Sunday, July 17, 2016

Heroism and horrors

Adam Hochschild's big new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 is just what the subtitle advertises -- the story of U.S. citizens who participated in that confusing, emotionally charged struggle.

Of necessity, that means Hochschild has to provide a narrative of a conflict that unfolded very differently than anything in the experience of most of us. In this one, it was the democratically elected government, the "Republic," which was fighting against the "Nationalists," rebelling colonial army officers whose assumed that label to proclaim themselves the only authentic Spaniards. But that elected government contained liberals, socialists, Moscow-aligned Communists -- and was functionally dependent during its early resistance to the military coup on anarchists who fought for no government at all. Francisco Franco and the other generals were enthusiastic fascists, dependent on feudal estate holders, the Catholic Church, and Hitler and Mussolini. The government won only suspicion from Europe's democracies, England and France, and isolationism from Franklin Roosevelt's United States, so became quickly dependent on the Soviet Union. There were atrocities in this very intimate war committed by both belligerents, though of far greater scale by the Nationalists. (Historian Paul Preston has presented in English the very thorough archival data about these horrors unearthed by Spanish scholars in The Spanish Holocaust.) Franco and the Nationalists triumphed; the Generalissimo became Spain's vicious dictator until his death in 1974.

The Spanish Civil War was an immensely complicated, dramatic, horrible, apparently morally simple but actually multi-layered, mess. Hochschild does a graceful job of presenting enough of this backstory to make some sense of the experiences of U.S. participants. (For a more general history in which U.S. citizens are the bit players they were, I'd suggest Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain.) He naturally depends on the available written materials from a few of the approximately 3000 U.S. volunteer combatants, the writings of U.S. journalists who covered the war (often on the front pages) for U.S. newspapers, and the records of the Texaco oil magnate who made sure Franco and later Hitler had all the oil they needed. The whole makes a good story.

Unlike U.S. contemporaries, Hochschild makes his readers vitally aware of the social revolution -- the rising of workers and peasants against their class oppressors -- that the Republican government wished it could keep under wraps. Anarchism was a developed ideological current in early 20th century Spain whose adherents were quite capable of holding and experimenting with running the highly developed province of Catalonia. Their trams ran on time and the mail was delivered -- unless there was a political rally or an "essential" point of principle to be argued out.

... idealists had dreamed of a world where wealth would be shared, where workers would own factories and peasants land, and where democracy, in yet-to-be-defined ways, would be far more direct. For some months this had actually happened, above all in Barcelona ....

The bourgeois Republican government and its Communist supporters wanted these bumptious anarchists out of sight, at best. These leaders had a mechanized, industrial war to fight which required foreign equipment and and tight order. Enthusiasm and elected officers were no match for heavy artillery, tanks, and Moorish economic conscripts under Franco. The democracies would never supply an anarchist army and neither would the Communist Soviet Union, the only practical source of weaponry. The anarchists were duly crushed by the Republic.

Hochschild's most acerbic criticism, in a what is a gentle book about horrors, is directed at the war correspondents who sought to make names for themselves in Spain, but missed the anarchists' social experiments. Whether celebrities or sloggers, their reporting stayed within the "Authorized Version of the Spanish Civil War ... [an] easy to understand heroes v. villains narrative ..." which usually contained a heavy dose of romanticized machismo.

The fact that a utopian social revolution might have been an impractical and romantic dream even in peacetime and was surely an impossible one when fighting a terrible war, made it no less worth reporting. Of the many hundreds of correspondents from abroad who passed through Spain during the war, not one showed much interest in the revolution that for months surrounded them ... [even] those like Virginia Cowles. She noted, at least, that the Hotel Florida itself "was in the hands of elevator boys, doormen and clerks, with the restaurant where I ate managed jointly by a group of waiters." ... Not a single one bothered to spend a few days in a Spanish factory or business or estate taken over by its workers, to examine just how the utopian dream was faring in practice. ... Has history ever seen a case where such a huge array of talented reporters ignored such a big story right in front of them?

I'm not sure they (we) do any better today. After all, who ever cares about the workers upon whose labor writers and scholars depend?

The bulk of the book is about the men and the few women who comprised the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Fully twenty percent of these volunteer soldiers never returned from Spain. Most were Communists, many urban workers. The Republic could seldom keep them supplied with arms, not to mention clothed and fed. In general, they had hardly any military training; they learned as they fought. They were often used as shock troops. As the war progressed, they were exposed to near constant artillery and air bombardment for which they had no answer. They were sometimes poorly led; some officers were doctrinaire Communist martinets. If captured, they could expect to be summarily executed as "Reds."

Few American volunteers doubted that they were fighting the first battle of a world war to come ...There seemed a moral clarity about the crisis in Spain. Rapidly advancing fascism cried out for defiance; if not here, where?

Surely 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 were, in short, fighting for one of the finest of causes beside one of the nastiest of allies .

The "Lincolns" were indeed heroic in a cause they believed in. And if that motivation frayed, they struggled on for their comrades in arms, like all armies. They had little idea what was going on politically behind the lines or internationally, though they knew fascism was an evil to be fought. Their story is still thrilling, even, or perhaps because, we know how it ended.

Hochschild makes clear that he does not share the left orthodoxy of that time -- the idea that, if the democracies had just armed the Republic and Franco been defeated, the catastrophe we call the Second World War could have been averted. Hitler's drive for continental and world domination had to be defeated in its own right, not by proxy.

In the introduction, he does raise a very pertinent question for contemporary U.S. progressives:

For more than half a century now, many members of my own political generation have been strongly opposed to war, and especially to American intervention in the civil wars or internal affairs of other countries, whether in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, or almost anywhere else. Yet most of us have long thought the world would have been better off if our government had not stood aside from the Spanish Civil War. We've regarded as heroes an earlier generation of Americans who went off to fight in it. This raises the question: are there times when military involvement in a distant conflict is justified?

The book does not return to this question. I belong to the same generation as this author (and have run across him when we were both agitating against the U.S. war on Sandinista Nicaragua). I do have an answer for this: the U.S. since 1945 has been the world's top empire; U.S. interventions have almost exclusively empowered the rich few against the poor majority, and ignorantly and arrogantly trampled upon others' societies and cultures. No, our distant conflicts in my lifetime have done far more harm than good, bringing death and destruction to millions. I find that judgment all too easy. And while our rulers continue to aim for world hegemony, that's not going to change.

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