Lost Illusions:The Americans Who Fought in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
Author: Caleb Crain
Date of source:
The New Yorker
By Adam Hochschild,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages
March 29, 2016
Hardback and E-Book, 464 pp., $30
ISBN 13/EAN: 9780547973180
ISBN 10: 0547973187
On the morning of February 27, 1937, which began cold and gray, a few hundred Americans waited to storm a hill southeast of Madrid, near the Jarama River. They were volunteer soldiers, drawn to Spain by a noble cause. Germany belonged to Hitler, and Italy to Mussolini, but there was still a chance that the Spanish Republic-governed by an unstable coalition of liberals, socialists, and anarchists-could fight off a cabal of right-wing generals who called themselves Nationalists. The previous year, the Nationalists had tried to take over the country, touching off a civil war. Leftist volunteers from around the world flocked to the Republican side, seeing the war as a struggle between tyranny and freedom that transcended national boundaries. The fight felt almost holy-"like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion," Ernest Hemingway wrote, in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The Americans had been brought to Spain by Comintern, the worldwide Communist organization, but, to disguise their allegiance, the troops had been given an irreproachably non-Communist name: the Abraham Lincoln battalion.
Entrenched at the top of the hill, behind a shot-up olive grove, were Moorish troops, flown in from Spain's protectorate in Morocco in planes furnished by Hitler and Mussolini. The Moors were known to be especially formidable. "It was terrifying to watch the uncanny ability of the Moorish infantry to exploit the slightest fold in the ground which could be used for cover, and to make themselves invisible," a volunteer later recalled. "It is an art that only comes to a man after a lifetime spent with a rifle in his hand."
Most of the Americans, meanwhile, had fired a rifle for the first time less than two weeks earlier. Some had arrived at the war zone only a day or two before, still wearing street clothes and Keds, and had never fired a gun at all. Like the various luminaries who visited the front-Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and others-many of the volunteers had a literary bent. An American ambulance driver named James Neugass worried in his diary about joining the "here-to-be-revolted-by-the-horror-of-war, later-to-write-a-book" tradition. A British volunteer, passing through a field where soldiers had lightened their packs, marvelled at the books they had left behind: "the works of Nietzsche, and Spinoza, Spanish language textbooks, Rhys David's `Early Buddhism' and every kind of taste in poetry."
The commander of the American battalion was Robert Hale Merriman, a lumberjack's son from California who was a graduate student in economics. He was six feet two, and in photographs his round horn-rimmed glasses make him look a bit like the silent-movie star Harold Lloyd. In "Spain in Our Hearts" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a vivid and level-headed new history of American participation in the Spanish Civil War, Adam Hochschild quotes a diary entry of Neugass's that nicely captures Merriman's charisma: "He has a way of infecting the entire brigade with his almost too boyish enthusiasm."
Merriman's superior officers assured him that his troops wouldn't be facing the Moors alone; at 7 a.m., he could expect support from artillery, planes, tanks, cavalry, armored cars, and, on his right flank, a Spanish battalion. But everything went wrong. The artillery fire landed three hours late and in the wrong place. The soldiers in the Spanish battalion advanced fifteen metres but then retreated to their trenches. Neither tanks nor horses materialized. Two armored cars showed up but didn't fight. There was no sign of the planes, and, when Merriman checked with headquarters about them, he was faulted for not having set out an aviation signal to direct the pilots' fire. It was the first he had heard of such a signal, but he ordered his soldiers to stitch one together, out of underwear and shirts. Two soldiers carried it from the trenches and, since it was by then broad daylight, were killed by machine-gun fire as they laid it down. In a phone call just before noon, a short-tempered Yugoslav colonel told Merriman that the Spanish troops were far ahead, waiting for him. Merriman could see that they were still in their trenches. "Don't contradict me!" the Yugoslav, who had higher rank, yelled. He ordered Merriman to attack "at all costs." Hochschild glosses the implicit threat here: a commander who hesitated during an offensive in Córdoba two months earlier had been shot as a Fascist spy.
After three Republican planes flew by, more or less harmlessly-as much support as the troops would receive-Merriman felt that he had no choice but to obey. He stepped out of the trenches, signalling to his men to follow, and was shot in the left shoulder. His men advanced into what one later recalled as "an impenetrable steel wall" of bullets. Some sheltered for a while behind the thin olive trees. Hochschild reports that an estimated hundred and twenty men were killed and a hundred and seventy-five wounded. Snipers shot first-aid workers who were trying to fetch the fallen. In the afternoon, it began to rain, and the mud-coated corpses stranded in no man's land took on "a curious ruffled look," like dead birds, a survivor recalled. In 1967, when the historian Cecil D. Eby visited, he found a cairn of rocks, bones, skulls, and helmets that had been made by the Lincolns a few days after the fighting, when they burned their dead, who were too numerous to bury. The consensus among historians, including Hochschild, is that as a military operation the attack achieved nothing.
