What did Hemingway do to save the Republic?

November 22, 2012
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Hemingway with Joris Ivens during the filming of "The Spanish Earth".

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.

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3 Responses to “ What did Hemingway do to save the Republic? ”

  1. Marina Garde on November 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Very interesting post,Peter. Thanks for writing about Hemingway.

  2. John Kailin on January 9, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    I JUST POSTED THIS ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE:
    Here from Peter Carroll is powerful information that Hemingway was a committed supporter of the Republic, not naive at all. Carroll’s report of Hemingway’s meeting with Roosevelt in the White House in order to screen Joris Iven’s movie is shown in the recent HBO movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” a real sleeper of a popular movie that gets it mainly right about the Spanish Civil War. My father-in-law Milton Wolff criticized Hemingway not for his lack of commitment but for his perceived over-reaching opinions on military (and perhaps political) matters. The two were close enough that Milt was asked to call Hemingway at his home in Cuba years later, to seek an audio tape of support for the Vets and their annual New York meeting. They had cursed each other vehemently over “For Whom the Bell Tolls” [Milt[ and the Vets’ reaction to it [Hemingway], with Milt able to beg further support, and Hemingway to forgive. It was on that occasion that Hemingway recorded his ” . . . no men died more honorably . . . ” address to the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

  3. Luise S. Stone on January 9, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    This article has added information about Hemmingway that I had not learned previously. My father fought for the Republic and I have been interested and intrigued by his commitment for my entire life. Now that I am 72 years old, my hope is that I may be able to pass along my father’s history and the ideal of standing up for one’s beliefs to my grandchildren. Thanks to The Volunteer, I am continually learning more about this historic war and why it is vital that others’ take away some of the important lessons we all may learn from history. Keep up the great work!!!

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