On March 30, 2008, several hundred people gathered at the waterfront in San Francisco. They had come to witness the unveiling of a monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: 2,800 Americans who joined some 35,000 other volunteers from more than 50 countries to defend the Spanish Republic against fascist forces during Spain’s civil war. The conflict, which raged from 1936 until 1939, led to the deaths of around half a million people, including at least 750 Americans, and ended with the victory of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist faction.
The monument, a 40-foot-long steel structure, contains rows of translucent onyx blocks encased with written texts and photographs. “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” reads one, with the words attributed to the Spanish Communist icon Dolores Ibárruri. At the unveiling, Mayor Gavin Newsom addressed the crowd. “The spirit of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” he declared, is “a legacy that we have inherited.” The microphone was later passed to one of the 11 surviving American veterans of the war in attendance. At the age of 21, Abe Osheroff had traveled from his home in Brooklyn to fight in Spain. In his speech, the 92-year-old left no doubt that his view of the world hadn’t changed. “The bastards will never cease their evil,” he growled from his wheelchair in a heavy New York accent, “and the decent human beings will never stop their struggle.”
Not long after San Francisco put up its monument, the Spanish port city of Santander took one down: an equestrian statue of Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist from the end of the war until his death in 1975. That his likeness had remained standing for more than three decades after his demise suggested that not everyone in Spain shared Osheroff’s ideas about good and evil. Indeed, to this day, many Spaniards continue to look back on the Franco era—and on the dictator himself—with some fondness. In 2006, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that, according to a poll it had conducted, a third of the Spanish public believed that Franco was right to overthrow the republic. No surprise, then, that not everyone in Santander was happy to see the statue of Franco torn down: as workers readied their torches and drills, a group of protesters laid flowers in memory of their beloved caudillo. Even the city’s government was less than thrilled; it had decided to remove the statue only after prodding from Spain’s parliament.
Such ambivalence might seem strange given the well-documented ills of Franco’s tenure. But avoiding a direct confrontation with the recent past had been a crucial ingredient in Spain’s transition from fascism to democracy. While in power, Franco had arranged for King Juan Carlos I to succeed him, and after Franco’s death, Juan Carlos ascended a throne that had been vacant since 1931. As soon as the monarchy was restored, however, the king turned around and negotiated an agreement with Spain’s opposition parties to ensure a peaceful three-year transition to democracy. Among the pact’s key elements was a general amnesty for representatives of the regime and for members of the anti-Franco opposition. This amnesty enjoyed broad popular support: having finally been freed from Franco’s rule, few Spaniards at the time were interested in settling accounts, correcting the record, or providing justice for the regime’s many victims. As a result, most preexisting institutions and sitting officials were left in place. So, too, were the thousands of unmarked mass graves of the Spaniards who had been summarily executed during the war and whose remains the Franco regime never bothered to exhume—a task that citizen groups began to take on around the turn of the millennium, without state support.
Things really started to change only in 2007, when civic groups successfully pressured the Socialist-led government to pass the Historical Memory Law. The measure called for the elimination of many public traces of the Franco regime: for example, streets named for Nationalist generals, plaques commemorating the “martyrs” who fell “for God and Fatherland,” and statues of the former dictator such as the one in Santander. The law also stipulated that the Spanish government would provide some assistance to family members seeking the remains of loved ones who had perished in the civil war or at the hands of Franco’s regime. And it made it easier for foreign volunteers who had helped defend the republic, such as Osheroff, to obtain Spanish citizenship.
Despite growing public sentiment in favor of such a shift, legislators from the country’s center-right opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP)—which was founded by a former Franco-era minister—voted against the bulk of the law’s provisions. During the debate in parliament, a PP senator condemned the law as “unnecessary,” “useless,” and “senseless” and said that by “break[ing] the constitutional pact,” it would inspire “dissention and discord.” The legislation passed anyway, but Osheroff never got a chance to file for Spanish citizenship: he died shortly after the inauguration in San Francisco, before the law was fully implemented.
