.
The image many people have to this day is of a long bombing campaign conducted by the Nationalists and aided by the German and Italian air forces which killed over 2000 civilians in an unprovoked attack on a non-military target. The journalist George Steer happened to be in the area reported the news on the bombing of Guernica to the world. In his words:
‘In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective.’
Steer’s report concluded that Guernica had been bombed only to terrorise the civilian population.
However increasingly since the 1980s historians have begun to question the original estimates with many claiming the numbers of deaths was much lower, between 200 and 600. Some apologists have even attempted to deny the bombing of Guernica claiming that it was nothing more than a piece of Republican propaganda – in order to substantiate this erroneous view of history they often cite newspaper reports of false atrocities as proof. Likewise, there has been some heated debates about whether Guernica was a justified military target – some historians have pointed out that it was close to the front line, it contained three battalions and it was a key thoroughfare for any retreating force.
One thing is clear from the bombing – Steer’s report changed public opinion across the world in support the Republicans and it also brought a sense of fear closer to home. Guernica represented a new type of war – a war where there was little distinction between the battle front and the home front – a new age of modern war. This tapped into the fear that we discussed in earlier podcasts about how the Bomber Will Always Get Through.
Steer’s report also demonstrates how chance plays a role in journalism and later in historical memory. Guernica has become a household name because Steer was in the wrong place at the right time– the town of Durango, which had had been bombed the month before Guernica, suffered arguably greater losses has been completely overlooked and neglected because there was little to no reportage.
War correspondents continued to report on the war until the very end of it – some accurately, some as propagandists and some as best as they could. The war ended with a Nationalist victory and the start of General Franco’s dictatorship which would last for nearly 40 years, outliving fascism in Italy and Germany.
The debates around the role of journalists in reporting foreign conflicts is still ongoing and debates continued throughout the Second World War, Vietnam and the Falkland’s conflict about the role of the journalist as a tool of propaganda. The partisan nature of the war caused many reporters to report on it in a narrative of good versus evil and debates about this type of narrative have emerged consistently throughout the twentieth century. We see this debate emerging again in the 1990s during the coverage of the Bosnian War when Martin Bell called for ‘journalism of attachment’, arguing that journalists cannot be objective or detached in the face of genocide – instead they must side with the victims. Bell’s idea journalism of attachment is a controversial stance as we shall explore in a future chat. But it is one that has clear roots in the reportage of the Spanish Civil War and it is a theme that we will consistently go back to throughout these podcasts: the role of the war journalist as objective, or subjective reporter and whether they should be allowed to participate actively in conflict or war zones.
If you are interested learning more about the Spanish Civil War I would thoroughly recommend reading the works of Hannah Graham, Anthony Beevor or Stanley Payne. David Deacon has a very interesting article on female war correspondents during the Spanish Civil War. And Greg McLaughlin’s overview of war correspondents is a fantastic read.
I’d also recommend going back to some of the original sources. There is a fantastic collection of articles by Martha Gellhorn in a book called: The Face Of War. And this really gives you an insight into her style of reporting. And of course, there are some famous works that are always worth revisiting, things like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia .
If you go to Kristopherlovell.com you will find these podcasts alongside some transcripts and some references.
Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next time.
 Hannah Graham provides an excellent discussion of violence in the wars throughout her short text
 Philip Knightley, The First Casualty,
 Knightley, p.195
 Knightley, p195
 Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War, p. 18
 For an overview of the debates surrounding the difference between men and women in terms of war reportage see: Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent, pp. 48-54. This is an Open Access book available at: https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/32791
 David Deacon, pp. 69-71
 Knightley, p. 196
 Knightley, p. 216
 Hemingway’s military contribution to the war has also been exaggerated. Anthony Beevor, The Battle for Spain (2006) p. 275
 Knightley, p. 201
 George Steer, ‘The Tragedy of Guernica’, The Times, 27 April 1937 Steer’s entire report can be found for free here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/The_tragedy_of_Guernica_%28George_Steer%29.jpg
 Payne, p. 210
Music used (Public Domain)
- Bach, Cello Suite no 1 in G Major I & II
- Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11 Menuetto
- Anon., Himno del Principado de Asturias en formato
- Anon., En la plaza de mi pueblo