SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939


By Adam Hochschild, 438 pages.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.


It was the cause of a generation, one that grows dimmer with each passing year now. “Spain,” as it was called, simply, was for years a moral touchstone, the foreign war for which more Americans volunteered than any other in our history, before or after. It’s impossible to think of anything that so engages us today.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, as Adam Hochschild makes clear in his outstanding new history, acted as a sort of funhouse mirror, reshaping everyone and everything it touched. Many individuals and institutions we would prefer to revere—the Catholic Church, the European democracies, our future Cold War allies, leading American businessmen, the hordes of working press who descended on the war-torn country, President Franklin Roosevelt and his government—behaved abominably, while many of those who had devoted themselves to the worst of causes, such as Josef Stalin’s idea of world revolution, nobly met the challenge. Were these passing distortions, or x-rays of the soul?

There is, of course, already a mountain of literature on Spain. But Spain In Our Hearts is an engaging and worthwhile addition, both in how distance lends it perspective and judgement, and in the personal stories that the author chooses to illuminate here.

Hochschild cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and author of several previous histories, including King Leopold’s Ghost and To End All Wars, is plainly sympathetic to the left-wing “Loyalist,” or “Republican,” side that was the democratically elected Spanish government. But he does not look away from its outrages or its foibles: the murder of over 7,000 members of Spain’s Catholic clergy, and the burning of hundreds of churches and cathedrals; the utopian attempts by its anarchists and socialists to reinvent society overnight, the murderous purges conducted by its Stalinist secret police. The rebelling Falangists, or Spanish fascists, politely known as “Nationalists,” ran up a much higher body count, shooting prisoners as a murder of course, murdering untold thousands of peasants, workers, and “intellectuals”—often schoolteachers. Their leader, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a shabby, pot-bellied little psychopath—not one but two rival generals for the leadership of the Falange died in suspicious airplane explosions—openly endorsed terror bombings (utilizing a prototype of napalm cooked up by the Nazis), and mass lootings and rape as weapons of war. All of this and worse was enthusiastically supported by the Catholic Church, some of whose priests actively joined in the butchery.

While Hitler and Mussolini provided hundreds of tanks and airplanes, dozens of submarines, and nearly 100,000 troops between them—forces without which Franco undoubtedly would have been defeated—the Western democracies did almost nothing to help the Republicans. It is unlikely that President Roosevelt could have done as much as Hochschild implies to actively intervene on the Loyalist side, considering both the power of the church in the U.S. at the time, and the depth of isolationist feeling. But it is inexcusable, as Hochschild also makes clear, that his administration paid no mind to the machinations of Torkild Rieber, the pro-fascist chairman of Texaco who not only provided Franco with all the free oil he needed, but conveyed it in his company’s own tankers—a direct violation of American law at the time—and, most shamefully, used Texaco’s vast maritime intelligence network to betray Loyalist supply ships to Mussolini’s submarines.

The silence of the democracies left the Republic increasingly dependent upon the Soviet Union, which provided some fine tanks, and advisors, but which also—in the usual Russian muddle of ideology and incompetence—bilked maximum Spanish gold in exchange for often antiquated weapons, political trials, and executions.

What was left, then, was only the courage of the individuals who could not countenance the rape of Spain, the thousands of men and women from all over the Western world who joined the International Brigades and its support staff. Hochschild concentrates on a handful of them, which makes their stories all the more poignant: Bob and Marion Merriman; Charles and Lois Orr, who interrupted their honeymoon in France to answer the call; Toby Jensky, a nurse; James Neugass, an ambulance driver; the journalists Virginia Cowles, Louis Fischer, and Milly Bennett; and swaggering Papa Hemingway himself, already well-established as an international literary celebrity, romancing his latest lover, the journalist Martha Gellhorn.

One wishes at times that Hochschild had cast his net a little wider, such as when he moves quickly through one of the murky controversies of the war, the service and death of Oliver Law, briefly commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which constituted “the first time a black man had ever commanded an integrated unit of Americans in combat.” [p. 226]. But then, a broader cast would not have allowed for all the shining courage and tenacity that the author draws out of his subjects’ narratives. While the Spanish appreciated their efforts, they were often sacrificed to the confusion and exigencies of the war: thrown into the front of suicidal assaults, barely trained, horribly equipped, frequently provided with insufficient food or even water; provided with little in the way of shelter or proper medical care, cut down for no good reason before they had even begun to fight. They bore up anyway, and helped keep the Republic alive for an astonishingly long time—almost long enough—considering the enormous disadvantages they labored under in everything that determines the outcome of modern war.

And for their efforts, these “premature anti-fascists” were often treated as near-criminals in the McCarthyist years after World War II.

Almost all of the foreign volunteers who came to Spain were dedicated socialists and communists, and Hochschild doesn’t hesitate to explore their naïveté, or, at times, their willfully blind obedience to the Moscow party line. But they are, almost all of them, heartbreakingly American types, of the many types that we have: Jensky, a feisty New Yorker; Neugass, an Ivy-League educated son of New Orleans; Bob Merriman, a big, confident, open-hearted Westerner. Even Hemingway, for all his macho bombast, proved to be a generous companion, serious about his work (he joined an actual, nighttime mission to blow up a rail bridge that would provide a key scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls), and genuinely affected when the last of the shot-up International Brigades were pulled out of Spain, leaning his head against a wall, and repeating, “They can’t do it! They can’t do it!” before bursting into tears. Hochschild makes one feel like doing the same today.