Spain in Our Hearts
Adam Hochschild is a prominent San Francisco leftist, cofounder of Mother Jones, and the successful author of books on the British antislavery movement, the Belgian colonization of the Congo, World War I, and the legacy of Joseph Stalin. In assembling this volume, he faced a formidable challenge: to add something new to the immense and varied record of the Spanish conflict that preceded World War II.
The Spanish war produced a memoir, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, that Hochschild admits gained unique standing as an account of the combat and its convoluted politics. In addition, other eyewitness reports, innumerable literary efforts of uneven quality, excerpts from Spanish, Russian, and other archives, and standard academic works such as those of Stanley Payne would, it seems, have nearly exhausted the Spanish Civil War as a topic. The war, as noted by Hochschild, from its commencement in mid-1936 to its conclusion in the spring of 1939, produced a thousand front-page headlines in the New York Times.
Lacking much in the way of fresh evidence or insight, therefore, Hochschild has settled on a sentimental quest for a legendary heroism by the American leftists who went to Spain. One cannot write about the war without drawing on Orwell, one of several Englishmen also described in the narrative; but here, nobody cries when they can weep. Hochschild seeks drama, not political clarity. This excludes, in the main, the experiences of the Spanish themselves, both defenders of the republic and followers of the military outfits that rose up against it and were eventually led by General Francisco Franco. Driving issues in Spain's history are handled peremptorily by Hochschild. And with discomfort, he defends the ultimate dependence of the republic on Russian arms, even comparing it as a "devil's bargain" with America's post-1941 military alliance with the Soviet Union. But the Spanish republic was undermined, and arguably lost the war, because of its inveiglement with Stalin. The same was hardly true of the United States in World War II.
Hochschild is taken especially with the personality of Robert Merriman, a Berkeley graduate student and "veteran" of the campus ROTC, in which he claimed rank as a reserve captain. The latter qualification, slender as it may have been in real life, led to Merriman's command of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, as one contingent of American volunteers called themselves. Another characteristic recommended Merriman as an officer of the "International Brigades," assembled by the Communist International out of the ranks of pro-Russians in America, Britain, France, and other countries, as well as refugees from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy: Merriman had come to Spain from Moscow, where he frequented circles that witnessed and stayed silent at the progress of Stalin's famines and purge trials.
Robert Merriman was a confirmed Stalinist, an issue Hochschild seems to accept as a natural feature of the political landscape at that time: "That a star Berkeley graduate student should be capable of ignoring a monumental human disaster [i.e., Stalinism] in precisely the field he was studying [the Russian economy] may seem strange today." But it is not strange, as we see in the contemporary American academy where tenured experts seek to diminish the crimes of communism, radical Islam, and other forces arrayed against liberal democracy. Soviet advisers and officers soon appeared in Spain.
For the American Communists who had come to defend the Spanish republic, military life was difficult: The International Brigades lacked usable weaponry, effective helmets, warm clothing, decent food, and consistent medical care for the wounded. Recurrent diarrhea was caused by inferior rations and insanitary conditions. And the Internationals faced the Spanish Army of Africa, comprising Spain's foreign legion and its associated (substantially Moroccan) detachments, who were fully experienced in war and skillful in operating over the dry, broken soil of central Spain. Foreigners caught by Franco's Nationalists were typically executed; but inexperienced International fighters were mowed down in large numbers on the front lines. As the war continued, Soviet secret police began hunting anti-Stalinists such as George Orwell.
The sufferings of the International Brigade were among many inflicted on the Spanish republicans—and depicted by Hochschild in a panoramic, if inchoate, manner. Military supplies to the republic were embargoed by a "Non-Intervention Committee" that included Germany and Italy, Franco's enablers, and to which the Russians acceded. Madrid was the focus of a long siege by Franco's armies; Guernica was bombed by the Condor Legion, a Luftwaffe unit loaned to Franco by Hitler; civilians in Barcelona were targeted by German and Italian bombers. In retrospect, that the republic fought for three years, and that a large part of its militias escaped with their families into France when the war ended in Franco's victory, seems miraculous. But that is a point overlooked here.
In Hochschild's account, blame for the defeat of the Spanish republic gravitates inevitably to Washington and the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president and his wife, Eleanor, are painted as sympathetic to the republic; but Roosevelt depended on Roman Catholic voters who were aghast at the anticlerical outrages committed in republican Spain. FDR could not, we are told, risk alienating the church by assisting the republic. Another aspect of American involvement—and the only element of Spain in Our Hearts that brings unexamined information to light—involves extended criticism by Hochschild of Texaco, the oil company. Texaco's Norwegian-born executive Torkild Rieber supplied American petroleum products to Franco on credit—and between 1939 and 1941, he provided maritime intelligence to the Germans as well. For those latter activities, Rieber was forced to resign. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Spanish Civil War was a feast for many predators. Among them, Torkild Rieber and Texaco appear insignificant when compared with Stalin and Hitler.
Adolf Hitler expected a great deal in strategic commodities from Franco, but he received little—aside from the participation of a "Blue Division" of Francoist veterans in the German Army on the Eastern Front. Joseph Stalin was paid for the old and unreliable military supplies he "sold" the republic by receiving most of Spain's gold reserves. As the end of the civil war approached, Stalin abandoned the republic and prepared for his pact with Hitler.
Hochschild does reveal small details showing that foreign enthusiasts of the republic did not understand its sociology very well. The companion (and third wife) of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, is said to have written to Eleanor Roosevelt that "the Catalans . . . are sort of fake Spaniards." Another individual profiled in these pages, a young Trotskyist from Kentucky named Lois Orr, complained: "If only they would make their revolution in some another language [than Catalan]." When these dismissive opinions were offered, Catalonia was the bulwark of the republican defense: Contempt for Catalan culture was shared with Franco and his generals, as it is shared by the Spanish left with the country's right today.
As others have shown, notwithstanding the skill of Francisco Franco and his armies, the Spanish republic was finally destroyed by its foreign "friends," chiefly the Soviet Union and its cadres. Recognition of that reality should have been the starting point of Spain in Our Hearts. As meddlers in a quarrel where they didn't belong, the International Brigades had more in common with today's Islamic State than with Abraham Lincoln.