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For Whom the Bell Tolls | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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For Whom the Bell Tolls | Context


The Great Depression

The Great Depression was one of the worst economic downturns that the industrialized world had ever experienced. Beginning with the crash of the U.S. stock market in October 1929, what was supposed to be just another recession kept getting worse with every year. Panic ensued after the crash. People rushed to pull their money out of financial institutions in the hope that they could save their investments from being devalued, prices dropped to unheard-of deflationary levels, businesses closed, and jobs and homes were lost. In the United States, the entire decade of the 1930s marked a time of extreme suffering and poverty on a level that landed working class families in unemployment lines and breadlines just to avoid starvation.

In Europe the recovery from the crash was similarly slow, but countries like France, Italy, and Spain were in even bigger trouble. Economic woes were compounded by political upheaval and the rise of fascism. Spain, which had already been experiencing clashes between right-wing Nationalists and left-wing Republicans, became a hotbed of economic and political conflict. The working class and peasant republicans, who were hit hardest by the depression, clamored for government support, but the elite, supporters of the monarchy, business owners, and the Catholic Church increasingly leaned toward fascism. The year 1929 marked the end of the royal dictatorship and the election of a Republican government, but the next few years saw a power struggle between the two parties.

The Spanish Civil War

In 1936 the conflict in Spain came to a violent head: the army, which sided with the right-wing Nationalists, overthrew the Republicans and took over the government. This act plunged Spain into civil war, during which the Nationalists slaughtered entire families of peasants and the Republicans lashed out at the Church, killing priests and nuns.

Germany and Italy, ruled by Hitler and Mussolini, respectively, were already Fascist dictatorships, so a Fascist Spain would create a foothold in Europe that would help fascism spread, surrounding and likely taking over France. Germany didn't want Soviet communism to spread so Germany and Italy officially supported the Nationalist forces.

Other European countries refused to get involved, depriving the already strapped Republicans of much-needed support. The only official support the Republicans obtained was from Russia, which meant that they had to endure Joseph Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until 1953), who doled out forces and materials just enough to keep Germany out of the Soviet Union. Antifascist and socialist volunteers formed the International Brigade with soldiers coming in from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere to shore up the Republicans. However the effort was disorganized and severely underfunded compared to that of the Nationalists under General Franco who took over rule of Spain in 1939.

The Beginning of World War II

When World War II began in 1939, fascism formed the powerful belt of Spain, Italy, and Germany. Hemingway's time as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War was fresh in his mind, and he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls to express his antifascist beliefs. However the novel was not released in Spain until 1968, as it was censored by the Franco government until then.

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