A few weeks ago The New York Times published a moving op-ed tribute titled “The Good Soldier,” an homage to Delmer Berg, for whom the paper had recently run an obituary. Berg was the last known living member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of about 2,800 Americans who had volunteered to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s. He was also a life-long Communist.
The tribute surprisingly was written by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said of Berg and his comrades in arms, “I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.”
Berg, McCain went on to say, “didn’t need to know for whom the bell tolls. He knew it tolled for him. And I salute him. Rest in peace.”
The senator’s reverential words from one warrior to another followed close after the publication of two masterful new books on the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild and Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes.
Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones Magazine and author of the highly praised King Leopold’s Ghost, among other books, has perhaps crafted the more magisterial of the two entries in the crowded field of books on the topic, perhaps because he casts a wider net than Rhodes, whose intent is to focus on the technology of a war that was in many ways a testing ground for wars to come.
Hochschild covers the whole scope of the war with particular emphasis on the writers who engaged in it—and most particularly George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, who both reported on the Spanish conflict and immortalized it in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and in fiction, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the book that may be all that most people know of the war that was the prelude to and was overshadowed by World War II.
Hochschild says he was introduced to the war in the mid-1960s by two older colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle who were veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (later referred to as a brigade). And, the Lincolns too fascinated me as early as the 1960s. In fact, I got to know one of the veterans, Steve Nelson—a player in Hochschild’s book, much later, in the early 1990s.
Nelson, who died in 1993, spent his winter months in Pasadena with his son Robert, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I sat with him for an afternoon in his son’s home when he recalled that as a young man he had immigrated from Croatia and soon became a member of the Communist Party, organizing throughout the country, and then going off to Spain to fight in 1937.
The perennial question is why young men, and some young women, would leave college or quit their jobs—if they were lucky enough to have one in the middle of the Great Depression—and travel, against the wishes of their own government, to fight for the freedom of people halfway around the world? One obvious answer is that nearly three-quarters were either Communists or fellow travelers, and the war was a cause promoted by the party, and loyal party members followed orders from Moscow.
They would only learn years later, most would claim, of the horrors of Stalinist Russia.
Nelson, the organizer, would become a commissar for the International Brigades in Spain, and in Spain in Our Hearts he becomes entangled—in a way understandable only in the context of 1930s politics—with Hemingway’s great book of the war.
In his 80s, when I knew him, Nelson had long-since renounced the party, but he still fervently believed in many of the causes that enflamed his comrades in the Lincoln Brigade, like economic and social justice and racial equality.
The larger character in Hochschild’s book, however, is Robert Merriman, the Berkeley graduate student who with his wife Marion, an aspiring writer, would travel to Moscow in the early 1930s to study agrarian agriculture and later become Commander of the International Brigades (for which the Lincolns were a division) and an inspiration for Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s novel.
But the book is especially about the writers, focusing largely on Hemingway, who reported for Esquire Magazine and the North American Newspaper Alliance; Martha Gellhorn, who would become his third wife, reporting for The New York Herald Tribune; Herbert L. Matthews, who covered the war for The New York Times; George Orwell, who was a volunteer from England who shortly after the war wrote Homage, an attempt to explain the factionalism that doomed the Republican or Loyalist side; Louis Fischer, an American propagandist for Moscow, and later a fighter in the war; and Virginia Cowles, also an American and reporter on the war. There were others, but these are the focus of this meticulously researched book.
The war itself broke out in 1936 after the first democratic government in Spain was established in Madrid and a dissenting army general, the short, porcineFrancisco Franco (later a butt of Monty Python skits) had been sent into exile. He returned to launch a revolt against the elected government, which was a coalition of democrats, anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists and Communists. The elected government came to be known as the Republicans or Loyalists, and the Franco rebels, the Nationalists.
The Republican side became a magnet for men and women from around the world who would form the International Brigades, joined by the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from the U.S.
