By Adam Hochschild

Macmillan. 438 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-5098-1054-3 (Hardback)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“I knew that in my two years in Spain – an experience I was never to forget nor to regret – I had already lived a lifetime.”

                         John Tisa: Recalling the Good Fight: An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War

I’ve used those words of John Tisa’s because the phrase, “an experience I was never to forget nor to regret,” seems to sum up the feelings of many of the people that Adam Hochschild mentions in his new book. True, there were those who came back from Spain disillusioned with communism and/or the failure of countries such as Britain, France, and the United States, to send arms to the beleaguered Republican Government. But that’s not the same as wanting to forget their experiences, or regret having had them.

When the Spanish Civil War started in July, 1936, the democratically elected Popular Front Government was militarily ill-prepared to meet the challenge mounted against it by a coalition of army officers, including General Francisco Franco. He had a reputation for brutality gained when he suppressed a revolt by Basque miners in 1934. The forces that Franco and his confederates could muster for their projected overthrow of the Government were formidable by Spanish standards, and among them were the Spanish Foreign Legion and regiments comprised of Moors from Spanish possessions in North Africa. Both the Legion and the Moors were known for their ferocity in battle.

Franco needed to transport his troops from Spanish Morocco but the air-force had refused to participate in the generals’ plot, and sailors on board ships of the Spanish Navy had mutinied and, in some cases, killed their officers. An appeal was made to Hitler and Mussolini, and German and Italian planes were sent to North Africa. Once troops were in place in Spain action began to capture towns and cities and eliminate “Those who do not think as we do,” as one Nationalist (as the rebels were called) stated. Hochschild’s account of how they went about this includes mass imprisonments and executions, torture, rape, and a general purge of anyone looked on as a communist, socialist, or even just liberal in their views. Teachers were particularly viewed with suspicion.

I think at this point it may be necessary to say that atrocities were not limited to the Nationalists. Hochschild gives a figure of 7,000 priests killed in Republican areas of Spain, and notes that landowners were sometimes murdered by the workers they had previously mistreated. Pro-Franco prisoners in Republican jails were shot, often as reprisals for deaths in Nationalist-held areas. Years of hatred and bitterness bubbled to the surface and many old scores were settled. Anarchists were especially active when it came to burning down churches and dealing with priests. It is probably true that the numbers killed by Republicans were far exceeded by those executed by Nationalists.  Franco carried on killing and imprisoning even when he’d securely occupied a village or town, and was still passing death sentences long after the war ended.  But a numbers game never seems appropriate when it comes to how many died on one side or the other. The Spanish Civil War was a particularly savage contest, and very few people came out of it with clean hands. Even the International Brigades ventured into murky waters, and it was said that its hated commander, Andre Marty, had ordered the executions of around 500 of its members for various reasons. Being politically suspect was one of them. An accusation of Trotskyism often meant a death sentence.

Certain officers and units of the regular army based in Spain did stay loyal to the Government, but not in sufficient numbers that an effective defence could be organised against the Nationalists. Militias were formed by trades unions, the anarchists, who were particularly strong in parts of Spain, “organised” themselves, and small political parties such as the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM), started their own units. The problem was the shortage of guns, and Government ministers were initially reluctant to hand rifles and other armaments to the workers. They eventually had to when Madrid came under attack. Had it not been for the determination of militia men and women to resist then Madrid would probably have fallen quite early in the war.

Some foreigners were present in Spain when the fighting started, but on an individual basis and not as part of organised military units. Hochschild refers to Charles and Lois Orr, who were honeymooning in Europe when Spain erupted into civil war. Both from comfortable backgrounds, they were members of the American Socialist Party, and on hearing the news hurried to Barcelona and looked for a role they could play in events. Lois eventually found work “writing English-language press releases for the Catalan regional government,” and Charles worked for the POUM, which was communist but opposed to Stalinism. Its stance would lead to it being branded as “Trotskyist” by the Communist Party, with disastrous results. George Orwell fought with a POUM detachment and had to flee from Spain when the organisation was suppressed.

