Kate Atkinson makes the following comment in a Reader Guide included in the paperback edition of Life After Life: “To research the background of this book, I read as much as possible before beginning and then tried to forget as much as possible and simply write.”

Someday I may write well enough to do that, but right now I’m trying to figure out the Spanish Civil War and it’s making my head hurt. I’m making charts and little study aids, trying to remember that not all Republicans supported the Popular Front government; that the communists were actually the conservatives of the left, and communists come in different flavors, as do monarchists; that the Generals staging a coup liked to refer to the loyalists as “rebels and mutineers;” that the Basques were traditionally conservative and religious but repelled the generals in seeking self-rule; and the Catalans also wanted divorce from Madrid but couldn’t afford to antagonize the anarchists who didn’t want any government at all. But tallying up all the factions is like trying to count stars in the sky and even if you decide on a number, keeping them straight, and figuring out what side they were on is anything but straightforward.

To reduce this war to right vs. left doesn’t really tell the story. It must also be seen as a class struggle, as Catholic-based authoritarian rule vs. libertarian freedom, and of centralized government against regional autonomy. In Spain before the war church and state were one, two pillars of an authoritarian government that suppressed the people with brutality by the state, and a promise of a place in heaven.

On the Republican (Loyalist) side

  • The Popular Front Government of the Republic sought a democratic government dominated by the moderate middle class.
  • Basques and Catalans sought freedom from the state through autonomous self-rule.
  • Anarchists sought to replace the government with local committees of unionists that would govern without leaders.
  • Socialists sought a democratic, socialist central government dominated by the trade unions and an alliance with the anarchists.
  • Soviet communists believed strongly in centralized control.
  • Anti-Stalinist communists did not.

On the Nationalist (fascist) side:

  • Carlists wanted to restore the monarchy of the Borbon Don Carlos line.
  • Traditional monarchists favored the successors of Queen Isabella II
  • Falange wanted a dictatorship of the privileged
  • JONS was the socialist wing of the Falange
  • CEDA was a political alliance of right-wing Catholic parties wanting to re-unite church and state with the power in the church.
  • The Radical Republican Party wanted a religious quasi-democracy.
  • The Liberal Republican Party just wanted to do away with the monarchy.
  • Catalan League were bourgeois industrialists of Barcelona opposed to taxation from Madrid.
  • The Generals wanted power. They saw the government as weak and ineffective, wanted to protect Spain from communist rule, despised the anarchists for everything they believed, had no use for the monarchy and wanted to use the Falange as a particularly brutal military force.

In 1936, the Popular Front government of the Second Republic of Spain had an anarchist inspired revolution on one side, and a military, Catholic, monarchist coup on the other. Its leaders didn’t know which way to turn.

“The ultimate paradox of the liberal Republic represented by its government was that it did not dare defend itself from its own army by giving weapons to the workers who had elected it.” Antony Beevor: The Battle for Spain



Robert Capa

I intend to use this blog to preview themes and develop ideas for a novel-in-progress. Your comments are welcome.

How do you know what to believe about a man who created a false identity, inhabited it with enthusiasm, and willed himself to actually become that person?

He was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest to middle class Jewish parents. Having trouble getting paid photo assignments in Paris in the early 30’s, he and his lover, Gerda Taro (née Gerta Pohorylle) invented Robert Capa, a brilliant but reclusive American photojournalist whose photos commanded very high fees. Editors never met this “Capa” but Gerda, acting as his agent, sold many photos and procured high profile assignments.

So Friedmann became Capa, and Capa became famous. Picture Post called him “The Greatest War Photographer in the World,” and Capa came to believe it. He was never a great technical photographer, but in the words of his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Capa knew how to tell a story in pictures.”

He also knew how to promote himself, including writing and publishing a memoir that he freely admitted wasn’t always true, but was the way it should have been. The book, Slightly out of Focus, was always intended to be the basis for a film script and Capa followed it up by becoming friends with writers, actors and directors, such as John Huston, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

He was passionate about left-wing causes and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War is anything but objective journalism, but he was not alone. Writers, artists, and photographers from around the world enlisted in the cause of the Republican government. This was the first battle against fascism and when it was lost, WWII became inevitable.

