Time has not been kind to the Spanish Civil War, which, among the Left at least, ranks up there with World War II as “the good war.” Russian declassified documents show that Stalin was trying to import his horrific Purge Trials into Loyalist Spain by attempting to execute en masse his Spanish opposition in the form of non-Stalinist but authentically anti-fascist frontline military units on trumped-up charges of being “fascist spies.”
On his orders, his plaything, the Stalinist-dominated Loyalist government used their secret police to hunt down and execute these “fascists.”
Unfortunately for those who defended the necessity of these repressions (among them, the supposedly politically astute Ernest Hemingway), the sturdily honest George Orwell was fighting in Spain alongside those targeted by Stalin. He would set the records of event straight.
The legendary writer knew his fellow soldiers as brave and authentic anti-fascists whose only “crime” was to belong to a non-Stalinist military unit (even those in the Communist-dominated one, members of the International Brigade “disappeared” when they mildly criticized Soviet military policy).
Orwell, on leave, personally witnessed the frame-up of his comrades for the false charges of trying to foment a fascist-backed government coup. Declassified Russian documents show that Orwell himself was a target and would have been arrested and executed had he not escaped from Spain.
Orwell documented this frame-up in Homage To Catalonia (1938), which was so unwelcome to the British left that the writer could only secure a small publisher, and thus was his lowest-selling book (Homage wasn’t published in America until 1952, three years after Orwell’s death). Nevertheless, Orwell’s whistle-blowing account of the sinister behavior of Spanish Stalinists has since been the primary source for historians regarding the injustice inflicted on those loyal to the Spanish Republic.
Now we have Adam Hochschild’s superb account, which the New Republic asserts has surpassed Homage as the best account of the conflict. But Hochschild hasn’t so much superseded Orwell as much as he has widened Homage’s scope beyond Orwell’s eyewitness testimony.
He does so by including the testimony of those on the ground, both Loyalist and fascist. Loyalist nurses, front-line soldiers on one side; on the other, fascist soldiers and pro-Franco journalists horrified by how the fascists cold-bloodedly murdered captured Loyalist soldiers.
But he is at his most effective when he draws back and looks at the entire war. I know of no other book that so readily supplies the reader with the valid reasons of the European and American working class as well as expensively-educated British and Americans who risked arrest (under the British and American Neutrality laws in place, it was illegal for citizens to travel to a war zone) and their lives to fight Franco; and Stalinist treachery to the contrary, never regretted their participation. One of the best examples was Orwell, who was so alarmed by Franco that he interrupted his honeymoon to man the trenches, and became a lifelong–but often critical–socialist, forever in support of the Loyalist cause.
For despite the crude Communist slogans, cynically and murderously used by Stalin, who selectively supplied aid only to Spaniards who followed and enforced his policies, the Civil War was not only one waged by the working class against their land-rich exploiters who were enabled by an equally wealthy Catholic Church (priests often blessed Nationalist soldiers before they went into battle); it was also, however one views the initially revolutionary aims of the Loyalists, a war between a legally-elected democracy and what was believed to be a fascism on the march.
Hitler, often accused, rightly, of using the Spanish conflict as a laboratory for his new weapons, was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Nationalist cause on its own; by airlifting National troops from Africa into Spain, and giving Franco more planes than he asked for (but after conquering Spain, Franco enraged Hitler by staying neutral during World War II).
On brutality alone, Nationalist behavior had the power to recruit even conservative Americans to the Loyalist cause (among them, the rock-ribbed movie star Ginger Rogers). Hochschlid reports Republican atrocities, murdering Catholic priests and Nationalist prisoners, but in the final tally shows that it was the Nationalists, as sensed by George Orwell as late as 1943, that committed the most crimes.
Throughout the war, Nationalists mass-executed Loyalist men and women (in one instance, eighteen hundred Loyalists were marched into a bullring and mowed down by machine-gunfire), shot pregnant women ,and gang-raped female prisoners (in one particularly gruesome instance by 40 Nationalist soldiers).
Unlike the Loyalists, Nationalists proudly admitted to such atrocities, particularly the gang rapes. For those victims allowed to live, the Nationalists informed the Loyalists of the rapes via graffiti that “Your women will give birth to fascists.”
Hochschild, like Orwell, believes the Stalinist strategy that the war had to be won before a revolution was implemented was the soundest military tactic in spite of how brutally the Soviets enforced this policy on those who disagreed.
Hochshild seemingly concedes that true-believing Communists like the American International Brigade Commander Robert Merriman made the best soldiers. But his enthusiasm for the Loyalists occasionally moves him into justifying, or possibly ignoring, facts that challenge his narrative. Although he notes the fate of those 250 Loyalist soldiers arrested and sent to the slow death of the Gulag by Stalin, when it comes to the Loyalist murders of priests and other Nationalist prisoners, he asserts that they were solely provoked by similar Nationalist treatment of prisoners and Franco’s bombing of innocent civilians.
His Loyalist sympathies blind him to the obvious presence of British and American communist spies lurking behind the Loyalist lines; as with the obvious case of British Communist journalist Claud Cockburn. Even the most cursory look at Cockburn’s associations with a Soviet journalist named Mikhail Kostov, tellingly described by the British journalist as “Stalin’s chief pair of eyes in Spain” reveals Cockburn’s espionage role.
He doesn’t detect Hemingway’s still-present Stalinism as expressed in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940), a novel lauded then and now as Hemingway’s expose of communist brutality; in which the writer, in an ideological sleight of hand, confined Loyalist brutality to rogue individuals like the trigger happy Andre Marty rather than showing it as obviously carried out by the Loyalist government.
Having uncovered so much (including a Texaco oil executive who supplied both the Franco war machine, and later after Western Europe declared war on Hitler in 1939, the Nazi one not only with crucial oil but intelligence as well), the author somehow misses the confirmed fact that Hemingway spent the remainder of his life seeking a relationship with the brutal NKVD. Such a fact gives a sinister connotation to Toll and Hemingway’s politics as a whole.
That said, Hochschild’s book, while not overtaking Orwell’s, is nevertheless worthy to stand behind Homage as the best historical account written thus far about the Spanish Civil War.