In 1931, thousands of Spaniards danced in the streets celebrating the abdication of the king, Alfonso XIII, and the establishment of a republic. This euphoria was short-lived. The new government, besieged on all sides by bitter partisanship and impossible demands, began to flounder as unrest grew into violence in the streets. The assassination of the Monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo provided the spark that would lead to three years of brutal civil war, culminating in the victory of the Nationalist forces under the command of General Francisco Franco. The war was a foreshadowing of what was to come in Europe and around the world. The Soviet Union on the Loyalist side, and the Axis powers on the Nationalist side, used Spain as a training ground for men and weapons.
The prelude to the great armies marching through Europe at the end of the decade was ideological warfare whose battles were fought not only in the political arena but also in the literary. Most writers of the 1930’s did not feel free to isolate themselves in any type of ivory tower. Not merely content to have their works mirror society, they wanted, by means of their art, to influence society, preferably to guide it in the direction of greater social commitment and responsibility. Before 1936, however, the political affiliations of various writers were diffused. Some seriously, some not, involved themselves in leftist, even anarchist, movements; most would have simply defined themselves as liberal. The war in Spain changed this condition. It forced them to choose. In overwhelming numbers, writers and artists chose the Loyalist cause. Aligning their own dreams and fears with those of the Republic, they became Loyalists and viewed the Spanish Civil War as a morality play, with good versus evil, capitalists versus peasants and workers, Fascism versus freedom.
American writers were determined to force Spain and the Loyalist cause into the forefront of American consciousness. Rallies were held, petitions were signed, and marches were organized against American nonintervention. Literary journals were flooded with reviews of Spanish literature, and translations such as And Spain Sings (1937) by poets John Peale Bishop and Edna St. Vincent Millay, among others, became the rage. For some, participation was more than empathic, as writers joined medical services or even enlisted in the famous International Brigades, the non-Spanish volunteer soldiers fighting for the Republic.