In following events in Ukraine, or trying to, I find myself wondering why, with all of our ability to communicate today, reporting is no more trustworthy than it was a century ago.
I suspect that when the dust settles we will find as much conscious misreporting as we did during that classic of disinformation, the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s.
By way of background, a Popular Front coalition, composed of a variety of socialist and communist parties, had won a narrow victory in Spain’s general elections in February 1936.
Although the anarchists had a powerful presence in Spain, they did not participate in the election. They did, however, participate in the unrest that followed the election, and that led to a state of near anarchy throughout the country. The Soviets joined in as well on the side of the left.
The chaos and the confiscations of property alarmed the Spanish military and the conservative Falange faction that backed it. The war itself began in July 1936 when Gen. Francisco Franco’s army in Morocco mutinied against the duly elected “Republican” government and attempted to restore order.
With war declared, all hell broke loose, almost literally. Under the banner of anarchism or communism or no banner at all, the populist left declared its own war on the Catholic Church, killing 12 bishops, nearly 300 nuns, more than 2,000 monks and 4,000 priests in the first three months.
Needless to say, these atrocities horrified the Catholic Church, particularly in America. On the Nationalist side of the line, Franco’s side, the purges of the left were ruthless and the violence likely comparable.
Where others saw outrages, the Communist International – the Comintern – saw opportunity. By 1936, the Comintern enjoyed a near monopoly on world media.
With just a little prodding, many of the best and brightest of the international left rushed to Spain as war correspondents. The New Statesman sent Eric Blair. The North American Newspaper Alliance sent Ernest Hemingway. Collier’s sent Martha Gellhorn. The Times of London sent Kim Philby. The London News Chronicle sent Arthur Koestler. The Nation sent Louis Fischer.
No sooner had Fischer arrived, than he was briefing the Soviet ambassador on war strategy. He soon went to work as quartermaster for the Communist International Brigades all the while sending news dispatches to The Nation, The New Statesman and papers throughout Europe.
Koestler, meanwhile, was working undercover for the Comintern. Philby, of course, was a Soviet agent spying on the Nationalists. Gellhorn was a fellow-traveler and outspoken supporter of the Republican cause, who still found time to finesse Hemingway away from his wife.
Hemingway, when not rutting or reporting, was drilling the leftist International Brigades. Blair actually joined a Republican fighting force. So much for objectivity.
After being captured by the Nationalists and freed three months later in a prisoner exchange, Koestler wrote a powerful book called “The Spanish Testament.”
Gruesomely detailed, the book caused worldwide revulsion against Franco and his forces. Years later, however, Koestler would abandon communism and admit that he wrote the book in the Comintern’s Paris office.
“Too weak. Too objective,” his overseer would shout at Koestler after reading his early drafts. “Hit them! Hit them hard! Tell the world how they run over prisoners with tanks, how they pour petrol over them and burn them alive. Make the world gasp with horror.”
The Comintern’s Otto Katz outdid Koestler, creating an entirely fictitious battle in all its gory detail and then reporting on how the leftist forces triumphed.
To a point, Hemingway proved to be the useful idiot the Comintern hoped he would be. When the Soviets started purging Trotskyites and liberals on its own side, Hemingway chose not to notice.
As to Eric Blair, despite his leftist sympathies, he had tried to report the facts about the ruthless Soviet oppression in Spain. When he tried, the New Statesman suddenly had no use for his dispatches.
After barely escaping with his life, Blair attempted to publish his elegantly written and carefully reported account in book form, but the Anglo-American literary establishment had no interest. Finally, a small British press published “Homage to Catalonia” under Blair’s new pen name, George Orwell.
If nothing else, Orwell’s Spanish adventure provided the nightmare blueprint for his futuristic classic, “1984.”
It was into this morass of intrigue and deceit that the New York Times sent the seemingly innocent Herbert Matthews. Although there is no hard evidence to suggest that he was the “rabid Red partisan” the Catholic Church accused him of being, his dispatches make one wonder.
Orwell arrived in Spain with the same frame of mind as Matthews. Reality changed Orwell’s mind. Reality even got to Hemingway, who was not quite the dupe the Comintern hoped he would be.
Hemingway’s novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” written soon after the war, showed the treacherous underside of the Soviet’s Spanish adventure.
But Matthews had little use for reality. He remained as blind in leaving Spain as he did upon arriving. He admitted to being one of those “who championed the cause.” He had no regrets.
After all, as any clear-thinking progressive could see, so insisted Matthews, the Republican cause was one of “justice, legality, morality, decency.”
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