Reviews — From the April 2016 issue

A Foreign Cause

Why the Spanish Civil War feels so distant

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The Spanish Civil War began with a military coup on July 17, 1936. Earlier that year, the Popular Front, a coalition of liberals and leftists, had taken power in parliamentary elections. (Spain had been a constitutional republic only since 1931.) After careful plotting, the generals — who were soon led by a physically unimpressive but masterfully effective veteran of colonial warfare, Francisco Franco — struck back. Within a few weeks, a third of the country, mostly in the south and the west, was under their control.

Terror was a conscious instrument of Nationalist policy. Commanders, Hochschild writes, “spoke of limpieza, or cleansing.” Politicians and trade unionists were bayoneted or shot. Women were subjected to gang rape. Executions often assumed a paranoid cast: in Huesca, one hundred suspected Freemasons were killed; in Granada alone, the death toll amounted to 5,000. Bodies were left to lie as warnings in plazas and streets. All together, some 150,000 individuals were murdered. The generals, as Hochschild says, “brought the colonizer’s mentality back to Spain.”

International Brigade commendation card, 1939. Courtesy James Lardner Papers, ALBA No. 67, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

International Brigade commendation card, 1939. Courtesy James Lardner Papers, ALBA No. 67, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Against the Nationalist offensive, the government could muster only a relatively small number of regular troops. The Republic was saved from rapid capitulation by what was essentially a counter-uprising, this one led by trade unions and left-wing parties, many of which maintained, or hastily assembled, their own militias. The units were poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly organized, and poorly supplied, but their numbers and morale, along with the general spirit of popular enthusiasm (the anarchists alone soon had 100,000 men and women under arms), were enough to stabilize the front.

The Republicans were not innocent of atrocities themselves. Almost 7,000 Catholic clergy — the Spanish Church tilted hard to the right — were put to death. During the first weeks of the siege of Madrid, which began in November 1936 and lasted for more than two years, up to 2,500 suspected “fifth columnists” (the term originated in a Nationalist boast) were taken off and shot. “Centuries of pent-up social tensions,” Hochschild writes, “had erupted in a murderous fury.”

From the start of the war, it was clear that foreign governments would play a crucial role. Hitler and Mussolini, eager to expand their influence, responded at once to Franco’s pleas for help, ferrying Nationalist troops across the Strait of Gibraltar in history’s first large-scale airlift. Over the course of the fighting, the German involvement in particular, especially the provision of aircraft and pilots, proved decisive. Hitler not only gained an ally, he tested weapons, honed tactics, and seasoned his personnel for the coming war. The Spanish conflict saw the debut, among other matériel, of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Luftwaffe’s “deadly, versatile mainstay” during World War II, and the Stuka dive-bomber, a new and terrifying kind of weapon. Spanish towns, including one called Guernica, were carpet-bombed by way of experiment. German planes came to dominate the sky, and therefore the war.

The Western powers, meanwhile, were sitting on their hands. The French and British governments, which had complicated interests of their own — not to mention ample numbers of Franco sympathizers among their officer corps — remained aloof. As for Roosevelt, he temporized throughout the war, imposing an arms embargo on both sides that, in practice, hobbled only the Republic. The Depression was re-intensifying, the Spanish Republicans were seen as dangerously radical, and with his popularity declining, FDR was ever mindful of the Catholic vote. Martha Gellhorn’s efforts to influence him through her mentor, the First Lady, came to nothing. Only after the fall of Barcelona, two months before the end of the war and many months too late, did FDR acknowledge that the embargo had been “a grave mistake.”

As it later would with Cuba and Nicaragua, the United States had succeeded in driving a leftist government into the arms of the Soviet Union. With no alternative, the Republic turned to Stalin for support. It was, as Hochschild says, a devil’s bargain. In exchange for arms, the Republicans were forced to accept the presence of Soviet political and military operatives and the increasing dominance of the Communist Party within the ruling coalition. The radical egalitarian experiment in Catalonia and Aragon — “there was no boss-class,” Orwell wrote, “no menial-class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap-touching” — was suppressed and defamed.

But Stalin also did something that made the story of Americans in Spain possible. Through the Comintern, the international organization of Communist parties, he “passed the word to begin recruiting special brigades of volunteers to fight fascism in Spain.” The Lincolns were certainly idealists, but their story shows that ideals are not enough — not, at least, to get so many men to cross the sea to kill and die. You need an ideology — a belief system — and you also need an organization. “About three quarters of the American volunteers,” Hochschild tells us, “were members of the Communist Party or its youth league.”

There is something else that many of the Lincolns had in common. Almost half of them were Jews. Hochschild’s account is studded with names like Levenson, Silverstein, Barsky, and Wolff. Their involvement underscores the conflict’s larger stakes. “For us it wasn’t Franco,” the Lincoln Maury Colow said. “It was always Hitler.” The Spanish Civil War, which began a few months after the remilitarization of the Rhineland, was fought against the backdrop of the annexation of Austria, the Munich Agreement, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. It concluded five months to the day before the start of World War II. It was a proxy war not only for Hitler and Stalin but for almost everybody except the Spanish. The decade’s thwarted tensions had assumed a local habitation and a name; its mighty opposites had come to grips at last. “When the fighting broke out,” Orwell wrote, “it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”

Among those we come across in Hochschild’s narrative (not all of them in Spain) are John Dos Passos, Orson Welles, Albert Camus, André Malraux, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — as well as a Dutch filmmaker, a former Cambridge don, a Swedish labor leader, and the dean of Canterbury. “Because there at least was something to fight for,” James Baldwin would later write about that time of “bewildered and despairing idealism,” “young men went off to die in Spain.”

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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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