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The Spain Orwell Never Saw

Adam Hochschild's book is a post-Cold War history of the Spanish Civil War.

STF / Getty Images

“Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts,” wrote Albert Camus. “It was there that they learned…that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” The Spanish Civil War was the great left-wing cause of its era—albeit one with a tragic ending. The conflict, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, pitted the fascist-aided revanchist Nationalists, eventually led by Francisco Franco, against the forces of the democratically-elected Spanish Republic: a motley of anarchists, bourgeois liberals, socialists of various stripes, and Communists. The Republic lost the war, of course, and Franco’s dictatorship endured until 1975. But, from behind Republican lines, the Spanish Civil War seemed less a prelude to World War II than to the Cold War, where factional splits on the left intersected with geopolitics to doom projects of social revolution in Western Europe.

Adam Hochschild, one of the widest-ranging writers on historical topics working today, writes, he says, to give those who struggle for justice access to their political ancestors. His new book Spain in Our Hearts follows the lives of ten English-speaking men and women (seven Americans and three Brits) through the Spanish Civil War, using their collective biographies to illuminate the ethical and martial dilemmas they faced in a moment when social revolution still seemed possible. And, as Hochschild writes in the introduction, “Aspects of 1930s Spain still seem all too similar to many countries today: the great gap between rich and poor, and the struggle between an authoritarian dictatorship and millions of powerless people long denied their fair share of land, education, and so much more. These things make Spain of the 1930s, a crucial battleground of its time, a resonant one for ours as well.”

Though the dictatorships are more theoretical than actual, this description conjures the situation in the United States and many parts of Europe, where authoritarian right-wing movements have found traction, if not yet victory. Hochschild generally aims to tell stories with moral implications. For example, his book on anti-slavery activists, Bury the Chains, has become an inspiration to groups fighting climate change—for they too are asking for a moral revolution that will require the abolition of a source of wealth, profit, and power that has long been taken for granted. It’s less clear what that moral is in this new book. In a conflict that featured fratricidal violence within the left, who, in Hochschild’s view, are the political ancestors from which today’s activists are supposed to draw inspiration?

As Hochschild acknowledges, the story of the American (and British) volunteers he covers are not fully representative of the conflict at large. His subjects are people who were moved by political or professional passion to devote themselves to a cause in a country distant from their own. And that story began, for many, with communism. The two major Communist figures in Spain in our Hearts are the economist-in-training Bob Merriman and the young journalist Louis Fischer. Merriman was a graduate student at Berkeley during the Depression who had also performed factory work in nearby Richmond, where he saw workers splashed with battery acid. He became interested in the prospects of a planned economy, and ended up in Moscow to perform dissertation research. Fischer, born in the Philadelphia slums, became a foreign correspondent in Moscow, where, eager to have access to power, he didn’t challenge government versions of events. Merriman, similarly, missed any evidence of the massive famines that had taken place only a few years before his arrival—even though his field of study was agricultural economics.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 485 pp., $30.00

When conflict broke out in Spain, leftists from around the world were motivated to join. With Hitler and Mussolini supporting Franco, those with deep anti-fascist convictions, especially Communists, were drawn to defend the Republic, and even to fight. “For us it wasn’t Franco,” said one New Yorker quoted by Hochschild, “it was always Hitler.” With most of the army and weapons on the Nationalist side, the Republic would have to depend on militias and international aid if it was to survive. But mustering those two things was at least partially in tension. Especially in northern Spain, anarchists formed battalions that were organized by consent. In Barcelona, they took over factories. A cashless barter system emerged between the peasants in the countryside and Barcelona’s factories. There were more schooling opportunities for people of all ages, and a focus on teaching adult literacy. Status symbols such as hats disappeared; the formal “you” went unused, and a new, egalitarian society seemed to have emerged. There was an eruption of anti-clerical and some class violence, though it paled in comparison to the sustained political murder that took place behind Nationalist lines.

But the Republican government knew that it would need more than anarchist volunteers with a haphazard assortment of weapons to defeat a modern, fascist-backed army. It would need international support. Mexico sent weapons and supplies, but that would not be enough. If France, Britain, or the United States were to aid the Republic, they would certainly not do so if priests and nuns were being murdered and land collectivized. The government did its best to stop such practices without destroying morale, but the democracies remained committed to neutrality. That left only one power capable of offering sustained aid to the Republic: the Soviet Union. In exchange, it demanded, among other things, considerable control over the conduct of the war. It organized the International Brigades, which brought in volunteers from around the world. Bob Merriman, the young economist, began as second-in-command of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the largely American group.

