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In Koestler’s footsteps

Saturday, February 14th, 2009 at 10:04 am
by Borg

The door of my house in Granada is padded with metal and I had never given it any thought until an old lady that was born here 82 years ago came knocking and told stories about what happened here in the late 30ies. Some thugs came by one night she said and poured petrol on the door and was just about to set the house on fire when in the last minute they decided to leave the house with children alone and instead burn down the church at the mirador San Nicolas. Her father thus padded the door and all the windows so as to give them time to put out a fire should it happen again.

The most horrific crimes have been committed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause.

All over Spain there are discoloured bullet holes in the facades of beautiful old Gothic buildings and the horrific stories about mass-executions and farmers being shot through the eyes have an air of incredibility about them given the sublime beauty of the landscape today and the peaceful, fun loving mentality of the Andalusians I know. But the most horrific things humans have done are not crimes of individuals. The deaths caused by them are almost insignificant in comparison with the crimes performed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause, be that the Nation, the Leader, the Religion or the Ideology.

Perhaps no one has been more marked by the seeming irrational bestiality of humans and at the same time done so much to try to comprehend, explain and fight against it as the Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler. Just like Orwell, Hemingway and many European intellectuals at the time. Koestler came to Spain to fight against the Franco lead fascists 1936 and onwards.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler

The whole notion that a group of poets would run to the trenches in the front lines of another country is bizarre and very hard to understand for us today. What did they expect to achieve? Were they going to read at the enemy!? In order to understand this intellectual mobilisation it is important to realize the role played by Spain and what was perceived as being at stake. The Spanish Civil war between 36-39 was the stage for the battle between the public and the ruling aristocratic minority. In 1931 through general election there was established the Second Spanish Republic that granted citizens, including women, the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the abdication of the king. It was fundamentally a progressive step for justice, from a plutocratic feudal society with widespread poverty to something akin to modern democracy. One of the problems was that while the “public” agreed that the state should be separate from the church and workers given more rights, there was great disagreement about how the state should be organised. Spain was a melting pot of communists, anarchists, fascists, monarchists, and was internationally seen as a war by proxy between the old aristocratic capitalist ideology and Russian backed communism. Catalonia was mainly socialist or communist. Malaga was the strong-hold of the anarchists (but being anarchists they had problems of organisation and fell quite easily to Franco’s troops). The internal disagreements between the political parties representing “the people” was probably one of the reasons why Franco could rise to power and mobilise a coup d’etat with the unholy alliance between the aristocracy, the church and the guardia civil. Thus Spain was perceived as having immense symbolic value for the whole of Europe as the struggle between a frail democracy and an aristocratic fascist regime. Franco’s mass-execution in the bullring in Badajoz and the air-bombings of Madrid were the precursors of the way the WW II would be fought.

Although some intellectuals like Hemingway did take to arms in the struggle, their role was to “make themselves useful” and indeed reading propaganda to the soldiers to boost morale. Koestler’s role was different, and the nail-bitingly dramatic story that lead him to be imprisoned with a death sentence in Seville is utterly thrilling. He was 31 years old and had been working in Berlin as a journalist, and was secretly working for the communist propaganda organisation with its headquarters in Paris. At the time of the news of Franco conquering Seville, he was however utterly depressed due to disillusions with communism in practice and personal failures as a writer, and was living in absolute poverty in a hayloft outside Paris writing on some anti-fascist book. Upon hearing the news he went to the head of the communist propaganda organisation, Willy Münzenberg, and asked to be sent to fight in the war. Willy finding the idea of a journalist fiddling with a gun a waste had a moment of inspiration and suggested that Koestler would instead go as a journalist and try to achieve an interview with Franco, with the implicit mission to establish proof that the fascists were breaking the international non-intervention agreement and were in fact receiving support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. At this time it was denied by all three countries and UK and France did not take the threat seriously. Koestler was fixed up with a fake cover as a journalist for two fascist sympathising news papers, was given more money than he had ever seen in his life and given an elegant suit. He was to enter Spain via boat to Lisbon, but by an over-sight on his part when he arrived in Lisbon his real Hungarian passport had expired and he was sent to the Hungarian consulate.

Quipo de Llano

Queipo de Llano

By a fortunate (or unfortunate), twist of events, the Hungarian consul was friends with the Franco aristocracy living in exile in Lisbon. Koestler was thus invited to a posh party in a casino and from a hayloft he suddenly finds himself buying drinks out of the communist wallet for the Marques de Quintanar, the Dutchess Vega de so-and-so, and when someone suggests a toast to the Hungarian Regent Koestler reciprocates by drinking to the health of General Franco. The most extraordinary thing is that he is introduced to no one less than Franco’s brother, Nicolas Franco, from whom he obtains a priceless document called Safe-Conduct, describing him as a reliable friend of he National Revolution that leads him all the way to Seville and grants him a personal interview with Franco’s head general in Seville – General Queipo de Llano.

Me on the road

A crucial event happens on his third day in Seville, and takes place in the allegedly famous Hotel Cristina. Having lived in Seville for a year and a half I did not know of any such place and I was curious to see if I could track it down. A couple of days ago I was invited by an old friend, a flamenco dancer that was just having her solo debut in one of the main theatres in Seville, to come down for a visit and I thought I could drive down on my bike, enjoy the flamenco and try to locate the Hotel Cristina. There is next to no info online, but it was supposed to be central, so after a bit of research and asking older people that were likely to remember such an illustrious place I managed to find the Hotel where Nazi pilots stayed in 1936. I learn that it was completely rebuilt in 1983, but while the inside is private residencies only the exterior is kept exactly as it was. One señora now living there told me: “Si, si, esto era Hotel Cristina. Aqui ibamos a bailar despues de las bodas”. The building is the yellow complex between five star hotel Alfonso XIII and El Torre del Oro where you find the modern US equivalent of cultural achievment…the McDonalds, and as it turns out about 100m away from where I used to live. Back then foreign journalists in Seville were treated with utmost suspicion, and one notorious Captain Bolin of Scandinavian descent was particularly fierce and had put a gun under the nose of a French journalist before he was expelled.

