Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Spain in Our Hearts, by Adam Hochschild

Today I'm looking at a history of the Spanish Civil War which specifically looks through the perspective of various American reporters and volunteers, as well as a handful of Brits. Ernest Hemmingway's dispatches from Spain are probably the most famous of these dispatches, with George Orwell's writings definitely in the same weight class. However, Hochschild utilizes the letters and diaries of ordinary volunteers, some of whom never managed to make it back home.

The Spanish Civil War was prompted by the election of a left-leaning coalition government of liberals, socialists, and communists. For years the ordinary people of Spain had struggled under the social and economic domination of the land-holding elites. In addition to the ever-popular topic of land reform, the republican government promoted a series of social and economic reforms that would improve the lot of common Spaniards and reduce the power of the big landowners and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, a coalition of generals, eventually lead by Francisco Franco, led a military revolt against the Republican government and sought to reassert the power of the elites, the monarchy, and the Church. The following war lasted three bitter years, leaving thousands of people dead not only through combat but through disease, starvation, and political executions on both the Republican and Nationalist sides.

Aside from the toll it took on the Spanish people, the Spanish Civil War is important because of the international attention it received. Most importantly Mussolini and Hitler, eager to test new airplanes, tanks, and tactics, allied with Franco and dispatched troops and material to aid him. As a result the fascist powers gained experience that would prove extremely valuable in the early days of the Second World War, only a few months after the Spanish Civil War finally ended.

While Franco received aid from nations abroad and even the approbation of Pope Pius XII, the Republican government found themselves largely bereft. The western democracies of Britain, France, and the United States were unwilling to aid Republican Spain and often hampered or forbade the sale of arms and ammunition. In fact, the only country that provided aid in any significant quantities of the Soviet Union, and the communists would utilize this control on the purse strings to exert additional political control and launch their own purges within the Republican government. As a result the Spanish Civil War has become one of the great ''what if'' scenarios of the twentieth century. What if FDR had lifted the embargo on the sale of weapons to Republican Spain? What if the French had sent a few divisions across the Pyrenees to aid an ailing fellow Republic? The answer is, of course, unknowable, but it represents a great moment of when things should have been done in history.

Which makes the romance of the International Brigades all the greater. Composed of young men, some anarchists, some socialists, some communists, the International Brigades were forces of volunteers who often made their own way to Spain to fight for a cause they believed was vital. Undertrained and woefully underequipped, the International Brigades were thrown into the worst fighting of the Spanish Civil War and as a result saw the highest casualties out of any Republican units. Despite their doomed cause, the International Brigades represented the willingness of ordinary people to give their lives for their beliefs, even when they could have stayed home very comfortably and probably not be affected one way or the other.

Overall I thought this book was interesting. I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War so this was a useful introduction to this period of history for me. I also appreciate that we got to see perspectives beyond the most famous observers such as Hemmingway and Orwell. I definitely think this book is worth the time to check it out and learn about something American audiences might not know much about.

- Kalpar

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