Review: Hochschild's 'Spain in Our Hearts' brings history alive

International Brigade volunteers at the University of Madrid use books and sandbags to build a defense for the Philosophy and Letters Building.
International Brigade volunteers at the University of Madrid use books and sandbags to build a defense for the Philosophy and Letters Building.
Published July 21, 2016

In the obscure corners of history lie lessons we shouldn't forget, if in fact we ever learned them in the first place.

That spirit animates Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, the latest of Adam Hochschild's readable, intelligent histories of events we might have learned in high school and then promptly forgot. From Europe's plunder of the Congo (King Leopold's Ghost) to the British war protesters of World War I (To End All Wars), Hochschild is a writer capable of making any topic interesting, relevant and accessible. For those of us with no knowledge or interest in the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts is a primer, a meditation and a story of American adventure abroad.

Though under the rule of monarchs and military leaders for centuries, Spain entered 1931 with a democratically elected government. A fractious collection of leftists and revolutionaries, the Republican government was in power only a few years before the Nationalist military attempted a coup. Led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Spanish military had the support of Europe's emerging fascist leadership: Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini. Spanish Republicans were desperate for help to stave off the coup by the Nationalists and save their fledgling democracy. So they turned to communist Russia for help.

"Surely Spaniards were right to resist a coup backed by Hitler and Mussolini," Hochschild writes. "But did the Republic become doomed by its entanglement with the Soviet Union, whose government was at least as murderous as the Franco regime? Defenders of the Republic were, in short, fighting for one of the finest of causes beside one of the nastiest of allies." That moral conundrum with its many shades of nuance is the main theme of Spain in Our Hearts.

Though thousands of Americans went to Spain to join the fighting, the U.S. government was detached, to say the least. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted no part in Spain's quagmire — despite the sympathies of his wife, Eleanor, for Republican Spain — because of the difficulty of selling foreign involvement to a truculent Congress and reluctant public.

Hochschild's account focuses on some of the more ordinary Americans who went to Spain to fight in the International Brigades, forces that eventually drew 35,000 to 40,000 foreigners from more than 50 countries. Journalists, too, descended on the country, most notably the celebrated author Ernest Hemingway, who wrote dispatches for wire services. Later, he wrote the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls based on his experiences in Spain.

The Americans who fought for the Spanish left were a diverse lot. They were students, doctors, nurses and regular folk. One of Hochschild's most vivid portraits is of Bob Merriman, an economics professor from California who studied the Soviets but left Russia when Spain broke into civil war. His calm, steady leadership of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion serves as one of the book's primary narratives.

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What the Americans encountered in Spain was a country plunged into chaos and violence. While Republicans committed their share of violence, the Nationalists favored mass murder and rape as weapons of war. No one was beyond suspicion when the Nationalists swept into local villages and towns. Offenses included anything not purely Spanish, and that included vegetarianism, learning Esperanto, teaching in a Montessori school or joining the Rotary club, Hochschild writes. "As gruesome warnings, bodies of slaughtered Republicans were left on streets, in plazas, and at crossroads. As would soon be clear, however, by no means was all of the killing done by Nationalist rebels. Centuries of pent-up social tensions had erupted in a murderous fury."

Hochschild, though sympathetic to the leftists, presents their flaws without excuse. Many of the Americans who went to the fight were either naive or willfully ignorant about the failings of the Spanish leftists and of their main benefactor, Russia. A foil to Merriman's idealism was the acerbic 37-year-old Milly Bennett, a journalist who had spent years covering China and Russia before arriving in Spain. "The thing you have to do about Russia is what you do about any other 'faith,' " she wrote. "You set your heart to know they are right … and then, when you see things that shudder your bones, you close your eyes and say … 'facts are not important.' "

Whether American involvement in the Spanish Civil War could have prevented the Nationalist victory and decades of dictatorship in Spain is an open question. But there is little doubt that Spain served as a proving ground for Hitler's military, and it foreshadowed the broader conflict of World War II.

Spain's story, as Albert Camus wrote, displayed the tragedy of war: "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."

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. Contact her at Follow @angieholan.