Reviews — From the April 2016 issue

A Foreign Cause

Why the Spanish Civil War feels so distant

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Discussed in this essay:

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939, by Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 464 pages. $30.

Some eighty years ago, several thousand young Americans went to Spain to fight — and, many of them, to die — in the service of a country that was not their own. Nothing like that had happened on such a scale before, and nothing like it has happened since. They went despite the active opposition of their own government, which would treat them, upon their return and for many years thereafter, as politically suspect. They left jobs, schools, families, sweethearts. They went to enlist on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, the great cause of the day, joining more than 40,000 other foreign volunteers from some fifty countries. They would go on to suffer a higher rate of combat deaths — more than one in four — than the U.S. military during any of its wars, and would become the first integrated American force to serve under an African-American commander. Their unit, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, became a fixture of radical legend for decades to come. Lincoln veterans were lionized at antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s and at demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1980s. Their preeminent figure, Robert Merriman, a graduate student at Berkeley when he left for Europe, served as a model for the character of Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls.


Photograph of a meeting of the American Company of the 24th Battalion, Almochuel, September 1937. Courtesy Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

The Lincolns are a natural subject for Adam Hochschild. A civil-rights and antiwar activist in his youth, Hochschild worked as a journalist for Ramparts and cofounded Mother Jones. Since 1990, he has produced a string of historical works on themes of social justice: The Mirror at Midnight, on apartheid South Africa; The Unquiet Ghost, on Stalin’s reign of terror; King Leopold’s Ghost, on the colonization of the Belgian Congo; Bury the Chains, on the struggle to abolish slavery in the British Empire; and To End All Wars, on resistance in Britain to World War I. Hochschild came across half a dozen Lincoln veterans over the years, he tells us, and was longtime friends with two of them. (The unit’s last surviving member turned one hundred in December.) “All of us who care about social justice feel a need for political ancestors,” he writes, “and surely, it seems, that’s what these men and women . . . were.”

Spain in Our Hearts is at its best as narrative and portraiture. Hochschild focuses his story through about a dozen individuals: Merriman, the brigade’s most energetic and valiant commander; Marion, his wife, who joined him in Spain and worked at brigade headquarters; Pat Gurney, a bohemian English artist who fought with the Lincolns and fell in love, to mixed results, with Toby Jensky, an American nurse; James Neugass, an upper-class Jew from New Orleans who became an ambulance driver; the mysterious Vincent Usera, a tall and handsome Puerto Rican officer who had a tendency to desert his men in battle and who may well have been an American intelligence agent.

Surrounding them are journalists such as Herbert L. Matthews, who reported for the New York Times from the Republican zone and often found himself undercut by his editors; William P. Carney, his openly Francoist counterpart across the front; and Virginia Cowles, a beautiful Boston debutante who charmed her way around both sides of the war. Hemingway comes and goes, sometimes with the glamorous and forceful Martha Gellhorn, soon to be his third wife, though despite the novelist’s commitment to the cause and his occasional acts of genuine courage, Hochschild usually presents him in the debunking-condescending mode that’s de rigueur these days. Orwell also appears, not because of any substantial connection to Americans in Spain — one often feels Hochschild straining at the limitations of his source material, the diaries, letters, and memoirs that constitute his primary route to the action — but because the author of Homage to Catalonia provides an irreplaceable witness to the workers’ revolution, led by anarchists and anti-Stalinists, that took place in Barcelona and its environs during the early months of the war.

Spain in Our Hearts is less satisfying when it comes to context and meaning. Hochschild sketches out the causes and course of the war, including the involvement, or, crucially, non-involvement, of the leading powers, but he tells us little of the climate of opinion in the United States — what the press and the public thought about the Lincolns or the broader conflict — or about the leftist milieu from which the volunteers sprang. Most of the larger questions he promises to touch on end up unaddressed, bypassed in the rush of narrative. “What did [the Lincolns] learn — about themselves, about war, about the country they had signed up to defend and the one they had left? Did any have later regrets?” “Did the Republic become doomed by its entanglement with the Soviet Union?” How did its defenders come to terms with that circumstance, and “how much were they even aware of it?” Still, the book provides a brisk and vivid telling of the war, a taste of a uniquely gravid time in history, and a group portrait of a kind of young American who’s almost inconceivable today.

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’s most recent book is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press). His article “The Neoliberal Arts” appeared in the September 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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