1936 - 1937 The Spanish Civil War
In August, 1936, the first month of the Civil War, I travelled as a special correspondent of the London News
Chronicle to General Franco's headquarters, which at the time were in Seville.
The main purpose of the journey was to obtain first-hand evidence of German and Italian military aid to the insurgents.
At that eariy stage of the war, no journalists representing left-wing or liberal newspapers were permitted entry
into insurgent territory, but by devious means, which I have described in The Invisible Writing, I succeeded in
obtaining in Lisbon a safe-conduct from General Franco's brother, Nicolas Franco, his emissary in Portugal, describing
me as a "reliable friend of the National Revolution". After a few days in Seville, I was recognised by
a former colleague at Ullsteins, who denounced me as a Communist, so I had to make a hurried exit by taxi to Gibraltar.
Even during this short visit, however, I had ample opportunity to observe the comings and goings of the German
pilot-officers of the Kondor Legion billeted at the Hotel Cristina, and the German aircraft on the aerodrome, at
a time when Hitler still denied sending aid to Franco and Franco denied receiving it. Thus the evidence I brought
back was worth the trouble; it was used by the "Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Breaches of the Non-Intervention
Agreement on Spain" (to which I gave testimony at its public hearings in London), was widely disseminated
by the press and incorporated in a propaganda booklet I hurriedly wrote. I mention this episode, because it explains
why, when six months later I was captured by Franco's troops, I was convinced that to be shot, without unpleasant
preliminaries, was the best I could hope .for.
It happened when, in the beginning of February, 1937, the rebel-army took Malaga. I had been covering the war on
the Andalusian front for the News Chronicle, and when the town surrendered, having failed to get out in time, I
was arrested by Franco's Military Intelligence, and without interrogation or ceremony, clapped into jail.
The period Koestler spent in the Seville prison was to mark a fundamental turn-point in his life. Almost all his
in-mates had been sentenced to death, and were merely awaiting for their turn to come. What turned out to be a
real torture was not knowing in advance if, and when, one was to be executed. Every night, the guards would pick
- apparently at random - some prisoners and carry out the sentence. Koestler and the other prisoners went to bed
every night waiting for the warders' steps to pass in front of their door, and hopefully not to stop in front of
The proceedings were as a rule smooth and subdued. The victims were not forewarned, and mostly too dazed or
proud to make a scene when they were led out of their cells by the guards, accompanied by the priest, to the waiting
lorry. A few of them sang, some wept, muffled cries of "madre" and "socorro" were frequent.
Sometimes I saw the whole procession - the priest, the guards and the victim - quickly pass in front of my spyhole,
but mostly I only heard them, ear pressed against the cell door. Sometimes the victims were fetched from the mass
detention cells on the second floor, or from a different wing; sometimes from among the incommunicados of the death
row where I was housed; it was impossible to discover the system. On one night, Thursday, April 15, the inmates
of cells 39,41 and 42 on my left and right were all marched off, with only my own cell No. 40 spared, after the
warder had put his key, no doubt by mistake, into my own lock, and then withdrawn it.
Only a campaign mounted in Great Britain by his former wife saved Koestler's life, that was at the end swapped
with another prisoner and sent to Great Britain. This months changed his way of thinking, and he experienced for
brief moments a feeling, that later on he would call "oceanic feeling" and that had some mystical or
metaphysical aspects. As soon as he was set free, he wrote a book, Spanish Testament (later to be republished as
Dialogue with Death) that for many aspects remain one of the most touching and introspective witnesses from the