Today you can find a branch of the department store chain El Corte Inglés where the Hotel Florida once stood in Madrid. The hotel was built in 1924 as a ten-story building and was demolished in 1964. In between, 1936 to 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Florida was badly battered, but at the same time it became one of the most spectacular places in literary and media history. Because here resided what had international journalistic or literary name and international rank. A total of around 35,000 international volunteers fought at times on the part of the democratically legitimized government against Franco and his troops in this test run during the Second World War, around 17,000 were killed.
While the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union, financed mainly by the Spanish gold reserves that were brought to Moscow, Franco received massive aid from Germany and Italy, England, France and the USA were strictly neutral. In addition to anarchists, socialists, communists and exiles from Nazi Germany or fascist Hungary, it was mainly intellectuals from the democratic countries who fought for the cause of the republic, either directly or journalistically, literarily and cinematically. Humanitarian idealists like salon communists, mostly driven by a longing for something meaningful, for the right side and the higher order. And Florida was the place where the most prominent or ambitious of them met, exchanged, got drunk, argued and made love.
Amanda Vaill’s book focuses on three couples: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, the Spanish censor and writer Arturo Barea and his colleague, lover and later wife Ilse Kulcsar. The latter is probably the least known, but perhaps the most remarkable couple in this country. Around them people like John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman, Michail Kolzow, Joris Ivens and many others.
Half a million people died
The story of the Spanish Civil War, which killed almost half a million people, has been reconstructed and told over and over again. So far, however, not from this perspective and in this way: focused on the international intellectuals and their propaganda for the democratic cause, which of course developed more and more into a Stalinist-controlled, that is, terrorized, developed.
Based on autobiographies, diaries, research literature and countless archive materials, the four years are run through chronologically, with changing locations: Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Valencia, Teruel, plus Moscow, Paris, New York or Key West. And again and again the Hotel Florida. Amanda Vaill follows her characters, their constellations, twists and turns and destinies without schooling and censoring them. Their art, which keeps you busy for more than 400 fully packed pages: It reproduces what they said for themselves or about each other. The result is not only a vividly detailed history of the turmoil and devastation of this war, but also a panorama of human strengths and weaknesses, intrigues and denunciations, cynicism and pity, bragging and modesty, vanity and generosity, love and lies. It is also the story of the transformation of improvisations into professionalism, chaos into everyday life, and last but not least that of the tension between daily life threat and normal, even luxury life. Above all, it is an exemplary origin story of modern media war reporting in writing, photo and film. A story of sacrifice for the truth, but more of the truth than sacrifice. All of the witnesses were not embedded journalists, but rather enthusiastic about the just cause who wanted to stir up and have an impact. And to do this, if necessary, they twisted the facts, created pictures, invented scenes and figures – in the service of the higher truth of which they were convinced.
Last but not least, they also worked against each other, against alleged procrastinators, critics, even traitors. The Stalinist Trotskyist paranoia soon combined with the fear of the so-called Fifth Column of Fascists on terror, torture and execution, costing many (and rather the better) lives. Like Mikhail Kolzow, who participated and whose cynicism frightened his cronies, quite a few became victims of the terror they had approved or accepted because of the “higher cause”.
Everyone fought for their truth
Those who were disgusted and no longer wanted to take part were ostracized and persecuted: John Dos Passos, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell or the former communist model student Gustav Regulator. Egon Erwin Kisch, who does not appear here, and also there for a while, helped denounce Regulator by inventing detailed “evidence” of his alleged betrayal. Kisch is said to have advised at the time not to report about the suffering of people, but about that of the animals in the zoo. That is the only thing that moves American hearts.
So everyone fought for their truth. In order to certify his military expertise, Hemingway suggested, for example, that he had driven for ten days at the highest risk to his life, to which he had only made a few trips. Joris Ivens’ documentary material, quite apart from the soundtrack, was rather posed. Most absurdly, Robert Capa’s most famous photo, that of the falling soldier: It was taken when someone was simulating death in front of the camera – and one was actually hit by an enemy bullet. Capa and Taro, who actually exposed themselves to the dangers that Hemingway tended to ascribe to themselves, also experienced the dilemma of authentic images of war: the media soon grew tired of the seemingly constant scenes of destruction and suffering. Barea, who censored the foreign correspondents and later reported himself on the international Spanish radio, was torn between scenarios of horror, pity, heroism and victory. Denounced by the Stalinists and threatened with death, he and Ilse Kulcsar will travel to England via Paris.
When Gerda Taro was fatally run over by a retreating T-36 in 1937, she was 27 years old. In order to numb himself about the loss, the just 24-year-old Capa will throw himself into the next theater of war, the Japanese-Chinese. Hemingway, who defended the Stalinist terror against the scruples of Dos Passos, will publish his great novel “Whom the Hour Strikes” in 1940 and will be heavily criticized for his now more critical view of the Russian side. The Spaniard Barea will write about it: “Not Spain, but Hemingway”, but of all the many impressive literary testimonies, this book was not only the most successful, but also the most deeply touching. Hotel Florida is now making Hemingway and all the many others – a multiple of Homer’s heroes – characters in a haunting, long-lasting epic of this war that resulted in World War II, and which, like the blueprint for the wars raging around us today works.
Amanda Vaill: Hotel Florida. Truth, Love and Treason in the Spanish Civil War. From the American by Susanne Held. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2015. 493 pp., € 24.95.