In 1704 Jonathan Swift published a short satire called the "Battle of the Books," an exuberant mock-heroic dramatization of the idea that argument is warfare. He made what’s usually latent in language – we “attack” and “defend” positions, some of which are “indefensible” – comically literal, with animate books brawling and battling in England’s Royal Library. The only casualties were figurative.
A dark variant of Swift’s fanciful combat actually occurred during the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, opposing armies occupied different sectors of the campus of the University in Madrid. At one point the Republican troops fortified their positions in the lecture halls by sheltering behind ramparts built from the thickest books they could find: Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Pascal, Thomas De Quincy, Charlotte Brontë, and sturdy encyclopedias. They learned that a bullet would typically pierce 350 pages before stopping.
This was not the Spanish Civil War’s only bookish dimension. The conflict exerted a strong influence on a wide range of authors. George Orwell saw action at the front just a week after volunteering for the Republican forces; Ernest Hemingway covered the war as a journalist, writing dispatches sympathetic to the Republican side and later basing his novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" on his experiences in Spain; Langston Hughes and Theodore Dreiser were two of several authors who visited the Republican soldiers to boost morale.
Journalist and historian Adam Hochschild’s excellent new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, draws its title from an Albert Camus quote: “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts... It was there that they learned ... that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”
Many people shared the sentiment that the Spanish Civil War was essentially a conflict between good and evil. The Nationalist troops commanded by General Francisco Franco were backed by Hitler and Mussolini, who used Spain as a testing ground for their planes, guns, and troops before the broader European war they already anticipated. The Republican troops, though ill-equipped and poorly organized, were fighting in defense of a democratically elected government. It was natural to frame the war as a conflict between fascism and freedom.
Hochschild’s narrative complicates this picture, though he plainly shares his literary predecessors’ admiration for the Republican cause. Through judicious use of journals, letters, memoirs, contemporary newspaper coverage, and previous historical studies, Hochschild captures both the passionate, partisan views of particular combatants and the larger political currents that shaped their experiences. It’s a moving and useful investigation into the dangers and promises of idealism.
Between 35,000 and 40,000 men from 50 countries traveled to Spain and fought in five international brigades on the Republican side of the war. They were a heterogeneous mix of Communists, anarchists, adventurers, and defenders of democracy that reflected the internal schisms within the Spanish left. All agreed that they were fighting for a better world, though their visions of a just society differed radically.
After the much-publicized killings of Spanish priests by leftists and the occupation of Ford and General Motors plants in Barcelona by anarchists, Roosevelt felt it would be politically impossible to provide the Republicans with supplies. France and Great Britain followed America’s lead and refused to sell arms to the Republicans. Franco’s troops were murdering and raping hundreds of innocent civilians as they pushed north and east across Spain, but Hitler and Mussolini felt no similar scruples about providing guns, planes, tanks, ammunition, and even troops to assist Franco’s men.
The result was a drastic discrepancy in the quality of supplies. The Republican troops had an assortment of faulty and aging guns with mismatched ammunition, while the Nationalists fought with the latest German and Italian weapons. Hochschild argues that because Germany and Italy regarded the Spanish Civil War as a dress rehearsal for World War II, decisive American support of the Republican cause might have made the Axis powers less brazen in the coming war.
But rather than supporting the opponents of fascism, the American government did nothing. And one prominent American corporation, Texaco, supplied Franco and his armies with unlimited oil. They didn’t charge him, offering free shipping and deferred payment options. Texaco also put its maritime intelligent network at Franco’s disposal, which enabled him to bomb ships bringing supplies and troops to assist the Republicans. The person behind these decisions was a man from Texas named Torkild Rieber who also admired Hitler.
The Republicans, with no other options, accepted supplies from Stalin. His support introduced paranoia and persecution into the Republican ranks as some communist troops began denouncing their comrades for insufficient zeal or heretical belief in rival political systems. Internal divisions and a lack of international support doomed the Republican side and ultimately left Spain a dictatorship until 1975. It’s hard not to share Hochschild’s sympathy for the Americans who fought in this conflict and his curiosity about whether things could have turned out differently.