Authors: Preston Paul
Louis Fischer, one of the most influential correspondents during the war, was a good example in that he did all three. His immensely well-informed and perspicacious articles for
in New York and
New Statesman and Nation
in London can still be read with profit by historians of the Spanish Civil War. He also served briefly in the International Brigades. Yet his importance was less because of what he published than because of what he did behind the scenes. Having been a correspondent in the Soviet Union for over a decade and a half, speaking fluent Russian, he had a remarkable range of high-level contacts in Moscow, especially in the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. At the same time, he was considered in the United States to be one of the country’s principal experts on Russia and its regime. Largely for that reason, he had access to the highest levels of government in Washington. He also enjoyed a number of important connections within the Spanish Government. In Moscow in the 1920s and later on a visit to Spain in 1934, Fischer had become friendly with the journalist Julio Álvarez del Vayo. On his 1934 trip, Fischer had also established friendships with the US Ambassador, Claude G. Bowers, himself a one-time newspaperman, and with other American correspondents, including Lester Ziffren and Jay Allen, through whom he met the then politically unknown Dr Juan Negrín.
Accordingly, he had a high degree of influence in all three countries.
When Fischer reached Spain in mid-September 1936, he had quickly renewed contact with Álvarez del Vayo, who barely two weeks earlier had been appointed Foreign Minister and two months later would be Comisario General de Guerra. Álvarez del Vayo was trying, among a huge array of urgent tasks, to place the Republic’s press and propaganda services on an efficient basis. In search of more professional assistance, he turned to Fischer, to Willi Münzenberg, the Comintern propaganda chief who specialized in anti-fascist activities, and to his deputy Otto Katz, the seductively mysterious Czech agent of the Comintern, widely regarded by friends and critics alike as a ‘propagandist of genius’. Álvarez del Vayo had first met Münzenberg in Berlin in the early 1930s when he had been the Central European and Russian correspondent of
of Buenos Aires. In late 1934, he had invited Willi Münzenberg and his wife Babette Gross to visit Spain and they had toured the south together.
The multilingual Katz was remembered by Arthur Koestler as ‘a smooth and slick operator[…]dark and handsome, with a somewhat
seedy charm[…]He had the generosity of the adventurer, and he could be warm-hearted, spontaneous and helpful – as long as it did not conflict with his interests.’ Claud Cockburn described him as ‘a middle-sized man with a large, slightly cadaverous head in which the skull bones were unusually prominent. He had large melancholy eyes, a smile of singular sweetness and an air of mystery – a mystery into which he was prepared to induct you, you alone, because he loved and esteemed you so highly.’ Otto claimed that he had once been married to Marlene Dietrich. Using the pseudonym ‘André Simone’, Katz became the unofficial organizer of the Spanish Republic’s propaganda operation in Western Europe with financial support from both the Spanish Government and the Comintern. Katz was to be the guiding intelligence behind the Republic’s Paris press agency, the Agence Espagne, which was finally set up at the beginning of 1937.
Among those persuaded by Katz to campaign on behalf of the Republic was the Bavarian Catholic Prince Hubertus Friedrich of Loewenstein, a descendant of Queen Victoria. The Prince wrote a book on behalf of the Republic and accompanied Katz on a visit to Catholic bishops in the United States. Afterwards, the Prince said that he was ‘still suffering from vertigo after seeing Otto Katz genuflect three times and kiss the ring of a reputedly progressive cardinal’.
In the main, Katz/Simone always remained in the shadows. Despite the importance of his role, there are few traces of his presence in the memoir literature of the time. Arturo Barea reported him holding a party for International Brigaders at the Hotel Gran Vía in early 1937. It may well have been on the same trip that Gustav Regler met him at the Hotel Florida in mid-April 1937.
In October 1937, Fischer stayed with the Republican Prime Minister Juan Negrín at his residence in Valencia and commented that Katz, ‘who devoted his abilities to Loyalist propaganda abroad’, was also there. Willi Münzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross, said that he travelled between Paris, Barcelona and Valencia on behalf of the Agence Espagne throughout 1938.
