Spanish Civil War
The elderly, women and children evacuating Barcelona under heavy bombardment by fascist planes
The 1992 Olympics saw the world’s press converge on Barcelona, but there was another period in the city’s history when international journalists and photographers were lured here. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was, in the words of the historian Hugh Thomas, “the golden age of the foreign correspondent”. It attracted some of the best writers and journalists in the world for titles as different as Esquire, The Daily Express and Pravda. Here, in the streets of Barcelona and in the battlefields of Aragon they developed a new form of journalism, in which the reporter told the story in the first person, as an eyewitness to the epic and brutal events. It also saw the rise of the war photographer in the emerging field of photojournalism, including two young photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.
Several journalists and photographers were already in Barcelona on July 18th, 1936, on the eve of the failed military coup. They had come to the city to cover the People’s Olympiad, Catalunya’s protest against the racist Berlin Olympics, which had attracted 6000 athletes from the rest of Spain, Europe and the USA. The coup was quickly defeated but the games had to be cancelled. Instead the reporters sent the first reports of the fighting. They included George Soria and the photographer David Seymour for the French magazine Regards. Soria wrote “garbage carts could be seen galloping down Avenida Diagonal while sparrows, chased out of the trees by the racket, spiraled wildly in the summer sky...firefighters racing to burning churches, cars speeding through the streets”. American reporter Lawrence Fernworth, described the city’s streets during a lull in the fighting in Plaça Catalunya: “Over by the monument I saw dead horses lying about and splotches of blood drying on the pavement where the wounded had been taken away. The stone walls of many buildings were broken and chipped by bullets. Empty cartridges and bandoliers were lying about everywhere.” Some of the first pictures taken were by two young progressive Germans, Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner. The former later wrote, “We did not stay in Spain because we were press photographers. We stayed because Franco was our enemy and because it was also our war.”
They were quickly joined by others based in the Mediterranean, some of which were right-wing and painted widely exaggerated pictures of the revolutionary violence unleashed by the coup, stripped completely of any historical context and often explained in racist patronising terms. The worst offender was Sefton Delmar working for the Daily Express who never even managed to get to Barcelona and sent his lurid fantasies from the safety of Perpignan with headlines like “ARMED REDS BAR WAY TO CITY OF TERROR”.
However, most journalists were more sympathetic, believing in the justness of the Republican cause which they saw at the forefront of the great ideological battle between democratic values and fascism. They saw no contradiction between firmly supporting one side and writing objective and critical accounts of the war. Many felt journalism was a tool that could publicise the Republican cause, and thought photography could help change the world. It was a different time.
In Barcelona, most members of the press were put up at the Hotel Majestic (Passeig de Gràcia, 68) which had been in effect requisitioned by the propaganda department of the Catalan government. Among the journalists staying at the Majestic were Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Herbert Matthews of The New York Times, the great Soviet reporter Mikhail Koltsov, and the photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.
It was perhaps photojournalism which would have the greatest impact on world opinion. As Susan Sontag explained in the The New Yorker in, 2002, “The Spanish Civil War was the first war to be witnessed (‘covered’) in the modern sense: by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment, whose work was immediately seen in newspapers and magazines in Spain and abroad.” Moreover. cameras had just not been fast enough before, but photographers were now armed with the new Leicas and Rolleiflexes, superb pieces of technology.
Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (Leica and Rolleiflex, respectively) arrived in Barcelona on August 5th 1936. They had flown from Paris in a plane chartered by the French magazine Vu, along with other journalists. A mechanical fault forced the pilot to crash land near the city, although the couple were both unhurt. Capa and Taro’s real names were Endre Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle. They had met in Paris a year earlier, and faced with the prejudice towards political and above all Jewish exiles—Friedmann was Hungarian and Pohorylle was Polish—they invented the American sounding name Robert Capa after Frank Capra, the film director. Friedmann became Capa, perhaps the most famous war photographer of all time, and Pohorylle came up with the professional name of Gerda Taro.
Once in Barcelona, they set about capturing people in the streets and cafés, children playing on barricades, anti-clerical violence and requisitioned cars daubed with the initials of the CNT, the anarchist trade union—and like many foreign visitors were overwhelmed by the energy of the libertarian revolution. They also photographed soldiers leaving by train for the front, not tearfully saying goodbye, but rather smiling with raised fists, full of the belief that they were helping to build a new world. Taro herself took a number of memorable photos in the city including those of children playing in front of El Molino, dressed as militiamen; and of militiawomen doing shooting practice in their black uniforms on Barceloneta beach—French and British magazines were clamouring for titillating pictures of the newly armed women from Spain. Taro would be tragically killed in July 1937, crushed beneath a Republican tank during the battle of Brunete, near Madrid. Traumatised by her death, Capa abandoned Spain and went to cover the war in China. He returned to Barcelona in December 1937, meeting fellow journalists Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the bar of the Majestic. Capa and Gelhorn would become good friends, and then lovers.
Capa flew from Paris to Barcelona for the last time on January 10th and spent 15 days in the city and at the shrinking Catalan front, covering the retreating Republican army. He found the city in total chaos. Martial law had been declared. Some 500,000 refugees fleeing Francoist atrocities crowded the dark streets, barely surviving on tiny rations. Potato skins had replaced tobacco. He depicted a recruitment office and a refugee centre, overflowing with women, children and the elderly who had fled southern Catalunya as the front had collapsed. The last days in Barcelona were hell. The Condor Division had arrived with Heinkels and Stukas attacking in wave after wave. The last journalists hung on at the Majestic. There was no heating. Martha Gellhorn recounted as bombs fell all around them how her and Capa huddled together for warmth.
On Passeig de Gràcia, Capa captured several scenes: women refugees with huge bundles on their backs arriving in the city from the collapsing Tarragona front. Another shows a middle-aged couple seated together on a bench outside of La Pedrera. Capa has his back to Gaudí’s masterpiece, framing the couple around the modernista bench. For buildings held no interest, they could only diminish the human subject. The couple seem to be bidding each other goodbye as the man is hopelessly sent to the front. He looks lost in his thoughts. Imagine, an office worker, who has never held a gun. Oddly, he’s wearing slippers, possibly shoes can no longer be bought. The left hand of the woman holds on to the iron structure above the bench, as if looking for support. On a plane tree, perhaps the same one as stands there today, a sign reading January 16th,1939 proclaims the general mobilisation of both sexes aged between 17 and 55. Behind them, all the shops on Passeig de Gràcia are closed, dark, ghostlike figures in thick coats seem to wander aimlessly in the street.
Capa was among the last members of the press to leave Barcelona, accompanied by reporters Herbert Matthews (The New York Times), O’Dowd Gallagher (Daily Express) and William Forest (News Chronicle). At one in the morning of January 25th, L’Humanite reporter Georges Soria burst into the Majestic with news that Nationalist troops were crossing, unopposed, the Llobregat River, barely 15 kilometres to the south. Thirty minutes later, Herbert Matthews found Capa “sleeping like a baby in his room”, oblivious to the incessant bombing, and roughly awoke him, hustling him into his car, although another version puts him curled up with Marta Gellhorn. Matthews, Gallagher and Capa went to the censor’s office where the latter photographed the other two sending their last dispatches from the city by candlelight driving out of the city towards the French border on the coastal road clogged with hundreds of thousands of refugees. The next day Barcelona fell.