The Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936 and 1939, was the first struggle against fascism in Europe as the powers of Germany and Italy, for their own purposes, joined with General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist (rebel) forces to oust the elected government. Although the Western democracies adopted a policy of nonintervention, volunteers came from many countries to assist the Republican government in the hope that fascism could be stopped. Unfortunately, five months after the Spanish war ended, World War II began in Europe. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun) shows in his fast-paced, often moving and revealing new book Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, the earlier war served in numerous ways as a laboratory for the larger war.
Rhodes concisely explains the background of the Spanish Civil War and follows events chronologically, but he is only incidentally concerned with Spanish politics. Franco’s side won the war and he ruled Spain as an absolute dictator until his death in 1975. Instead, Rhodes has three major concerns: first, the stories of courageous individuals whose stories have either not been told or told incompletely; secondly, the achievements in constructive technology spurred by the war, such as medical advances in collecting blood and sorting casualties; thirdly, the extraordinary works of art, reportage and literature, by such figures as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell, that brought the tragedy to the attention of the world .
Some two million men and women fought in the war; at least 200,000 were killed and many more injured. There were an abundance of compelling figures involved, often doing their life-saving work under incredibly difficult conditions. American surgeon Edward Barsky, in an unpublished memoir, provided the title for Rhodes’s book. Barsky had been a busy doctor in New York but agreed to help raise funds for medical equipment for the Spanish Republicans and recruit people with exceptional medical and nursing skills. He agreed to lead a contingent of U.S. volunteers. Once in Spain, he found that the red crosses painted on the roofs of his ambulances not only were not respected, they became prime targets in a war of attrition. He coped with problems in lines of authority and language. Stolen equipment, inadequate facilities, unceasing war and an unending flow of casualties followed. Eventually, Barsky’s team became the largest and best-equipped medical unit. His remarkable life after Spain found him serving in World War II and aiding various humanitarian and human rights causes, despite U.S. government harassment. He also helped provide emergency medical services for civil rights workers in the American South.
Wherever she was assigned, skilled British nurse and midwife Patience Darton went to work improving conditions that were often deplorable. This frequently brought her into conflict with her co-workers. Two surgeons, Frederic Durán Jordà from Spain and Norman Bethune from Canada, developed an innovative national blood distribution program. Despite the fact that Bethune’s team would be responsible for 78 percent of all blood transfusions on the Republican side during the war, some Canadian Communists conspired successfully to have him expelled from Spain.
Many gifted men and women felt it was important to offer their skills to the cause of democracy in a small but pivotal war at a hinge of history. Their hope was that if they were successful it would delay or prevent a wider war. Rhodes relates their stories in a superbly engrossing narrative that packs a lot of information and drama and reminds us of the importance of individual lives in wartime.
Although Orwell noted that his time in Spain had left him with “memories that are mostly evil,” at the same time, “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.” We meet some of them in this enlightening book.