By Adam HochschildHoughton Mifflin, 438 pages,
Spain has always been a difficult country for foreigners to understand. The enduring stereotypes are those crafted in the 16th and 19th centuries: The Black Legend of Spain as the cruel and intolerant land of the Inquisition was first defined by Reformation-era Protestants; and the Romantic Spain of sensuality, artistry and chivalry was invented in the first half of the 19th century by writers like Washington Irving and Prosper Mérimée.Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War
” is similar to many English-language writings on the Spanish Civil War
(1936-39) in its ability to reflect both myths simultaneously. The Republicans, or revolutionaries, stem from Romantic Spain—a set of idealists, however misguided and weighed down with Stalinists and occasionally given to atrocities (such as 50,000 or more political murders). The Nationalists
, or counterrevolutionaries, step directly from the pages of the Black Legend, a sinister lot of sadists, rapists, looters and mass murderers, making up in wickedness what they lack in ideals and valor.
Mr. Hochschild is an accomplished historian whose his last book, “To End All Wars” (2011), was a stirring account of the travails of pacifists in World War I. He protests here that he is not writing a history of the Spanish war but nonetheless includes an extensive account as background to his main narrative. His summary of the war is presented in vivid, sometimes lurid, prose and includes many of the numerous unverified and often unverifiable anecdotes that are de rigueur in English-language narratives about the civil war, such as a Navarrese priest whose head was “chopped off” for protesting brutality and the fiction of the Nationalists committing mass murder in the Badajoz bullring. His readers will never know that the war’s brutal killings were begun by the revolutionaries, who, for that matter, also carried out the great bulk of the looting (though this would hardly come as a surprise to historians of revolutions). Or that the Republicans’ “legitimately elected government” had in fact come to power in a four-step process of increasingly systematic electoral fraud between February and May 1936.Advertisement “Spain in Our Hearts” is an account of some of the more noteworthy Americans involved in the conflict, almost all of them on the “good” side thanks to the energetic recruitment efforts of the Communist International
. The central narrative is much better executed than the historical treatment of the war. Mr. Hochschild shows more discernment and objectivity in dealing with the Americans, whom he is willing to understand, than in treating the Spanish, whom he generally caricatures. He includes the usual gang of journalist-observers—Ernest Hemingway
, Herbert Matthews
, Martha Gellhorn
and Virginia Cowles
—and expresses surprise that this noted panoply of reporters scarcely ever wrote about the unique aspect of the conflict, the only full-scale collectivist revolution in Western Europe and the mass violence that accompanied it. As he observes, “although the Spanish Revolution
took place amid one of the largest concentrations of foreign correspondents on earth, they virtually never wrote about it.” The reader may surmise that this was because it complicated their preferred narrative of democratic Republican virtue.But “Spain in Our Hearts” is not another celebrity trot through the war, of which we have had several in recent years. Instead, Mr. Hochschild focuses on lesser-known individuals, with the 2,800 American volunteers of the Lincoln Battalion
and other units of the International Brigades
serving as a kind of chorus. Charles and Lois Orr were a young leftist couple from Louisville, Ky., in Europe on their honeymoon when the war broke out. They rallied to the revolution, and, in Barcelona, Orr became editor of the English-language propaganda bulletin of the ultra-communist but non-Stalinist POUM. Material from Lois Orr’s unpublished memoir appears here for the first time. Another relatively new source is the diary of James Neugass, scion of an old and wealthy New Orleans Jewish family, who was an ambulance driver for the International Brigades
. Mr. Hochschild includes a few Britons— George Orwell, of course, and Peter Kemp, the well-born British volunteer who became an officer on Franco’s side, as well as Pat Gurney, a young sculptor who ended up in the Lincoln Battalion. They are treated with insight and occasional originality.Advertisement The chief protagonist of “Spain in Our Hearts” is a young Berkeley graduate student in economics, the charismatic Robert Merriman, who, together with his wife, Marion, elicits the fullest portrait. Tall, strong, indefatigable in duty and magnetic in personality, Merriman became chief of staff of the Lincoln Battalion and inspired the character Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Despite his admiration, Mr. Hochschild does express some bafflement over how Merriman could have remained a dedicated communist after a year and half as an economics researcher in 1930s Moscow during the famines and purges. This may be the best account of Merriman ever penned.
The book presents an authentic and graphic portrait of the conditions of life and battle for Americans in the brigades. The narrative of their involvement in the chaotic collapse and retreat of the Republican forces during Franco’s breakthrough to the Mediterranean in March and April 1938 is gripping, the best description of that action in any language. For a complete account of the Lincolns, however, the reader will want to turn to Cecil Eby’s more scholarly and less romanticized treatment, “Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War” (2007).Mr. Hochschild does include some Americans who favored the Nationalist side, principally William Carney, who covered the Franco side, very badly, for the New York Times, and Torkild Rieber, the head of Texaco. There is not much to be said for or about Carney, a poor journalist who ended up as Franco’s PR man in the U.S. after the war. But Mr. Hochschild’s portrait of Rieber is fascinating. The Texaco chief declared immediately for Franco in 1936 and provided steady supplies of petroleum on credit to the Nationalists, as well as indirect financial assistance. He also ordered Texaco’s maritime intelligence network to pass along information about tankers carrying oil to the Republicans, identifying them as targets for Franco’s bombers.
Despite the political distortions, much of this book is admirable. It is an unusually well-written narrative, full of telling detail and vignettes that capture great human drama, and the information about the Anglo-American participants is generally reliable. Hemingway, for example, is treated convincingly and often critically. There was little doubt of his devotion to the Republican cause, for, as his future wife Martha Gellhorn put it, the Spanish Civil War “was the only time in his life when he was not the most important thing there was.” Once the conflict was over, though, Hemingway found greater perspective, and, as Mr. Hochschild points out, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940) reveals more nuance and ambiguity than his often propagandistic newspaper reports during the war. The novel was denounced by some of the survivors of the Lincoln Battalion. The unit’s political commissar Steve Nelson, though, loved it and called it “a monument in American literature” in a review. He was ordered to retract his opinion by the Communist Party leadership, which, Mr. Hochschild notes, “he dutifully did.”Mr. Hochschild’s bibliography cites “Jumping the Line” (1998), the memoir of the novelist and Lincoln veteran William Herrick. But he cannot bring himself to quote Herrick’s succinct description of the motivation of his fellow American communist volunteers: “Yes, we went to Spain to fight fascism, but democracy was not our aim.” Another long-lived Lincoln survivor was Abe Osheroff, very active in remembrances and mentioned in passing in this book. More than 15 years ago I asked him, “Abe, what would have happened if your side had won the war?” He replied tersely: “Another leftist disaster.”