While the Spanish Republic needed Soviet support to survive, the ruthlessness of the Communists’ actions gave the Spanish Civil War its Cold War resonance. Many who experienced the conflict behind Republican lines were dismayed to see Communists, who thought that winning the war required discipline that anarchist collectives could not provide, working to destroy the egalitarian social revolution. Because the Communists’ victims were other leftists, the story of the Spanish Civil War would be useful to anti-Communist leftists and liberals in the U.S. and allied countries during the Cold War who wanted evidence that the Soviet Union and its followers could not be trusted partners in political struggles.

After their defeat, Republican exiles fanned out across the world, where they told their version of events—sometimes with the support of interested parties like the CIA. Among the most vocal were members of the small anti-Stalinist Marxist party known as the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the POUM. Because it allied with the anarchist revolutionaries and criticized Stalin, pro-Moscow Communists persecuted and dismantled the POUM, assassinating its leader Andreu Nin. The POUM’s experience was a minority one, but by a stroke of fortune Eric Blair, better known by his nom de plume George Orwell, ended up fighting with its militias. He published his memoir of the war, Homage to Catalonia, in 1938. By 1950 it had sold all of 800 copies. But with the arrival of the Cold War, the anti-Stalinist implications of his work became valuable for entirely new reasons and Orwell’s version has become the iconic memoir of the war and the most-read book on the subject in any language.

It is commonplace to observe that the history of war is written by its winners. This adage surely held true in Spain itself, where the Nationalists remade the educational system to fit their needs. But in the English-speaking world, the history of Spain’s Civil War has been told most prominently not just by the losers, but by sympathizers of the POUM: the losers of the losers.

Many historians of the Spanish Civil War followed in what they imagined to be Orwell’s steps, writing histories that focused on the perfidy of Stalinists. But Hochschild, who has written an entire book about the horrors of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, has done something different. It isn’t that he is out of sympathy with the POUM or the anarchist cause. But he doesn’t make them the heroes of his account of the war, either. In part, this may be because, lamentably, there were no American or English protagonists who were deeply embedded with the anarchists. Hochschild’s account emphasizes that anarchists were responsible for the wave of violence in the first months of the conflict, and though the POUM was small, it had its own sinister enforcers. Though Hochschild understands the appeal of the anarchist vision, he thinks it essentially a philosophy of pre-modern village life, unsustainable both in the context of the war and in a future peace, within the context of an increasingly complex economy.

Without the anarchists in the role of noble victims, Communist actions seem more justifiable. Still, there is considerable evidence that the Soviet Union used Spain to serve its own needs. The Soviet Union’s anti-fascism meant that it would need Britain and France as allies against Germany, and many of its anti-revolutionary actions seem calculated to make sure that they could be convinced to somehow end their neutrality and change the course of the war. Scholarly discussion of this has often centered on the infamous “May Days” of 1937, when open fighting broke out in Barcelona between anarchists and the POUM on one side and the Catalan government, backed by Communists, on the other. The fighting began at the Telefónica, the Telephone Exchange building, which had been taken over by anarchists. The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, used published Soviet documents from the volume Spain Betrayed, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck, and Gregory Sevostianov, to describe Communist actions in Barcelona as a coup and “a carefully choreographed attempt to provoke a crisis and then take advantage of it.”

But Hochschild doesn’t see it in such stark terms: he observes that anarchist operators kept butting into telephone calls, including those between the heads of the Spanish central government and Catalan’s regional one. Fighting broke out when Catalonia’s security minster told police to take over the building, and anarchists resisted, leading to street fighting that lasted a week and produced more than 200 dead, most of them anarchists. Under Communist control, utilities in Barcelona started charging again for services, and egalitarian habits dropped away. The hat business boomed again.

I sometimes expected Hochschild to be tougher on Communist actions than he was. Anarchists and the POUM saw the social revolution as inseparable from victory. But from the Communist perspective, the social revolution had to be put on hold if it were not to be completely and permanently defeated by the Nationalists, and that led them to set aside other ethical commitments. Several of his protagonists are journalists, who were put in a difficult situation by their sympathies for the Republic. Louis Fischer, who had been living in Moscow, came to Spain to work as a reporter on the Republican side. The Communist journalist Claud Cockburn told Fischer that he shouldn’t report on materials damaging to the Republican cause, including panic when Madrid seemed that it would fall into Nationalist hands. Cockburn himself fabricated an “eyewitness account” of a completely fictitious “anti-Franco mutiny of Moors in Spanish Morocco,” filling his piece with “names of streets and plazas gleaned from guidebooks.” The hoax story, Hochschild explains “made the Nationalists appear far shakier than they were” and was timed to appear “just as a delegation was about to lobby the prime minister on behalf of the Republic to open the border and let the guns through.” They got their guns.

