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Spain in Our Hearts
Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939

by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

This book is a good read. Scott Quinn writes:

Not only can Hochschild write, he knows how to tell a story. The book moves at a brisk pace and kept me up later than I wanted a couple of times because I couldn't wait to get to the next chapter.

It was the same with me.

The title is from a comment by Albert Camus. "Men of my generation have had Spain in our heart. It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded."

Courage was not rewarded largely because the Republic they were trying to defend was doomed from the start. The rebels, led by Francisco Franco, trying to overthrow the Republic had help from a brazen intervention by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, help in war material, air power and men. Meanwhile, Britain had declared itself neutral and Britain's anti-communist establishment (including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden if Wikipedia is correct) tended to prefer a Nationalist victory. The French government, although left-leaning, gave Spain little support, fearing a fascist takeover in France if it had. It was in 1938 that the British and French caved into Hitler at Munich.

The United States was also playing at non-intervention. With World War One in mind, President Franklin Roosevelt was playing to public opinion with the comment that there should be "no expectation that the United States would ever again send troops or warships or floods of munitions and money to Europe." It was big blanket hostility to the last war rather than measuring the individual circumstances of the present that was being pursued. Both houses of Congress passed a resolution banning the export of arms to Spain. But there would be help to the rebel side: fuel sold to Franco by Texaco. Hochschild's book is light on the politics in Britain and France, but detailed about the President and Mrs Roosevelt's sense and about the Texaco executive Torkild Rieber (born in Norway).

Something you never want to do: volunteer to fight for a cause that is doomed, fighting in the freezing cold and mud, often without food, poorly equipped, against an enemy that is. Those who journeyed to Spain to fight against fascism and survived were praised in a massive celebration one day in 1938 in the city of Barcelona a little before Franco's victory. Of course, the pain of bloodshed and the deaths were futilities unseen by many of the idealistic volunteers until the end. Some others deserted before and were lucky if they made it out.

The barbarities on both sides of the war were described by Hochschild, as it had been by Ernest Hemingway – whose presence in Spain was well covered by the author. Barbarity on the fascist side was, I take it, much worse. Franco was an upper-class devout Christian outraged over anarchist church burnings, murders of priests and nuns and confiscations, and he and his supporters wanted to rid the world of as many Reds as they could.

The Spanish Republic's failures reminded me of Francisco Madero's blunder after he power for the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Madero was too soft. He failed to purge the military. to leave the military as a force that supported the revolution. Instead, reactionaries in the military (led by Victoriano Huerta) overthrew the revolution and murdered him. In Spain 1931, during the Great Depression, the dictator Primo de Rivera was driven from power and the reigning monarch fled the country. A constitution was written and a republic was founded. In 1936, republicans, socialists and communists formed a government called the Popular Front. The Spanish Republic has politically tumultuous years between 1931 and 1935, the year the Popular Front (Communists, Socialists and few leftist liberals) took power. The Franco-led coup began in mid-1936. It too bad that the government did take out the reactionary leaders in the military – a Stalin-like purge – before then, nipping the rising in the bud (not that I like Stalin-like purges in general).

Hochschild includes a lot about the Soviet Union's involvement in Spain – the one power helping the Republic – and the conflict between idealistic communists and socialists, including the socialist George Orwell, and Stalin's paranoia. The book is a focus on people more than on political abstractions, and it appears to me as honest.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.