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LOOKING BACK AT THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
by Bennett Muraskin
Published in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1938, by Adam Hochschild. Princeton University Press, 2016, 288 pages.
FOR THE AMERICAN LEFT, the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, was a noble cause. As the U.S. stood by, fascism rose up in Spain, in a rehearsal, of sorts, for World War II. Young American progressives volunteered to fight, motivated by high ideals, while those at home raised money for ambulances and relief supplies and demanded that the U.S. government sell arms to the elected Spanish Republican government. Jewish volunteers, in particular, fought to defend a country that had a lengthy history of anti-Semitism and virtually no Jewish presence, against an enemy, Francisco Franco, the general in rebellion against the government, who had been armed to the teeth by Adolf Hitler, the mortal enemy of the Jewish people.
The slogan no pasaran, the songs, the names of battles, the photos of the bedraggled soldiers with rifles on their shoulders or clenched fists in the air, the reportage of Ernest Hemingway, the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser — all these are embedded in the memory of a generation or more of Jewish Currents readers. But does this valorization match the reality of the Spanish Civil War? In Spain in Our Hearts, Adam Hochschild offers a qualified “yes” — qualified by his identification of atrocities committed by the Republican side (mainly in the early stages of the war), by the Republic’s suppression of the anarchists and other revolutionaries in Catalonia, and by the Soviet Union’s grim record on human rights — but, yes, it was still a noble cause.
The Communist International, controlled by the USSR, organized the International Brigades, which brought 30,000 volunteers to Spain, including 2,800 Americans, predominately young communists, most of them without military training or experience, who constituted the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Hochschild notes that up to one third were from the New York metropolitan area, and up to half were Jewish. [Lincoln veteran Albert Prago’s groundbreaking 1979 investigation of the disproportionate participation of Jews in the cause can be read at Jewish Currents' Sid Resnick Archive.] Since the U.S. was officially “neutral,” the Lincoln brigadistas had to be smuggled into Spain, which for some involved a dangerous crossing of the Pyrenees on foot. Poorly trained, fed and equipped, they and the other international volunteers were thrown into combat and often given the most dangerous missions. The Lincoln Brigade’s casualty rate was three times higher than that of the Republican Army. If brigadistas were captured, they were summarily executed.
Hochschild does not make clear the reasons for this disparity in losses, or why more Spanish soldiers were not deployed instead. Was it manpower or weaponry that the Republic lacked? (We do learn that Oliver Law, a Lincoln commander who died in battle, was probably the first black man in U.S. history to lead a racially integrated military force.)
THE SOVIET UNION played an ambiguous role in Spain: Without its leadership, there would have been no International Brigades, but the Soviet-appointed commander, French communist Andre Marty, was a tyrant who confiscated the volunteers’ passports (for later use by Soviet spies) and freely executed them on flimsy evidence of treason. Still, those who lived to tell about their participation in the International Brigades generally looked back on the experience with pride, harrowing though it was.
One tragedy of the war was that Moroccans (“Moors”) were among Franco’s most fearsome soldiers. Here was a colonized Moslem people, recruited by their masters to rampage through Spain, killing, torturing and raping in the name of the Church and anti-communism. Would it have made a difference had the Spanish Republic granted Morocco its independence? Hochschild implies that the Republic could not afford to do so because to take a stand against colonialism in Africa would have alienated England and France, colonial powers whom the Republic was desperately wooing for arms and diplomatic support — alas, to no avail.
He emphasizes the critical role played by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in ensuring General Franco’s victory. It was German planes that airlifted his army from Spanish Morocco across the Mediterranean to the mainland, setting off the rebellion. Germany then supplied Franco with an endless array of weaponry, including the most advanced bomber and fighter planes, used to devastating effect by German pilots as well as German-trained Spanish pilots on both military and civilian targets. Italy also supplied aircraft and pilots, but its most effective weapons were submarines, which sank cargo ships headed to the Republic with weapons and oil. Together, Germany and Italy sent 100,000 military personnel to Spain.
Second to Germany and Italy in aiding Franco may be Portugal, a bordering state with a kindred rightwing government. Hochshild’s most remarkable revelation, however, is about the role of the U.S.-based Texaco Oil Company under its executive Torkild Rieber, who was a fascist and a Nazi sympathizer. Texaco supplied vast quantities of oil to Franco on credit. Rieber also used his business connections in Europe to track oil tankers headed to the Spanish Republic. He provided their locations to Franco, who passed the information to his German and Italian patrons, who attacked and sank many of these vessels. The U.S. government gave Texaco a slap on the wrist, essentially looking the other way. And Texaco was not the only major corporation doing business with Franco: Ford and GM sold trucks; Firestone sold tires.
The Republic had no alternative but to turn to the Soviet Union, which sold it weapons of varying quality, some cast-offs from tsarist times, some up-to-date and of the highest caliber. In exchange, the USSR demanded three-quarters of Spain’s gold reserves as collateral. It also sent thousands of military advisors, but its ability to supply anything like the military hardware supplied to Franco by Germany and Italy was severely limited by the Italian submarines.
The better supply route went through France, but even under the Popular Front government headed by socialist Leon Blum, France only sporadically allowed Soviet weapons to pass through. Rather, France catered to the Conservative government in Great Britain, which was determined to stay “neutral” by imposing an arms embargo. The U.S. followed suit, driven by isolationist sentiment, the Catholic Church, and the anti-communists entrenched in the State Department. President Roosevelt later admitted that refusing to sell arms to Spain was a mistake — but when it counted, he rebuffed repeated entreaties from prominent liberals and leftists, including his wife Eleanor, to change his policy.
It was not a question of providing free military aid: The Spanish Republic had the funds and was willing to pay top dollar for military hardware, but could find no takers among its fellow democracies, France, England and the U.S. Only Mexico’s leftist nationalist Cardenas government gave unstintingly, refusing to accept full payment.
HOCHSCHILD DISMISSES the claim that a victory for the Spanish Republic would have resulted in the imposition of a Soviet-style dictatorship like those imposed on Eastern Europe after World War II. Although Soviet agents, in league with the Spanish Communist Party, did consolidate control over the Republic’s security apparatus, the Spanish Republican government was never a Soviet puppet and was unlikely to become one, given the absence of a Soviet military occupation force. Furthermore, Hochschild’s graphic description of the Franco regime’s savage conduct during the Civil War, which was followed by decades of unremitting reactionary policies, convinces me that it was significantly worse in Franco’s Spain than in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. With the Catholic Church in charge of education and social policies toward women and the family, with the landlords restored to absolute power over the peasantry, with the suppression of Basques and Catalan culture, and with thousands of political prisoners subjected to torture, fascist Spain was positively medieval, at least until its last years, bearing more resemblance to Spain under the Inquisition than to modern dictatorships.
Hochschild also dismisses the claim that a defeat for fascism in Spain would have averted World War II. In the grand scheme of Hitler’s ambitions, Spain was a sideshow. There is nothing that would have deterred Germany from destroying Poland and then invading the Soviet Union; imperial conquest was Nazi Germany’s life-blood. Franco did, however, provide valuable assistance to Hitler’s war effort, supplying raw materials, 45,000 soldiers to fight on the Russian Front, and bases for the German air force and navy. Nazi officials bragged about using Spain as testing ground for its weaponry and its strategy of terrorizing civilians. Hochschild does not say so, but provides grounds for surmising that, at best, perhaps Germany could have been defeated sooner in the war had Franco been defeated in Spain.
Hochschild personalizes the American role in the Spanish Civil War with colorful and sensitive portrayals of a selection of key figures. His favorite is Robert Merriam, a tall, handsome man from a working-class background, who struggled to become a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, acquiring ROTC training along the way. Merriam became a communist after witnessing the labor struggles of the Great Depression. He studied in Moscow, joining the Lincoln Brigade, and rapidly became its respected commander. Ultimately he was killed leading his men into battle (or after being captured). His diary, his letters to his wife Marion, who traveled to Spain to join him, and her memoirs provide the basis for Hochschild’s compelling narrative of Merriam’s role in the war and his qualities as a human being.
Whatever was left of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion returned home in late 1938, along the rest of the depleted International Brigades, as part of another futile attempt by the Republic to win assistance from the democracies, who, it was hoped, would come to its aid now that the only foreign armies remaining in Spain were those of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Among the returning American volunteers was Dr. Edward Barsky, another one of Hochschild’s heroes. This Jewish surgeon operated on the wounded and dying under the most adverse conditions. During the McCarthy period, he spent six months in prison for refusing to provide to the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of contributors to a fund he operated for Spanish refugee relief. Later, he joined the civil rights movement, and in 1964 he participated in Freedom Summer..
Hochschild is a consummate historian and literary craftsman who has previously written acclaimed books on Belgian rule in the Congo, the British anti-slavery movement, the legacy of Stalinism in Russia, and British resistance to World War I. Spain in Our Hearts is another triumph.
Bennett Muraskin, our contributing writer, is the author of Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, and The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books. JC