Other key figures in Hochschild’s book are Robert and Marion Merriman, and Louis Fischer, a journalist who briefly joined the International Brigades and then returned to journalism and wrote favourably about the Republican cause. As for the Merrimans, they were in Moscow when the war started. Dedicated communists, they were anxious to get to Spain. When they did Robert Merriman soon rose to a leading position in the Lincoln Battalion, as the American contingent in the XV International Brigade was called. He was a Reserve Officer in the American Army and had some ROTC instruction while at university. In a unit where hardly anyone had experienced military training, and even less had seen action, he seemed to stand out. He died during a disastrous retreat in 1938, and for years no-one was sure of the details. Some reports said he’d been cut down with other soldiers while crossing open ground, others that he’d been captured and shot. Shooting prisoners was common on both sides and members of the International Brigades were especially singled out for such treatment.

Spain in our Hearts looks at a variety of Americans involved with Spain, including Torkild Rieber, head of Texaco, who was a Nationalist sympathiser and ensured that Franco was supplied with enough oil to keep his aircraft flying and his tanks and lorries moving. In addition, Franco was being supported by Germany and Italy. It would seem that Mussolini provided 80,000 troops at one time or another, and Germany around 19,000 pilots, technicians, military advisers, etc. Italy also sent submarine that harassed merchant ships trying to bring supplies to Republican ports. The only countries willing to help the Republic were Mexico and Russia. Mexico gave some old rifles and Russia did the same at first, but later provided more up-to-date planes and tanks, though at a price in terms of taking the Republic’s gold reserves, and putting pressure on the Government to place communists and their sympathisers in key positions in the army, police, and civil service.

Most of the Americans who were in Spain were, of course, members of the International Brigades. Hochschild says that approximately 2,800 of them passed through the ranks of the Lincoln Battalion, and that around 750 died. Accurate figures are difficult to arrive at. The Communist Party controlled the Brigades, volunteers often enrolled under false names, passports were taken away by Party officials, and when the Republic was defeated in 1939, the records of the Brigades were moved to Moscow and could not be accessed until communism collapsed. And they may not always be accurate, anyway.

He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about many of the volunteers. I suppose it can be said that he’s selective, and apart from Merriman there are short accounts of some of the experiences of James Neugass, an ambulance driver who kept a journal which only re-surfaced in 2008, though interestingly some passages from it were in a small book, Salud! Poems, Stories and Sketches of Spain by American Writers, published by International Publishers in 1938. Hochschild mentions Steve Nelson, a hard-line communist at the time, Alvah Bessie, who wrote Men in Battle, his story of the period spent in Spain, and who later became a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the imprisoned and blacklisted Hollywood Ten, and James Yates, one of the handful of blacks among the Lincolns. It was my privilege to meet him in Paris 25 or so years ago, just after his memoir, Mississippi to Madrid, had been published.

I’ve just pulled a few names out of the hat, and to be fair to Hochschild there are others he has things to say about, including several doctors and nurses. Those wanting to know more about the wider experiences of Americans who served in the Lincoln Battalion are advised to read books by Arthur H. Landis (The Abraham Lincoln Brigade 1967); Robert Rosenstone (Crusade of the Left, 1969); Peter N. Carroll ( The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,1994); Cecil D. Eby (Comrades and Commissars, 2007). An earlier book by Eby (Between the Bullet and the Lie, 1969) has a title that many might think summed up the situation in Spain where the volunteers were caught between fascist bullets and communist lies. Some Brigade veterans, including Steve Nelson, Harry Fisher and Hank Rubin, published memoirs. A few relevant fictional accounts by participants appeared years after the war, among them James Norman’s The Fell of Dark (1960), William Herrick’s Hermanos! (1969), and Milton Wolff’s Another Hill, (1994), described as an autobiographical novel. 

It’s also right to point out that the term “Americans in Spain” isn’t meant to only apply to combatants. Journalists and all sorts of visitors flocked to Spain, mostly to visit the Republican-held areas, and it was surprising how much freedom they had to interview people, drop in on troops in the field, and generally wander around. They weren’t always welcome, particularly in the front lines, and Hochschild quotes James Neugass: “Literary men, visiting members of Parliament, trade union leaders and lady novelists in search of a story for The New Yorker run through the bowels of the Front ……like a dose of Epsom salts…..They arrive, ask a few questions, look up at the sky, then jump back into their cars.”  The problem was that the Republic needed all the good will it could get and it encouraged well-known personalities to come to Spain. Even Errol Flynn paid a visit, so did Dorothy Parker and another writer, Josephine Herbst, whose later memoir, The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, beautifully evokes how desperately people wanted the Republic to defeat Franco’s forces.