Without the imperative, borne of the Cold War, to make Communists the villains of the story of the Spanish Civil War, Hochschild is able to shift responsibility back towards the Nationalists who set out to destroy the Republic in the first place. He has a sharp eye for damning detail, as when he quotes a Nationalist press officer with a handlebar mustache:

You know what’s wrong with Spain? Modern plumbing! In healthier times—I mean healthier times spiritually, you understand—plague and pestilence could be counted on to thin down the Spanish masses…Now with modern sewage disposal and the like they multiply too fast. The masses are no better than animals, you understand, and you can’t expect them not to become infected with the virus of bolshevism.

But in general, details about what happened on the Nationalist side are harder to come by. One of the reasons that most histories of the war have focused on intra-Republican conflict is that it was much easier to report from there. The Republican side certainly encouraged writers to join them and do propaganda work. Cockburn wanted the poet W.H. Auden to come to Spain, he said, so that he would “go to the front, write some pieces saying hurray for the Republic, and then go away and write some poems, also saying hurray for the Republic.” The Republic also didn’t censor journalists too much: Correspondents moved freely in its zone, and The New York Times’s Herbert Matthews found he could duck censorship if he simply called his Paris bureau when the censor was out to dinner.

But the Nationalist zone was more controlled. The journalist Virginia Cowles, the rare reporter who worked from both areas, was accompanied by a Nationalist minder who tried, unsuccessfully, to shape her views of the war. Still, she was able to learn that Guernica, the town reduced to rubble by fascist bombs and made famous Pablo Picasso’s painting, was indeed bombed by German and Italian planes and not, as the Nationalists insisted for 40 years, burned by Republican forces. The most important of Hochschild’s pro-Nationalist subjects is a Texaco executive who evaded U.S. laws to send Franco the oil his army needed. There is a strong case that without Texaco’s support, which extended to supplying Franco with the locations of merchant vessels sending supplies to the Republic, the Nationalists would not have been able to win the war.

But win they did. By 1938, the International Brigades were withdrawing from the country. Bob Merriman, the young economist who had risen to command the Lincoln Brigades, was killed in battle. Altogether, of the 2,800 Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War, 750 lost their lives there, a higher fatality rate than any U.S. military action in the twentieth century. Louis Fischer, the journalist who had been enchanted with the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, saw both what was happening in Spain and the purges taking place in Moscow and quietly moved to get his Russian family out. He became a Gandhian and one of the six contributors to the 1949 anti-Communist classic, The God that Failed. Soon enough, Orwell’s revived Homage to Catalonia would introduce the conflict to readers as a true-to-life anti-Communist parable for Cold War times.

With all due respect to Orwell, Spain in Our Hearts should supplant Homage to Catalonia as the best introduction to the conflict written in English. A humane and moving book, it is well-paced and meant to be read rather than studied. It might be best described as a post-Cold War history of the Spanish Civil War. Spain in Our Hearts allows its reader to relive, from multiple angles, the emotional and intellectual logic of anti-fascism. That is, perhaps, what will make this book speak to our present moment, when political forms with more than superficial resemblances to fascism have sprung up as twisted responses to local and global inequalities. The divided factions of the left who fought each other during the Spanish Civil War are all our ancestors in the struggle for social justice. But that kind of division is no longer necessary.

With the Soviet Union gone, a broad, anti-fascist coalition of liberals and the left—the kind that brought the Spanish Republic to power in the first place—makes good political sense. Disagreements and debates within that camp needn’t be fatal, either figuratively or literally. Perhaps, then, the principal moral message that Spain in Our Hearts has for our time has less to do with the way in which our world resembles Spain of the 1930s and more to do with the ways it does not. In the most amusing moment of the book, British Labour party leader Clement Attlee visits the Republican front lines and mangles his Spanish, calling out, “¡No pasaremos!” (We will not pass) instead of the anti-fascist slogan, “¡No pasarán!” (They shall not pass). We don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.