Adam Hochschild examines the Spanish Civil War

spain in our heartsA review of Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Richard Rhodes’ Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, which was published last year. More recently, Adam Hochschild, a Berkeley resident and lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, tackled the same material in a book published this year. It’s the book that Rhodes tried and failed to write. It’s called Spain in Our Hearts. I found it to be an outstanding and deeply moving tale of an event that has received far too little attention by historians. (Amazon lists just 334 history books involving the civil war as compared with 114,985 for World War II.)

To write this important new book, Hochschild pored through the letters, diaries and newspaper dispatches written by Americans who served in the war. These men (and a few women) served as either soldiers in what came to be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as doctors or nurses serving them and other soldiers of the embattled Republic, or as reporters who fed the American press with on-the-scene accounts of the fighting.

Hochschild covers the war from its origins to its conclusion, reliving the signature battles of the war: Jarama, Ebro River, Guadalajara, Brunete, Teruel, and, of course, the notorious fire-bombing of Guernica and the epic siege of Madrid. At the time, all these names were widely recognizable to the newspaper-reading American public. As Hochschild reports: “While the fighting lasted, from mid-1936 to early 1939, the New York Times ran more than 1,000 front-page headlines about the war in Spain …” And that span of time encompassed fewer than 1,000 days.


Adam Hochschild. Photo: Spark Media
Adam Hochschild. Photo: Spark Media

Hochschild brings back to life both those whose names are instantly recognizable, as well as many who have been long forgotten: reporters and writers such as Herbert Matthews, Virginia Cowles, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell and Louis Fischer; physicians, nurses, and ambulance drivers, including Dr. Edward Barsky, Jim Neugass, Toby Jensky, Marion Merriman and Ellen Blair; combatants such as Bob Merriman, Alvah Bessie, Charles Orr, Milton Wolfe and Pat Gurney. (A few of these people were British or Canadian, the rest American.) Every one of these individuals rises, vividly, from the pages of Spain in Our Hearts, touched by Hochschild’s remarkable talent to bring the past to life. This is popular history at its best.

Nearly all the Americans who took part in the Spanish Civil War sided with the Republic — not just the 2,500 volunteers who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. With only one prominent exception reported by Hochschild, all the American and British reporters betrayed their sympathy to the cause through their articles, diaries and books — sometimes disingenuously slanting their reporting to favor the Republic. (The exception was a New York Times reporter who followed the Nationalist side. He consistently whitewashed the atrocities of Franco’s forces and even made a propaganda broadcast for the insurgency. After the war he was hired as Spain’s American lobbyist.)

Americans were by no means alone in fighting for the Republic. Those 2,500 men constituted a small portion of the 35,000 to 40,000 “men from more than 50 countries [who] would fight in five International Brigades.” A great many of these volunteers — including three-quarters of the “Lincolns” — were Communists or what were familiarly known then as “fellow travelers.” For some, their experience in Spain was disillusioning as they witnessed the imprisonment and execution of colleagues who strayed from the Stalinist party line. After all, the purges and the show trials were at their peak in the Soviet Union during the years of this war, claiming an estimated total of between 600,000 and 1.2 million casualties.

It may be difficult for Americans these days to understand the depth of isolationist feeling that gripped the United States before the Second World War. This sentiment continued a long history of attempts, usually successful, to keep the US out of what George Washington famously called “foreign entanglements.” When the country entered World War I at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, that proved to be an aberration. Wilson’s failure to gain Congressional support for the League of Nations proves that point. It should be no surprise, then, that FDR and the right-wingers in his State Department refused to support the heroic resistance of the Spanish Republic to Francisco Franco’s Fascist insurgency. FDR was sympathetic to the cause but unable to take action, and he later regarded his failure to do so as a “grave mistake.”

Though the US, Great Britain and France all withheld support for the Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal).


Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hard-line political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Though ‘what ifs’ in history are uncertain at best, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the war might have gone differently had the Western powers responded in counterpoint to the Axis nations. From the perspective of history, the failure of the US government to permit arms sales to the Republic played a more significant role in the war by far than the participation of 2,500 volunteer soldiers and a handful of brilliant reporters.

Continue reading on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books 

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