The Spanish Civil war, from July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939, cost some half a million Spanish lives; another half a million went into exile in France. A diaspora flooded Mexico, Argentina and other South American countries.  Of 3,000 Americans who fought there on the side of the elected government, The Republic, 681 died.  Others fought as well, 136,000 Moroccans and 80,000 Italians with the Franco Nationalists.  Hitler and Mussolini supplied an air force of over 200 state-of-the-art airplanes; incendiary bombs and mass civilian bombing were introduced.  While Germany and Italy supplied troops and weapons, despite their signatures on the Non-Intervention Agreement of August, 1936, the democracies, which had a stake in supporting Spanish democracy, resolutely refused to send arms.  The United States looked the other way when Texaco and other oil giants supplied Franco’s military with oil and gas;  General Motors and Ford sold trucks by the thousands.

Books Spain in Our Hearts Refugees

Spanish refugees on the road during the Spanish Civil War

The war was front page news for almost three years in Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States.  The New York Times alone had over 1,000 front page headlines during the time. Dozens of histories and memoirs were written in the years after the war. For most today, however, the war is a bare footnote in history, if known at all. The Second World War, in news, battles and bodies obscured everything before it.

A trio of very well done books have appeared in the last several years, bringing to new eyes the importance the war in Spain had to the world at the time, and its role in the war that followed.  If the First World war and the treaties following it laid the groundwork for the Second World War, the Spanish Civil war was the jumping off point, the salient, in military terms.

Hotel Florida by, Amanda Vaill, appeared in 2014.  Not a war historian in her previous books, she does an admirable job of using three couples to organize for us the events and larger sweep of the war: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, writers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, photographers and Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulscar, administrators and press attaches for the Republic.  Hell and Good Company, 2016, by Richard Rhodes [reviewed here,] is particularly focused on those who brought medical help to the besieged Republic, innovating life-saving technology and medical logistics as horrific industrialized weaponry changed injuries, numbers and time to respond.  Dr. Edward Barsky, an American, along with Federic Duran Jordá, a Catalan and Norman Bethune, a Canadian,  are important figures.

Books Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts, 2016, sets itself the most difficult task.  Subtitled “Americans in the Spanish Civil War,” the book is driven by Hochschild’s question: who were these 3,000 who went off to fight and die in a war far from home? More than that, he asks:

“The defenders of the Republic were … fighting for one of the finest causes beside one of the nastiest (Stalin’s consolidation of power.)  How did they experience this?  How much were they even aware of it?  Or, if you’re in a desperate battle of survival, do you even have the luxury of worrying about who your allies are?”  Trying to answer this requires a canvas as big as the world itself.

A brigade of soldiers, even if only twenty-two are featured, is much larger than three couples or several medical personnel.   Among the Americans are also 7 doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers (complementing those in Rhodes’ book) and fifteen news people, some extensively treated and others in cameos of Vaill’s longer scenes.  Added to these are two major British figures, George and Eileen Orwell, and Pat Gurney, international film makers, Spanish nationalists, Russians, Hungarians and Poles, some 90 characters in all.  Each has a personal background; all had come of age in the world-wide great depression; many looked for radical solutions to the economic catastrophe and the militarism rising from it; not a few were attracted to communism and so, to the Soviet Union, as a counter to the failures they were seeing. In the Soviet Union, the world was turning upside down again; the time of the Spanish Civil War was also the time of Stalin’s terrible purges.  Men were removed from duty aiding the Republican armies to be returned to Moscow and executed. All of this gets Hochschild’s attention.

In Spain itself not only was there a civil war but several titanic struggles: the military coup against the elected government; the efforts of the wealthy landlords and Catholic Church to undo the enormous social changes of the past decade, including democracy; a social revolution in Catalonia (and Andalusia) against the coup but also against the bourgeoisie governing the Republic — a war within a war as some of called it.  As the larger war continued, the effect of Soviet backing of  the Republic and the absence of help from western democracies changed attitudes and alliances.  “We pays the money, we calls the tune,” is embedded in human affairs and it was no different in Spain.  As Soviet functionaries, military advisors and combat officers, as well as security personnel (NKVD and GPU) began to dominate the Republic, other fighters and workers resisted — all of which needs some explanation.

The result is that Spain in Our Hearts doesn’t (can’t) have the same tight narrative as the other two. The problem of tracking not only events and battles as intersected by the lives of volunteers,  reporters, and national figures,  filling in their backgrounds, familial and social, including the evocative detail or telling quote means that there is more of a patchwork effect than in the other books.  Patchwork is not necessarily bad, in fact it is often beautiful and ingenious.  Hochschild approaches that, keeping us alert to the changing currents in FDR’s White house and to  Stalin’s purges as they reached into the Soviet ranks in Spain.  He ranges from the specifics of the siege of Madrid to the interest in the war of celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Ira Gershwin. This a book for those for who favor biography embedded in history, with footnotes, fascinating great bibliographies, and many supporting characters.