"You can say that the battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated," a survivor told a reporter. Jarama was the first major engagement fought by Americans in the Spanish Civil War, and it turned out to be representative. Again and again, high-level commanders ordered Lincolns into attacks that officers in the field warned would be suicidal. The Lincolns' sacrifices rarely won the Republic any tactical advantage, and, as Hochschild reports, foreign volunteers in Spain were "killed at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the Republican Army."
Whereas Spain's right united within a few months around a single leader-the cunning, ruthless Francisco Franco, who went on to rule as a dictator for three and a half decades-the left tore itself apart with squabbling and paranoia. Veterans came to feel that the idealism of the cause had been exploited, and many resented being policed by shadowy Communist enforcers. Not all were embittered by the experience, however. "We were naïve," one American recalled, years later, "but it's the kind of naïveté that the world needs."
Until well into the twentieth century, Spain's economy remained largely agricultural, and its great landowners were accustomed to a near-monopoly on political power, shored up by the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This started to change quickly with the establishment of the Second Republic, in 1931. Parliament legalized divorce, cut government subsidies to the Church, and laid the groundwork for the redistribution of land. In February, 1936, after an alliance of centrist and leftist parties won a parliamentary election, peasants seized land, and mobs burned churches and stormed prisons, releasing political prisoners. A circle of generals, deciding that things had gone far enough, planned a coup d'état. It began on July 17, 1936, in Morocco, home of Spain's army of Moors and foreign legionnaires.
The coup was welcomed in the Roman Catholic heartland, but it faltered in the larger cities and the northern industrial centers. Trade unions in Madrid were eager to defend the Republican government; the government, wary of the unions' radicalism, hesitated for two days but then gave them guns. In Barcelona, where anarchism had long been a powerful movement, workers simply seized armories and took up the city's defense.
The result, Hochschild writes, was simultaneously "both a right-wing military coup and a left-wing social revolution." In territory conquered by the generals, Nationalists restored the traditional, virtually feudal authority of the Church and the landowners, banned the regional languages of the Basques and the Catalans, and inveighed against Jews, Freemasons, and Reds. In Republican territory, workers took over factories, churches became refugee centers, and fighting bulls were slaughtered to give peasants their first taste of beef. Hochschild writes that when, in September, Lois and Charles Orr, leftist American newlyweds, arrived in Barcelona they found day-care centers, adult-literacy classes, collectivized restaurants, and quotes from Bakunin on the sides of street-cleaning trucks. "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for," George Orwell, who came to Barcelona in December, wrote. "Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine." Orwell's wife took a job as Charles Orr's secretary at an English-language newspaper published by POUM, a group of anti-Stalinist Communists, and Orwell enlisted in POUM's militia.
In the early days of the rebellion, the Spanish Navy remained mostly loyal to the Republican government, isolating the Moors and legionnaires in Africa. Franco, in search of planes, sent emissaries to Hitler. Fresh from a performance of Wagner's "Siegfried," Hitler was willing to sell even more aircraft than Franco was asking for, and the opera inspired him to name the program Operation Magic Fire. The planes should go to Franco alone, Hitler decided, a stipulation that, along with the convenient, accidental deaths of a couple of rivals, insured that Franco became the Nationalists' supreme leader. Mussolini, too, provided planes, and within weeks more than ten thousand troops were flown across the Mediterranean-the first major airlift in history.
The world woke up to the Fascists' support a couple of weeks later, after two Italian planes crash-landed in French North Africa. Fellow-democracies did not rush to the Republic's side, however. France's Prime Minister wanted to, but Britain still hoped to dodge a fight with Hitler, and was alarmed by the Republican government's support of militant labor unions, given that British companies had extensive mining interests in the country. The British Foreign Secretary urged France to be prudent. In America, Congress, disconcerted by the spectacle of armed labor leaders taking up politics, outlawed sales of military equipment to either side. It has long been known that Torkild Rieber, the chief executive of Texaco, violated this embargo by selling oil to the Nationalists on credit, but Hochschild relays a startling discovery by the Spanish historian Guillem Martínez Molinos: Rieber also directed Texaco employees around the world to monitor oil being shipped to the Republic by rival companies. Texaco sent the Nationalists more than fifty messages about these shipments, many containing intelligence that could be used for targeting them.
