Romance and horror intermingle at Hotel Florida

“Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War” by Amanda Vaill. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. $30.

“Hotel Florida” is a beautiful and brave book about an awful and terrifying time, the bloody prologue to what became World War II.

Spain’s Civil War (July 1936-April 1939) was a fight to the death between its left-wing republican government and its right-wing army. The western democracies — Great Britain, France and the United States — adopted non-intervention and neutrality because the Great Depression crippled their economies and memories of the Great War sapped their will. The totalitarians — Benito Mussolini’s Italy, Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union — pledged the same while blatantly sending troops, weapons and political operatives.

A few Americans, British and French — men such as Robert Hale Merriman, Eric Blair (George Orwell) and André Malraux — served in volunteer International Brigades for the republic, the Loyalists. Other Americans — including John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Herbert L. Matthews — came to report the story of an ugly and brutal war in an old and cultured country.

Vaill portrays the horror and the romance of these years through the depiction of three couples: Arturo Barea Ogazón and Ilse Pollak, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. They and so many others met or stayed or took refuge at Madrid’s Hotel Florida, even though its 10-story opulence was a target for the artillery of the army, the Nationalists.

Barea, a patent engineer in Madrid, and Pollak, a translator from Vienna, headed the censorship office for the Loyalists and, instead of suppressing reports, encouraged the unvarnished truth. Although he had both a wife and a mistress and she a husband, they became passionate lovers. Of their commitment to the republic and to each other, Barea rightly warned that there would be “pain for ourselves as well as happiness. One’s got to pay, always.”

Robert Capa (born Endre Friedman), from Budapest, and Gerda Taro (born Gerta Pohrylle), from Stuttgart, were the first truly heroic photojournalists, risking their lives to film the reality of battle. He was a hopeless romantic bewitched by her teasing charm: “She slipped into and out of encounters as she would a pretty negligee.” Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” published in Life magazine, became the most famous image of the Spanish Civil War.

Taro took searing pictures of soldiers fighting and dying until she herself was run over by a tank in July 1937. Their photographs, published widely by newspapers and magazines, and above all in their “Death in the Making” (1938), made the war a fearsome nightmare.

Hemingway was perhaps the world’s most famous writer — not, despite his own opinion, its best, nor to his dismay, its most celebrated. He sought new adventures and new inspiration in Spain, bringing with him, despite his marriage, Martha Gellhorn, the “literary girl of the moment,” whom he would make his third wife and whose reporting would be the equal of his own.

Choices were stark. The leader of the Nationalists, Gen. Francisco Franco Bahamonde, declared from the outset: “There can be no compromise, no truce. … I shall save Spain from Marxism at whatever cost.” After his victory in 1939, that cost would be more than a quarter million slaughtered or sent to die in concentration camps.

For the Loyalists, Pepe Quintanilla, known as the chief executioner of Madrid, the reply was, “These are terrible times. … To overcome them we have to be terrible ourselves.”

Some from the west could not stomach such terms. Dos Passos asked, “What is the use of fighting a war for civil liberties, if you destroy civil liberties in the process?” To which Hemingway retorted, “Are you with us or against us?”

But privately Hemingway asked whether it was all “a carnival of treachery and rottenness.”

History’s lessons remain enigmatic, but Hemingway was exactly right in the greatest speech he ever gave, on June 4, 1937, to an overflow audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall: “It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and whether the truth is worth some risk to come by, the writers must decide for themselves. Certainly it is more comfortable to spend their time disputing learnedly on points of doctrine … but there is now and there will be from now on for a long time, war for any writer who wants to study it. … When men fight for the freedom of their country against a foreign invasion, and when those men are your friends … you learn, watching them live and fight and die, that there are worse things than war.”

Amanda Vaill has written a book full of truth. Given the current state of the world, reading it is an act of citizenship.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).