Hotel Cristina

Hotel Cristina

Any journalist entering Hotel Cristina was instantly suspected a spy since mainly Nazis lived there. As for proof of German support of Franco, it was not hard to come by as the Swastika uniforms were everywhere to be found. Against his better judgement Koestler still decides to enter Cristina and finds a group of Nazi airmen sitting by a table in the lounge bar. He walks up to the bar and orders a sherry, when suddenly his gaze is met by one of the men at the table – Herr Strindberg, the son of the famous Swedish author August Strindberg. The two had worked together in Berlin some years earlier and Koestler knew instantly that Strindberg had not only recognised him but beyond any doubt could blow his cover. In a moment of irrational panic, he orders another sherry, swallows it, and utters loudly:

-”Hello, aren’t you Strindberg?”

Strindberg replies:
-”Excuse me, but I am in a conversation with this gentleman”.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

Koestler then mounts this incredible argument, acting indignantly about Strindberg not having greeted him properly, and when the Nazi officer demands to see his credentials he starts shouting, waving his hands in the air, calling it an insult and demanding that Captain Bolin sets the record straight. By chance the Captain walks through the doors and Koestler carries on with his theatrical tantrum at which the Captain gets pissed off and basically says he could not care less about whether two foreign journalists greeted or not and that they could all fuck off! As the Captain walks out the lounge Koestler also walks off in a strop, and due to the confusion he is not stopped. When back at his hotel, the rumour has spread about what had happened and he is advised to leave at once. He manages to arrange a transport to Gibraltar and crosses the border one hour before the order for his arrest is issued.

Walk along history lane

Avenida de la Constitucion

Back in Paris, his story becomes front page news in both France and UK, and help raise the awareness of the brotherly bond between Hitler and Franco. Koestler return twice more to Spain, first in some secret mission personally requested by the Spanish Foreign Minister to recover some documents in Madrid, and then to report as a war correspondent in Malaga, where he is eventually captured by none other than Captain Bolin himself and is very nearly shot on the spot. Instead he spends three months in the Central Prison in Seville, under death sentence, where Franco had revived vile garotte as a means of execution. The vile garotte was a way of killing someone by screwing a vice into the back of an iron collar, and listening to the screams of his previous cell mates he suffers both extreme anxiety attacks as well as some mystical experiences inspired by Euclid’s proof of infinity. Details about this episode is documented in Dialogue with Death, available to read online.

He is released in exchange for a very beautiful lady from Seville, a wife of a fighter pilot, captured by the opposition. However, Koestler spends time in jail twice more in his lifetime. Once in Le Vernet in France, ironically as a suspected Nazi sympathiser, and in Pentonville prison in London due to lack of the appropriate documents. These were extremely political times, and almost every character in his autobiography dies an unnatural death.

Franco and Hitler alliance

Franco and Hitler alliance

I reread his story by the beautiful fountain in front of Cristina, where the now car free area is bathing in sunlight and busting with a sublime spring like euphoria. Tourists in horse carriages, students on the year abroad, locals riding the public bicycles whistling along la Avenida de la Consitucion. The Andalusian newspaper El Correo de Andalucia has put up historical front pages along the walk, and with a mildly hopeful smile I notice that someone has thrown a stone through the one declaring the united front of Franco and Hitler.

I will leave you with this gem, and if anyone can understand a word of what Franco is saying about “a movie man” please transcribe it below.

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5 Responses to “In Koestler’s footsteps”

  1. Guy Says:

    This site has a good transcription of it. Reminds me of Aznar's attempts to speak English when he wanted to go on lucrative Neo-Con sponsored speaking tours around the USA after leaving the top job in Spain. It was a little bit better than El Generalissimo but not much, and he was talking for a lot longer.

    So Strindberg's son was a Nazi then? Ingmar Bergman loved Strindberg and naively supported Hitler during the war as well. But fortunately did not continue to delude himself after it was revealed what they had been doing.

  2. Nils Borg Says:

    “Thanks to the thousands of souls who followed [highway] movie man in defense of civilization. And thanks to all those who hear this will to [restrict] them all over the world: country, religion, family. This is our way and our [train]. Viva España!”

    Does it make any sense!? Ha ha ha! Thanks Guy.

    Well, apparently Herr Stringberg's wife wrote a letter years later claiming that he was himself in danger of being caught out and therefore equally paranoid. She also claims that he actually helped Koestler escape to Gibraltar, but Koestler finds that inplausible.

    The chapter on Sweden's sympathy for the Nazi regime hidden behind a facade of neutrality is a dark one we are still hesitant to open up I think. Thanks for the link.

  3. Guy Says:

    The last comment gives a better transcription:

    Thanks to the

    Thousands of souls who follow

    Our movement in defense of civilization

    And thanks to all those

    Who hear this where to spread they all over the world

    Country, religion, family this is our faith and dream

    ¡viva españa!

  4. Ideation » Blog Archive » On Validity Says:

    [...] other. Yesterday across the gulf, Iran declared itself a nuclear state, and thereby sped up what Koestler saw as the final countdown for humanity. Since the moment mankind learnt about nuclear reactions it [...]

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