A Newspaperman in Madrid

David Wurtzel has been reading the diary of Lester Ziffren, the United Press correspondent in Madrid who, seventy years ago this month, witnessed the start of the Spanish Civil War.

On the evening of July 17th, 1936, Lester Ziffren, known to his friends as Ziff, was in Chicote’s bar, the place he called ‘our favourite thirst-quencher’. He was preparing his nightly radio broadcast to the United States, ‘Spain Day by Day’.  In the same bar was one of his well-connected friends, the Marquis of Bollarque. ‘Have you heard the news?’ Bollarque asked. ‘It’s started.’

Since the afternoon there had been rumours that something was going on in Spanish Morocco. During the course of a long night, Ziff pulled every string and used every stratagem to get the story past the government censors to the outside world. This was his greatest journalistic scoop since coming to Madrid in 1933. The army rebellion in Spanish Morocco signalled the start of a military coup against the Republican government, and the next day, July 18th, much of the Spanish army responded to their generals’ call to arms. By the end of the month the rebels controlled about one-third of mainland Spain. Ziff’s diary describes the situation in Madrid over the crucial first five months of the Spanish Civil War.

As the Spanish capital instantly became a city of the workers and a city at war, Ziff noted:

The government with only civil guards, storm guards, police and carabineers to depend on, decided it had to arm the proletariat and it gave revolvers and rifles to the Socialist and Communist youths’ organizations and the Anarchists and Syndicalists, so we had a ‘red Militia’. They ran about town waving pistols and rifles and frisking pedestrians and demanding identification documents ... Lads and men and sweet, black-eyed black-haired senoritas shouldering rifles. The girls will probably be tagged ‘Red Carmens’ abroad but the censor says there’s nothing ‘red’ in Spain. That is, we can’t say so.

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