Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War

Nigel Jones assesses an account that explores the Spanish Civil War by focusing on the experiences of six famous figures

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Reviewed by: Nigel Jones
Author: Amanda Vaill
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £20

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The Spanish Civil War was an internal Iberian conflict that drew the competing ideologies of fascism and communism into its vortex. It also attracted outsiders of both the ‘ordinary’ and ‘celebrity’ variety, many of whom were moved by the seemingly stark binary alternatives that the struggle unleashed.

Rather than serving up yet another history of the war – there have been many excellent English-language studies of the conflict – this highly readable book offers portraits of three couples caught up in the conflict by their own choice.

The sextet (emphasis on the ‘sex’) at the centre of Amanda Vaill’s story are the writers Ernest Hemingway and his mistress – and future third wife – Martha Gellhorn (both destined to die by suicide); the great war photographer Robert Capa and his equally talented combat photographer girlfriend, the flighty, feisty Gerda Taro (both destined to die in wars that they covered); and the chief government censor in besieged Madrid, Arturo Barea, and his lover Ilsa Kulcsar (both destined to die of natural causes, although in exile).

Significantly, of these protagonists, only Barea was actually Spanish, and all but he and Hemingway were Jewish, drawn into the Spanish cauldron at least partly by the anti-Semitic threat represented by rising fascism across Europe. Their motivation for coming to Madrid’s Hotel Florida to record the struggle was a compound of professional ambition and genuine commitment to the Republican cause.

Vaill shows a novelist’s skill in weaving together the disparate stories of her characters as they are pulled like iron filings towards the magnet that Madrid became through the Civil War. If her subjects’ love lives at times loom larger than the war itself, this does not detract from the intrinsic interest of the story.

Vaill doesn’t let her sympathy for her subjects blind her to their flaws, either. Capa, Gellhorn and Taro put their careers before their sincere leftist beliefs; Hemingway was a monster of egotism, and all were prepared to gloss over the fact that the embattled Republic increasingly became a communist-controlled front for Stalin’s cynical foreign policy. As propagandists rather than journalists, they were willing dupes – or useful idiots – lending their typewriters and cameras to the corruption of their cause, which was to become little better than the fascism they had gone to Spain to fight.

The lives of many Spaniards were torn in two by a war that ripped their nation apart. Rather than the celebrity tourists who moved on to other conflicts, my sympathies lie most with Barea, who lost his family and his homeland, and now lies in an English churchyard. His tragedy was that of Spain’s.

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Nigel Jones is author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014)