What did Hemingway do to save the Republic?
What did Ernest Hemingway do to save the Spanish Republic? We know that he contributed personal funds to send ambulances to Spain, and that he paid for the passage of a few volunteer ambulance drivers.
We know that he worked with Joris Ivens in producing the pro-Republican documentary film, The Spanish Earth. When the original narration by Orson Welles was deemed too stentorian, Hemingway added his own voice to the film.
We know, of course, that he gave his talent as a writer to support the Republican side.
But there are at least two additional things Hemingway did that have attracted little attention.
First, the novelist and his lover, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, arranged for a private screening of The Spanish Earth in the White House in an attempt to alter President Franklin Roosevelt’s policy of non-intervention. The effort did not succeed, but it shows a tremendous commitment to influence the highest level of power in this country.
Second, from a letter Hemingway wrote to the Lincoln veteran Edwin Rolfe in 1940 (while he was writing the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls), there is convincing evidence that Hemingway went on a secret mission behind fascist lines during the war. This confirms the suspicions of my colleague Professor Will Watson of MIT, though his analysis of the purpose of the mission differs from what Hemingway says.
I address both topics (and others) in a lecture I gave last March for the British International Brigade Memorial Trust—the annual Leonard Crome lecture at the Imperial War Museum. A revised version of that talk, “From Guernica to Human Rights: The Spanish Civil War in the 21st Century,” has now been published in the October issue of the Antioch Review.
Although the Hemingway Foundation gave me permission to use the novelist’s words in the article, copyright restrictions prevent me from quoting them here.
What the letter indicates is that Hemingway went on an intelligence mission to gauge the political sentiments of a town that had been bombed and to assess whether the population might have Republican sympathies. What Hemingway emphasizes is his fear—and his discovery that said town was not likely to support the Republic. For this information, he did not receive thanks from Republican officials.
The point I want to make about these activities is that Hemingway perceived the war as a fight against fascism. He was acutely aware of the back room politics of the communists in Spain. But he insisted that the first order of business was to defeat the fascists, a view that paralleled the communist position. Later, when he read a draft of the screenplay of For Whom the Bell Tolls, he was appalled that the movie, released during World War II, gave no clue to explain why “a man will die and know it is well for him to die.” “We are at present engaged in fighting a war against the Fascists,” he said. “Throughout the picture the enemy should be called the Fascists and the Republic should be called the Republic….Unless you make this emphasis the people seeing the picture will have no idea what the [Spanish] people were really fighting for.”
Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade often remarked that Hemingway was politically naïve. But his commitment to the elected republican government was clear, unwavering, and free of ideological cant.