From near the outset of the civil war there was foreign involvement. Hochschild argues that it was in many ways to become a proxy war in which the Spanish became pawns in a larger game played by world powers. Writer Jeremy Treglown in the New Statesmen said, “foreign involvement wasn’t welcome to everyone in Spain.” For example, Italy’s Mussolini, soon followed by Hitler, lent support to the Nationalists.
Stalin’s Soviet Union supported the Republicans. But here’s the rub. While Hitler supplied Franco with the most sophisticated weaponry, bombers and even pilots—and an American oil company provided most of the fuel, Stalin toyed with the government of Spain, leeching off the country’s gold reserve in exchange for leftovers from World War I—guns that wouldn’t fire, surplus tanks and other vehicles that often didn’t work, and inadequate personnel.
The United States, despite several pleas from Hemingway and Gellhorn—who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, kept out of the war and forbade American companies from selling arms to the Republicans—although the fascist-loving owner of Texaco (he especially admired Hitler) Torkild Rieber was given a pass to supply oil to Franco throughout the conflict. FDR apparently agonized over the war but was swayed by the U.S. Catholic bishops who favored Franco’s Nationalists.
He would later say, Hochschild recounts, that the arms embargo was “a grave mistake.”
Orwell, who volunteered to fight for the Republic and later wrote the highly respected Homage to Catalonia—in which he tries to analyze what went wrong with the war—revised his thinking. His conclusion: “The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.”
Much is made of Hemingway’s involvement in Spain and whether his dispatches to the U.S., much from the journalist’s refuge, the Hotel Florida in Madrid, counts as accurate reporting. He “said nothing in his wartime newspaper dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image,” said Hochschild.
“We seldom stop to think how much self-censorship we accept when there is a widespread belief that a cause is just,” Hochschild so wisely argues.
It is in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hochschild says, that Hemingway “showed a more capacious understanding of the civil war than in his journalism from the front.”
Hochschild recounts evidence that Hemingway spent extensive time with guerillas in a trek across mountains to Soviet-run training camps. “Like many novelists,” he wrote, Hemingway “rarely spoke of the research—sometimes surprisingly extensive—that lay behind his fiction.” This foray into dangerous territory certainly informed key scenes in the novel.
Hochschild also suggests that Hemingway spent time with Bob Merriman and was certainly aware of his leadership of the International Brigades. Like others, Hochschild assumes that Merriman was the main model for Robert Jordan, although the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls is not a Communist but rather a homegrown American idealist. (Our other author, Richard Rhodes. concludes that Jordan is Hemingway himself.)
But the party was apparently not happy with the novel, perhaps because the hero is a lone wolf. In a crazy twist, after the book was published, former Lincoln Brigade commissar Steve Nelson wrote an enthusiastic review in which he called the book “a monument in American literature.” But the party disagreed—perhaps because one of the most wonton acts of barbarism is committed by Communist-controlled Loyalists—and, it ordered Nelson to retract his opinion. Finally, Hochschild says, Nelson followed the party line and said “that it was no accident ‘this book is hailed in the literary salons of the bourgeoisie.’”
John McCain would say the book is his “favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan…my favorite literary hero.”
For Hochschild, one of the finest reporters on the war was Virginia Cowles, a young debutante, who by her own account had “no qualifications as a war correspondent except curiosity,” but apparently charmed Hearst executives into giving her a crack at writing from Spain. She would later compile many of her dispatches in her memoir Looking for Trouble.
Herbert Matthews became a booster for the cause of the Republicans in his many stories wired to The New York Times (as he would later become a cheerleader for Fidel Castro). Hochschild cites Matthews in 1937 visiting the trenches where Americans were hunkered down outside Madrid. The men, he said were “a healthy, happy lot with plenty of zest for fighting.”
Cowles clearly offers the less idealized version of events: “the men looked strained and sick, and I learned that they had been in the front line for seventy-four days without a break…. Their faces [were] lined and worn.”