Only two of the Republic's allies came through. Mexico sent twenty thousand rifles as a gift. The Soviet Union, more cannily, traded arms, planes, and tanks for Spain's sizable gold reserves, the transfer of which crashed the value of the peseta. When the Soviets directed Comintern to appeal for volunteers around the world to fight in Spain, more than thirty thousand signed up, from more than fifty countries. The catch was that Stalin didn't actually like Spain's revolution, which he feared could spook Britain and France into siding with Hitler in a future conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. "Act in the guise of defending the Republic," a Comintern leader told the Party's followers.
There were moderates in the Republican government who didn't want a revolution any more than the Communists did, and, even for many who did want revolution, it made sense to "First Win the War!" as one propaganda poster put it. War or revolution struck Orwell as a false choice, however, and in "Homage to Catalonia" he dismissed it as a pretext under cover of which the Communists were gradually consolidating power. In September, 1936, the government declared that it was dissolving all independent militias and merging them into a single military force. Orwell preferred the anarchists' way of doing things: "If a man disliked an order he would step out of the ranks and argue fiercely with the officer." He maintained that, however maddening such insubordination might be, "it does `work' in the long run": the discussion enabled officer and soldier to understand one another's position. Still, Orwell, who served as a corporal and then, briefly, as an acting lieutenant, was probably better at off-the-cuff persuasive rhetoric than most commanders. In Hochschild's view, the move toward a centralized command probably did improve the Republic's admittedly slim chances.
Oddly, Spain's experiments with anarchist governance didn't get much press at the time. Here, too, Orwell thought he saw a hidden intent at work. "Since the revolution had got to be crushed, it greatly simplified things to pretend that no revolution had happened," he wrote. The idea that the past was as susceptible to political control as the present later formed the kernel of "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Hochschild demurs, offering the mild but not wholly convincing suggestion that nothing more pernicious than herd behavior on the part of journalists was to blame: they didn't see one another writing about the revolution, so they concluded that it must not be worth writing about. But he acknowledges that it was a rather large story to miss.
Twenty-eight hundred American volunteers travelled to Spain with the Lincoln battalion. Before enlisting, three-quarters of them had belonged to either America's Communist Party or the Party's youth league. A third of the Lincolns came from the New York City area, and an even larger proportion were Jewish. In "The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade" (1994), the historian Peter N. Carroll quotes a letter from a volunteer named Hyman Katz to his mother: if he didn't go to Spain and if the Fascists did eventually reach America, Katz wrote, "all I could do then would be to curse myself and say, `Why didn't I wake up when the alarm-clock rang?'
There were more than eighty African-Americans in the battalion, and one became the first of his race to lead white American soldiers into battle. Though a number of women signed up as medical staff, only one seems to have served in the Lincoln battalion proper-Robert Merriman's wife, Marion. After he summoned her by telegram ("WOUNDED. COME AT ONCE"), she took a clerical job at brigade headquarters, in Madrid. The typical volunteer was single and in his late twenties. Most were working-class, but the range of careers was broad: longshoreman, schoolteacher, miner, vaudeville acrobat, rabbi, and at least one New Yorker fact-checker. The last surviving Lincoln veteran, Delmer Berg, died in February, at the age of a hundred; before signing up, he was a dishwasher.
The first batch of recruits drilled in the Ukrainian Hall, on East Third Street in Manhattan. The Party bought each of them a black cardboard suitcase with a yellow strap and, in a good-bye ceremony at the Yiddish Theatre, on Second Avenue, handed out razors, instant coffee, Lucky Strikes, and cakes of soap. The volunteers were warned to keep their destination a secret while in transit-recruitment into a foreign army was and still is illegal for Americans-but on the steamer to France their matching suitcases and general implausibility as tourists gave them away. French customs officials greeted them with the cry "Vive la République!" In France, a train nicknamed the Red Express carried them to the Spanish border, which they crossed in buses. France soon closed the border, and later volunteers had to choose between hiking over the frigid Pyrenees at night or risking a boat that might be torpedoed by Franco's Italian-made submarines. When the new troops got to Barcelona, they startled the American consul by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" under his window. He alerted Washington, which instructed officials in France to begin stamping U.S. passports "Not Valid for Travel to Spain."
