Fresh insights into the Spanish Civil War

Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
By Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
New York, 2016
438 pp, hardback

The title of Adam Hochschild’s marvellous book on the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War is taken from French author Albert Camus’s requiem for that doomed struggle: “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts … It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and there are times when courage is not rewarded”.

Hochschild’s sympathies are wholeheartedly with the Republic, which was ultimately defeated by the fascist forces led by Francisco Franco. But he does not gloss over the less savoury details, including the persecution of anti-Stalinists by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Spanish henchmen. Hochschild is still in no doubt the wrong side won, for the consequences for the Spanish people were the 36 years of Franco’s vile dictatorship.

Much has been written about the war. The best histories — those of Paul Preston, for example — are superbly written and researched. The best memoirs — including George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia — are as relevant as they day they were written. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is an unforgettable novel of the war.

Yet Hochschild manages to convey fresh insights in a book that is both passionate and clear-sighted.

Although the book focuses on the contribution of US volunteers to the Republican war effort, it nevertheless shines a light on generally forgotten aspects of the war. For instance, even at the time the foreign media contingent was utterly unaware that an immense social revolution was unfolding across the country. This revolution, moreover, was impelled from below by the oppressed workers and peasants.

Spain in Our Hearts is a serious historical work, but it is no dry-as-dust academic tome. Hochschild has a novelist’s ability to make the events he describes live for the reader. He vividly evokes the sorrows and sufferings of the US volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who were used as shock troops against the fascists: more than 3000 went to Spain and 681 died there.

He has an eye for telling detail: the lonely grave of a US volunteer secretly maintained by villagers during the long years of dictatorship; the fascists dancing in the blood of murdered republicans while the local bishop looked on; the fascist officer who, through a mouthful of fried eggs, ordered his men to shoot a captured republican deserter.

It is almost as if we are standing with the International Brigades on the barricades of the University City on the outskirts of Madrid, the battle cry of “¡No Pasaran” echoing across the gulf of the years.

Together with the Lincoln Brigade, we relive the desperate retreat across the Ebro River — the last battle they fought before their repatriation from Spain in 1938.

I teared up at Hochschild’s account of the Lincoln Brigade’s final march past in Barcelona before 300,000 cheering people — and at his account of their triumphant return to the city many decades later as octogenarian honorary citizens of Spain.

We feel, too, fierce anger at the farce of “non-intervention” that allowed Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to send thousands of tanks and aircraft, and whole armies of “volunteers” to aid Franco. At the same time, the principle was invoked by other powers to starve the Republic of the weapons it desperately needed to defend itself.

Worse still was the supply of oil and petrol, rubber, trucks, and other essential commodities on credit to the fascists by US corporations, prominent among them Texaco. Hochschild describes how Texaco executives actually “fingered” republican oil tankers for destruction by Mussolini’s submarines.

There can be no doubt that “force vanquished spirit” — that the Republic was smashed in a grossly unequal struggle — but the courage of the vanquished still inspires.

The book concludes with the words of a niece of a fallen Lincoln Brigade volunteer, who visited the scene of his death 75 years later: “I told him that his coming to Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, his willingness to give everything he had believing it could make the world more fair, more free — that this volunteering, hopeful spirit was a source of profound inspiration.”

And so it is. Franco’s dictatorship is dead, but the struggle the volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade gave their lives for is not over — as the Spanish would say, la lucha continua, the struggle continues — for a better world.

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