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SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. By Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin. 438 pages.$30.00.

“Daybreak, April, 4, 1938.  Shivering, exhausted, and naked, two bedraggled swimmers climb out of the freezing water and onto the bank of Spain’s Ebro River, which is swollen with melted snow from the Pyrenees. Both men were Americans.”                          

So opens Adam Hochschild’s latest book Spain in Our Hearts. Much has been written about Spain’s Civil War, but this author approaches it from the heart, it could be said.

Lincoln Brigade

Washington, D.C., 12 February 1938: First National Conference of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. L-R: Francis J. Gorman, President of the United Textile Workers of America; Lieut. Robert Raven, wounded and blinded in Spain; and Commander Paul Burns

He looked for “people’s voices” and found them in journals, diaries, memoirs and letters, some famous, some not. It is a war that has been described in many ways: tragic, noble, idealistic, and remains so today. In 1936 the democratic Spanish Republic government (Republican) was attacked by a right-wing military uprising (Nationalist) led by Francisco Franco, resulting in a fierce three-year battle.  Volunteers from many nations flooded into Spain to fight for the Republican side, including some 2,800 Americans, most of them assigned to the Lincoln Brigade.

Dorothy Parker with Alconquin Round Table* members and guests, L-R:

Dorothy Parker seen here with her Algonquin Round Table co-members and guests. L-R: Harper’s editor Art Samuels (guest), Charles MacArthur (guest), Harpo Marx, and Alexander Woollcott

Some of the famous names of the day came and went and wrote their observations, among them Hemingway, John dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Malraux, Saint-Exupery.  Journalists from U.S and Europe came too to write their stories.

And then there were others who signed up to join the fight.  Most of the American volunteers served in the Lincoln Brigade, some of whom wrote their stories. One of those voices that appears often was that of Bob Merriman, a Californian and graduate student in economics. English writers George Orwell (later he wrote a book Homage to Catalonia) and Jason “Pat” Gurney wrote of their times in the trenches trying to win battles without the arms they needed, not even proper uniforms or footgear. The United States, Britain and France banned sending arms to Spain.  The Soviets provided some, but with conditions, a “Devil’s Bargain” Hochschild called it. Meanwhile the Nationalists had a plentiful supply from Hitler and Mussolini.

Norwegian-American Texaco presidentTorkild Rieber

Norwegian-American Texaco chairman Torkild Rieber on Time cover, 4 May 1936

They also had a plentiful supply of fuel from a surprising source: Texaco’s chairman Torkild Rieber. “Franco’s oil came on credit.” Rieber was reprimanded by Washington but he “quietly let the credit arrangement continue.”

Hemingway, Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho,1939

Hemingway posing for the dust jacket of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sun Valley, Idaho,1939

As the war moved on, the Republicans began to lose ground “As the XV Brigade’s chief of staff, Bob Merriman looms large in the memories of the survivors of those frightening days…. Physically fearless, he inspired such loyalty that at least two Lincoln veterans would name their children after him.” He is often cited as the model for Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

It has been said that the Spanish Civil War was a prelude to WWII. Be that as it may, Adam Hochschild’s focus in his book is on the individuals and he writes with a true empathy for their idealistic hopes and dreams in their hearts for Spain and for a better world.  One of the most poignant descriptions is the farewell to the International Brigades as their battle is coming to a close.  It is in Barcelona as they marched down the Diagonal. “From packed sidewalks, from windows and crowded balconies draped with flags…300,000 Spaniards wept, cheered, waved and threw flowers, confetti, and notes of thanks…. In the shabbiest of uniforms and mismatched footgear (the men) walked nine abreast, sometimes ankle-deep in flowers.”

Republican banner over Madrid during the 1936-1939: "¡No pasarán! Madrid será la tumbas de fascismo They will not pass! Madrid will be the tomb of fascism). "

Republican banner over Madrid during the 1936-1939 siege: “¡No pasarán! Madrid será la tumba de fascismo (They will not pass! Madrid will be the tomb of fascism). “

The Republicans finally surrendered Madrid to the Nationalists in March 1939 and Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until 1975. Nonetheless Spain’s Civil war has not gone away, the presence lingers as the country belatedly struggles to face the ghosts of that past.


>Featured image (book cover), Fair use
>Lincoln Brigade by Harris & Ewing. Image available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, PD
>Dorothy Parker (via Wikipedia), photographer unknown, PD
>Torkild Rieber (Wikipedia), PD
>Hemingway by Lloyd Arnold (Wikipedia), PD
> Republican banner by  Mikhail Koltsov (Wikipedia), 1936 0r 1937, PD





About Frances
Frances says: “Spain in Our Hearts [is] a different look at the Spanish Civil War, and well worth reading. [Besides,] Spain has a special place in my heart.”
Frances lived in Madrid in the 1960s and the 1970s. When he retired he spent some time in Costa Blanca, the Mediterranean coastline in the province of Alicante, eastern Spain. He now lives in Charleston, SC in the U.S. where he does freelance writing and contributes book reviews regularly to a South Carolina newspaper.