The Lincolns headed to a training base in Albacete, where bloodstained walls testified to the recent summary execution of a group of defeated Nationalist officers. (It was a dirty war: Hochschild accepts the historian Paul Preston's estimates of a hundred and fifty thousand civilians and prisoners of war killed by the Nationalists and forty-nine thousand by the Republicans.) The Lincolns drilled with broomsticks and canes in lieu of rifles, which were scarce, and were harangued by André Marty, the chief organizer of the international forces, about the danger of Trotskyists in their midst. Paranoia about Trotskyism was then endemic among Communists-Trotsky believed that revolution should be fostered in all countries, and Stalin loathed him-and few were more paranoid than Marty. "There is no doubt that he was quite literally mad at this time," Jason Gurney, an English sculptor who served with the Lincolns, recalled, in "Crusade in Spain," a sharp-eyed, melancholy memoir. After the war, Marty admitted to ordering the execution of as many as five hundred volunteers, though the number is disputed. Lincolns were invited to hand over their passports, purportedly for safekeeping, but a number of them went mysteriously missing at the end of the war-probably passed along to Soviet intelligence. The Stalin agent who assassinated Trotsky, in Mexico in 1940, was travelling on a Canadian passport that had been surrendered this way.
By early October, 1936, the Nationalists were so close to Madrid that one of their generals, in a radio broadcast, bragged that he would soon be drinking a cup of coffee on the Gran Vía. In November, the Republic's Prime Minister and cabinet fled, a desertion that, instead of demoralizing the city, unleashed an anarchist, populist enthusiasm for its defense. Militias of barbers and of graphic artists sprang up, reinforced by the first influx of Soviet munitions and international volunteers. Fighting at close quarters in university buildings, French volunteers fired from behind volumes of Kant and Voltaire, while British ones, behind a barricade of Encyclopædia Britannicas, determined that it took three hundred and fifty pages to stop a bullet. The city did not fall until the very end of the war. For two and a half years, it managed to continue life under siege.
Though some Lincolns were allowed to enjoy Madrid on twenty-four-hour furloughs, the American expats who made the most of it were journalists. Hochschild can't resist quoting liberally from the memoir of Virginia Cowles, a reporter for the Hearst newspapers and a former débutante said to look like Lauren Bacall. In a Madrid hospital, Cowles notices that the nurses are "peroxide blondes with dirty hands and nails painted vermilion," prostitutes having replaced the nuns who traditionally did such work. In a gallery, she sees a caption next to a hole in the ceiling: "Art as practiced by General Franco." Like John Dos Passos, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and many other writers, she stayed at the Hotel Florida, where Hemingway held court, playing Chopin records, loaning his bathtub to soldiers, and sharing ham, cheese, caviar, whiskey, and pâté. Hemingway-"a huge, red man, in hairy speckled tweeds," an Englishwoman working in the Republic's press office recalled-had been hired by a newspaper syndicate to write dispatches for a thousand dollars apiece, while he gathered material for his fiction. One day, he took Cowles with him to watch a battle from a house he had found on the outskirts of the city, which had an excellent view, because its front had been ripped off by a bomb. War, he told her, is "the nastiest thing human beings can do to each other . . . but the most exciting."
By the spring of 1937, the revolutionary spirit was weakening. In Barcelona, Lois Orr noticed that neckties were returning, and Orwell heard the revival of such respectful forms of address as Señor and Usted. Barcelona's telephone exchange had been in anarchists' hands since the civil war broke out, but on May 3, 1937, the government raided it. It turned out that a Republican cabinet minister who was trying to call Catalonia's government had been told by an operator that it didn't exist-as, according to anarchist principles, it shouldn't have.
The attack on the telephone exchange sparked a civil war within the civil war, and street fighting spread across Barcelona. Orwell, armed with a rifle, spent three days guarding the POUM building from a roof across the street, passing the time by reading Penguin paperbacks. "There was a tendency to regard the whole affair as a joke," he later recalled. "If this was history it did not feel like it." Still, more than two hundred died, and the anarchists stood down. (Hochschild explains that they couldn't have done otherwise without withdrawing troops from the front.) The Communists insisted on making a scapegoat of POUM, and its leader was tortured and executed. The Orrs were arrested, and Orwell almost certainly would have been, too, if he hadn't avoided returning to his wife's hotel room, sleeping instead in a ruined church and then an abandoned lot. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a file was discovered in a Comintern archive in Moscow identifying Orwell and his wife as "pronounced Trotskyites."
News of the internecine clash disillusioned some Lincolns. "I was prepared to be killed fighting to achieve a form of social justice for Spain," Jason Gurney later recalled, "but not to achieve a talking point for the Communist Party." Morale was already low. The Soviet-supplied arms were often balky-some of the rifles dated from the eighteen-sixties-and the Lincolns were kept in their trenches at Jarama so long that they gave them roofs and New York City street names.
