Into the Net

Neal Ascherson

  • Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 by Adam Hochschild
    Macmillan, 438 pp, £25.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 5098 1054 3
  • ¡No Pasarán! Writings from the Spanish Civil War edited by Pete Ayrton
    Serpent’s Tail, 393 pp, £20.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 84668 997 0
  • The Last Days of the Spanish Republic by Paul Preston
    William Collins, 390 pp, £25.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 00 816340 2
  • A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance and a Family’s Secrets by Eunice Lipton
    New Mexico, 165 pp, £18.50, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 8263 5658 1

Eighty years have gone by. But there’s still no agreement on how the Spanish Civil War should be remembered. Nor should there be. The real tribute to the force of that human firestorm is the contest of judgments and feelings which still smoulders and still causes pain.

Where should the focus be? For many, simply on the stories: the recounting of sacrificial courage and suffering. For others, on the war’s presentation as history, with a dangling fringe of what ifs. Or on its ‘lessons’, learned in one way by Hitler and Mussolini, in a second way by the surviving defenders of the Republic, in a third manner by Stalin. If there was an English translation of the lessons, no democratic leader – certainly neither Churchill nor Roosevelt – bothered to read it. What remains is the bleak lesson drawn by Camus. ‘It was there that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit …’

Or the Spanish War can be remembered for its epiphanies. What happened in and around Barcelona in the first years of the war did not last, did not happen in most of Spain, ended in tragedy and a viciously disputed memory and made little difference to the war’s outcome. Adam Hochschild, in Spain in Our Hearts, suggests that the foreign journalists covering the war were so obsessed with the military struggle and the Republican leadership in Madrid that they hardly noticed the revolution going on outside their hotels. And yet Barcelona in those years, rather than what was done on the battlefields, was a brief revelation of something latent but dazzling in humanity: the hope to fly like angels.

It was one of those moments only Europe seems to do. The granite mountains of government and wealth, the ravines of class and the dark forests of the law, suddenly turn out to be cardboard stage scenery. Ordinary people kick them down and fall into one another’s arms. Everything is to be held and done in common; nobody is to be unwillingly obeyed; in the sunlight of what Robert Burns called ‘social love’, human beings return to their true nature of unselfish sharing. It’s a transfiguration first seen in the French Revolution; most recently (in flashes) during the 1968 ‘events’ of Berlin and the Paris May. We, or our children, will see it again.

In Barcelona and Catalonia, this epiphany was released (they wouldn’t have liked the word ‘led’) by anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists. Orwell arrived there in December 1936 to ‘fight fascism’ and walked about the streets in a daze, trying to adjust to a place where waiters and shop assistants spoke to him as an equal and where he was denounced for trying to give a lift-boy a tip. He wrote, with touching Englishness: ‘All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some way I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’

Others recognised it as a state of affairs worth fighting against, and they were not only on the rebel side with Franco. Most of the political coalition defending the Republic – liberals, many socialists and above all the huge and well-organised Spanish Communist Party – feared that the anarchist eruption in Catalonia would weaken the war effort and frighten off the ‘bourgeois democracies’ which might be persuaded to arm and aid the Republican cause. Hochschild records the chilling words of a communist woman in Barcelona to an American visitor: ‘There is no revolution … This is a people’s war against fascism.’

Hochschild’s book – intelligent, luminously well written and researched – is constructed around the experiences of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Some 2800 American volunteers fought or served as medics and nurses with the International Brigades, and 750 of them were killed. Hochschild says that his book doesn’t pretend to be ‘a full history of the war, or even of American involvement in it. It is, rather, the story of a collection of people whose paths took them an ocean away from home during a violent time.’ But this is too modest. His account – rather than history – of the war reaches far beyond the American fighters to recover its impact, month by month, on foreign visitors and journalists and on their governments.

This is very much a post-Cold War book, which can afford to take a calm view of the world communist movement and of the Communist Party of the United States in the Stalinist years. ‘Most of the Americans who went to Spain considered themselves communists, and we cannot understand them without understanding why communism then had such a powerful appeal and why the Soviet Union seemed a beacon of hope to so many.’ About three-quarters of the American volunteers were party members. Ninety of them were black. A third of them came from the New York area and a great many were Jewish. The ‘prototype’ volunteer, according to Hochschild, was ‘a New Yorker, a communist, an immigrant or the son of immigrants, a trade unionist and a member of a group that has almost vanished from the United States today: working-class Jews’. As Hochschild says, none of them had the social and intellectual distinctionof some famous Brigadiers from elsewhere: Julian Bell, John Cornford or André Malraux. But their motives for fighting were large – larger than Spain. As one old volunteer told Hochschild, ‘For us it wasn’t Franco … it was always Hitler.’ Before the populations of the democracies woke up to what was at stake, these few had understood and named the beast now slouching towards them. When the survivors returned, envious or guilty voices dismissed them as ‘premature anti-fascists’.

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