- - Tuesday, February 17, 2015



By Richard Rhodes

Simon & Schuster, $30, 299 pages, illustrated

Richard Rhodes has a way of taking on big topics and famous incidents and locales from Hiroshima to Hollywood and writing about them in prose that is both accessible and memorable. In this latest book, these qualities are once again evident as he explores the civil war that raged in Spain from 1936 to 1939 between the leftist government and the ultimately victorious nationalist rebels under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Most writers about the conflict tend to view it as a kind of dress rehearsal for World War II, with German Nazi and Italian Fascist “volunteers” bombing from the air, shelling from the sea, and fighting on land for Franco and socialist, communist and anarchists coming from the four corners of the earth to fight for the republic.

Mr. Rhodes has chosen to make greater claims still for it, as is evident from his subtitle, as a crucible for the terrible times that rapidly ensued for much of the world in which atrocities against civilians snowballed into uncharted spheres. His avowed intention in these pages is to de-emphasize politics in favor of people and their experiences.

Not much new there, but there are few conflicts where individuals stand out as boldly as this one. Historical figures such as the communist firebrand La Passionara with her rallying cry “No Passaran” and Gen. Mola who Mr. Rhodes tells us coined the phrase “fifth column” and volunteers sketched by George Orwell who fought in an anarchist brigade and wrote unsparingly (of all sides) of the civil war in “Homage to Catalonia.”

Journalists like Martha Gellhorn and Arthur Koestler, poets like W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the fictional characters who leap off the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s fine novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the quasi-fictional ones in Dorothy Parker’s magnificent New Yorker short story “Soldiers of the Republic”: these are likely to pop into our minds already as we think of the Spanish Civil War.

When it comes to Picasso’s iconic painting “Guernica,” perhaps the single best-known image of the conflict, this book does tell us more about the painter, his motivations and, yes, his evolving politics, rather than the piece itself than is usual. Mr. Rhodes gives us a lot that is familiar about Hemingway and Gellhorn: Can his portraits of lesser-known figures like American physician Edward Barsky and young, blonde British nurse Patience Darton add new stars to the historical firmament? Questionable at best, I’d say, despite his obviously sincere advocacy.

When it comes to making his case for the war being a world-shaper, he is actually on stronger ground. Writing of the notorious bombing of the Basque town of Gernika — the author’s scrupulousness is evident in his use of this correct Basque spelling when talking about the actual town rather than the painting — which broke new ground in destruction of a civilian target, Mr. Rhodes lays out a chilling flare path to the future:

“More than 70 percent of all the buildings in Gernika were bombed and burned to destruction, a percentage comparable to the percentage of destruction that would follow in a direct line in less than a decade at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, metastases of the mass destruction first visited upon Gernika. Before that, Berlin would burn too, and Hamburg, and Dresden, the new technology of aerial mass destruction coming back around to scourge its cruel pioneers.”

Truly a dreadful legacy, but Mr. Rhodes points out benefits that arose from those three years in the late 1930s as well: “Innovative technologies in blood collection, preservation, and storage and cleaning, packing and then protectively casting large wounds in plaster” to minimize infection and promote healing. As he writes, “If destructive technology amplifies violence, constructive technology amplifies compassion, and the lessons of technology are universal.”

Readable as this book’s style is and accurate as it is in its details, the lack of emphasis on politics and the necessary analytic details to understand why things were happening as they did inevitably weaken it. And of course, politics keeps on rearing its head throughout anyway: How could it not? Mr. Rhodes is admirably even-handed in showing the equally horrible atrocities perpetrated by both sides. If you want to read a paean to the noble republicans and an indictment of the brutality of just Franco’s fascists, you won’t find it here. But for the complexities of the republican coalition, read Orwell and for the geopolitical and ideological issues which drove the conflict, read Hugh Thomas’ magisterial “The Spanish Civil War.” “Hell and Good Company” is for those who have read nothing about the subject and need a good, clear picture to start with or for those who have read everything about it and still have an insatiable appetite for more.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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