Listening to a pair of talking heads debate Syria last night made me go looking for a book I read back in 1986 (yes, I’m a pack rat when it comes to books) and after some digging in a dusty closet I found it: Voices Against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War on the 50th Anniversary of the Event. This was a collection of writings from the period 1936 to 1939 by a formidable list of writers taking a stand against Franco and the fascists. Some of the writers are still well-known: Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Orwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner and even a young Samuel Beckett. And then there are others that deserve to be known but are covered with dust like my own copy of the book: Dos Passos, Lorca, Arthur Koestler, Dorothy Parker, Andre Malraux . . .
The Spanish Civil War was a complicated story—-much like Syria, although I don’t want to force a comparison because as a rule I’m suspicious of these historical comparisons. Each civil war is different; I think people (writers in particular) should dig down for the real facts, which is often very difficult to do. I would trust a friend who calls me from Syria much more than any talking head on TV or the Internet. And the science of doctoring videos has almost rendered something like YouTube useless. I think one of the writers from this collection, George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) would be shocked at the sophistication of propaganda in 2013. Although propaganda in 1936 would surprise you: look at Google Images or Bing Images and search for posters from the Spanish Civil War. The artists of that time knew how to use imagery to get their point across, particularly when it came to the coming tyranny of Fascism.
Sometimes it pays to look at a contemporary struggle through the glasses worn by the past. The writers of the Spanish Civil War period were quite passionate about how dangerous Franco and Hitler were and how a stand needed to be taken. I don’t know if this book is still on Amazon. I remember buying my copy at a marvelous used bookstore that (alas) doesn’t exist anymore. But in the heat of debate over Syria it would be worth the time to look back at how writers handled a controversial civil war in their time. One of the writers in this collection, Federico Garcia Lorca, was killed by the fascists before the war even ended. But they couldn’t kill his poetry; it lives on even though the world has moved on to other civil wars and other dictators.