[The most serious readers of Spanish history will want to live with Paul Preston’s latest of 10 books about the war, The Spanish Holocaustreviewed here by Hochschild .]

For those who prefer history as seen through biography, Hotel Florida, is a fine introduction to the war.  Not gossipy, but making use of names familiar in western culture, and letting us in on their personal, messy lives  — all three couples were in marriage rearrangements while under shell fire– we are pulled into important history along the way.  Sub-chapters are titled with Month, Year and City, making sequence and connection easy to follow.  Personalities, from the six major characters to John Dos Passos (and the end of friendship with Hemingway,) and other journalists keep us good company.  Hell and Good Company, is the slimmest of the three volumes and will have the benefit for some of paying attention to those trying to heal even as the bombs destroy ambulance and hospital.

For more on Spain In Our Hearts  read on

BACKGROUND

The young men, and women, who went to the war in Spain, had come of age during the Great Depression, its privations and the working-class response to them.  Robert Merriman, for example , one of the most revered of the Lincoln Brigaders, spent days at the great San Francisco longshoremen’s strike of 1934, which Hochschild sketches with nice details.

The seeming alternative to the economic  catastrophe of capitalism promised by communism attracted many.  Robert and Marion Merriman went to Moscow to research Soviet Economics for his PhD.  Louis Fischer, reporting from war-torn Europe after the First World War, was swept away by the changes he saw in Russia, embracing the Stalin of 1927 and marrying a Russian woman.  Even the Reuther brothers, Walter and Victor, found work for a time in Soviet factories.

African-Americans were incensed by news of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.  Huge rallies took place in Harlem.  Italian stores were ransacked.  A brigade of volunteers to go fight the Italians had been of much interest.

Not only was fascism well-organized by the mid 1930s in Italy, there was no longer any doubt about the popularity and power of Hitler’s Nazis.  The United States had its local manifestations as well, from the vitriolic Father Coughlin broadcasting in Detroit, to twenty thousand joining the German-American Bund, complete with summer military camps and brown storm-trooper uniforms.  In Atlanta 20,000 whites joined the Order of the Black Shirts.   The hierarchy of the American Roman Catholic Church was entirely behind the Franco rising and warned parishioners, from the pulpit, of the dangers of supporting “radicals, reds and crucifiers of priests.”  The church lobbied heavily in favor of the Non-Intervention agreement.  FDR told more than one person that though he and Eleanor sympathized with the elected government of Spain,  the Church had tied his hands from lifting the arms embargo.

COMPOSITION of the BRIGADES

Although the focus of Spain in Our Hearts is on the 3,000 Americans who fought, there were some 35,000-40,000 men from 50 countries in 5 brigades.  The Americans were in the XV Brigade, including the Abraham Lincoln and Washington Battalions along the British Battalion, the Dimitrov Battalion and a few others.   Of the Americans over 1,000 were industrial workers (miners, steel workers, longshoremen). Another 500 were students or teachers. Around 30 per cent were Jewish and 70 per cent were between 21 and 28 years of age. 681 were killed in action or died of wounds or sickness, a casualty figure of 22.5% the largest of any American soldiers in any wars. In addition some 75 American women volunteered in medical units or for secretarial duties.

The great majority of, but by no means all, the Americans who went to fight were members of the communist party, neither underplayed nor celebrated by Hochschild, though he might have been more explicit about the foundation of the Brigades.  Even he leaves the impression that people volunteered out of purely personal motives, unattended by any organizing force.  In fact, it had been communist party leaders in Britain and France who first suggested the idea of volunteers to help the Republic.  Once approved by the Comintern in Moscow, the French Communist Party, headed by Andre Marty, took the lead.  Recruiting took place world-wide.  Eventually men and women came from some fifty countries.  Volunteers came from other sources as well.  Anarchists flocked to units in Catalonia.  Non-communist leftists like Andre Malraux raised funds and brought in weapons.  Anti-Stalinist communists like POUM attracted men like George Orwell, and Charles and Lois Orr.

The Nationalist rising in 1936, and the preceding decade of turmoil between authoritarian military and Catholic Church leaders vs progressive, democratic forces is admirably compressed.  Readers with only a slight idea of what led to the July coup, will come away much clearer. It would have been interesting to get a little more background about how the Depression was affecting Spain, and how it was that Spain, alone of European countries, had tens of thousands of declared anarchists, and organized into factory and agricultural “unions.” I was left curious why, with the army so instrumental in the insurrection,  the navy and the air force (such as it was) were less interested, even opposed, to the overthrowing of the elected government.

