In 1936 two young photographers, André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle, created the composite name Robert Capa under which they began documenting the Spanish Civil War. The Capa name quickly became associated entirely with Friedmann while Pohorylle took the name Gerda Taro. In the world of photojournalism the name Robert Capa has been internationally known for many years. It is only recently that Gerda Taro has been rediscovered in her own right.
There is a recent book about Taro, Out of the Shadows – A Life of Gerda Taro (2008) by François Maspero, which brings the role of Taro herself back into the public profile, following work by German scholar, Irme Schaber, in the 1990’s. Maspero’s book is flawed in that he spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to ‘disprove’ Taro’s communist associations. Maspero is particularly taxed by the fact that the French Communist Party were able to turn 10,000 people out onto the streets of Paris for Taro’s funeral in 1937. Quite why this should be a concern, at a time when working class support for the Spanish Republic was essential, perhaps only Maspero knows.
Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa by Jane Rogoyska (2013) is the latest contribution to work on Taro, while never missing the opportunity to pounce on an undiscovered romance, Hollywood is on the case with two films in the offing about Taro and Capa
The first major exhibition of Taro’s photography, based upon the research of Schaber, was staged at the Barbican in London in 2008. I wrote the first draft of this poem following that exhibition. Taro’s own work in the field of photojournalism rightly comes to the fore, both in her images of action on the frontline, and in the behind the scenes images of the ordinary people of Spain, caught up in epoch changing events. The Left wing French journals Regards and Ce Soir published many of these photos.
Taro died tragically, just a year after the war started, on 25th July 1937 in Brunete. Heading out to take more photgraphs, the car on which she was riding was hit by an out of control tank. She never recovered from her injuries.
Gerda Taro (1910 – 1937)
Gerda Taro fought the people’s war
With a lens to the left of the action.
Women crouching, pistols pointing,
Volunteers falling in.
Resistance leaders in Valencia
Give speeches of solidarity, frozen
In frames desperate to breathe sound
Into a conflict cursed with silence.
The shadow of Capa kept her cold.
The famous falling soldier
Sealed one reputation
But hid another, just behind the frontline,
Where the unseen action of weeping,
Smoking, laughing and hoping
For victory against the odds
These pictures pretend no objectivity,
This is partisan territory.
A plea to break the fence,
To see the people
To help Spain.
This is the art of persuasion.
This is the art of stirring up nation after nation,
This is the art that cries out
‘Don’t you see the blood on the streets?’
Daring to shame the shameless
Ce Soir revealed Spain
To a world not yet familiar
With the backward glance of refugees
Fleeing the fires of fascism;
To a world in denial
Of the furnace yet to come.
The quoted line
‘Don’t you see the blood on the streets?’
is from the Pablo Neruda poem, I Explain A Few Things from his collection Spain In Our Hearts, Neruda’s own response to witnessing the events of the war in Spain. It is well worth following up.
The War in Spain (1936 – 1939)
On 18th July 1936 the first shots were fired in what was to become known as the Spanish Civil War. The war raged for three years but could only really be characterised as a civil war for a short part of that time. The presence of fascist troops and armaments from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, to support the power grab of General Franco, made the war in Spain one of intervention. The intervention was aimed at strangling the newly formed Popular Front government at birth and stopping its influence spreading beyond Spain’s borders.
Less than twenty years after the 1917 Russian Revolution the ruling classes in Western Europe were afraid of communism, or anything remotely like it, gaining a foothold beyond Soviet borders. Initial attempts to overthrow the Bolsheviks by force had failed but in appeasing Hitler, and fuelling German re-armament, the West saw an opportunity to point the fascist forces East and stem the tide of revolution from spreading. Internationally the response of the Communist Parties was, by 1935, to have adopted the policy of supporting peoples Popular Fronts against fascism across Europe.
At a government level the diplomatic overtures of the Soviet Union, to form a united front against fascism in Europe, were rebuffed by Britain and France who proceeded with their policies of appeasing Hitler.
On the ground in Spain the Popular Front policy gained significant momentum in the Autumn of 1935, resulting in the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections in February 1936. The elections resulted in a victory for the Left with a Popular Front majority including 158 Republicans, 88 Socialists and 17 Communists given the mandate to govern. The Right still commanded 205 deputies to the parliament so it was clear that sustaining a government in favour of the workers of Spain was going to be a struggle. As Dolores Ibarruri, in her autobiography, They Shall Not Pass, points out, “…the chief forces of resistance against fascism in the capitalist countries of Europe were concentrating in Spain.”
The honeymoon was all too short lived, with Franco launching his putsch in July, quickly aided by Germany and Italy. How did the Western democracies respond to such provocation against a democratically elected government?
France, with whom the government of Spain had an agreement to purchase arms, refused to sell to the Republican government. Britain and the United States joined in what was to become known as the policy of nonintervention, although this did not prevent US companies supplying Franco with fuel. An estimated 150,000 Italian troops fought in Spain. In Germany 25,000 soldiers received military decorations for the role they played in fighting the Spanish people. Nonintervention was clearly a one sided proposition.
There were however notable exceptions. The Soviet Union did its best to get supplies to the Republic in spite of naval obstruction and the refusal of France to allow supplies into Spain through its land border. Soviet soldiers volunteered in Spain, playing a crucial role as airmen and tank drivers in key battles, especially around Madrid. Some arms were purchased from Mexico.
Recognising the significance of the war in Spain, an influx of Communists and Socialists from across the world made their way to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic, as part of the International Brigades. Their contribution, both in practical and symbolic terms, cannot be underestimated and remains a benchmark of practical international solidarity.
The external forces ranged against the Republic were immense. The Popular Front had little time to establish itself and suffered from weaknesses of leadership and internal division. The antics of the Anarchist FAI and Trotskyist POUM in Catalonia, resulting in an attempted takeover in Barcelona in May 1937, was one such unnecessary diversion from the main battle. Troops from a key front in Aragon were diverted by the FAI and POUM to Barcelona, when retaining the industrial North was key to the Popular Front’s defence of the Republic. The putsch ended in failure but, to the great delight of Franco’s forces, had highlighted disarray in Republican ranks.
In the end however it was not internal differences but the forces of external intervention which brought the Republic to its knees. Italian troops, German airpower and the covert collusion of Britain, France and the United States with the fascists was simply too much for the Spanish people and their allies. By March 1939 the Spanish Republic had been defeated. Five months later the Second World War was underway.