March 29, 2016

A war not their own

By Adam Hochschild
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Between February 1937 and October 1938, roughly 2,800 Americans fought on the side of the elected government of the Republic of Spain against a fascist rebellion of army officers and Catholic Church leaders led by Francisco Franco. It was, notes Adam Hochschild in this vibrant, compelling and disheartening account, the only time that so many Americans went off to fight in someone else’s civil war. More than a quarter of the volunteers died in the effort.

The fascist uprising began in early 1936 shortly after an underfunded coalition of liberals, socialists, communists, workers and anarchists unexpectedly won the national election and began to transform “the Western European nation closest to feudalism.” The reforms provoked an organized military revolt. At that time wealthy landowners had “holdings sometimes larger than 75,000 acres,” while a vast number of the country’s 24 million people scratched out livings on small plots or had no land at all and worked for the big landowners. As part of the changes after the elections, anarchist-led Catalonia launched a vibrant social revolution that attracted a number of adventurous Americans, among them a 19-year-old newlywed named Lois Orr.

The liveliness of Spain in Our Hearts arises from Hochschild’s deft use of letters and memoirs from idealistic Americans (and others) like Orr. Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the war (but not on the social revolution in Spain) and later transmuted his experiences into the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, figures prominently in the story. So do numerous American journalists, including two New York Times reporters filing slanted stories from opposite sides of the conflict. There is also George Orwell, whose conflicting experiences while fighting for the Republic led him to write a landmark book on the war, Homage to Catalonia. And then there are people like Bob Merriman, a likely model for Hemingway’s fictional hero Robert Jordan. Merriman was a tall, charismatic volunteer whom a classmate, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, described as “the most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley . . . and one of the bravest.” What happened to Merriman is one of the mysteries that haunts this narrative.

This story is also haunted by the complex geopolitics of a war that has been largely overshadowed by World War II. American volunteers, most of them political radicals, viewed the civil war as a first step in a global fight against fascism. Opposing them were Hitler and Mussolini, who used their vigorous support for Franco as a brutal testing ground for their weapons and military ambitions. Meanwhile, American and Western European governments clung to “neutrality,” refusing assistance to the elected government of Spain and forcing the Spanish republic to make, as Hochschild calls it, “a devil’s bargain” for support from the Soviet Union under Stalin.

It was a bargain that led to demoralizing infighting, which helped bring about Franco’s victory in Spain. Weeks before the last American volunteers marched out of Spain in defeat, Neville Chamberlain and allies allowed the emboldened Nazis to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. Two weeks afterward, the Nazis attacked synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia in what is known as Kristallnacht.

The American volunteers in Spain were, as Hochschild points out, in some ways deluded by their idealism. But they were also prescient in their concern about the rise of fascism. They turned out to be some of the best and most valiant fighters for the cause. As Hochschild writes, “the Americans in Spain win a place in history not for who they were or what they wrote but for what they did.”

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Spain in Our Hearts

Spain in Our Hearts

By Adam Hochschild
ISBN 9780547973180

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