Spain in Our Hearts
By Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 438 pages,
Spain has always been a difficult country for foreigners to understand. The enduring stereotypes are those crafted in the 16th and 19th centuries: The Black Legend of Spain as the cruel and intolerant land of the Inquisition was first defined by Reformation-era Protestants; and the Romantic Spain of sensuality, artistry and chivalry was invented in the first half of the 19th century by writers like Washington Irving and Prosper Mérimée.
Adam Hochschild's "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War" is similar to many English-language writings on the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in its ability to reflect both myths simultaneously. The Republicans, or revolutionaries, stem from Romantic Spain—a set of idealists, however misguided and weighed down with Stalinists and occasionally given to atrocities (such as 50,000 or more political murders). The Nationalists, or counterrevolutionaries, step directly from the pages of the Black Legend, a sinister lot of sadists, rapists, looters and mass murderers, making up in wickedness what they lack in ideals and valor.
Mr. Hochschild is an accomplished historian whose his last book, "To End All Wars" (2011), was a stirring account of the travails of pacifists in World War I. He protests here that he is not writing a history of the Spanish war but nonetheless includes an extensive account as background to his main narrative. His summary of the war is presented in vivid, sometimes lurid, prose and includes many of the numerous unverified and often unverifiable anecdotes that are de rigueur in English-language narratives about the civil war, such as a Navarrese priest whose head was "chopped off" for protesting brutality and the fiction of the Nationalists committing mass murder in the Badajoz bullring. His readers will never know that the war's brutal killings were begun by the revolutionaries, who, for that matter, also carried out the great bulk of the looting (though this would hardly come as a surprise to historians of revolutions). Or that the Republicans' "legitimately elected government" had in fact come to power in a four-step process of increasingly systematic electoral fraud between February and May 1936.
"Spain in Our Hearts" is an account of some of the more noteworthy Americans involved in the conflict, almost all of them on the "good" side thanks to the energetic recruitment efforts of the Communist International. The central narrative is much better executed than the historical treatment of the war. Mr. Hochschild shows more discernment and objectivity in dealing with the Americans, whom he is willing to understand, than in treating the Spanish, whom he generally caricatures. He includes the usual gang of journalist-observers—Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Matthews, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles—and expresses surprise that this noted panoply of reporters scarcely ever wrote about the unique aspect of the conflict, the only full-scale collectivist revolution in Western Europe and the mass violence that accompanied it. As he observes, "although the Spanish Revolution took place amid one of the largest concentrations of foreign correspondents on earth, they virtually never wrote about it." The reader may surmise that this was because it complicated their preferred narrative of democratic Republican virtue.