Amanda Vaill has written a terrific book about the romantic attachment the western Left during the heyday of the Popular Front period had for the loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). She tells her story through the eyes of three couples: the writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, the war photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and the chief censor of the foreign press Arturo Barea and his Austrian companion Ilsa Kulcsar. They are all people of the Left who utilized their exceptional skills to promote the loyalist cause. In their zeal, with the notable exception of Barea, the truth was sometimes shaded, bent or completely distorted to present the Republic in the most favorable light.
Little do they realize that despite all of their zeal they are pawns in a titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin. Spain is a proxy war designed to further their respective foreign policy interests and when Stalin had a need to cozy up to Hitler he cut his Spanish pawns loose and kept Spain’s gold reserves. Along the way the purge trials then underway in Moscow found their way to Spain where all too many loyalist supporters were summarily executed or simply disappeared. Vaill, to her credit, is very clear about all of this.
Although “Hotel Florida” is not a history of the Spanish Civil War, there is much history to be learned. Its locus of attention is on the Hotel Florida where many of the journalists along with NKVD operatives hung out and it was there where the “war” tourists of the Left would pass through. Think Lillian Hellman, for example. In a way the book is analogous to Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia” where the locus of action was Barcelona; here most of the action takes place in and around Madrid with side-trips to Paris, New York and Key West.
The most interesting character, all of 26, is the blond crop-haired Gerda Taro. She was always where the action was trying to get the best photograph and showed little concern for her own personal safety. She had both grit and verve to overcome the very real hardships faced by a war photographer. Unfortunately she dies in what can be characterized as a battlefield accident and is given a martyr’s funeral in Paris.
For all of this and much more, including appearances by the Soviet Spy Kim Philby and the future German Prime Minister Willy Brandt, I highly recommend “Hotel Florida” to readers interested in Spain and the prelude to World War II.
The Amazon URL is:
The Amazon URL is: