Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts:
Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39
In the 1930s, at a time when authoritarian right-wing dictatorships and military rulers appeared to be on the rise across Europe — not only in Germany and Italy, but also in Portugal, Poland, Greece, Romania and Hungary — Spain embarked upon a different course. In 1931, its monarchy yielded to a Republican form of government, with a democratic constitution and an elected parliament. Five years later, in February 1936, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won a parliamentary majority and promised far-reaching reforms. Spain was then arguably Western Europe’s most backward country, with industrialization lagging behind other Western European nations, large landowners dominating the rural economy, and the Catholic Church controlling the country’s social and cultural life.
To major segments of Spanish society – especially the military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church — democracy itself was profoundly threatening and the Popular Front appeared bent on leading Spain directly to its own version of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When a coup against the Republican government and its democratic institutions commenced on July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco, who had been reassigned by the Popular Front to a distant military outpost on the Canary Islands, quickly assumed leadership. The Spanish Civil War, now considered a warm-up for World War II, ensued.
In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, Adam Hochschild explores what he terms the “fiercest conflict in Europe since World War I, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then” (p.xiv). He recounts the conflict in large measure from the perspective of the approximately 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain, 750 of whom died, a “far higher death rate than the US military suffered in any of its twentieth-century wars” (p.xiv). The Spanish Civil War was the “only time so many Americans joined someone else’s civil war – and they did so even though their own government made strenuous efforts to stop them” (p.xx).
Two of Europe’s most ruthless dictators, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, supported Franco and the three year assault on Spain’s democratic institutions. But the Republican side received substantial support from the Soviet Union and its no less ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin. With Great Britain, France and the United States officially neutral throughout most of the conflict, the Soviet Union was the only major power willing to sell arms and ammunition to the Republican side.
To the Americans arriving in Spain, the Soviet Union appeared to represent modernization and international solidarity across national lines, a beacon of hope not only because it was the only major nation taking a stand against fascism, which they saw as the “most dangerous development on the planet” (p.22); but also because the Soviet Union seemed better equipped to resist the economic crisis that was extending its grip across the globe in the 1930s. But the Americans discovered that the Soviet Union was more interested in doctrinal purity and purging its ranks of communist heretics, especially those loyal to Stalin’s archrival Leon Trotsky, than in advancing the democratic principles that the Republic stood for. In addition to communists and socialists of all stripes, the Republican side drew support from urban liberals and secularists, trade unionists, rural farm workers, anarchists and a motley collection of fringe groups.
Hochschild tells this intricate story through individual lives and personal portraits. Assiduous readers of this blog will recall To End All Wars, reviewed here in October 2014, in which Hochschild detailed Great Britain’s participation in World War I through personal stories of leading opponents of the war and political and military leaders prosecuting the war. Here, too, he weaves the stories of individual American and international volunteers into a broader narrative of the three-year civil war. The personal portraits in Hochschild’s account of Britain during World War I were nearly equally balanced between war supporters and opponents. Here, the personalities are mostly on the Republican side, although we also meet a few individuals who assisted the Nationalists.
The dominant American in Hochschild’s narrative is Bob Merriman, a lanky economist from Nevada who seemed to be heading toward a successful academic career in Berkeley, California, when he decided to leave Berkeley for a two-year tour in the Soviet Union and, from there, traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side. Once in Spain, Merriman rose quickly to become the charismatic chief of staff of what came to be known informally as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the unit to which most of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers belonged. We experience the main battles of the war primarily through Merriman, up until April 1938, when he disappeared in battle. Hochschild also introduces a host of other Americans who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause. Numerous journalists and literary figures add vitality and specificity to Hochschild’s overall picture of the war. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are central characters in the story. Antoine St. Exuprey, André Malraux and John Dos Passos make short appearances. Hochschild’s title “Spain in Our Hearts” is from the pen of Albert Camus.
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Franco’s military rebels called themselves Nacionales, which in Spanish is stronger than “nationalist” in English, suggesting that the rebels represented “the only true Spaniards” (p.27). Hochschild characterizes the Nationalist cause as a “war of earlier centuries against modernity, of traditional Catholicism against the secular world, of an ancient rural order against urban, industrial culture” (p.69). Franco’s aim was to “restore the glories of age-old Spain and the key pillars of a highly authoritarian state: the army, the Church, the big estates, and the overseas Spanish empire that had once spanned continents . . . There would be no elections, no independent trade unions, no democratic trappings of any sort” (p.69).
The Nationalist military forces counted among their ranks the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion, along with large numbers of North African Arab or Berber recruits, which together “formed the core of the Nationalist army” (p.98). Termed “Moors,” the Arab and Berber recruits were led by Spanish officers who told them that they would be “fighting against infidels and Jews who wanted to abolish Allah.” The recruits thus fought alongside Spanish militiamen whose war cry was “Long Live Christ the King” (p.29). Spain’s Catholic hierarchy, the “most reactionary in Europe,” embraced Franco and the Nationalist cause “wholeheartedly, and were rewarded in turn” (p.69). In regions that came under Nationalist control, Republican reforms, including a law permitting divorce, were reversed. “Textbooks were purged of anything deemed contrary to Christian morality, and all teachers were ordered to lead their children daily in praying to the Virgin Mary for a Nationalist victory” (p.69).
On the diverse but faction-riddled Republican side, Hochschild highlights the role which Spanish anarchists played. Adherents of a creed that thrived in Spain, anarchists believed in “commnismo libertario, libertarian or stateless communism. The police, courts, money, taxes, political parties, the Catholic Church, and private property would all be done away with. Communities and workplaces would be run directly by the people in them, free at last to exercise a natural human instinct for mutual aid that, anarchists fervently believed, exists in us all . . . Anarchism was really a preindustrial ideology, and exactly how its vision was to be realized in a complex modern economy remained hazy at best” (p.42).
Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War seemed to some the concrete realization of the anarchist vision. It is hard to find an example, before or since, Hochschild argues, “where so many ideas normally considered utopian were put into practice on a scale affecting millions of people” (p.214). Workers’ collectives ruled the city. Large mansions were seized and turned into homeless shelters, a liqueur distillery became a hospital, and a monastery became a children’s TB sanitarium. Pawn shops were forced to give objects back to poorer citizens. Throughout the city, anarchist flags “hung from balconies or ropes strung across streets. They also fluttered from small poles fastened to automobiles and were painted on every imaginable surface. . . from subway cars to shoeshine boxes” (p.51). Barcelona thus “turned the normal social order on its head,” (p.61), drawing independent-minded leftists from all over the world.
Some 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries, divided into five international brigades, provided support to the Republican army, itself an “ill-trained hodgepodge of militia units loyal to different political parties and trade unions” (p.148). The 2,800 American volunteers who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from 46 different states, and included “rich and poor, Ivy League graduates, and men who had ridden freight trains in search of work” (p.xx). About half were Jewish and about one-third came from the New York City area. There were 90 African-American volunteers. The Abraham Lincoln brigade also included a Native American member of the Sioux tribe; two FBI fingerprint experts; a vaudeville acrobat; a rabbi; and a Jewish poet from New Orleans.
Their de facto leader, Bob Merriman was, according to one report, the “backbone and moving spirit” of the Lincoln brigade, “filled with initiative, overflowing with energy . . . unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade” (p.247). A member of the brigade described Merriam as “universally liked and respected . . . one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance” (p.111). Yet, Merriman maintained what to Hochschild was a puzzling, even obstinate, loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union throughout the Spanish conflict. Merriman disappeared in a battle near the town of Corbera, six miles west of the Ebro River, in April 1938. There is much speculation, but still no definitive answer, as to the details of Merriman’s disappearance.
Ernest Hemmingway, already a celebrity author, was a war correspondent during the war, and his “notorious strut and bluster” (p.xv) are on full display throughout Hochschild’s narrative. Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, often considered his greatest work, was published in 1940 and is drawn directly from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Eric Blair, writing under the name George Orwell, actually fought and was injured in the war. His memoir Hommage to Catalonia constitutes one of the most significant contemporaneous records of the conflict. Both Hemmingway and Orwell passionately supported the Republican cause, but they portrayed the cause differently, Hochschild notes. Orwell’s Hommage described a “faction-ridden Republic . . . a picture far different from what its government wanted to present to the world” (p.362). Hemmingway, by contrast, said nothing in his wartime dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image, saving his most acidic and searing insights for novels and short stories published after the war.
Many other journalists figure prominently in Hochschild’s account. Famed New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews became a passionate supporter of the Republican side. Matthews fought his own civil war at the Times with his colleague William Carney, who wrote from Spain as an open Franco enthusiast. Louis Fischer, an ardent communist as a young man who contributed to the 1949 anti-communist tract The God that Failed, abandoned journalism altogether to become an advisor to the Republican side. Socialite journalist Virginia Cowles, more realist than Hemmingway or Matthews, revealed the “spirit of revenge” (p.203) and summary executions that permeated the Nationalist side, and was among the first to depict the Republican cause as doomed. Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemmingway wife number three (of four), accompanied Hemmingway throughout much of the war.
