Capa, Picasso, Orwell: The Spanish Civil War

Robert Capa was a photojournalist back in time before videos, smart phones, or live television news. His images were not only works of art, they communicated events to the world.

Although his career was filled with a huge body of great work, it is the photos he took of The Spanish Civil War that he is most associated with. At the time, Capa was just twenty-five and still largely unknown in his profession. The photo below, DEATH OF A LOYALIST SOLDIER, changed all that.

It appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine and many other international publications and launched Capa to fame.

The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 when a sitting government of Socialists, Communists and other left-leaning political groups faced an insurrection of Monarchists, Conservatives and Fascists who called themselves “The Nationalists.” They were led by Francisco Franco.

The result was three years of war and the eventual overthrow of the government. Franco would take power and remain in power until his death in 1975.

The outcome was due to a number of factors. The first was the almost comical division and disorganization of the left-leaning side, “The Republicans.”

George Orwell wrote his starkly amusing account of the war HOMAGE TO CATALONIA about his experiences during the war fighting with the Republican side. It contains many first hand accounts of this disorganization.

As an aside, I’m a big fan of HOMAGE TO CATALONIA. It’s dark but also absurd and sometimes, plain funny. For example, there’s a part of Orwell’s book that I found myself laughing out loud at.

Orwell describes being posted on a mountainside across from the enemy. And just sitting there. For days. For weeks. For months. His enemy soon changes from the soldiers across the hill to the battle of just staying warm.

He ventures from his post to gather fire wood and is fired on. Something that, by that point, doesn’t frighten him in the least. However, it does irritate and just plain annoy him. He just doesn’t understand why someone is making gathering wood so damn difficult.

Sadly, Orwell also experiences, first hand, his leaders being so busy bickering that they fail to seize on key moments to win against Franco and the Fascists. A side not just better organized but far better equipped.

Which leads to a second reason Orwell’s side lost. The Fascists had direct military support from Nazi Germany. German bombers, fighters and tanks were used against the Republicans and the civilians that sympathized with them. It changed the face of the conflict.

The most memorable event of the war, arguably, was the bombing of Guernica. This horrific event was memorialized in Picasso’s painting of the same name. It is considered by many to be his greatest work.

It is incredible art about a terrifying new phase of human history. Bombs by the hundreds being dropped from the skies on civilians.

Picasso and Orwell weren’t the only people inspired to create works based on their feelings regarding the conflict. There was also a certain journalist embedded with Capa for a while. His name was Ernest Hemingway.

What Hemingway saw would later inspire him to write FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

But back to history. There was third reason the Fascists were eventually able to overthrow the government. Much of the rest of the world, most notably America, refused to get involved. Although volunteers were allowed to go to Spain and fight if they so wished, the official policy of the United States was very clear: Non-Intervention.

The result was almost inevitable. The Republicans lost in 1939. Franco seized power and kept it for the rest of his life.

There was also another chilling result. The American Ambassador to Spain at the time, referred to the conflict as a “dress rehearsal.” He wasn’t wrong.

Shortly afterward, Hitler rolled his tanks into Poland and unleashed his bombers, once again, on civilians below. World War II had begun.

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