When the Lincolns at last left Jarama, in mid-June, their war turned even worse. Half of those who fought at Brunete, in July, were wounded, captured, or killed. In Aragón, in August, the Lincolns took the town of Quinto, a small victory that was compromised by the shooting of a few Nationalist prisoners afterward. In early September, after a thirteen-day siege, they took the town of Belchite, losing more men and equipment than it was worth and again shooting prisoners. In January, 1938, they were brought in to defend the walled mountain town of Teruel, where the temperature sometimes dropped as low as -18°. James Neugass wrote in his diary of watching a doctor take a blood "donation" from dead soldiers and of feeling gratitude if, at the end of a day, the stretcher that he chose to sleep in lay next to corpses, who would be quiet. In February, the Lincolns were ordered to leave Teruel, which fell a few weeks later.
In March, Nationalists shattered the Republican lines in Aragón and pushed east toward the sea, intending to cut what remained of the Republic in two. It became a rout; the Lincolns retreated seventy-five miles in six days. In a camp that Americans had abandoned, a young Englishman serving with the Nationalists picked up a letter that a volunteer had received from his Brooklyn girlfriend: "They are playing the Seventh Symphony," she had written. "You know how that music brings us together." One night, a fleeing Lincoln, as he walked through an encampment, was startled to see a pup tent, a piece of equipment unknown in the Republican Army; he realized that the men asleep all around him must be Nationalists. He ran and survived, but Merriman, too, made the mistake of stumbling into a Nationalist camp in the dark, and was never heard from again.
France allowed Soviet arms to be shipped across its border with Spain in the spring of 1938, but only for a few months. Stalin, meanwhile, was losing interest. He began withdrawing Soviet advisers, many of whom he took the precaution of shooting when he got them home, in case they had brought back the wrong ideas. The Lincolns' final battle was launched in July, when eighty thousand Republican troops crossed the Ebro River in rowboats and on pontoon bridges. The attack surprised the enemy but then crumbled, like many earlier Republican offensives, for lack of equipment. In September, the Republic's Prime Minister announced to the League of Nations that Spain was sending home all its foreign volunteers. It was a peace gesture. Franco, however, refused to negotiate. He wanted to be free to punish the defeated harshly, as he laid the foundation for his dictatorship, which lasted until his death, in 1975, when he was eighty-two. It's estimated that, in the war's aftermath, Franco had twenty thousand people killed and sent more than four hundred thousand to prison.
The Republic threw a farewell parade for the Lincolns and other international volunteers in Barcelona, in October, 1938, when the fall of the Republic was still five months off. "You can go proudly," the Communist parliamentary deputy known as La Pasionaria told the soldiers, by way of thanking them. "You are history. You are legend." Her words are still stirring, and go some way toward doing justice to the nobility of the volunteers' sacrifice.
Was the sacrifice betrayed? To win a war requires capital and labor-money to buy guns, tanks, and airplanes, and people to shoot, drive, and fly them. When a war is fought over the proper balance between capital and labor, as it was in Spain, a painful paradox comes into view: the forces of wealth are capable of buying relative safety for those they send into battle, and a government rich in little but people's love may have no choice except to ask people to die in greater numbers. While Spain's gold should have saved it from such an extremity, its fellow-democracies, fearing Hitler, refused to trade weapons for the gold. As a result, the Spanish Civil War, which claimed around half a million lives, wasn't merely a battle between capital and labor. It was a battle between capital munificently abetted by Fascism, and labor misled by the poisonous internal politics of the Soviet Union and deserted by its natural allies, the moderate, liberal nations like France, Great Britain, and the United States. The leaders of the Western democracies thought they could postpone a confrontation with Fascism indefinitely. Although the volunteers from those countries who went to Spain are usually thought of as more idealistic than their leaders, perhaps in a way they were more clear-eyed.
They fought, in any case, without the protection and support that their leaders could have provided. More than one out of four Lincolns died during the Spanish Civil War-a fatality rate more than five times as great as that suffered by surviving Lincolns who went on to fight in the Second World War. "We are shock troops," Neugass heard a wounded American volunteer say, with resignation, from a hospital bed. "The Republic had to push some meat out there in front, and we were elected." Not that Spaniards who fought for the Republic were spared. In "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Hemingway imagined an American volunteer in command of a group of Spanish guerrillas and beset with doubt once he starts to care for them, and to fall in love with at least one of them. He's supposed to send them into battle, despite knowing that many of them will die. "So now he was compelled to use these people whom he liked as you should use troops toward whom you have no feeling at all," the man reflects. That was the tragedy that America's volunteers signed up for.
[Caleb Crain, the author of the novel Necessary Errors, has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 2005.]