Despite the scarcity of references to his role, there can be little doubt about the crucial, if shadowy, presence of Otto Katz within the efforts to present the Republican case to a world in which the bulk of the press was inclined to be hostile to a regime which was perceived as ‘red’, Communist and dangerous.
It was an irony that, for obvious economic reasons, a high proportion of newspapers were right-wing and thus supported the Spanish military rebels, yet a similarly high proportion of correspondents supported the Republic. Louis Fischer was far from alone in combining commitment to the Spanish Republic with honest journalism. Among the other correspondents who became converted to the Republican cause yet still produced accurate reporting, Martha Gellhorn, Jay Allen, Herbert Matthews and Geoffrey Cox are still quoted today for the vividness of their chronicles. Others who have since been forgotten, yet were greatly respected by their colleagues, include William Forrest and Lawrence Fernsworth. Forrest was a Communist Party member, yet anything but doctrinaire. Arthur Koestler was impressed by his dry humour, his generosity and the fact that ‘he never used words like “dialectical”, “concrete”, or “mechanistic”, whereas he used expressions like “decency”, “fairness”, “that wouldn’t be right”, and the like’.
A Scot, Forrest was not alone in his ethical commitment to the Republic. Decency and fairness mattered to all of these correspondents and that was why they identified with the cause of the democratic Republic.
This was particularly the case with the older hands who had been in Spain before the outbreak of war, such as Henry Buckley, Jay Allen and Lawrence Fernsworth, all of whom had witnessed, and sympathized with, the process whereby the newly established democratic regime had tried to modernize a deeply repressive society. According to Constancia de la Mora, Fernsworth ‘knew Catalonia as few foreigners alive’. She was shocked by how little he earned: ‘He began work at dawn, often driving hours to the front and back, then walking through dark streets to our Bureau to telephone his stories.’ Like Buckley, Fernsworth was Roman Catholic. He was always well-groomed and exquisitely polite, always comporting himself with ‘courtly gallantry’. Despite his exiguous earnings, he was an epicure and a wine connoisseur, yet his solidarity with the Spanish people was unquestionable and he wrote movingly of their plight during the Civil War.
The commitment of the correspondents was immediately noted by the German novelist Gustav Regler when he arrived in Madrid in October 1936 as a volunteer for the International Brigades. Through a friendship first with Ilsa Kulcsar and then Arturo Barea, Regler came
into contact with several correspondents. At one point during the siege of Madrid, he met a group of newspapermen whom he found exhilarated by a visit from Julio Álvarez del Vayo: ‘They loved the Spanish people, hoped for the victory of the Republic, and were all opposed to the official ambassadors of their own countries.’
This was a considerable over-generalization, since the pro-Republican Americans knew that their sentiments were shared by their Ambassador Claude Bowers. There were also American correspondents who supported the rebels, such as Edward Knoblaugh, William Carney and Hubert Knickerbocker, but they tended to gravitate to the insurgent zone. Nevertheless, it was the case that a substantial number of correspondents became deeply committed to the Republic. Martha Gellhorn wrote in 1996: ‘I believed in the cause of the Spanish Republic as I believed in nothing before or since.’
Regler was moved to note that, in the spring of 1937, she courageously went into no-man’s land outside Madrid, helping the commander of the Garibaldi battalion of Italian volunteers, Randolfo Pacciardi, rolling bandages for the doctor who attended the wounded.
Perhaps the best example of how the Republic could capture the emotions was the tall, gaunt and sad-eyed Herbert Lionel Matthews of the
New York Times.
The shy, bookish and melancholy New Yorker Matthews was thirty-six years old when he reached Spain in March 1937. There was little about his background to suggest that he would become an impassioned supporter of the Spanish Republic. He had volunteered for service in the First World War but reached France too late to take part in combat. On his return, he went to Columbia University, where he studied romance languages, ending up with a command of Italian, French and Spanish. After graduating, he had joined the
New York Times
as a secretary and stenographer for the business manager. Working nights so that he could continue studying, Matthews won a fellowship, which allowed him to spend 1925–26 in Europe. He studied Dante in Italy and acquired an admiration for the Fascist regime. On his return from France, he became a secretary in the news department of the
New York Times.
