Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn, the daughter of George Gellhorn, a gynecologist, and Edna Fischel, was born in St. Louis on 8th November, 1908. When she was a child her mother was involved in the women's suffrage movement.

Gellhorn attended Bryn Mawr College but left in 1927 to begin a career as a writer. Her first articles appeared in the New Republic, but determined to become a foreign correspondent, she moved to France to work for the United Press bureau in Paris.

While in Europe she became active in the pacifist movement and wrote about her experiences in the book, What Mad Pursuit (1934). When Gellhorn returned home she was hired by Harry Hopkins as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, where she had the task of reporting the impact of the Depression on the United States. Her reports for that agency caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two women became lifelong friends. Her findings were the basis of a novella, The Trouble I've Seen (1936).

In 1937 Gellhorn was employed by Collier's Weekly to report the Spanish Civil War. While there she started an affair with Ernest Hemingway and the couple married in 1940. Gellhorn travelled to Germany where she reported the rise of Adolf Hitler and in 1938 was in Czechoslovakia. After the outbreak of the Second World War wrote about these events in the novel, A Stricken Field (1940).

Gellhorn worked for Collier's Weekly throughout the Second World War and later recalled how she "followed the war wherever I could reach it." This included reporting from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore and Britain. She even impersonated a stretcher bearer in order to witness the D-Day landings. Her book about the war, The Undefeated, was published in 1945.

Gellhorn also covered the arrival of allied troops at Dachau: "In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered. I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever."

After the war Gellhorn worked for Atlantic Monthly. This included all the major world conflicts, including the Vietnam War. In an interview with Shelia MacVicar she pointed out: "I hated Vietnam the most, because I felt personally responsible. It was my own country doing this abomination. I am talking about what was done in South Vietnam to the people whom we, supposedly, had come to save. I'm seeing napalmed children in the hospital, seeing old women with a piece of white sulphur burning away inside of them, seeing the destroyed villages, seeing people dropping of hunger and dying in the streets. My complete horror remains with me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others."

Gellhorn published a large number of books including a collection of articles on war, The Face of War (1959), a novel about McCarthyism in the United States, The Lowest Trees Have Tops (1967), an account of her life with Ernest Hemingway, entitled, Travels With Myself and Another (1978) and a collection of her peacetime journalism, The View From the Ground (1988).

Martha Gellhorn died in London on 15th February, 1998.

Primary Sources

(1) Martha Gellhorn, interviewed by Peter Prichard (1986)

I found out about the Spanish war because I was in Germany when it began. The German papers always described the Spanish Republic as "the Red swine dogs." I didn't know anything about it except that, and that was all I needed to know. And it was the only place that was fighting fascism.

I tried to get some (travel documents) in Paris, which I couldn't. So I just took a train and got off near the border of Andorra and walked across. There was a train going down to Barcelona, so I just got on. I didn't speak Spanish, and I did not have the faintest idea of doing anything except being there. It was a sort of act of solidarity just to be with the right people.

I didn't write. I just wandered about. I used to write letters to the wounded in the Palace Hotel, and I used to drive a station wagon with blood in bottles to a battalion aid station. Then somebody suggested I should write about the war, and I said I didn't know anything about the war. I did not understand anything about it. I didn't see how I could write it. I only knew about daily life. It was said, well, it isn't everybody's daily life. That is why I started.

(2) Martha Gellhorn, The Undefeated (1945)

At the end of the gray unheated ward, a little boy was talking to a man. The boy sat at the foot of an iron cot and from this distance you could see that they were talking seriously and amiably as befits old friends.

They had known each other for almost six years and had been in five different concentration camps in France. The little boy had come with his entire family in the great exodus from Spain at the end of the civil war in 1939, but the man was alone. He had been wounded at the end of the war and for six years he had been unable to walk, with a wound in his leg that was never treated and had never healed. He had a white, suffering face and cheeks that looked as if the skin had been roughly stitched together in deep hunger seams and he had gentle eyes and a gentle voice.

The little boy was fifteen years old, though his body was that of a child often. Between his eyes, there were four lines, the marks of such misery as children should never feel. He spoke with that wonderful whisky voice that so many Spanish children have, and he was a tough and entire little boy. His conversation was without drama or self-pity. It appeared that the last concentration camp was almost the worst; he had been separated from his mother and father. Also the hunger was greater, although the hunger had always been there, and one did not think about it any longer.

In the last camp they all ate grass, until the authorities forbade them to pull it up. They were accustomed to having the fruits of their little communal gardens stolen by the guards, after they had done all the work; but at the last camp everything was stolen. And there were more punishments for the children: more days without food, more hours of standing in the sun; more bearings.

"The man who guarded us in our barracks was shot by the Maquis, when they came to free us," the boy said. "The Maquis shot him for being bad to children."

His mother was here with him, and three sisters, too. An older brother was somewhere fighting with the French Maquis.

"And your father?" I asked.

There was a pause and then he said, in a flat quiet voice, "Deported by the Germans." Then all the toughness went, and he was a child who had suffered too much. He put his hands in front of his face, and bowed his head and wept for his father.

(3) Martha Gellhorn, The Undefeated (1945)

There were ten concentration camps in France from 1939 on. It is alleged that half a million Spanish men, women and children fled to France after the Franco victory. Thousand got away to other countries; thousands returned to Spain tempted by false promises of kindness. By the tens of thousands, these Spaniards died of neglect in the concentration camps. And the German Todt organizations took over seven thousand able-bodied Spaniards to work as slaves. The remainder - no one knows certainly how many - exist here in France. The French cannot be blamed for their present suffering since the French cannot yet provide adequately for themselves.

The Third French Republic was less barbarous to the Spaniards than was the Petain government, evidently, but it would seem that all people who run concentration camps necessarily become brutal monsters. And though various organizations in America and England collected money and sent food parcels to these refugees, nothing was ever received by the Spanish. Furthermore, they were constantly informed by all the camp authorities that they had been abandoned by the world: they were beggars and lucky to receive the daily soup of starvation.

The only way to get out of these French concentration camps was to sign a labor contract: any farmer or employer could ask for two or ten or twenty Spaniards, who were then bound over to him and would have to work for whatever wages he chose to pay under whatever living conditions he saw fit to provide. If a Spaniard rebelled, he could return to the concentration camp. A well-known Barcelona surgeon worked as a wood-cutter for four years at twelve cents a day. He is sixty-two and there is nothing unusual about his case.

(4) Martha Gellhorn, The Undefeated (1945)

The generally accepted figure is 300,000 executions in the six years since Franco won power. The total present American casualties, killed and wounded in all theaters of war, are about 475,000. It is obvious that the only way to defeat these people is to shoot them. As early as 1941, Spanish Republicans were running away from their French employers and disappearing into the Maquis. From 1943 onward, there was the closest liaison between the French Maquis and the Spanish bands throughout France.

That the work of the Spanish Maquis was valuable can be seen from some briefly noted figures. During the German occupation of France, the Spanish Maquis engineered more than four hundred railway sabotages, destroyed fifty-eight locomotives, dynamited thirty-five railway bridges, cut one hundred and fifty telephone lines, attacked twenty factories, destroying some factories totally, and sabotaged fifteen coal mines. They took several thousand German prisoners and - most miraculous considering their arms - they captured three tanks.

In the south-west part of France where no Allied armies have ever fought, they liberated more than seventeen towns. The French Forces of the Interior, who have scarcely enough to help themselves, try to help their wounded Spanish comrades in arms. But now that the guerrilla fighting is over, the Spaniards are again men without a country or families or homes or work, though everyone appreciates very much what they did.

After the desperate years of their own war, after six years of repression inside Spain and six years of horror in exile, these people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith; they have never won, and yet they have never accepted defeat. Theirs is the great faith that makes miracles and changes history. You can sit in a basement restaurant in Toulouse and listen to men who have uncomplainingly lost every safety and comfort in life, talking of their republic; and you can believe quite simply that, since they are what they are, there will be a republic across the mountains and that they will live to return to it.

(5) Martha Gellhorn, Atlantic Monthly (1964)

The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors. The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else's father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.

