The Spanish Civil War, Cartooning, and the Cultural Imagination: No Pasaran!, The Black Order Brigade, and Wolverine Part 2 of 4

Posted by on December 18th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part 1.

Part Two: Art and Propaganda

Poster by John Heartfield

Poster by John Heartfield

There’s an old, bitter joke about the Spanish Civil War that runs, “They won all the battles, but we had all the great songs!

And outside of anarchist circles, the Spanish Civil War is remembered now less for its politics than for its literature.  (For an overview, see:  John M. Muste, Say That We Saw Spain Die: Literary Consequences of the Spanish Civil War.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.)  Some of that is surely because the history of the conflict has always been so distorted by ideological concerns.  In his essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” George Orwell observes:

[In] Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.  I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed.  I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories. . . .  .  I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.’

Within Spain itself, the grasp on the facts weakened even further after the fascist victory.  Under Franco, Spanish society was blanketed with a sort of silence about the war.  There was an official story enforced through censorship and secrecy, promoted through propaganda — of brave military heroes saving civilization from the reds.  But this story necessarily left out more than it explained.  And on both sides, most people adopted a prudent self-censorship about their role in the conflict.  To confess to being a “red,” or even just to have failed to support the military coup, would be tantamount to admitting to treason.  But to say too much about the process of victory — the denunciations, the disappearances, the torture and brutality — that would be shameful as well.

Internationally, the war’s memory proved just as embarrassing to just as many people:  There were atrocities on all sides, and a revolutionary society collapsed under fascist pressure.  But worse, the western democracies showed themselves unwilling to defend a democratic government against a fascist attack, and the Soviet Union revealed itself as a tool of counter-revolution.

But the war’s mark on the culture has been a lasting one. In 2003, the US State Department insisted that Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica — which symbolically represents the aerial bombardment of the Basque city — be hidden from view as Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council to urge support for the invasion of Iraq. The painting, it seems, remains such a potent indictment against military aggression that the diplomats worried over the effect it would have if it appeared as the backdrop for Powell’s speech.

Among those who went to Spain were scores of writers.  A partial list would include Christopher Caudwell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox, Julian Bell, James Lardner, Charles Donnelly — all of whom fought for Republican Spain and died there.  George Orwell was shot in the throat, but recovered; his book Homage to Catalonia remains among the best accounts of the revolution in English.  (Mosher caricatures Orwell as a militiaman:  He has a sad face, messy hair, an awkward posture, and enormous feet.  A cigarette hangs lazily from his mouth, and over one shoulder he wears an old rifle with a wobbly bayonet.)  Arthur Koestler went, ostensibly as a reporter but also as a representative of the Comintern; his imprisonment has already been discussed.  Miguel Hernandez, a Spanish poet, fought in Madrid and was captured; he died in prison.  Ralph Bates served as a Loyalist officer, and John Sommerfield fought in the front lines.  William Herrick fought with the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; he was severely wounded outside of Madrid.  Another veteran of the Lincoln Brigade, Alvah Bessie, wrote of his experiences in a memoir, Men in Battle; he was later jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten.

Among the Americans who went (but did not fight) were Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Lillian Hellman, Josephine Herbst, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy Parker.  All wrote of their experiences there.

The war was not only important for the arts; the arts were important for the war.  Anti-fascist graphics were painted on trains, and long poems inscribed on the sides of buildings.  W.H. Auden, who served the Republic as a stretcher-bearer, wrote of the use of cartooning in the posters:

“In the center of the square, surrounded all day long by crowds and surmounted by a rifle and fixed bayonet, fifteen feet high is an enormous map of the Civil War, rather prettily illustrated after the manner of railway posters urging one to visit Lovely Lakeland or Sunny Devon.  Badajoz is depicted by a firing-party; a hanged man represents Huelva; a doll’s train and lorry are heading for Madrid; at Seville Queipo de Llano is frozen in eternal broadcast.  The General seems to be the Little Willie of the war; in a neighboring shop window a strip of comic wood-cuts shows his rake’s progress from a perverse childhood to a miserable and well-merited end.

“Altogether it is a great time for the poster artist and there are some very good ones.  Cramped in a little grey boat the Burgos Junta, dapper Franco and his bald German advisor, a cardinal and two ferocious Moors are busy hanging Spain; a green Fascist centipede is caught in the fanged trap of Madrid; in photomontage a bombed baby lies couchant upon a field of aeroplanes.”

Another poster, designed by the German exile John Heartfield, uses photomontage to show two large vultures in fascist uniforms looming over Madrid.  They are being held away by a picket of three bayonets.  At the bottom, the slogan, “!No Pasaran!  !Pasaremos!”

These, and many other posters from the Civil War are available in two excellent online collections — one from the Imperial War Museum (, and the other from the University of California at San Diego (

Both sides made use of propaganda posters, and to some degree they shared a common rhetoric and grammar.  Both sides presented themselves as the defenders of Spain, and as the representatives of civilization against barbarism; both sides accused the other of being puppets to foreign masters; and both sides resorted to racist caricatures.  Also, both sides presented themselves as heroic, virtuous, and strong; their enemies as sickly, corrupt, and weak.  At the same time, and rather incongruously, both sides presented themselves as the innocent victims of the aggression and atrocities of their enemies.

All of that is, pro or con, to be expected.  More surprising, though, is the fact that both sides presented themselves as the true defenders of the workers.  One poster shows a man in the uniform of the fascist Falange shaking hands with a worker — identified as such by his sledge hammer — while in the background the sun rises over an industrial landscape.  The reality was sometimes stranger still: during the latter half of the war the Franco government implemented agrarian reform in a bid to win the support of the peasantry; at the same time, the Republican government (following a line put forth by the Communists) was returning the land that had been expropriated during the revolution, in hopes that the gesture would ingratiate them to England, France, and the United States.

Much of the propaganda is ridiculous and awful.  And even the best of it — whatever its artistic or political virtues — still faces the moral problem that its ultimate aim is to encourage certain human beings to shoot at and kill certain others.

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5 Responses to “The Spanish Civil War, Cartooning, and the Cultural Imagination: No Pasaran!, The Black Order Brigade, and Wolverine Part 2 of 4”

  1. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Very nice article on Spanish Civil War cartooning! Do you have any more scans of the cartoons/posters you mention? Looking forward to reading the rest of it.

  2. Caro says:

    I concur; great piece.

    You don’t happen to live in South Florida, do you, Suat? The Wolfsonian Museum in Miami (South Beach, of all places) has an exceptional collection of Spanish Civil War posters and other graphic materials as part of a large political propaganda collection. They have a few good images on their website (am I allowed to post a link here?). There’s also good stuff on World’s Fairs, industrial design and art nouveau. And a pretty nice beach down the street.

  3. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Thanks for the info, Caro. Unfortunately, I don’t live anywhere close to Miami.

    Kristian emailed me the following links at the UCSD Southworth Collection and VADS. I think he’s away from his computer and can’t provide the information directly himself. I hope the html links work.

  4. DerikB says:

    Really enjoying this series, Kristian. I’ve probably read more than a dozen books on the Spanish Civil War, but never really looks into the art around it. Quite curious to see how Wolverine fits into all this…