Among the small number of internationals who aided the Nationalists, the most colorful is Torkild Rieber of Texaco Oil, a “swashbuckling American oilman with a penchant for right-wing dictators” (p.xvi). Texaco was close to being the official supplier of oil to the Nationalist cause — on credit, often with free shipping, and probably in violation of United States law. A “grateful Franco continued to buy Texaco oil long after the war, and later made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella, the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honors . . . A few years later the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry went further. ‘Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits . . . we could never have won the civil war’” (p.343).
Hochschild unsparingly recounts the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, while giving the Nationalists a decisive edge for brutality. The Nationalist carpet bombing of the Basque town Guernica, which inspired the war’s best known work of art by Pablo Picasso, “represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air,” with a “powerful impact on a world that had not yet seen the London blitz or the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima” (p.177). One of the reasons that the bombing of Guernica inspired such worldwide outrage was that Franco and the Catholic Church first vigorously denied that it had ever taken place, then claimed that Guernica had been burned to the ground by retreating Republican troops.
The Nationalist ferocity “knew no bounds” toward female supporters of the Republic. Rapes were standard and, “playing on centuries of racial feeling that was shared across the political spectrum, Nationalist officers deliberately compounded the terror by choosing Moorish troops to do the raping” (p.39). The treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was ruthless. But the Republicans generally spared Nationalist enlisted men, “considered either deluded by propaganda or forced to fight against their will” (p.241), whereas the Nationalists routinely shot captured soldiers at all levels, targeting internationals in particular: 173 of the 287 Americans taken prisoner were killed.
More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war, most during the first four months. By contrast, some 150,000 civilians were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war. By the end of 1936, the Republican government had largely succeeded in bringing civilian deaths to a halt. But such deaths included many clergy members and attracted the attention of the conservative American press, doing great damage to the Republican chances of gaining assistance from abroad. When a British special envoy encouraged both sides in Spain to suspend summary executions, the Republic readily agreed. Nationalist Spain, “where the number of political prisoners facing the death sentence ran into the thousands, refused to do likewise” (p.339).
The story of the Spanish Civil War must be told against the backdrop of a Europe in 1936-39 lurching toward continent-wide war. After the September 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France ceded the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco “knew that the path to victory was clear. Previously, Hitler had been in no great hurry for the Spanish war to end, since it distracted Western attention from his ambitions in the east. But with Munich behind him, he sent the Nationalists a massive new wave of arms and supplies” (p.338). For his part, Stalin after Munich “began to lose interest in the war. . . [and] gradually withdrew most of the Russian and Eastern European officers he had lent to the Republic’s military and, for good measure, he continued to order many of them executed” (p.331).
A few weeks after Munich, the Republican government announced that its was removing all international support, in the forlorn hope that Great Britain and France might insist that Franco do the same with the German and Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side. The departure of the International Brigades, Hochschild writes, “marked the end of an almost unparalleled moment. Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in” (p.337).
Britain and France formally recognized Nationalist Spain on February 27, 1939, while combat continued. By March 31, 1939, the Nationalists occupied all of Spain, and the fighting was over. The outcome, Orwell wrote, was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” (p.362) – and he could have added Washington to the list, Hochschild notes. In Orwell’s succinct phrasing, the Nationalists won “because they were stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t” (p.362). Hochschild speculates, as many have before him, that greater assistance from the Western powers might have tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor.
Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance. If, during the war, Nationalist supporters in a particular town or village had been killed or had their property confiscated, “people from that town were executed in retaliation, whether or not they had had anything to do with the original events. If the regime couldn’t lay its hands on someone, his family paid the price. . . At every level of society, Franco aimed to rid Spain of what he considered alien influences” (p.344). Franco remained in power 36 years after the cessation of hostilities, up until his death in 1975.
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Hochschild acknowledges that the Second World War has largely eclipsed the Spanish Civil War in our collective memory today. But by presenting the three-year assault on democratic institutions in Spain through the lens of participating American and international volunteers, Hochschild captures the flavor of a conflict that, as he aptly puts it, was seen at the time as a “world war in embryo” (p.xv).
Thomas H. Peebles
August 18, 2017