Spain in Our Hearts
by Adam Hochschild
Opinions about the rights and wrongs of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 are still fiercely divided. As Adam Hochschild observes, the “authorised version” of the war states that Spain had enjoyed a democratically elected government since 1931, trying to bring about far-reaching and necessary social reforms, and fighting a right-wing military coup under General Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini. On their side, the Nationalists believed just as passionately that they were fighting for civilisation against anarchy and barbarism.
Both of these versions have much truth in them, but the reality is inevitably more complex. Given this complexity, the author has done an admirable job of describing the three years of conflict as carefully and dispassionately as possible. His own sympathies as an American journalist and author lie with the Republicans, but he does not gloss over their flaws, incompetence and mistakes.
Hochschild relates that about 2,800 US citizens fought in the war, of whom approximately 750 died in the conflict. Most of them considered themselves communists – but of the kind who cared deeply for social justice and the democratic rights of the poor, rather than the Russian brand. And this, as Hochschild would argue, was the chief tragedy for the Republicans: Western reluctance to help meant that the only major country that sold arms to the Republic was the Soviet Union, which “exacted a considerable price in return”.
The author raises two questions, both unanswerable but often pondered by the survivors of both sides: what would have been the outcome if the Western democracies had sold Republican Spain the arms it repeatedly and urgently tried to buy? And was the Republic finally doomed by its entanglement with the Soviet Union?
Hochschild details the facts: although both sides engaged in the violent killing of their opponents, thousands more died at Nationalist hands both during and after the War. More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican-held territory as against 150,000 in Nationalist-held territory – with at least 20,000 more executions under Franco when the war was over. Franco’s victory “brought not reconciliation but vengeance”, as the author comments.
Possibly the most shocking event for the Nationalists, which made their cause seem like a “holy war” was the murder of nearly 7,000 clergy and the destruction of churches by anarchists and workers’ militias in 1936. They were convinced that Spain was heading for its own version of the Russian Revolution – behind Franco’s dictatorial stance was his belief that he was divinely appointed to restore tradition, the army, the Church and the Spanish empire.
In retrospect, the Republican side seems doomed from the start, lacking a disciplined army responsible to a central command. Franco’s forces were far more effective “than a range of militias reporting to a crazy quilt of political parties and trade unions”, composed of armed citizens, anarchists and communists as well as socialists and middle-class liberals.
Hemingway might be the most famous American to write for the Republican cause, but Hochschild describes other brave men and women, such as Bob and Marion Merriman, Lois and Charles Orr and Louis Fischer, who either died in the conflict or were deeply affected by their experiences of it. Naïve about Soviet Russia, they saw it as “magically sweeping a backward country into the industrial age”.
Idealism, a social conscience and courage: these characterised the outlook of many Americans caught up in the civil war, as related in this thoughtful testimony.
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