The Nationalists had “volunteers” as well, paid for by the sending country: Italy and Germany. By the end of 1936, there were 7,000 Germans were in Spain.  By war’s end, 19,000 had seen action as aviators, instructors or advisors,  With them came 600 military aircraft and over 200 tanks. The Condor Legion alone, headed by Goering, had almost 134 state-of-the-art fighters, bombers and reconnaissance planes, all being tested “for the war that was sure to come.” The British estimated that between January 1937 and August 1938, 320,000 rifles and 550,000 revolvers were transferred to the Nationalists from Germany.

REPORTERS

At times there seems to be a brigade of news reporters in the book as well, the best known of which, though not the first on the scene, was Ernest Hemingway. One chapter does a good job of introducing some of the journalists in the context of battles then on-going.  The NY Times had two lead reporters, Herbert Matthews on the Republican side and William Carney with the Nationalists. The Times carried over 1,000 front page headlines about Spain over the almost three years of the war, often with fiercely opposing narratives.  Hochschild shines a light on the editorial staff at the Times, almost all Roman Catholics and in line with the church hierarchy, slanting the news in favor of the Nationalists.  Jay Allen left, or was fired from, the Chicago Tribune for being too Republican in his sympathies.  Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, was not in Spain as a reporter, but a militiaman.  When his reports about the May, 1937 fighting between communists and anarchists in Barcelona were suppressed by his left-wing editors in London, he began his famously independent political, reportorial and novelistic course.

It will also interest Hemingway readers that he had at least two models for his portrait of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Merriman, an American and Antoni Chrost, a Pole, with whom he actually went on a bridge raid, destroying not only the bridge but the train on it.

Hochschild does a very good job of rescuing some intrepid female reporters from beneath the masculinist veneer of recollection. Martha Gellhorn, too often known only as Hemingway’s lover, often scooped him.  [When she did so at D-Day their relationship was over.]  Virginia Cowles, another with “dazzling good looks,” was particularly tenacious, and often more judicious than the others. She was one of the few who managed to report from the Nationalist side as well, talking her way into ruined Guernica and, by her interviews, disproving to her Nationalist minder the lie that the Basques had burned their own town. Generous samples of her reporting are included.  Milly Bennet and Josephine Herbst were two more whom even students of the war have all but forgotten.

[For another female reporter/photographer, Gerda Taro, associated with Robert Capa, and who was not American after all, see Vaill’s Hotel Florida.  Much more about Gellhorn is found there, also.]

A side story, which will be interesting to some is the making of the docu-drama (as they are now called) of The Spanish Earth (also covered in Vaill’s book.)  Conceptualized and filmed by Joris Ivens, a committed Dutch communist, it was intended to sway minds, encourage volunteers, raise money and get the arms embargo lifted.  Orson Wells, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Archibald MacLeish were all involved, as well as the detail, hands-on person, Martha Gellhorn.  With egos to match their names there was plenty of in-fighting.  Wells quit.  Hemingway was left to write and narrate. Gellhorn, through her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, got the world premier at the White House.  The embargo was not lifted.

BATTLES and TERROR

There are chilling descriptions of the Nationalist rising, during the early weeks set the stage for the war to come.

“It is necessary to spread terror,” General Emilio Mola,   We have to create the impression of mastery by eliminating without scruples all those who do not think as we do.”

Men were tied together and shot. Some were tied and burned alive.  Rape was a weapon of war — announced regularly on Nationalist radio and boasted of by General Quiepo de Llana.  Torture was regularly made use of.  Forecasting Argentina’s dirty war of the 1990s, children were taken from prisoners and sympathizers and placed in orphanages.  After the war was over, in April 1938, some 20,000 who opposed the overthrow of the Republic were executed.

The bombing of Guernica was far more savage, and intentional than most know. Beyond that, the war raged all through the Basque country

One of the Brigade fighters wrote:

“Once I helped to carry a stretcher about 200 meters before we discovered that our charge had died, when we unceremoniously dumped his body and went back for another. … We saw tough guys crack up and babble like babies, wild-eyed.  We saw boys grow to resolute maturity in a day.  We felt the hot air from bomb explosions and saw men burst into flames before our eyes.”

Hochschild reports honestly that both sides committed atrocities, though the numbers killed by the Nationalists far exceeded those by the Republicans (150,000 to 49,000 according to best estimates.)  Early in the war, at the sports stadium in Badajoz,  Jay Allen, not yet fired from the Chicago Tribune, reported that 1800 civilians, mostly peasants who had occupied estate lands,  had been machine-gunned over 12 hours. 7,000 clergy are estimated to have been killed by Republican associated forces, often local vendettas after generations of abuse by priests and bishops.