It was always highly improbable that the Republic could win unless the arms embargo was lifted and the blockade of ports stopped. The Republican army was beset with difficulties relating to a lack of equipment, good generalship, and continuity of supplies, ranging from food to bullets, clothing, medical necessities, and just about everything else. Disorganisation at all levels appeared to be the norm, and Hochschild writes about   “a depressing picture of boredom, squalor, bad food, and incompetent higher commanders in what seemed like endless months in the trenches.”  

In addition, within the Republican areas the different political groups were at odds with each other. There was fighting between anarchists and government forces in Barcelona, the POUM was crushed and its leaders imprisoned, and the union militias incorporated into the regular army. What had appealed to many people, the idea that the war was being fought for a social revolution as well as to defeat fascism, was set aside. Beating Franco was the main aim, and the communists, in particular, saw it as a good excuse to get rid of their political opponents. If you didn’t agree with them you were a fascist sympathiser or a Trotskyist agent or both.

While the Republicans squabbled among themselves, Franco’s army continued to gain ground and eventually split the Government-controlled area into two. The Lincolns, like the rest of International Brigades, continued to do what they could, but new arrivals had almost stopped and there were often more Spaniards than foreigners in their ranks as the gaps left by the dead and wounded were filled by local conscripts. It has been said that the effectiveness of the Brigades in general had almost run its course by mid-1938, and that the decision to withdraw them might have had as much to do with that as with the stated one of making a gesture it was hoped Franco would emulate by asking the Germans and Italians to leave. He never would, and with Stalin losing interest in Spain as he more and more turned his attention to Germany, it was only a matter of time before Madrid and Barcelona fell to the Nationalists. By March, 1939, it was all over.

The surviving members of the Lincoln Battalion returned home to be met, in some cases, with hostility, though several served with distinction in the United States Armed Forces in World War 2. James Yates. on his first night back in New York, was refused a hotel room because he was black. Others were hounded out of jobs by the FBI when, in the late-1940s, anti-communism began to build up. HUAC called on some of them to answer the usual questions about whether or not they had been members of the Communist Party. If they weren’t called they often kept their heads down to protect their jobs and families. It was rightly termed “The Time of the Toad,” and Edwin Rolfe, who served with the Lincolns in Spain, had produced many poems about his experiences there, and written the first history of their activities (The Lincoln Battalion, 1939), put together a poem that summed up the mood of the early-1950s. Called “Little Ballad for Americans – 1954,” it warned people about saying too much, or confiding in others, and ended in a couplet which said, “Give full allegiance only to circuses and bread,/No person’s really trustworthy until he’s dead.” Rolfe died of a heart attack shortly before he was due to appear in front of HUAC.

Spain in Our Hearts is a welcome addition to the literature of the Spanish Civil War, and manages to add something new to what is now an extensive library on the subject. Hochschild neatly blends a general history of the war with accounts of the personal experiences of a number of those who took part in the fighting, together with journalists and others who reported on events or worked for the Republican government. Not all the journalists were honest in the reports, which could be influenced by their political sympathies. Hochschild looks at the activities of Herbert L. Matthews and William P. Carney, both of them reporting for the New York Times. Matthews became a supporter of the Republican government, whereas Carney favoured Franco and wrote such glowing accounts of his aims and the activities of his army, that some years after the war ended, he was given a job as “a lobbyist and PR man in the United States for Franco’s regime.”

There are extensive notes and a useful bibliography. And Hochschild knows how to tell a story and writes with a good clean prose style. A final word. Near the end of his book Hochschild says that, at the time of writing it, there was only one person still alive from the 2,800 who had fought in Spain. I recently read an obituary in The Times which said that Delmer Berg, the “Last surviving American to fight against Franco,” had died on the 28th February, 2016.