|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 190 July/August 2015
Fighting fascism with a camera
Gerda Taro and the Spanish civil war
Gerda Taro was a great photographer of the Spanish civil war. Her inspiring work and life have only been fully appreciated in recent years, thanks especially to the pioneering work of German researcher Irme Schaber. This article draws on Irme Schaber’s English language publications and an interview with Dave Beale for Socialism Today.
In the 1930s, vast economic and political upheavals occurred in the developed capitalist economies and in the Soviet Union. Europe and North America felt the full force of economic depression, mass unemployment, destitution and ruthless attempts to crush organised labour. The Soviet Union experienced the stranglehold of the Stalinist dictatorship that unleashed the great purge, the liquidation of Bolsheviks from the 1917 revolution, mass executions of workers, and millions consigned to imprisonment and forced labour.
The communist parties, which by the 1930s were largely controlled by Stalin through the Comintern (the Communist or Third International), proved incapable of preventing the growth of fascism, with dreadful consequences in Italy, Germany and Spain. In 1936, the Spanish republic was catapulted into civil war by Franco’s fascist coup and, openly supported by Nazi Germany and Italy, the outcome was ultimately a fascist victory in Spain, with the deaths of several millions and the ground laid for the second world war.
These events coincided with radical developments in the printed mass media and camera technology. New mass circulation magazines and newspapers appeared, extensively illustrated with photographs. Well-known examples were Vu, Regards, Ce Soir, Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, Illustrated London News and Picture Post. They were widely read by the working class and some were broadly aligned with the Communist Party and Comintern policy.
At the same time, new German Leica and Contax 35mm cameras had a big international impact on professional photographers. For the first time, small high-quality cameras and lenses allowed them to take photographs in locations inaccessible with bulky equipment, and they could take top-quality images suitable for the new workers’ illustrated weekly and daily papers. Modern photojournalism had truly come of age.
As the Spanish civil war erupted, thousands of workers internationally volunteered to fight fascism in Spain. They were joined by journalists and photographers, almost all of whom took a political position, mostly for the republic. Three of the most famous anti-fascist photo-journalists were Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Gerda Taro.
Gerda Taro’s work has been overshadowed by Capa’s monumental reputation within twentieth century photography. However, while Taro photographed the Spanish civil war for only a year before her death, recent research, publications and two exhibitions have indicated her real significance. This is especially thanks to the pioneering work of German researcher, Irme Schaber. The recent discovery of a vast collection of Capa, Taro and Chim Spanish civil war photographs – known as the Mexican Suitcase and exhibited so far in the US, France and Spain (see Socialism Today No.167, April 2013) – has also highlighted Gerda Taro. In my view, regarding the Spanish photographs alone, her work is actually superior to Robert Capa’s (although Capa built a far larger and diverse body of truly outstanding work, especially during the second world war, over 20 years until his death in 1954).
Taro’s photographs impress in terms of style and substance. Initially, she used a single-lens reflex camera that was normally held at waist level. As Schaber verifies in her new book – not yet available in English – this was a German Reflex Korelle from 1935, which was then an affordable, high-quality camera. Taro’s 6x6 photographs show a clear graphic, pictorial language, influenced by the aesthetics of the Weimar republic, the ‘New Vision’ approach, and Soviet avant-garde film and photography. Thus, Taro created powerful, heroic images of marching soldiers, resilient workers and peasants, and strong, defiant women.
This looks like the stuff of socialist realism, and in many senses it was, although far removed from Stalin’s imposition of socialist realism on art and the media – in praise of himself and his regime – at a time of purge trials and terror within the Soviet Union. Rather, it was part of the vital message to boost the morale of anti-fascist troops defending the Spanish republic. Later, Taro replaced her Korelle camera with a Leica from Capa. The natural viewpoint of the Leica is eye level but it seems Taro often deliberately adopted a stooping or kneeling position to achieve a similar effect to the waist-level Korelle.
Taro exposed the bloody price that the fascist forces imposed on the Spanish people. Her images of wounded soldiers and a blood-soaked stretcher are striking. Although, I think the most powerful images are of civilian air raid victims. Here are desperate families queuing outside the morgue for news of their loved ones. There are bodies on the morgue slab and others lying on a tiled floor, with blood having poured in streams from their fatal wounds. It was in Spain that the Nazi air force first unleashed civilian terror through air raids. Taro’s photographs – taken in Valencia in 1937 a few weeks after the infamous Guernica raid as painted by Picasso – are so close to you that you could almost touch the bodies and smell the blood! They are truly shocking, honest and direct accounts of the price of fascism.
Taro’s researcher, Irme Schaber, kindly agreed to meet me. As she confirmed, Taro was born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910 in Stuttgart and her family was Jewish of Polish descent. She had a fairly conventional, well-educated and relatively privileged middle-class upbringing. However, her family moved to Leipzig in 1929 and the impact of the Nazis’ rise to power changed their lives completely. There, she began her close association with the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAP – Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany).
In March 1933 she was arrested, then released two weeks later. However, with her brothers joining the anti-fascist German underground, she was obviously in great danger. She left for Paris in autumn 1933, where she continued her association with SAP activists and met Robert Capa. The former included Willy Brandt, who became SPD (social democrat) chancellor in post-war West Germany. Capa joined neither the Communist Party nor SAP; his first published photographs were of Leon Trotsky in Copenhagen in 1932.
The SAP was influenced by Marxism, rejected Stalinism but also differed with Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The SAP was aligned with the Independent Labour Party in Britain and POUM in Spain (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista). POUM was falsely labelled ‘Trotskyist’ and ruthlessly crushed by the Comintern in May/June 1937.
Irme Schaber showed that Taro was close to the SAP from the early 1930s until her death in 1937 but she was not a member. She explained that Taro was in a group of anti-Nazi refugees and, in a sense, Taro and some of her social circle seemed to have had an outlook of radical individualism that was incompatible with the imposition of party discipline. Schaber’s extensive research here is invaluable in explaining Taro’s approach in Spain, what she chose to photograph, and why and how she avoided direct conflict with the Communist Party. Taro trod a careful, but potentially dangerous, path between the Comintern and the other left political factions and groups that opposed Comintern policy. I have doubts whether she would have been able to maintain this position for much longer if she had lived beyond July 1937, but that’s something we will never know.
Taro’s choice of photographic subjects is revealing regarding her political stance. Her early photographs include great images of female militia fighters but, with the imposition of Comintern policy by spring 1937, the militia were disbanded and members instructed to join regular army units. Women were also banned from the frontline. In July 1937, Taro photographed the Comintern-sponsored Second International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, held in Spain.
She maintained her Paris SAP friendships, while befriending Soviet officers, the Pravda correspondent and other Comintern loyalists in Spain. She was, of course, providing invaluable news photographs on the biggest international story of 1936-37 for the pro-Communist mass circulation press, and there were substantial mutual benefits in this: they got their message across; she got her anti-fascist photographs published. But clearly she was walking a political tightrope.
Fascist air raids on civilian targets in Spain were a shocking new development in military strategy which, as Irme Schaber explained, deeply affected Taro. It was this aspect of industrialised, technologically superior warfare that Taro focused on, with the destruction and fleeing civilians central to her work. Regardless of personal risk, she became a tireless witness to the Spanish civilian atrocities and terror. Aesthetic aspects became less important in her work. Essentially, her fight against fascism was existential – based on her immediate experiences. Her own displacement and uprooting by the Nazis greatly influenced her photography.
The Comintern exercised an increasing grip on the Spanish republic in the first half of 1937, coinciding with the anti-Trotskyist hysteria of the great purge and terror in the Soviet Union. Taro’s SAP friends feared for her safety, warning her not to return to Spain. She did return, and by mid-July was covering the battle of Brunete. In a chaotic military retreat from the front, she was crushed by a republican tank and died shortly afterwards.
Her SAP comrades’ initial thoughts were that she had been assassinated by Stalinist agents – a point reported to Irme Schaber in 1992 by Werner Thalheim, a member of the SAP group in Paris at the time. However, Schaber’s research shows beyond any reasonable doubt that Taro was killed accidently, and that Taro’s SAP comrades accepted this, once they knew the details. As for her obituary and funeral, the Communist Party unreservedly claimed her as their own, and any concerns they had about her, they buried with her.
Irme Schaber’s research and publications provide an invaluable and leading source of information about Gerda Taro, firmly based on excellent research and investigation. Through Schaber’s work, we gain a deeper understanding of the intense political conflicts taking place within the republican side in the Spanish civil war, and how these were played out through the photographic images that millions of workers saw internationally in their magazines and newspapers. Whatever we think of the events per se, her photographs of Comintern-staged activities are important historical records. But also there are the dreadfully honest images of the early atrocities of fascism that all should see, alongside wonderful, powerful images of workers and peasants totally committed to fighting fascism and for the cause of revolution. Gerda Taro’s work, life and times must not be forgotten.