By Sarah Jost
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began with the Nationalists seeking to overthrow the Spanish Republican government. Following the devastation of World War I, the emotional and political impact of the Spanish Civil War echoed around the world. In the years following World War I, Mussolini had come to power in Italy, Hitler’s Nazi party ruled Germany, and people were keenly aware of the potential for the rapid and violent spread of fascism.
In 1937, 12 writers from Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Chile, including poets W.H. Auden and Pablo Neruda, disseminated a query to hundreds of writers in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales requesting a short response to The Question:
Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the People of Republican Spain? Are your for, or against, Franco and Fascism?
The 148 responses they received were published by the Left Review as a pamphlet entitled Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.
[A fascist victory in Spain] would create an atmosphere in which the creative artist and all who care for justice, liberty, and culture would find it impossible to work or even exist.
Brave New World author Aldous Huxley wrote,
Anarchism seems to me much more likely to lead to desirable social change than highly centralised, dictatorial Communism. As for ‘taking sides’—the choice, it seems to me, is no longer between two users of violence, two systems of dictatorship. Violence and dictatorship cannot produce peace and liberty; they can only produce the results of violence and dictatorship, results with which history has made us only too sickeningly familiar. The choice now is between militarism and pacifism. To me, the necessity of pacifism seems absolutely clear.
Samuel Beckett had an equally passionate, yet slightly terser, declaration,
While only five writers supported the Nationalists, several others submitted responses that the publishers classified as ‘neutral.’ Though these writers didn’t take sides in relation to the question at hand, their responses were anything but neutral.
The real enemy of mankind is not the Fascist but the Ignorant Fool.
While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best that at least a few men of letters should remain isolated, and take no part in these collective activities.
Others still refused to participate at all. One notable absentee was someone deeply embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell, who sent the following the reply:
Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. This is the second or third time I have had it. I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody.
In 1938, the League of American Writers posed the same questions to hundreds of U.S. writers, 418 of whom submitted responses. The resulting collection Writers Take Sides: Letters about the War in Spain from 418 American Authors contains responses from William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, E.E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, and Thornton Wilder.
Artists’ reactions to the Spanish Civil War were strong and grounded in a commiseration with the trials of Spain’s own artists. When Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was assassinated in 1936, Langston Hughes published a translation of Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads in The New Masses, a U.S. Marxist magazine. Hemingway went to Spain to cover the war as a journalist, later publishing the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls based on his experiences. Orwell and Auden both spent months in Spain offering their assistance.
The onset, the horror, and the aftermath of the war deeply affected the work of the artists of that time, a significant reason they were asked to take, and reveal, sides. As the instigators of the Take Sides project wrote,
We wish the world to know what you, writers and poets, who are amongst the most sensitive instruments of a nation, feel.
The Urchins have always strongly believed in the potential of art as a catalyst for social change. As writers, we believe in the capacity of words to inform, engage, and inspire. Given our culture’s constant media saturation, oftentimes by news sources funded or run by corporations with singular objectives, opinions or biases seem to become accepted truths at an alarming rate.
In the spirit of the Authors Take Sides project, and with the hope of generating deeper and broader discussions about current events, the Urchins have decided to take sides.
This week we will be discussing the Rolling Stone cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings. The 1 August issue has currently been banned by CVS, 7-Eleven, Walgreens, and various local retail outlets across the U.S. Every day this week a different Urchin will publish their take on the topic. Stay tuned, and feel free to join us in taking sides.