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book review

Spanish Civil War viewed through eyes of Americans on the ground

Reporters (including Ernest Hemingway, with mustache and glasses) with members of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
Reporters (including Ernest Hemingway, with mustache and glasses) with members of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.(London Express/Getty Images)

It is a distant conflict now, overshadowed by the two world wars that bookended it. But for a time in the late ’30s, the Spanish Civil War famously galvanized a generation of radicals, idealists, and adventurers. Their cause was the democratic Spanish Republic, which was engaged in a life or death struggle with General Francisco Franco, the dictatorial leader of a right-wing coup.

In “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939,” veteran author and journalist Adam Hochschild revisits this conflict, which drew in Germany and Italy, who provided troops and firepower to Franco’s insurgents, and the Soviet Union, which aided the Republic. (France, Great Britain, and the United States, spooked by the Spanish government’s left-wing taint, refused to sell weapons to the Republic.) Volunteers also joined the ranks on both sides in what, at the time, was viewed as a decisive global face-off between democracy and fascism.

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Writers and correspondents descended on Spain to cover the action. Ernest Hemingway strutted his stuff, and a young grocer named Eric Blair fought for a Republican militia, took a bullet in the throat and later, writing as George Orwell, produced the classic “Homage to Catalonia.’’

Hochschild’s title is mildly misleading, and the author himself finds he cannot completely ignore the international flavor of the conflict. Orwell makes an obligatory appearance, as do two other Brits, one who fought for the Republic, the other for Franco. Hochschild does, however, manage to keep the brunt of his account focused on the stories of a disparate cast of characters, mostly American, who came to Spain to become involved.

There has already been much written about this war, and especially the journalists who covered it. Hochschild pays close attention to how the conflict was chronicled by the press, but he does not add much more to the well documented exploits of Hemingway and Co. With few exceptions — the daring Virginia Cowles wrote fine dispatches from both sides — Hochschild is unimpressed by the reporting that emerged. As he should be: The pro-Franco press brayed on hysterically about the depredations (alleged and actual) of the Republic, while pro-Republic figures like Hemingway and Herbert Matthews of The New York Times almost completely ignored one of the great stories of the war, the social revolution that unfolded in Barcelona.

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It is, however, the saga of many lesser-known figures that forms the center of this well-paced if sometimes earnest account and gives the book its resonance. These include Robert Merriman, an economics professor turned soldier; Lois and Charles Orr, two young Kentucky socialists in Barcelona; Edward Barsky, an “intense, chain-smoking surgeon with a small mustache from New York City’s Beth Israel Hospital,” who tended to the Republican wounded; and ambulance driver James Neugass, the scion of a well-to-do Jewish New Orleans family.

Left-wing idealism and a faith in the Soviet Union, which offered a muscular utopian counterpoint to an America mired in the Depression, took Merriman from Moscow to Spain, where he commanded the famed Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

Made up of mostly young urban Jewish men, the ragtag bunch had hardly ever picked up a gun, let alone fired one in battle. Ill-equipped, they were badly mauled in intense fighting around Madrid in 1936-1937 and the Battle of Jarama (A survivor cracked, “You could say that the battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated.”). But the tall, scholarly Merriman proved an admirably capable leader. An Army reserve officer, his military acumen made him a rarity amongst the American brigadistas.

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The Spanish Civil War was an intensely ideological affair, borne out of centuries-old inequalities (the nation having been long a monarchy) that the Republic tried to ameliorate. If the Republic has been shrouded in gauzy myth — Hochschild, a leading voice on the liberal left, is a believer in that myth, up to a point — it was in reality a combustible coalition of anarchists, Socialists, and middle-class liberals. Foreign Communists raised and commanded the polyglot, 35,000-strong International Brigades, and much has been made about how much Stalin helped (or hindered) the Republican effort.

Communists were fetishists for order, hierarchy, and correct doctrine, as eager to fight left-wing rivals — Orwell and his anti-Stalinist militia was targeted by the Communist-dominated Spanish security service — as they were to fight Franco. Of Merriman's unquestioning belief in the party line, Hochschild observes that “his very nature as true believer was what made him, from all accounts, an inspiring leader.”

The view from Catalonia, and its capital, Barcelona, was different. Here, rules and order were thrown out the window, and the social system turned upside down. In Barcelona, the “working class was in the saddle,” Orwell wrote, and a kinetic anarchism prevailed. For the Orrs, who took jobs in writing and broadcasting, it was a bewildering and exhilarating experience. They were excited by the utopia coming to life, but the firmly internationalist Lois was confused by fierce Catalan regional pride, as much a part of the mix as workers rights. “If only they would make their revolution some other language,” she lamented.

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Hochschild finds much to admire in the Spanish anarchist moment. But such a freewheeling spirit did not offer much of a military strategy, he argues: “a disciplined army responsible to a central command is far more effective than a range of militias reporting to crazy quilt of political parties and trade unions.” Perhaps. The Republic could never come up with an effective strategy to defeat the Nationalists, who had better weapons and savagely effective troops.

Franco also had a secret weapon, which Hochschild, in a bit of historical muckraking, shines a light on: an endless flow of oil, supplied on credit, courtesy of Texaco and its dictator-loving chairman, Torkild Rieber.

Hochschild’s heart is with the volunteers, who fought for a losing cause; and, whatever one’s feelings about the Republic, Hochschild’s account closes on a poignant note of mourning and remembrance.

SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS:

Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

By Adam Hochschild

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 438 pp., illustrated, $30


Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.