Capa went on to cover the China-Japan war, WWII, and, finally, the French war in Indochina where he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in 1954.

The problem with Capa is not in his ability or his sympathies, it is in just one photograph, which Capa titled: The Falling Soldier. It’s also been labeled: Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and The Moment of Death. There are a number of questions about the validity of the photo, many stemming from the fact that Capa sent the undeveloped film to Paris, did not provide captions, and the negative has never been found. The name of the subject and the exact location are in dispute, and there is evidence that Capa’s statements on the location and circumstances are false. He claimed in an interview that the soldiers were on an exercise and not expecting combat when a sniper’s bullet hit his subject, but subsequent research has established that there was no combat and no snipers in that area at that time. Some accounts say the man was shot in the head, others in the stomach. Several researchers are convinced it was a machine gun. There is no blood in the photo. There is another photo of a different man apparently being shot in the exact same place. Is this possible, or is it the same scene staged with two different soldiers?

The 1997 discovery of a suitcase with 4500 negatives from the war shot by Capa, Taro and Chim (David Seymour) raised hopes that the controversy could be resolved, but The Falling Soldier was not in the case. Negatives on the same roll shot before and after the famous image are also missing. None of this is very surprising and all of it does not add up to an indictment. Capa was 23 years old in 1936 and still inexperienced as a combat photographer. Spain was in chaos, systems were broken, communication was difficult. There are many reasons why the negative could have been lost and why he might have been confused about the circumstances. And this is in no way meant to denigrate his accomplishments: Capa, Chim, and Taro defined combat photojournalism in Spain, and Capa’s WWII coverage is extraordinary.

But questions remain and that leaves an opening for interpretation. Is it the greatest war photograph ever made, or just an awkwardly composed, slightly out of focus snap of a man tripping on a slippery hillside?

Art lives outside the borders of certainty.



Back in Maury

Just returned from five days in Spain with Barbara doing what we do best, eating and drinking. Having not seen each other for 15 months, it took us all of about 15 seconds to fall back into our normal patterns and habits; all the history revives the common references without even trying. Change would have been much more difficult.

Barbara flew into Barcelona and after a stop at the Boqueria to stock the kitchen we came up to Maury for Barbara to meet friends and recover from jet lag. Off to Leucate for oysters, then packed the Twingo and headed down the coast, lunch at Sitges then on to Tarragona for warm sunshine, café sitting and tapas.

A couple of diversions along the way to Valencia gave us a great lunch at a restaurant in Gandesa that looked like the dining room of a Holiday Inn in 1970 (I’ll leave it to Barbara to add a comment on her pigs feet carpaccio). Then a little way down the road we found ourselves on a tiny car ferry crossing the Ebro River to get to Miravet and its famous castle, which was closed for lunch. The ferry was a treat though, just a steel platform mounted on two small motor boats.

Spain: Miravet Ferry, Barbara ©2012 Ron Scherl

Valencia is a lovely city and we took a few long walks, dined on paella and went sightseeing at the Central Market, actually Barbara insisted on breaking the pattern and actually going to a museum that wasn’t even about food or wine, but we did get to see some of the portraits of Joaquin Sorolla, who paints the most astonishing eyes. It wasn’t long before we restored our balance with a couple of glasses of Cava in a nice bar at the beach.

Spain: Valencia Bar 39 ©2012 Ron Scherl

Another morning at the market before heading back to Barcelona for the last night. Banys-Orientales is a nice hotel in the Gothic Quarter, which is being revived and renewed with artist studios, boutiques, trendy bars and the most amazing – and probably the most expensive – grocery store, wine bar in town. Order a glass of wine and wander over to the cheese and ham section, have another and you may not even notice the prices. A tapas dinner in the Eixample district and we were done.

Spain: Valencia Central Market

Barbara flew back the next morning and I returned to Maury and an invitation to the end of harvest party at Domaine des Enfants: wine from Marcel, sushi from Pascal his intern, guacamole from Carrie, and wild boar from Taieb the hunter, quite a menu. The Tramontane was blowing, the temperature was dropping into the 30s but the crowd was warm, the food was great and someone kept filling the photographer’s glass.

Domaine des Enfants Harvest Party 2012 ©2012 Ron Scherl