At a moment when much of the western world seems impotently indifferent to the destruction of a country – Syria – it is startling to be reminded yet again that thousands of Americans and Europeans risked their lives and futures in another country’s civil war. To Spain, between 1936 and 1938, came approximately 2,800 from the United States who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as well as tens of thousands more from Britain, Poland and France, all volunteers in what they saw as a battle against fascism. In far higher proportion than the Spanish defenders of the Republic they came to help, they died on the battlefields with no markers on that soil. Of those an estimated 750 were American.
The story of the Spanish Civil War, the first round of what would become World War II, has been told countless times, by eminent historians such as Anthony Beevor, and Hugh Thomas, by famous writers as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. Now, comes American writer Adam Hochschild, perhaps previously best known for King Leopold’s Ghost, a grim tale of Belgian colonialism of the Congo and six other books. He has come up with his angle and insights, in a depiction largely devoted to the Americans drawn across the Atlantic to this dramatic conflict.
Even for those of us who have poured through so many previous accounts, Hochschild’s work is spellbinding, especially as it makes vivid the passions that drew these Yanks across the sea, to the consternation of their families, the disapproval of their government and the bewilderment of most of their fellow citizens. The author has told a tale that mixes the personal and political, that shows distinct and fully sketched personalities swept up in a larger vortex of history.
Europeans, from Orwell (then known as Eric Blair), Russian and East European commissars, other British who fought on both sides receive their mentions, as does German refugee from Nazism, Willy Brandt. But Hochschild’s focus is on the Americans for whom Spain may have been distant in mileage but not in spirit. Half were Jewish, a third from New York and even 60 from that hot bed of left wing activism, City College of New York. For most of them, as one participant later noted, the fight was not about Francisco Franco, the general who led the rebellion against the Republic, but Adolf Hitler, already embarked on his murderous campaign against European Jews. As the author notes, a number of them were members “of a group that has almost vanished from the United States today, working-class Jews.”
Hochschild writes that three quarters of the Americans were Communists, many unionists, and he vividly reminds of the American and global Depression that made that ideology so alluring in the 1930s. As this tale unfolds, so does the sad saga of Soviet exploitation of the republican movement, even to the virtual theft of much of Madrid’s gold reserves. But Moscow was the one capital ready to provide at least some weapons and soldiers for the fight, even if not matching in number or effectiveness the air and ground forces dispatched by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Throughout the war, Britain, France and the United States refused to provide military aid to the Republic, which finally fell to a Franco dictatorship in 1939, one that would endure until his death in 1975.
From the broad historical sweep a collection of fascinating individuals emerge. Hochschild was able to talk to a few remaining survivors including two reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle where he began his writing career. Much of the rest of his material comes from interviews with family members and diaries. The fighters range from Berkeley economics lecturer Bob Merriam to Phil Schachter, a New York machinist and son of a laundry owner, who like many went to Spain without telling their families of their destination.
But like most writers, Hochschild cannot resist the temptation of writing about other writers. And of course in any tale of the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway looms largest. Hochschild catches all of Hemingway’s contradictions, but Martha Gellhorn, who would become one of his wives, explained it best. “The Spanish war seemed made for him.” The author concludes that whatever the literary judgments on “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” it demonstrated a more “capacious political understanding” of the conflict than any of Hemingway’s journalistic dispatches.
Nearly 1,000 foreign journalists reported from Spain over the three year war. The New York Times had its own civil war, among editors in New York, but especially between correspondents James Carney, on the Nationalist side, and Herbert Matthews on the Republican side. Carney was basically a publicist for the Franco side. Matthews belief in the republican cause often spilled into his copy, to the point it sometimes never made the paper or only after serious editing. The author faults the entire press corps on the republican side for basically ignoring the anarchist movement’s social revolution in Catalonia and elsewhere. And the two writers who seemed the most level headed were Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles.
The one American, whose exploits were largely ignored by U.S. journalists was the chief executive of Texaco, Torkild Rieber, a Norwegian born naturalized U.S. citizen. The attention Hochschild devotes to Rieber’s successful efforts to provide the oil for the Nationalist victory, as well as intelligence to stop oil shipments to the Republic, is a particularly piquant reminder at this moment that international oil companies have long played by their own rules and have their own foreign policies. Texaco violations of U.S. neutrality laws in providing material and credit to the Nationalists drew only a minor penalty from the Justice Department. Hochschild explains that Rieber’s tilt not only flowed from business interests and political convictions but a long personal relationship with the head of the Spanish oil company.
Invariably, this story turns into one of disillusionment. Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” barely sold a few hundred copies until the Cold War turned it into a classic text. Louis Fischer, a bon vivant, social climber, and journalist who first curried favor in Stalin’s Moscow and then in Spain, later became a contributor to another Cold War classic, “The God that Failed.” The disillusionment of the surviving members of the Lincoln Brigade came over time, first the with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and then with Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956. Even so, the volunteers Hochschild spoke with never regretted their fight for the Spanish Republic, only that they lost.
For all the what-ifs of the war, whether stopping Franco in 1936 might have forestalled the larger conflict to come, there is one sentence from the author that explains why the Spanish conflict still resonates long beyond the lives of those who fought in it.
“There seemed a moral clarity about the crisis in Spain,” he writes.
A clarity that this book helps reawaken for successor generations.
Spain in Our Hearts. Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. By Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 438 Pages.
Michael Mosettig is former foreign editor of The News Hour.