Review of Adam Hochschild's "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939"

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Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.

The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 was a political litmus test similar to the Vietnam War during the 1960s. From one’s political stand on the conflict it was usually possible to draw appropriate conclusions regarding the cultural, economic, and social views of an individual. While Vietnam continues to cast its shadow over contemporary cultural conflicts in the United States, the passions engendered by the brutal war in Spain have little resonance for most Americans today. However, Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts reminds readers of the intense emotions spawned by General Francisco Franco’s revolt, supported by the fascist dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, against the democratically elected Spanish Republican government comprised of liberals, communists, socialists, and anarchists. Western democracies, including the United States, were concerned about the Spanish Republic’s anticlericalism and threats to collectivize private property.  This resulted in a policy of non-interference in which an arms embargo was enforced against the belligerents despite the legitimacy of the Republican government and its gold reserves to purchase weapons. In response to what many on the political left considered to be the failure of the democracies to oppose the expansion of fascism, approximately 35,000 to 40,000 men from more than fifty countries volunteered to fight for the Republic in five international brigades. Nearly 2,800 Americans fought in the conflict under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades, with an estimated 750 perishing in the Spanish conflict.

Hochschild is sympathetic to those Americans who risked their lives in support of the Spanish Republic. He is a man of the political left, who co-founded the muckraking magazine Mother Jones, and is the author of such well-received works as King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) on the legacy of colonialism in Africa, Bury the Chains (2005) on the British abolitionist movement, and To End All Wars (2011) on opposition to the carnage of World War I. Seeking to provide a composite portrait of those Americans who volunteered for Spain, Hochschild writes: “He was a New Yorker, a Communist, an immigrant or the son of immigrants, a trade unionist, and a member of a group that has almost vanished from the United States today, working-class Jews” (100). 

While admiring the courage of these volunteers, Hochschild concedes that the international brigades were sometimes manipulated by the Soviet Union and that Stalin was often more interested in pursuing his own paranoid agenda than saving the Spanish Republic. Thus, Hochschild documents that the Soviets were intent upon purging the Republican forces of Trotskyites and anarchists who might be opposed to the Stalinist agenda. The author wonders why some of his subjects were so naïve as to not question the nature of Stalin’s political purges. He concludes that many radicals in Spain made a devil’s bargain with the Soviet Union, but Hochschild argues that they had little choice as the Soviet Union was the only power willing to support the beleaguered Republic. This defense of the Spanish Republic’s Faustian bargain with Stalin will most likely not satisfy those on the political right who continue to criticize the failure of American liberals to denounce Stalinism during the 1930s and 1940s. These same critics are quick to denounce the democracies for appeasement and a failure to stand up to Hitler at Munich, but they are often silent regarding the reluctance of the democracies to aid the Spanish Republic.

Hochschild also acknowledges the Republican forces were responsible for atrocities such as the execution of Nationalist prisoners, priests, large land owners, and potential fifth columnist spies. On the other hand, he argues that the Nationalist forces were far more fanatical in their torture, murder, and rape of anyone sympathetic to the Republican cause—including the execution of Americans fighting with the international brigades.

The Spanish Civil War and the participation of Americans in that conflict is the subject of previous scholarship by Hugh Thomas, Robert Rosenstone, Paul Preston, Stanley Payne, and Peter M. Carroll. What Hochschild contributes to this literature is an emphasis, employing considerable archival research, upon Americans who are not usually the subject of scholarly inquiry. Nevertheless, there is still a good amount of attention paid to figures such as Ernest Hemingway and his budding romance with journalist Martha Gellhorn. In terms of newspaper correspondents, Hochschild documents the contributions of the glamorous Virginia Cowles and the dueling reporters from the New York Times: Herbert L. Matthews, who supported the Republican forces, and William P. Carney, who embraced Franco’s Nationalist cause. Louis Fischer was a prominent American journalist who married a Russian woman and took up residence in the Soviet Union. Although he believed vehemently in the Spanish Republic, he lost faith in Stalin and communism. The writings and experiences of a British volunteer by the name of Eric Blair, later better known as George Orwell, also receive attention, but the basic focus of the book remains upon lesser known Americans such as Robert and Marian Merriman and Lois and Charles Orr.

Both American couples ended up residing in the Soviet Union, before eventually being drawn into the Spanish Civil War—although their political paths diverged in Spain. Lois and Charles journeyed to Barcelona where they supported the revolutionary goals of the anarchists that were opposed by communists who believed that social revolution would limit the possibility of any assistance to the Republic by the Western democracies. These differences led to internal fighting and the arrest of Lois and Charles, who were eventually released and fled to the United States. Meanwhile, Robert and Marian Merriman were more orthodox communists who never appeared to question party policies. An economics professor who received some ROTC training during his college days, Robert emerged as an inspiring military commander in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Marian returned to the United States where she raised funds and gave speeches to elicit support for the Republican cause. As for Robert, he was apparently killed while attempting to lead a retreat across the Ebro River.

Other Americans featured prominently in Hochschild’s account are James Neugass, who drove an ambulance and compiled a detailed diary of his activities that was lost for several decades; physician Edward Barsky, who was stripped of his medical license after returning to the United States; Milly Bennett, a journalist friend of the Merrimans who did not share their enthusiasm for party orthodoxy; writer Alvah Bessie, who joined the conflict during its latter stages; and nurse Toby Jensky, who briefly married British volunteer Pat Gurney before returning to America. For a villain in this tale, Hochschild focuses upon Texaco executive Torkild Rieber. Sympathetic to the fascist cause, Rieber violated American neutrality laws by providing Franco with essential oil reserves secured on credit.

As the Republic collapsed and the international brigades were withdrawn, Hochschild concludes with a moving account of the courageous volunteers who sacrificed so much for the cause of democracy in Spain, and he ponders how many today, including himself, might be willing to make such a commitment. In the final analysis, Hochschild is critical of the arms embargo imposed by the United States; arguing that lifting it might have saved the Republic and prevented the atrocities that followed the fascist victory. Hochschild, however, does not believe that a Republican victory would have prevented World War II. Spain was always a sideshow for Hitler, who was primarily motivated by expansion into the oil fields and grain reserves of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the Spanish conflict provided both Hitler and Mussolini with the opportunity to test weapons and strategies that contributed to the devastation of the Second World War. The Spanish Civil War is a topic off the radar screen of most Americans today, but Hochschild’s well researched and written account reminds us that the American volunteers for Spain were more than mere pawns of the Soviet Union.       

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