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War at its Worst: For Whom the Bell Tolls

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

“If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing.”

This line comes from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Answer: thee), an underrated, under studied novel about a group of insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. (Yes, it is about insurgents and their mindset, based on Hemingway’s real life war experience in Spain, but how many soldiers or marines have read it?)

As the line above reveals, the Spanish Civil War started as a revolution. As we said two days ago, revolutions are violent. Revolutions often can be war at its worst.

Pablo--fighting for the republicans; ironically, the anti-loyalist/fascist, pro-communist side--leads a coup against the fascists in his town. In the morning, the revolutionaries blow up the local garrison and kill the soldiers inside.

This scene takes place in the town square, which abuts a cliff with a 300 foot drop into a river, where Pablo prepares the the people of the town to kill the fascists. With the entire town gathered around, Pablo holds his fascists prisoners in their club, called the “Ayuntamiento”.

“He [Pablo] placed them in two lines as you would place men for a rope pulling contest, or as they stand in a city to watch the ending of a bicycle road race with just room for the cyclists to pass between, or as men stood to allow the passage of a holy image in a procession. Two meters was left between the lines and they extended from the door of the Ayuntamiento clear across the plaza to the edge of the cliff. So that, from the doorway of the Ayuntamiento, looking across the plaza, one coming out would see two solid lines of people waiting...

“They were armed with flails such as are used to beat out the grain and they were a good flail’s length apart. All did not have flails, as enough flails could not be obtained. But most had flails obtained from the store of Don Guillermo Martin, who was a fascist and sold all sorts of agricultural implements. And those who did not have flails had heavy herdsman’s clubs, or ox-goads, and some had wooden pitchforks; those with wooden tines that are used to fork the chaff and straw into the air after the flailing. Some had sickles and reaping hooks but these Pablo placed at the far end where the lines reached the edge of the cliff...”

After much time, the first victim emerges from the Ayuntamiento. The crowd of revolutionaries does not yet have the stomach for violence.

“‘Here comes the first one,’ and it was Don Benito Garcia, the Mayor, and he came our bareheaded walking slowly from the door and down the porch and nothing happened; and he walked between the line of men with the flails and nothing happened. He passed two men, four men, eight men, ten men and nothing happened and he was walking between that line of men, his head up, his fat face gray, his eyes looking ahead and then flicking from side to side steadily. And nothing happened.

“From a balcony some one cried out, ‘Que pasa, cobardes? What is the matter cowards?’ and still Don Benito walked along between the men and nothing happened. Then I saw a man three men down from where I was standing and his face was working and he was biting his lips and his hands were white on his flail. I saw him looking toward Don Benito, watching him come on. And still nothing happened. Then, just before Don Benito came abreast of this man, the man raised his flail high so that it struck the man beside him and smashed a blow at Don Benito that hit him on the side of the head and Don Benito looked at him and the man struck again and shouted, ‘That for you, Cabron,’ and the blow hit Don Benito in the face and he raised his hand to his face and they beat him until he fell and the man who had stuck him first called to others to help him and he pulled on the collar of Don Benito’s shirt and others took hold of his arms and with his face in the dust of the plaza, they dragged him over the walk to the edge of the cliff and threw him over and into the river...

After some more anti-climactic killing, the mood of the crowd begins to wane. Moreover, the fascists refuse to leave the Ayuntamiento, and stay in prayer. Then comes Don Ricardo.

"Don Ricardo was a short man with gray hair and a thick neck and he had a shirt on with no collar. He was bow-legged from much horseback riding. ‘Good-by,’ he said to all those who were kneeling. ‘Don’t be sad. To die is nothing. The only bad thing is to die at the hands of this canalla...

“He looked at the double line of peasants and he spat on the ground. He could spit actual saliva which, in such a circumstance, as you should know, Ingles, is very rare and he said, “Arriba Espana! Down with the miscalled Republic and I obscenity in the milk of your fathers.’

“So they clubbed him to death very quickly because of the insult, beating him as soon as he reached the first of the men, beating him as he tried to walk with his head up, beating him until he fell and chopping at him with reaping hooks and the sickles and many men bore him to the edge of the cliff to throw him over and there was blood now on their hands and on their clothing, and now began to be the feeling that these who came out were truly enemies and should be killed.

“Until Don Ricardo came out with that fierceness and calling those insults, many in the line would have given much, I am sure, never to have been in the line. And if any one had shouted from the line, “Come, let us pardon the rest of them. Now they have had their lesson,’ I am sure most would have agree.

“But Don Ricardo with all his bravery did a great disservice to the others. For he aroused the men in the line and where, before they were performing a duty and with no great taste for it, now they were angry, and the difference was apparent.

In this state, Pablo delivered the next victim.

“The man who was being pushed out by Pablo and Cuatro Dedos was Don Anastasio Rivas, who was an undoubted fascist and the fattest man in the town. He was a grain buyer and the agent for several insurance companies and he also loaned money at high rates of interest. Standing on the chair, I saw him walk down the steps and toward the lines, his fat neck bulging over the back of the collar band of his shirt, and his bald head shining in the sun, but he never entered them because there was a shout, not as of different men shouting, but of all of them. It was an ugly noise and was the cry of the drunken lines all yelling together and the lines broke with the rush of men toward him and I saw Don Anastasio throw himself down with his hands over his head and then you could not see him for the men piled on top of him. And when the men got up from him, Don Anastasio was dead from his head being beaten against the stone flags of the paving of the arcade and there were no more lines but only a mob.”

Pablo, sensing the mood of the mob no longer wants to wait for its victims one at a time, delivers the fascists.

The mob crushes the front of the Ayuntamiento holding the rest of the fascists. Eventually Pablo tosses the key to the locked door to a guard, who opens it. The narrator Pilar loses sight of the action, but regains it to see this:

“And in that moment, looking through the bars, I saw the hall full of men flailing away with clubs and striking with flails, and poking and striking and pushing and heaving against people with white wooden pitchforks that now were red and with their tines broken, and this was going on all over the room while Pablo sat in the big chair with his shotgun on his knees, watching, and they were shouting and clubbing and stabbing and men were screaming as horses scream in a fire. And I saw the priest with his skirts tucked up scrambling over a bench and those after him were chopping at him with the sickles and the reaping hooks and then some one had hold of his robe and there was another scream and another scream and I saw two men chopping into his back with sickles while a third man held the skirt of his robe and the priest’s arms were up and he was clinging to the back of a chair and then the chair I was standing on broke...”

I fear that the excerpts don’t do the entire gripping fifteen pages justice. We’ve featured Hemingway before in “War at its Worst,” and for a reason: he can evoke the true terror and horror of war...and revolution.

two comments

Great Piece. I can´t honestly say I´ve ever read any of Hemingway´s pieces over the Spanish Civil War, although “The Sun Also Rises” is required reading for expat vets.

I have read some of Orwell´s piece on the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia, it is a brilliant book in my opinion) which documents the internal infighting among Republican forces remarkably well, and captures the chaos of the revolution pretty succinctly. People who casually call for revolution without comprehending the full consequences implied should take this to heart:

“As late as October 1937 the New Statesman was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with), and Mr Arthur Bryant was declaring that ‘the sawing-off of a Conservative tradesman’s legs’ was ‘a commonplace’ in Loyalist Spain.

The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.”


And great piece by Orwell. We’ll have to check out Homage to Catalonia to see if it has some more War at its Worst.

And definitely find “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Really good.