Sunday, 26 June 2016

SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939


Macmillan, 2016, 438 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

The Spanish people were too darn democratic for their own good in 1936.  For not only did they elect a centrist-leftwing national government, they also experimented with revolutionary democracy, taking control of farms, factories and offices as well.


General, Francisco Franco, who launched a military counter-revolution, was not the only one to spot the danger of the daring Spanish flirtation with socialism.  Franco’s backers, Mussolini and Hitler, were also alert, the fascists providing weapons, submarines, planes, pilots.


As Adam Hochschild recounts in his history of American involvement in the Spanish Civil War, the outcome, and the innumerable horrors of the world war that were to follow, could all have been so different, if more leaders of the bourgeois democracies had shown the same spirit of the 2,800 Americans who volunteered to cross an ocean and fight for the Spanish Republic.


Like the forty thousand other volunteers from fifty countries who comprised the International Brigades, the Americans in the ‘Abraham Lincoln battalion’ were under-armed, under-resourced, under-trained and under-fed.  They were over-exposed as shock troops of the resistance, suffering an exceptionally high mortality rate of one in four.  Two hundred died just getting to Spain from France, crossing the frigid Pyrenees at night.


The prototypical American volunteer was a New Yorker, worker, trade unionist, and communist.  The Communist Party link brought the benefits of discipline, coordination and centralisation to disjointed militias.  The communist brigaders put winning the war ahead of making revolution – even the leftwing but anti-communist British writer and volunteer, George Orwell, who initially believed that to counterpose war and revolution was a false choice, was later critical of the ‘revolutionary purism’ of some militias when ‘the one thing that mattered was to win the war’ in a backs-to-the-wall struggle for survival of the Republic.


The communist dimension, however, came at a cost.  In return for military aid from the Soviet Union, Stalin’s agents, paranoid about Trotskyists and other anti-Stalinist leftists, took control of the Spanish government’s internal security apparatus.  Socialist dissenters were killed by Stalinist heresy-hunters in street fighting and in prisons.  Hochschild concludes, however, that although the Stalinist-instigated civil war within the Civil War was humanly wasteful, politically damaging and militarily unhelpful, it was not the fatal factor in the defeat of the Republic.


This was provided by the politicians and corporate executives in Washington.  Because Franco couldn’t pay up-front cash for the oil necessary to wage his fascist-backed war (Spain’s gold reserves were held by the Republican government), and because Germany and Italy had to import most of their oil, the fuel for the fascist armed forces came courtesy of Texas, sold to Franco on credit, by American corporate oil giants, including Texaco, Shell and Standard Oil.  Also joining in the profitable overseas business opportunity were General Motors, Studebaker and Ford (trucks), and Firestone (tyres), which they sold to Berlin and Rome. 


Texaco’s global network of ports also supplied maritime intelligence services to Franco.  The information they provided on oil shipments to Republican Spain allowed the identification of potential naval targets for fascist pilots and submarine captains (29 oil tankers bound for Republican Spain were sunk).


Roosevelt’s Democratic federal government in the US facilitated the Francoist-fascist war against Republican Spain by letting this corporate aid proceed unhindered, whilst both the Democrat and Republican  parties, fearful about Spain’s socialist revolution becoming contagious, supported a crippling ‘non-intervention’ policy – a 1937 resolution in both houses of parliament prohibiting military assistance to Spain steamed through by 491 votes to 1, dooming the Republic.


Hochschild is quietly outraged by Spain’s bourgeois deserters and capitalist aides in America, and is highly sympathetic to the Republic’s international volunteers.  He is, however, sceptical of their socialist ambitions.  Albeit courageous and idealistic, the communist volunteers’ political aims were “illusory”, he says.  The socialist flowering of cooperatives, land worked in common and worker-controlled factories was always an “impractical and romantic dream”, even in peacetime, he adds.


Hochschild’s specialty is not socialist advocacy but narrative historical journalism, focusing on stories of the personal (romance amongst the bullets) and the military (heroic stands, chaotic retreats, the everyday drudgeries of soldiering).  Within these limits, his book excels in providing a vivid account of the lived experience of the Spanish Civil War.


The last surviving American volunteer, Delmer Berg, died in February, 2016, aged one hundred.  Before signing up, he was a dishwasher.  What the world still needs is more dishwashers and fewer oil executives.

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