Of the 2,800 Americans who fought the losing fight in Spain, 750 died there. Hochschild points out the obvious fact that rate of deaths far exceeded American deaths in/ any other of the wars in the 20th Century.
If young men at war are pawns in old men’s game, this was never truer than in Spain.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 is essential reading; road in scope and meticulously researched, it places Spain and the Americans and others who fought and wrote there in perspective with the broader issues playing out and leading to World War II. “Men of my generation,” Hochschild quotes Albert Camus, “have Spain in our hearts.”
Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in Hell and Good Company is concerned with the human stories of the war that he says had not been told in their entirety. But he says, “I was also drawn to technical developments of the war” and how “destructive technology amplifies violence” and perhaps “constructive technology amplifies compassion.”
From the beginning, Franco had the technology of destruction on his side, thanks largely to Hitler. Emblematic of the horror made possible by the German Luftwaffe’s aid to Franco’s Nationalists was the erasure of the Basque village of Guernica—depicted in Picasso’s famous mural.
Hitler had decided that Spain would be testing ground for his new weapons of war, including the treacherous Stuka dive bombers used in Guernica. At his Nuremberg trial Hermann Goering would say that he had urged Hitler to give support to Franco “under all circumstance, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.”
The reign of terror poured on the Republic by the Luftwaffe met with little effective resistance because, Rhodes argues, “Madrid lacked antiaircraft weapons. The Western democracies’ policy of nonintervention denied the Spanish Republic such weapons; it bought the few it had from the Soviet Union.”
The Nationalists, under German direction, chose market day to bombard and ultimately destroy the village of Guernica. Junkers-52 trimotor bombers released forty to fifty tons of bombs, while Fiats and Messerschmitts, Rhodes says, strafed “civilians as they ran to escape the rain of destruction; the pilots even play at machine gunning the herds of sheep and their shepherds heading home from the feria on the roads outside of town.”
A London Times reporter wrote that the dead in the village “lay about like dirty bundles of washing,” and that “fire was eating away the whole of crowded little Gernika [the Basque spelling].”
If the war was marked by the technology of destruction, Rhodes also presents the other side of the war: advancements in medicine and treating trauma on the battlefield. Wounded men were dying for lack of blood or from receiving tainted blood or wrongly typed blood. Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune was a pioneer in blood typing and cataloguing and organizing monthly blood donations in Madrid. With Spanish Doctor Frederic Duran Jorda he coordinated a program for delivering blood by refrigerated truck to the front.
A hero later denounced back at home in the political fervor of the cold war, Doctor Edward Barsky was a leader of the American Medical aid clinic group. A surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital in New York in 1936, Barsky went to Spain in 1937 smuggling morphine into the country and setting up emergency hospitals at the front; then devising portable trauma units that were lifesavers for battlefield casualties. Calling his units “auto-chirs,” the doctor said in a memoir, “it is surgery on wheels. In it a surgeon… can operate in perfect comfort under the most adverse conditions. He can move his auto-chir as close to the front lines as he dares.”
“As always in war,” Rhodes says, “the improvements advanced by involuntary vivisection—by necessary but terrible experimental interventions on the bodies of living men.”
For his heroic interventions Barsky was a victim of congressional witch-hunters when in 1947 he refused to turn over the financial records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee that he had set up to aid Spain. He would spend six months in prison and have his medical license suspended.
When the Supreme Court upheld that suspension in 1954, the liberal justice William O. Douglas dissented, saying: “When a doctor cannot save lives in America because he is opposed to Franco in Spain, it is time to call a halt and look critically at the neurosis that has possessed us.”
Rhodes’s contribution to the history of that time and place that polarized so many is a valuable companion to the Hochschild book, both helping to fill in the mosaic of the war that inspired so many.
But the conundrum persists. Some say it is almost never a good idea to meddle in civil wars. But for the Lincolns and others like them what holds true is that:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
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