Remembering Hemingway, one among the literary embracing Communism
Many Americans have been watching the six-hour series on PBS by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Hemingway, which examines the literary work and turbulent life of Ernest Hemingway. Drawing upon archival materials and scholarship, they attempt to break through the mythology of Hemingway, chipping away at the masculine bravado to reveal a layered, deeply insecure person haunted by mental illness.
Hemingway committed suicide, as did his father and other members of the family.
What most Americans may not know is that Hemingway, like many other writers, had an affinity for Communism.
Hemingway went to Spain at the time of the country’s civil war and was a firm supporter of the Republicans, which was fighting the right-wing government supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Republicans included many who were genuinely committed to democracy, but also many Communists who were supported by the Soviet Union.
The brutal war lasted for nearly three years, 1936-1939, and claimed at least 500,000 lives. Another 500,000 refugees were forced to flee the country. In March 1937, Hemingway traveled to Madrid and reported on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance.
Hemingway also helped produce a pro-Republican film, “The Spanish Earth.” (video in the public domain)
Discussing Hemingway’s role in promoting the Soviet view of the Spanish Civil War, Paul Johnson, in his book “Intellectuals,” writes that,
“Hemingway accepted the Communist party line on the war in all its crudity. He paid four visits to the front, but even before he left New York he had decided what the civil war was all about and was already signed up for the propaganda film ‘Spain In Flames’…Hemingway said that the Spanish Communists were ‘the best people in the war.’”
Hemingway played down the role of the Soviet Union, especially in directing the Spanish Communist Party’s brutal destruction of non-Communist elements on the Republican side. This, Johnson reports, “led Hemingway into a shameful breach with John Dos Passos.”
Hemingway’s friend John Dos Passos was a distinguished American writer
DePasso was also a dedicated foe of Communism and a good friend of Hemingway who was an early promoter of his work. Johnson reports that,
“Passos’ interpreter was Jose Robles, who was a friend of Andreas Nin, head of the anarchist POUM. He had also been an interpreter to Gen. Jan Antonovic Berzin, head of the Soviet military mission to Spain…Berzin had been murdered by Stalin, who later gave orders to the Spanish Communist party to liquidate the POUM too. Nin was tortured to death, hundreds of others were arrested, accused of fascist activities and shot.”
At this point, Dos Passos became worried about Jose Robles’s disappearance. Hemingway played down these anxieties. He asked his friend Pepe Quintanilla (who, it later emerged, was responsible for most Communist executions) what happened. He was assured Robles was alive and well and would get a fair trial. Hemingway accepted this at face value.
In fact, Robles was already dead. When Hemingway found this out, he told Dos Passos that it was clear Robles had been guilty, and only a fool would think otherwise.
Hemingway was hardly alone among writers in the West who were blind to the real nature of Communism.
Consider the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In a July 1954 interview with “Liberation,” Sartre, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, said that Soviet citizens did not travel, not because they are prevented from doing so, but because they had no need to leave their wonderful country.
“The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do.” He maintained that “There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”
Another defender of tyranny was Lillian Hellman, the American playwright. She visited Russia in October 1937, when Stalin’s purge trials were at their height. On her return, she said she knew nothing about them. In 1938, she was among the signatories of an ad in the Communist publication New Masses which approved the trials.
She supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, stating:
“I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.”
There is no evidence that Hellman ever visited Finland and her biographer says it is highly improbable.
Consider the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who created the modern propaganda play.
When he visited the Manhattan apartment of American philosopher Sidney Hook in 1935, Stalin’s purges were just beginning. Hook, raising the cases of Zinoviev and Kamenev, asked Brecht how he could bear to work with the American Communists who were trumpeting their guilt. Brecht replied that the U.S.Communists were no good, nor were the Germans and that the only body which mattered was the Soviet party.
Hook pointed out that they were all part of the same movement, responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of innocent former comrades.
“As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.”
Hook asked, “What are you saying?”
Brecht repeated: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.”
Hook asked: “Why, why?”
Brecht did not answer. Hook got up went into the next room and brought Brecht’s hat and coat. During the entire course of Stalin’s purges, Brecht never uttered a word of protest.
Since the Russian Revolution of 1917, the world was engaged for many years in a struggle between freedom and tyranny.
Now that the Soviet system is gone and the world understands its brutal and barbaric assault upon the human spirit, it is only proper that we remember those who defended liberty and those who did not.
In that battle, sadly, many in the United States and other Western countries used their considerable abilities to advance not freedom but tyranny.
During his years in Spain, Ernest Hemingway seems to have been in their number.