(6) Martha Gellhorn worked on a hospital ship during the D-Day landings. She later wrote about the experience for Collier's Weekly (June, 1944)

Belowstairs all the partitions had been torn out and for three decks the inside of the ship was a vast ward with double tiers of bunks. The routing inside the ship ran marvelously, though four doctors, six nurses and about fourteen medical orderlies were very few people to care for four hundred wounded men. From two o'clock one afternoon until the ship docked in England again the next evening at seven, none of the medical personnel stopped work. And besides plasma and blood transfusions, re-dressing of wounds, examinations, administering of sedatives or opiates or oxygen and all the rest, operations were performed all night long. Only one soldier died on that ship and he had come aboard as a hopeless case.

It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. There was no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days; shoes and clothing had to be cut off; they wanted water; the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention; plasma bottles must be watched; cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands; it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, via the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.

But the wounded talked among themselves and as time went on we got to know them, but their faces and their wounds, not their names. They were a magnificent enduring bunch of men. Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really can have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive. And all of them looked after each other, saying, "Give that boy a drink of water," or "Miss, see that Ranger over there, he's in bad shape, could you go to him?" All through the ship men were asking after other men by name, anxiously, wondering if they were on board and how they were doing.

(7) Martha Gellhorn, wrote about the Battle of the Bulge in her book The Face of War (1959)

A colleague and I drove up to Bastogne on a secondary road through breath-taking scenery. The Thunderbolts had created this scenery. You can say the words "death and destruction" and they don't mean anything. But they are awful words when you are looking at what they mean. There were some German staff cars along the side of the road, they had not merely been hit by machine-gun bullets, they had been mashed into the ground.

There were half-tracks and tanks literally wrenched apart, and a gun position directly hit by bombs. All around these lacerated or flattened objects of steel there was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe, clothing. There were also, ignored and completely inhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of

Germans. Then there was a clump of houses, burned and gutted, with only a few walls standing, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle.

The road passed through a curtain of pine forest and came out on a flat, rolling snow field. In this field the sprawled or bunched bodies of Germans lay thick, like some dark shapeless vegetable.

We had watched the Thunderbolts working for several days. They flew in small packs and streaked in to the attack in single file. They passed quickly through the sky and when they dived you held your breath and waited; it seemed impossible that the plane would be able to pull itself up to safety. They were diving to within sixty feet of the ground. The snub-nosed Thunderbolt is more feared by the German troops than any other plane.

You have seen Bastogne and a thousand other Bastognes in the newsreels. These dead towns and villages spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that the cracked and caved-in buildings represent. Bastogne was a German job of death and destruction and it was beautifully thorough. The 101st Airborne Division, which held Bastogne, was still there, though the day before the wounded had been taken out as soon as the first road was open. The survivors of the 101st Airborne Division, after being entirely surrounded, uninterruptedly shelled and bombed, after having fought off four times their strength in Germans, look-for some unknown reason - cheerful and lively. A young lieutenant remarked, "The tactical situation was always good." He was very surprised when we shouted with laughter. The front, north of Bastogne, was just up the road and the peril was far from past.

(8) Martha Gellhorn was with the United States troops that liberated Dachau in 1945. She later wrote about it in her book The Face of War (1959)

I have not talked about how it was the day the American Army arrived, though the prisoners told me. In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered.

I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever.

(9) Martha Gellhorn, Atlantic Monthly (1962)

This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil. He was the genius bureaucrat, he was the powerful frozen mind which directed a gigantic organization; he is the perfect model of inhumanness; but he was not alone. Eager thousands obeyed him. Everyone could not have his special talents; many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands. How many more like these exist everywhere?

(10) Martha Gellhorn was asked by Shelia MacVicar of ABC News what the worst war she covered (1986)

I hated Vietnam the most, because I felt personally responsible. It was my own country doing this abomination. I am talking about what was done in South Vietnam to the people whom we, supposedly, had come to save. I'm seeing napalmed children in the hospital, seeing old women with a piece of white sulphur burning away inside of them, seeing the destroyed villages, seeing people dropping of hunger and dying in the streets. My complete horror remains with me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others.

(11) Martha Gellhorn, interviewed by Peter Prichard (1986)

I think the proof of the power of the press is the fear of the press by governments. The Falklands war is a perfect example. That was not a war; it was a campaign. It was so tightly censored, and it was clear that all that the British government had learned from Vietnam was: Keep the press out. If any interests of any government are involved, they fear the press.