Today, all 2,800 members of the Lincoln Brigade are dead. Their stories live on, however, in Adam Hochschild’s riveting new book, Spain in Our Hearts, which narrates the fates of a dozen English-speaking participants in the conflict. Rigorously researched and masterfully narrated, Hochschild’s book will become the standard account of the Spanish Civil War for the next generation of Americans. Hochschild makes clear why the story that U.S. progressives continue to tell about the Spanish Civil War—a tale of idealistic rebellion and heroism followed by tragic defeat—is quite unlike the stories about the war that are told in Spain. It’s one thing to recall a time when a deeply felt political commitment drove thousands of Americans to risk their lives in a foreign war. It’s quite another to make sense of a violent political conflict that tore through a national community, divided families and friends, left hundreds of thousands dead or exiled, and led to four decades of repression. Different stories are called for when victims, perpetrators, and their descendants have to find a way to continue to live together in a democratic country.
"I WISH WE'D WON"
The author of a number of best-selling, prize-winning books, including histories of World War I (To End All Wars) and the colonization of the Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost), Hochschild first became interested in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1960s, when he was a young reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. “Two older journalists at the paper were veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” he writes in the prologue. “I remember asking one of them . . . how he looked back on the war. Over the clatter of manual typewriters and teletype machines and the whoosh of pneumatic tubes that carried our stories to the typesetters, he said with great feeling, so unlike the usual banter of the newsroom, ‘I wish we’d won.’”
Hochschild’s emotional attachment to the Lincoln veterans in his orbit was typical of his generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, older leftists and younger activists didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but the war in Spain was an unquestioned touchstone. To this day, it still stands as a fundamental chapter in the history of the American left.
The Spanish Civil War began in the summer of 1936 after an attempted military coup failed to overthrow the recently elected government of the republic, led by the left-wing Popular Front. The Nationalist military rebels, allied with the powerful Catholic Church and the immensely wealthy landowning class, saw the modernizing, secular Popular Front as a threat to their economic and political interests and to the traditional religious values that in their view embodied Spain’s greatness. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the Nationalist cause. But rather than stand with a fellow democracy and come to the republic’s aid, the major Western powers, including the United States, stayed out of the conflict. Still, the war drew massive attention—The New York Times ran more than 1,000 front-page headlines about it—and it sharply divided public opinion. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many celebrities, supported the republic in various ways. In many cases, their involvement would leave indelible marks on their lives and work. The writer Ernest Hemingway filed war dispatches, collaborated on a documentary about the conflict, and wrote a best-selling novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in wartime Spain. His partner, Martha Gellhorn, covered the war for Collier’s magazine and other outlets, launching her career as one of the best-known female war correspondents in the United States. And the African American poet and playwright Langston Hughes wrote about Spain for the Baltimore Afro-American, focusing on black volunteers from the United States who saw the fight against Franco as an extension of the struggle against racist oppression at home. (In Spain, for the first time in U.S. military history, a black officer, Oliver Law, commanded a unit that included white soldiers.)
Hochschild mostly eschews such well-known figures, although one of his main characters is a young British writer named Eric Blair, who joined a Republican militia and was severely wounded in 1937—and later became famous under the pen name George Orwell. The other cast members are less celebrated but no less fascinating. Robert Merriman was a tall, charismatic son of a lumberjack who grew up to become an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. A committed leftist, he traveled to Moscow in 1935 to conduct research on Soviet farming, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War interrupted his research. In 1937, he arrived in Spain, where he became commander of the Lincoln Battalion—which, along with other English-speaking battalions, made up the republic’s XV International Brigade. Merriman died a year later, in enigmatic circumstances. Conflicting accounts exist, but it seems that his unit stumbled into enemy forces during a chaotic retreat. Most likely, he was executed on the spot, but his body was never recovered. Merriman served as the inspiration for the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Hochschild shares Hemingway’s admiration for the economist whom history turned into an effective military commander.
Hochschild also tells the story of the American journalist Louis Fischer, who had reported from the Soviet Union in the years following the Russian Revolution and written sympathetically about the Bolsheviks. Fischer covered the war in Spain for the left-wing magazine The Nation while also serving as an informal adviser to the Republican leadership, after a brief stint as a quartermaster in the XV International Brigade. (These shifting roles were not unusual; as the historian Paul Preston has shown, many of the foreign correspondents in Spain couldn’t help getting involved in one way or another.) Fischer was drawn to leftist causes, Hochschild writes, not just by youthful idealism but also by “the hunger for recognition and closeness to power of someone who had grown up with neither.” In the wake of Stalin’s purges, however, Fischer’s enchantment with communism gave way to disillusionment; he later contributed an essay to The God That Failed, a 1949 collection of testimonials from former Communists that became a classic of Cold War anticommunism.
The issue of Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War remains almost as controversial today as it was in the 1930s. Soviet support increased the Communist Party’s influence within the republic, and Soviet agents worked with the Republican authorities to suppress dissidents, echoing the purges going on at the same time in Moscow. Still, as Hochschild points out, Soviet power in Spain had clear limits and has frequently been overstated. He also debunks the notion, prevalent among some conservative historians, that a Republican victory would have turned Spain into a Soviet satellite state—an illusion that bolstered Franco’s Cold War image as the anticommunist “sentinel of the West.”
The issue of Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War remains almost as controversial today as it was in the 1930s.
A journalist at heart, Hochschild is especially interested in how reporters covered the war, how they balanced their political commitments with their professional duties, and how editors and newspaper owners shaped the coverage. He finds that many journalists were prone to “herd behavior” and missed important stories, including the extent and significance of the social revolution that took place in Catalonia and elsewhere during the first months of the war, when workers’ organizations took over the economy and “Spaniards briefly wrote a new chapter in Europe’s centuries-old battle between classes.”
Hochschild also shares an explosive scoop that never made it into the mainstream media during the war: the story of how Torkild Rieber, the Norwegian-born chief executive of Texaco, who was fond of a number of fascist dictators, helped Franco win the war. Rieber offered Franco some 380 tankers’ worth of fuel on credit, an arrangement that constituted a clear violation of U.S. neutrality laws. But Rieber went ever further: by tapping his global network for detailed information on shipping routes and times, Rieber helped Franco and his Nazi German allies sink oil tankers headed for the republic.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
The international brigades served as shock troops for the Republican forces at major battles, but many of the volunteers were inexperienced soldiers, and their equipment was less than adequate. As Hochschild points out, the American volunteers suffered the highest death rate of any U.S. military force during the twentieth century. Many of those who did survive went on to fight during World War II and to lead long, politically active lives. By the late 1960s, many of them had achieved mythical status. “I saw Lincoln Brigade veterans enthusiastically cheered when they appeared in demonstrations for civil rights or against the Vietnam War, or against U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980s,” Hochschild writes. “All of us who care about social justice feel a need for political ancestors,” he notes. In the Lincoln Brigade volunteers, the postwar American left found just that. But it also inherited their sometimes narrow, highly partisan view of the conflict. (When one Lincoln commander, Milton Wolff, returned to Spain in 2006, he visited a war cemetery near Gandesa. “These are the fascists?” he asked with disdain after stumbling accidentally onto the tombstones of pro-Franco soldiers. “There aren’t enough of them!”)
