To Blow the Bridge is Nothing or Hemingway’s Big Novel on the Spanish Civil War

“To blow the bridge is nothing.”

“Absolutely nothing. Merely to blow the bridge is a failure.”

“To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should done.”

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls centres on Robert Jordan, an American professor turned dynamiter for anti-fascist partisans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

His mission: to link up with local partisans to destroy a bridge behind enemy lines in the middle of an attack by regular Republican forces on the contested town of Segovia with the purpose of dividing the responding fascist troops into half and thus making their annihilation easier.

We are midway into the Spanish Civil War, which begun when the radical reforms by the popular Spanish Republic sparked an uprising by the military establishment supported by the conservative Church and the feudal oligarchs.

One of the strengths of For Whom the Bell Tolls is the insights it provides on the Republican cause. Here is a fellow partisan or guerrillero expressing pride in his membership to the Republic:

“Watch your mouth about calling me negro.”

“Well, then, blanco –“

“Nor that, either.”

“What are you then, red?”

“Yes. Red. Rojo. With the red star of the army and in favour of the Republic. And my name is Agustin.”

Here is another partisan asking Robert Jordan about the conditions in the United States:

“Do you have no big proprietors?” Andres asked.

“Then there must be abuses.”

“Certainly. There are many abuses.”

“But you will do away with them?”

“We try more and more. But there are many abuse still.”

“But there are not great estates that must be broken up?”

What are they fighting for? And how do they articulate this in their own words? “‘For me revolution is so that all will say Don to all,’ Fernando said.”

Short of the funny dialogue which seems to be crude translations by Hemingway of the Spanish spoken by his characters into English, For Whom the Bell Tolls realistically depicts the many nuances of one of the most tragic armed conflicts of the 20th Century.

The support given by Soviet Russia to the Republic (as well as the greater German and Italian support for the fascists) is a constant presence in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And so are the atrocities perpetrated not only by the fascists but also the excesses committed by those who side with the Republic.

One such case of “red terror” depicted in the novel involved peasant residents standing up in two lines from the door of the Ayuntamiento to the cliff beside the plaza. Armed with flails, sickles, and reaping hooks, they killed the town’s landlords and fascists one by one as they were forced out the building at gunpoint; their bodies thrown over the precipice.

Some of the best scenes include episodes from battles that demonstrate the lopsidedness of the war between the well-armed fascists and the Republicans who only had their honour and commitment as their best weapons:

They were sitting in the lee of the bull-ring and there was shooting down the two streets and everyone was nervous waiting for the attack. A tank had been promised and it had not come up and Montero was sitting with his head in his hand saying, “The tank has not come. The tank has not come.”

Robert Jordan had gone back to look for the tank which Montero said he thought might have stopped behind the apartment building on the corner of the tram-line. It was there all right. But it was not a tank. Spaniards called anything a tank in those days. It was an old armoured car. The driver did not want to leave the angle of the apartment house and bring it up to the bull-ring.

But as Mao pointed out, “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale.” The Spanish Civil War did not end in defeat for the good guys because of the lack of arms.

More than the lack of arms, one of the major handicaps of the Republican side is the disparate loyalties of the various political factions under its wing. There were anarchists that in the guise of anti-authoritarianism prevented the forging of a more organized resistance to the fascists:

“It would have been better for the town if they had thrown over twenty or thirty of the drunkards, especially those of the red-and-black scarves, and if we ever have another revolution I believe they should be destroyed at the start. But then we did not know this.

There were the Trotskyites that sought to wreck the anti-fascist Popular Front while pretending to be more revolutionary than the real revolutionaries. There were the social democrats that while mouthing radical slogans actually feared implementing measures that disturbs the interests of the bourgeois.

And there were the forces led by the Communist International, who were the most disciplined and organized fighting force of this period, as Hemingway describes them:

[Robert Jordan] was under Communist discipline for the duration of the war. Here in Spain the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war. He accepted their discipline for the duration of the war, they were the only party whose programme and whose discipline he could respect.

There is a need for a unified command in war to direct all forces towards the defeat of the common enemy. But this was not the case then. This is the main factor that eventually led to the tragic victory of the fascists under Franco in the civil war.

As the General in charge of the offensive shared to Robert Jordan while giving him orders to blow up the bridge at the onset of the novel:

“They are never my attacks,” Golz said. “I make them. But they are not mine. The artillery are not mine. I must put in for it. I have never been given what I ask for even when they have it to give… Always there is something. Always someone will interfere.”

This dilemma is clearly illustrated near the novel’s conclusion when Robert Jordan’s courier to the general command of the offensive is almost killed, first by the undisciplined troops of the anarchists and secondly by Andre Massart, a paranoid political officer in the International Brigade.

The spread of mistaken ideas and practices among the disparate forces that fought the fascists is also seen in the roving bandit mentality of Pablo:

“I live here and I operate beyond Segovia. If you make a disturbance here, we will be hunted out of these mountains. It is only by doing nothing here that we are able to live in these mountains. It is the principle of the fox.”

Pablo and his ilk has become content with mere roving guerrilla actions without the accompanying difficulties of patiently organizing and struggling together with the masses in order to build up one’s own forces in order to eventually defeat the enemy in the long run.

Having grown comfortable with his own turf where he can hide in and from where he can engage in the business of rustling horses, Pablo vigorously opposed the blowing of the bridge at first. The lack of education and ideological work has a part in this. As Hemingway observes:

All must be brought to a certain level of political development; all must know why they are fighting, and its importance. All must believe in the fight they are to make and all must accept discipline. We are making a huge conscript army without the time to implant the discipline that a conscript army must have, to behave properly under fire. We call it a people’s army but it will not have the assets of a true people’s army and it will not have the iron discipline that a conscript army needs.

At the novel’s conclusion, our hero, submachine gun in hand, waits for the enemy column to pass by. Wounded from an earlier enemy bombardment, he volunteered to stay behind while his comrades make their escape after successfully dynamiting the bridge.

Hemingway’s hero, Robert Jordan, seems to fit the standard American swashbuckling adventurer. He is frequently depicted as superior to his slovenly and flawed Spanish comrades. Ala James Bond, he gets the girl Maria on the side too.

But our hero is no Rambo. He has no access to the latest state of the art arsenal. Nor does he own unlimited ammo. Maria is no femme fatale but a victim of the fascists who eventually join the partisans. And unlike in the usual Hollywood war propaganda film our hero actually supports the multitude.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, we move from the cowboys who attack rebellious Indian tribes or superhuman Special Forces who defeat throngs of Viet Cong in black pyjamas to the compassionate American who sympathizes with other side and takes an active part in their armed struggle.



  1. Three days in Jordan’s life force him to question his own role in a meaningless war. Doesn’t he look like the Greek tragic hero Achilles? Also, this book, for some reason, reminded me of the Vietnam war.

    1. I’m sure the novel is big enough to accommodate such a reading. But I think those questions resolve themselves in the end with Jordan siding firmly with the Spanish Republicans and sacrificing himself to ensure the escape of his comrades. Despite ultimately ending with the defeat of the Republicans the Spanish Civil War is not presented by Hemingway as meaningless but rather as a tragic but nevertheless enduring testament to the courage and heroism of those who fought against Fascist barbarity.

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