SOCIAL REVOLUTION

There is very nice coverage of the utopian sense in Barcelona in the early weeks of the war, as the independent minded Catalan workers, overwhelmingly anarchist by political persuasion, mounted a social revolution in response to the right-wing threat. Though all serious histories of the Civil War include these extraordinary months, they are often not mentioned in the capsule histories of the war. Hochschild captures the euphoria felt by many –particularly from the journals of Charles and Lois Orr–  that I’ve only read of in pamphlets from little known anarchist writers and books by particularly focused historians.

Throughout, the events and battles in Spain are shown in the context of other world events,  So the round the clock bombing of Barcelona in mid-March, 1938 preceded by four days Germany’s invasion of Austria

NEW TO ME

Even for someone steeped in Spanish and Civil War history, Spain in Our Hearts made me aware of much:

  • The size and impact of German and Italian help, in men and arms; about $7-11 billion in today’s dollars;
  • How advanced the weaponry sent from Germany was; not cast-offs but the latest technology;
  • How many Italian troops fought (80,000); how many Moroccans (1 out of 7 men in Morocco;)
  • The numbers of Spanish Republican fighters, exiled after the war in Russia, who were later sent to Stalin’s gulags;
  • That Texaco, Socony, Atlantic Refining, Standard Oil of New Jersey,  ignoring the neutrality act, sold oil and gasoline to the Nationalists. Texaco even including free shipping in American flagged ships;
    • “Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits.. we could never had won the civil war”  said a Spanish Undersecretary several years after the war…
  • Agents of Texaco and other shippers also passed coded information about arrivals, departures and cargoes of ships which was used for interdiction of Republican supplies.  The Italian navy sank 27 Republic bound ships in the summer of 1937;
  • US auto manufacturers, GM, Studebaker, Ford, sold trucks by the thousands –they were not considered arms.   Dupont supplied at least 40,000 bombs to Germany, to be dropped over Barcelona;
  • Deprivation in Madrid and Barcelona near the end of the war has been estimated at  800 calories a day; 3.5 oz lentils.

[[It might be another book, or at least a long appendix, but it would be interesting to know more about the pressure brought on FDR to lift the embargo, his intimate conversations with Eleanor and his final judgement that the embargo had been an error.]]

Ω

Adam Hochschild has added another fine book to his already impressive list — history told through the lives of those who lived it.  From King Leopold’s Ghost about the horrific colonial mutilations and murders of Congolese by Belgians, to Bury the Chains and British dissenters fighting their government and the business classes to put an end to the slave trade, and To End all Wars. a fascinating account of WW I and the opposition to it in England, every book has been a revelation, not only of little remembered events but an elevation of those who should properly be regarded as heroes.

Writing about the Spanish Civil War finds such people even closer to Hochschild’s life, and that of many of his readers.  Admiration and motivation for many war resisters in the United States in the 1960s came from stories of, or personal acquaintance with, members of the Abraham Lincoln and Washington Battalions.

Hochschild is honest enough to reflect:

Many members of my own political generation have been strongly opposed to war, and especially to American intervention in the civil wars or internal affairs of other countries … yet we’ve regarded as heroes an earlier generation of Americans who went off to fight  (in the Spanish Civil War.) This raises the question: are there times when military involvement in a distant conflict is justified?

He doesn’t, in the end, give his answer,  though posing the question is, by itself, a prod to review one’s accumulated, unexamined, dispositions.

As to the question that set him off — how did these men, and women, experience the war and how did they change because of it? —  I’m not sure that Hochschild really answered it either.

We read much about what they do, which includes some clear changes of mind.  We follow, for example, Louis Fischer, from his early swoon over Stalin and the great Soviet experiment to later regret and a turning of interest to, and writing about, Gandhi.  There are no passages, however, of deep self-questioning, of revelations of after-thoughts.  Dos Passos certainly turned right-ward in later years, and although the bitter argument we read about between himself and Hemingway over a “disappeared” Spanish friend is relevant,  we are not privy to his emotions or  reasons.  Answers to such questions would have involved a much more psychological and biographical turn to the book which, without the material here, would have been difficult to follow.

For me, it’s OK that the question isn’t fully answered.  What came in its pursuit is interesting enough.  Biography and different kinds of histories can tackle the questions of conflicting values, fighting for a cause while betrayed by another, the arc of idealism to acceptance, even resignation.

Many of those cited in Spain in Our Hearts, continued into old age to believe in, and act for, justice and equality for those far beyond their own lives.

Ω

A decent short history of the Spanish Civil War can be found at WikiPedia.

An article at Bright Review is relevant.

For a brief summary of Germany’s intentions in Spain, see this.

The most serious readers of Spanish history will want to live with Paul Preston’s latest of 10 books about the war, The Spanish Holocaustreviewed here by Hochschild 

I am also looking forward to reading James Neugass, a Brigade volunteer, whose journals of his time in the war were recently discovered and published.  The excerpts in Spain in Our Hearts are beyond most journal writing.

Other, well known books follow: