SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939
By Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,$30.00, 438 pages
Lost causes have a way of transforming themselves into victorious myths. In the 18th century Bonnie Prince Charlie (actually a spoiled brat who degenerated into a cranky old drunk) and the doomed Scots Jacobite uprising of 1745 achieved fictional immortality even as the Stuart cause went down the drain. The real and imagined charms of the 19th-century Antebellum South and its paladins lived on in legend long after the Confederacy had been ground to dust, the Union preserved and slavery abolished.
Perhaps the greatest of 20th century lost causes, and one that also won the battle for the popular imagination, was the Loyalist side in the short but bloody Spanish Civil War (1937-39), not least because it attracted a lot of literary talent at a time when most of the world was at peace and the forces of international communism and European fascism were slugging it out by proxy in Spain. To this day the struggle lives anew each time a fresh reader discovers powerful masterpieces like George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
While not a work of the same magnitude, Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts,” a conscientious and often moving account of Americans involved in the Spanish Civil War — overwhelmingly on the Loyalist side — helps to explain the appeal, both genuine and false, of that particular lost cause. The author’s sympathies are clearly with the Loyalists backing the Spanish Republic, as opposed to the Nationalist revolt led by Francisco Franco that toppled it. But Mr. Hochschild seldom lets sentiment get in the way of truth in telling his story. Surely, he writes, “Spaniards were right to resist a coup backed by Hitler and Mussolini. But did the Republic become doomed by its entanglement with the Soviet Union, whose government was at least as murderous as the Franco regime?” Defenders of the Republic, he argues, were “fighting for one of the finest of causes beside one of the nastiest of allies.” He also concedes that “[m]ost of the Americans who went to Spain considered themselves Communists, and we cannot understand them without understanding why communism had such a powerful appeal and why the Soviet Union seemed a beacon of hope to so many.”
And therein lies the only flaw in an otherwise admirable book. By 1937 the true nature of the Soviet Union and Marxist Leninism with its endless purges, mass murders and state-engineered famines and deportations, was a matter of public record. But while the Soviet Union was far from being “a beacon of hope to so many,” a handful of influential true believers and their fellow travelers ignored or actually lied to conceal the truth. Unfortunately, this small number included influential authors, academicians and journalists, notably Herbert Matthews, a New York Times reporter who filed intentionally misleading, pro-Loyalist propaganda rather than journalism from Spain and who lived long enough to do the same kind of political puffery for a young Cuban communist insurgent by the name of Fidel Castro, whom he falsely identified as an idealistic “agrarian reformer.”
As a reporter in Spain, Hemingway also acted more as a Loyalist propagandist, even suggesting to colleagues that they spike true stories of communist-led liquidations of anarchist, syndicalist and other non-Stalinist Loyalists. To his credit, by the time he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” he treated his subject with more integrity, recognizing heroes and villains on both sides of the struggle. Ironically, Hemingway told more truth about the Spanish Civil War as a novelist than as a reporter. He also emerges from Mr. Hochschild’s pages as a treacherous friend and a self-seeking blowhard, turning on the equally talented but more honest John Dos Passos and generally behaving badly. New Yorker writer George Packer summed it up best: “Hemingway seems to have needed to destroy a friendship or a marriage every few years just to keep functioning. In Madrid he did both.” Having finally run out of friends and marriages to destroy, he blew his own brains out in 1961.
As for Spain, while Franco was no Boy Scout, he deliberately avoided entering World War II on the Nazi side — Hitler once complained that he would rather have a tooth pulled than negotiate with Franco — and presided over increasing prosperity in his long-impoverished country while gradually opening up Spanish society. The result, at his death, was a bloodless, constitutional transition from authoritarianism to parliamentary democracy in a way no former communist country every has managed. In that sense at least, the right side won.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.