About For Whom the Bell Tolls


For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940, grew out of Hemingway's personal interest in the Spanish Civil War of the thirties. While still a foreign correspondent in Paris, Hemingway had watched the Spanish political situation developing under the reign of Alfonso XIII. He had visited Spain again during the summer of 1931 after the overthrow of the monarchy. He predicted the civil war would begin in 1935, and when it erupted in 1936, Hemingway began writing and making speeches to raise funds for the Loyalist cause. Later, in 1937, he went to Spain to cover the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In reality, the Spanish Civil War was the first battleground for World War II, testing the forces of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism against either the republican or royal form of government. Many young men from the United States and other countries joined the Spanish Loyalist forces in defense of democratic ideals in a war that was won by the dictator, Francisco Franco. Since that war has tended to slip into the dimness of the shadow cast by World War II, the following review of historical and biographical background should clarify a number of things pertinent to the novel.

In the spring of 1931, after several years of civil strife and strikes, municipal elections were held in Spain. The parliamentary seats won in this election were divided between the leftists and rightists in such a way that an extremely dangerous situation was created. In view of this, and in the hope of avoiding civil war, King Alfonso XIII decided on voluntary exile. On April 13, 1931, the republic was proclaimed.

The Communist-Socialist coalition which ruled Spain during the first two years of the republic was, like its predecessors, plagued by strikes, and a general election was called for November 1933. In this election, the rightists were returned to power with a large majority.

The Conservatives were, however, only able to keep themselves in power for about the same length of time that the leftists had. By February 1936, when another general election was held, public opinion had swung back to its previous position. The leftists won this election by a small majority — 256 seats to 217 for the Conservatives.

Five months after the leftists regained control of the government, José Calvas Otelo, a powerful Monarchist-rightist, was assassinated. This was credited with precipitating a revolt which was led by the army, but which had obviously been planned for some time. General Francisco Franco was recalled from the Canary Islands, where he had been sent to keep him out of politics. He flew to Spanish Morocco on July 17 and quickly overthrew the government there, continuing on to Spain the next day.

Within a few hours after Franco's arrival in Spain, his forces had taken several of the larger Spanish cities, and garrisons of the army all over Spain were in revolt. Surprising and stubborn resistance from the government's militia brought this initial surge to a temporary halt, and the capital city of Madrid remained in the hands of the Loyalist-leftists.

Foreign intervention in this revolt which had turned into a civil war was an accomplished fact by August of 1936. Russia was sending "observers" and "volunteers" as well as financial aid donated by its citizens to help in the leftist cause, but they were not industrially capable of giving a great deal of aid in the form of material. In support of the Monarchist-rightists, both Germany and Italy sent planes, tanks, and munitions in addition to the usual "observers" and "volunteers."

The quickly formed Loyalist-leftist forces managed to bring the war to a stalemate during the winter of 1936-37, but this situation was only temporary. By the spring of 1937 (the time during which the incidents of For Whom the Bell Tolls occur), the leftists had, however, gathered enough men and equipment to prevent Franco from overrunning the country. The Monarchist offensive proceeded, but slowly.

International politics played a great part in the civil war during the next two years, giving the advantage first to one side and then to the other. Throughout this period, both sides committed sickening atrocities. The Loyalists were charged with the murders of hundreds of members of the clergy as well as the assassination of their political enemies, and the systematic bombing and strafing of nonmilitary objectives by the Monarchists was a portent of things to come in World War II.

By January of 1939, an almost completely effective blockade was preventing Loyalist troops from receiving further munitions and supplies. Resistance in towns and cities which had managed so far to hold out against Franco's troops began to collapse. Finally, on March 28, 1939, the well supplied Monarchist forces overcame the resistance of the besieged city of Madrid. The long and bitter civil war was over.

After World War I, Hemingway returned to the United States, but by 1921 he was married and back in Europe as a foreign correspondent. He traveled extensively in Spain and was vitally interested in the political developments during the reign of Alfonso XIII, from 1923 until 1931. In 1928 he moved to Key West, Florida, and so was not present for the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931. He returned to Spain for a visit that summer, however, and learned what had happened from his friends there.

When the Conservatives were returned to power in 1933, Hemingway was traveling in Africa. He was not surprised by the failure of the liberal government for two reasons. First, he felt that "the mass of the people were not ready for it and did not want it." Second, though Spain had become more prosperous under the liberals, and though he agreed at least in principle with the civil reforms instituted by them, he realized that the peasants were receiving very little benefit from the government. The money was going where it had always gone — into the pockets of those in power.

Between 1933 and 1936, Hemingway carefully watched the political developments in Spain. When the civil war finally began in 1936, the only surprising thing to him was that it had come so soon, for as early as the summer of 1935, he had predicted that war would come before the end of the decade.

In 1936 and 1937, Hemingway wrote and made speeches for the purpose of raising money for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Later in 1937, he went to Spain to cover the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. His announcement, some months after he arrived in Spain, that he was writing a novel with the Spanish Civil War as its background, caused a great stir of excitement and anticipation in the literary world. The result was For Whom the Bell Tolls.