SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild

(Anarchist workers in the Spanish revolution)

Years ago I saw the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie about a teacher in a Scottish girl’s school who strayed from the school curriculum by praising Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini while romanticizing the Spanish Civil War.  The arguments she used in her classroom reappear in Adam Hochschild’s new book SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939 as the author presents the positions of multiple sides engaged in the fight for Republican Spain.  The title leads one to believe that the books main focus is on the American experience, but in reality Hochschild paints a much wider canvas that includes Spaniards, French, Italian, German, Russian, in addition to American actors.  Hochschild is a prolific author whose work includes KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, BURY THE CHAINS, and the award winning TO END ALL WARS.  He begins his latest effort in striking style as two naked American volunteers fighting for the Spanish Republic against the fascists emerge from the Ebro River as they flee Francisco Franco’s forces.  Fortunately for them, they run into Herbert Matthews, a New York Times reporter and Ernest Hemingway, who at the time is a free-lance writer for a newspaper syndicate covering the civil war.  The reader is immediately hooked as Hochschild begins to narrate a conflict that many historians describe as the precursor of World War II as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy allied with Franco’s forces as a testing ground for new weapons and allowing their soldiers to gain significant combat experience.  It became very difficult for the Republican government to gain support outside of Spain.  England and France were in the midst of appeasement after allowing Hitler’s troops to seize the Rhineland.  In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt facing reelection refused to provide aid as not to anger isolationist forces who preached neutrality.  This left only Stalin’s Soviet Union as a source of weapons and soldiers which for the Republican government became a “devil’s bargain” with the Russian dictator.

(Fascist dictator Francisco Franco)

Hochschild does a superb job describing all the major aspects of the war.  He details the ideological conflicts that exited in Republican ranks; those who supported the Comintern, better described as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; anarchists who were to the left of the communists; and the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, or Spanish communists.  The conflicts between these groups greatly hindered creating a united front against Franco’s forces. Aside from the ideological battle on the left, another existed among the journalists who covered the war.  Among New York Times reporters was William P. Carney who admired Franco and his reports from the front mirrored fascist propaganda.  Herbert Matthews a Times colleague sparred with Carney repeatedly as he refused to give up on the Republican cause.  Another important journalist was Louis Fischer, married to a Russian woman, was in the Stalinist camp, even after witnessing the purges in the Soviet Union.  Literary figures abound in the narrative as we encounter George Orwell, who would be wounded fighting for the British Battalion, in addition to Virginia Cowles, Ernest Hemingway and others.  The actual fighting is covered in detail as Hochschild describes the enormity of the conflict.  The amount of aid and troops poured in by Hitler and Mussolini is staggering and as a portent for the future the author describes the new weaponry that is tested that will be staples for the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II.  Franco never could have been victorious without the aid of Germany and Italy.

(Male and female militia fighters who fought against Franco)

The title of the book intimates the role of Americans in the war and here Hochschild does not disappoint.   We meet a number of Americans, married couples and single individuals who played a prominent role in the war and provided new sources of material for the author.  The story that Hochschild narrates from the battle front and operations in the rear and the efforts to end American neutrality come from Charles and Lois Orr, economics instructors in California who as socialists believed that democracy could be attained peacefully, not like in the Soviet Union.  They will arrive in Barcelona in September, 1939 and help describe the disaster that will eventually evolve in that Catalonian city.  Bob and Marion Merriman, had lived in the Soviet Union, and witnessed the disaster of collectivization and would have a major impact on the International Brigade, particularly the Lincoln-Washington Brigade of American soldiers.  The intensity of the fighting is often told through the eyes of Bob Merriman who became one of the commanders of the International Brigade.  One of the most important documents that turned up at least fifty years after the fighting was a diary kept by James Neugass, an American ambulance driver for Dr. Edward Barsky, an American surgeon who seemed to operate twenty-four hours a day.  Neugass’ diary depicts the paucity of medical supplies and physicians that attended to American volunteers.  The diary also describes the International Brigades’ retreat as Franco’s forces split the Republicans in two as they reached the Mediterranean Sea.  Another important aspect of the war that Hochschild presents his description of the fighting in and around Madrid that will end up as a siege of the Spanish capitol.  Hochschild places the reader inside the city and is witness to the horrors that ensued.

(International volunteers for the Republic)

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book aside from the horrors of war was the role played by Texaco and the blinders that the Roosevelt administration employed in order to not make political waves that could endanger elections.  Texaco was headed by the Norwegian born Torkid Rieber who rose from very little to become the top executive of the oil company.  Rieber was an admirer of Hitler and early on in the fighting switched supplying oil from the Republican government to Franco’s armies.  Further, Rieber allowed Franco to purchase the oil on credit.  This violated American law and if Roosevelt had wanted to he could have almost stopped the fighting by enforcing US statutes. Roosevelt, fearing a catholic backlash in the 1936 election refused to do so.  Not only did Texaco supply the oil for Franco’s victory, they also supplied over 12,000 trucks and Firestone tires that were extremely scarce as well as providing important shipping intelligence to Franco pertaining to oil deliveries to Republican forces.  All told Texaco provided over $200 million worth of oil in over 300 deliveries. (343)  the role of the papacy in the war gains Hochschild’s attention as Spanish priests with the approval of the Pope supported Franco’s war to the hilt.  Many Spanish priests supported the execution of their brethren who did not support Franco in addition to the execution of Republican soldiers.  Further, they were apoplectic when the Republican government implemented land reform and church properties were given to peasants, a major reason for their support of the Spanish dictator.

The civil war itself exhibited the Spanish class struggle and Hochschild delves into the economic and moral implications of Spanish land policies.  One of the most important points the author puts forth is that “while much [the civil war] of that feels distant now, other aspects of the 1930s Spain still seem all too similar to many countries today; the great gap between rich and poor, and the struggle between an authoritarian dictatorship and millions of powerless people long denied their fair share of land, education, and so much more.  These things make Spain of the 1930s, a crucial battleground of its time, a resonant for ours as well.” (xix-xx)  Hochschild has written an important book that revisits the Spanish Civil War integrating a number of new sources that previous authors had not uncovered.  For those interested in the topic, you will not find a better read.

(Workers who supported the Republic)

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