In the United States and the United Kingdom, lasting disagreements over the war’s meaning and legacy stem from a number of factors. For one thing, the conflict was incredibly complex: a wide range of outside powers intervened in it, and both sides included members of many different political movements: anarchists, socialists, and various forms of communists all fought for the republic, while both fascists and Catholics backed the Nationalists. For another thing, narratives about the conflict were shaped by the Cold War, when the United States entered into a formal alliance with Franco’s Spain. As a result, most accounts of the war have inevitably been colored by ideology. The conservative-religious account maintains that Franco had no choice but to rebel in order to save Spain from communism. The center-right version emphasizes the republic’s revolutionary nature and argues that the Republicans and their international supporters were hijacked by a global communist movement subject to Stalin’s devious designs. The anti-Stalinist left, meanwhile, blames the Communist-dominated Republican authorities for losing the war by ruthlessly squashing anarchist-led efforts to collectivize factories and estates and by persecuting anyone who dissented from the party line. And finally, there’s the account that dominated among the Lincoln veterans (most of whom were members of the Communist Party or socialist fellow travelers), which stressed the legal legitimacy of the republic, the cruelty of Franco’s fascism, and the wisdom of accepting Soviet support.
Hochschild navigates these narratives with skill and sensitivity. Although he does not hide his admiration for those, such as Merriman, who gave their lives for progressive ideals, he doesn’t shy away from the less admirable qualities of the era’s leftist politics. Above all, Hochschild makes clear that the story of the Spanish Civil War offers more questions than answers, especially when it comes to issues in international affairs that remain pressing today, such as the wisdom of great powers intervening in faraway conflicts.
THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD
In Spain itself, of course, the debate over the civil war has its own unique contours. Franco justified the 1936 rebellion as a “crusade” to save Spain from communism, republicanism, Marxism, Judaism, Freemasonry, and other nefarious creeds. Following the defeat of Franco’s fascist allies in World War II, Spain was initially shunned by the international community. But a treaty with the United States in the early 1950s and admittance to the UN in 1955 helped normalize its international status. By the 1960s, as the Spanish economy boomed and the Franco regime presented itself as a guarantor of order and peace, the dominant narrative of the war shifted; many Spaniards came to accept the Francoist view that the chaos of the Republican years had given way to three years of collective madness. By the time Franco died, the widespread fear of a new civil conflict helped cement broad support for the brokered solution between the regime and the opposition, in which both sides made significant concessions.
For many years, Spain’s democratic transition was considered a model of moderation and common sense and served as a significant source of national pride. By the late 1990s, however, a growing number of Spaniards began wondering why no one had ever been held accountable for the thousands of human rights abuses committed during and after the war. In the subsequent decade, a series of culture wars broke out over issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the Iraq war, and the unity of the Spanish state. In a suddenly more polarized political environment, consensus about the recent past—or at least an unwillingness to argue about it—began to slip away. The left lost its shyness about linking the conservative PP (which ruled from 1996 until 2004) with the Franco legacy, and right-wingers accused the Socialist government that held office from 2004 until 2011 of repeating the confrontational politics of the republic. Meanwhile, an expanding network of citizen organizations, denouncing Spain’s “pact of silence,” began exhuming the bodies of the Nationalists’ victims from unmarked mass graves. Pressure from such groups led to the 2007 Historical Memory Law and, a year later, to an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by a high-profile Spanish judge to open a criminal investigation into more than 100,000 murders and forced disappearances perpetrated from the mid-1930s until the 1950s.
Today, Spain’s political landscape is undergoing its biggest changes in 35 years. The uneasiness with the democratic transition’s reliance on amnesty that was first expressed by the historical-memory movement has evolved into more widespread discontent with the functioning of the post-Franco political system. In the spring of 2011, thousands of Spaniards took to the streets, rallying around the slogan “¡Democracia real ya!” (Real democracy now!); that movement has coalesced around the anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can), which draws inspiration from the republic and favors ending amnesty. Even some conservatives have begun to acknowledge that revisiting the past is not tantamount to opening old wounds. In 2015, Madrid elected a progressive-leaning city government headed by a retired judge and former Communist activist, Manuela Carmena, who has pledged to implement the 2007 Historical Memory Law, which her predecessors had ignored.
To be sure, dozens of Madrid streets today are still named for Franco and his generals. But last November, the Spanish capital chose a location for a square dedicated to the foreign volunteers who fought against them; the site will be called la Plaza de las Brigadas Internacionales.
You are reading a free article.
Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.
- Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
- Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
- Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions