The best books to understand the Spanish Civil War

James McGrath Morris Author Of The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, DOS Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War
By James McGrath Morris

Who am I?

James McGrath Morris is the author of The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, which the Economist said was “as readable as a novel.” His previous work, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press was a New York Times bestseller. His next book is Tony Hillerman: A Life.


I wrote...

The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, DOS Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War

By James McGrath Morris,

Book cover of The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, DOS Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War

What is my book about?

Rich in evocative detail--from Paris cafés to Austrian chateaus, from the streets of Pamplona to the waters of Key West--The Ambulance Drivers tells the story of two aspiring writers, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, who met in World War I and forged a twenty-year friendship that produced some of America's greatest novels, giving voice to a generation shaken by war.

In war, Hemingway found adventure, women, and a cause. Dos Passos saw only oppression and futility. Their different visions eventually turned their private friendship into a nasty public fight, fueled by money, jealousy, and lust. This is not only a biography of the turbulent friendship between two of the century's greatest writers but also an illustration of how war inspires and destroys, unites, and divides.

The books I picked & why

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The Spanish Civil War

By Hugh Thomas,

Book cover of The Spanish Civil War

Why this book?

First published in 1961, and reissued many times since, The Spanish Civil War remains the single best account of the Spanish Civil War. Thomas was a historian who had served in the British government and whose political allegiances shifted from the Labour to the Conservative party. His seminal work was quickly adopted by the left in Europe and the United States as the go-to work on a legendary clash between the right and left. Despite a few errors and the publication of new accounts, Thomas’s book deserves to be the first on any list like this one. It was banned in Spain until after Franco’s death. Travelers would smuggle copies across the border.


For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Why this book?

For Whom The Bells Toll follows an American volunteer who joined the Republican forces opposing Franco. It is a reminder that fiction can often contain deeper truths than non-fiction.  I reread the work while writing my book The Ambulance Drivers. I found it had not grown dated and should remain among Hemingway’s best three novels, Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, being the other two. Its prose is so urgent. “There is nothing else than now,” Hemingway writes. “There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life”


Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Homage to Catalonia

Why this book?

Unlike Hemingway, Orwell chose not to use fiction for his 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War. He went to Spain in 1936 to join the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) to help in the fight against the Fascists. He served on the front lines for several months and was nearly killed by a sniper’s bullet. His account of his time in Spain took years to find an audience because by the time it was published World War II was already underway. Nonetheless, the Spanish Civil War a turning point in Orwell’s life and helped him grow into an influential champion in the fight against totalitarianism famously writing the classic novels Animal Farm and 1984.


Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

By Adam Hochschild,

Book cover of Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

Why this book?

Both Hemingway and Orwell show up in this compelling, well-written, and sweeping account of the war. Hochschild is a brilliant writer who was aspired to take up this topic by Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Like he did in King Leopold’s Gold, Hochschild focuses his attention on a limited number of people making it easier to follow the story. The co-founder of Mother Jones, he brings to the book a lively magazine-style of narration. If Thomas’s work is too much, this is the one history worth reading. 


Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War

By Amanda Vaill,

Book cover of Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War

Why this book?

If there was a soap opera in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, it would have been filmed at Madrid’s Hotel Florida where famous foreign supporters of the Republican cause stayed. For a brief time, as it became clear Franco would prevail, armed amateur mercenaries, writers, filmmakers, and journalists, drank and did all they could for the lost cause. The tale of three love affairs, including that of Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, animate this book whose entertaining style masks some insightful passages. Certainly, a book that’s hard to put down.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Spanish Civil War, Spain, and Ernest Hemingway?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Spanish Civil War, Spain, and Ernest Hemingway.

The Spanish Civil War Explore 41 books about the Spanish Civil War
Spain Explore 120 books about Spain
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Spain at War: Society, Culture and Mobilization, 1936-44, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, and We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War if you like this list.