In 1929, he was offered the chance to take part in a five-month study tour of Japan, Korea, Manchuria and northern China funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Japanese Government. He returned as an admirer of Japanese economic
dynamism and believing that the Japanese would be a progressive force within East Asia. From 1931 to 1935, Matthews worked in the Paris bureau of the
New York Times
until boredom drove him to grab the chance to cover the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the autumn of 1935.
Like many other Western correspondents in Ethiopia, Matthews praised ‘the civilizing influence’ and material progress brought by the Italians, commenting ‘I never could withhold my admiration at seeing a difficult job superbly done’.
After Italian victory, in May 1936, Matthews returned to Paris, where his early articles on the French response to the Spanish Civil War were not notably sympathetic to the Republic.
Nevertheless, he became sufficiently fascinated by events in Spain that he asked for, and received, a posting there after Carney’s abandonment of Republican Spain. Despite arriving with sympathies for the Italians, Matthews would write during the Spanish Civil War: ‘No one who knows what is happening here and who has any pretense to intellectual honesty can forbear to take sides.’ Shy and melancholy, he believed that the months passed in the besieged Spanish capital were the most glorious of his life. He wrote in 1938:
Of all places to be in the world, Madrid is the most satisfactory. I thought so from the moment I arrived, and whenever I am away from it these days I cannot help longing to return. All of us feel the same way, so it is more than a personal impression. The drama, the thrills, the electrical optimism, the fighting spirit, the patient courage of these mad and wonderful people – these are things worth living for and seeing with one’s own eyes.
After the Second World War, he wrote: ‘In those years we lived our best and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again. I, in my own field, have never done such work as I did in Spain, nor do I ever hope to equal it. We left our hearts there.’ Like many correspondents, Matthews never lost his pride in supporting the Republic:
I have already lived six years since the Spanish Civil War ended, and have seen much of greatness and glory and many beautiful things and places since then, and I may, with luck, live another
twenty or thirty years, but I know, as surely as I know anything in this world, that nothing so wonderful will ever happen to me again as those two and a half years I spent in Spain. And it is not only I who say this, but everyone who lived through that period with the Spanish Republicans. Soldier or journalist, Spaniard or American or British or French or German or Italian, it did not matter. Spain was a melting pot in which the dross came out and pure gold remained. It made men ready to die gladly and proudly. It gave meaning to life; it gave courage and faith in humanity; it taught us what internationalism means, as no League of Nations or Dumbarton Oaks will ever do. There one learned that men could be brothers, that nations and frontiers, religions and races were but outer trappings, and that nothing counted, nothing was worth fighting for, but the idea of liberty.
Matthews was not alone in his visceral attachment to Madrid. Vincent ‘Jimmy’ Sheean wrote equally movingly:
Madrid, the mushroom, the parasite, created by a monarch’s whim, an aristocracy’s extravagance and the heartless ostentation of the new rich had found its soul in the pride and courage of its workers. They had turned the brothel and show window of feudal Spain into this epic. Whatever the future might determine in the struggle against fascist barbarism, Madrid had already done so much more than its share that its name would lie forever across the mind of man, sometimes in reproach, sometimes in rebuke, sometimes as a reflex of the heroic tension that is still not lost from our race on earth. In this one place, if nowhere else, the dignity of the common man has stood firm against the world.
Geoffrey Cox was also deeply affected by the social progress and the anti-fascist solidarity that he witnessed in the Republican zone:
Facing a common danger gave all Madrid an unspoken, but very real, sense of common respect.
– comrade – has an
artificial ring in the comparative security of Britain. In Madrid, muttered by a sentry who saluted with clenched fist and gave the greeting, ‘Salud’, it was absolutely genuine. Here was an atmosphere in which realities like skill and strength, and, above all, courage, counted, and where dress and appearance and accent and schooling came in not at all. Individual pettiness, ambitions, jealousies, were to some extent merged in the common end and the common danger.