Why Adam Hochschild Decided to Write about the Spanish Civil War (Interview)

tags: Spanish Civil War, interview, Adam Hochschild

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. You can find his other interviews here.  His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Adam Hochschild

Men in my generation have Spain in our hearts. . . It was there that they learned . . . that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not rewarded.  Albert Camus

From 1936 to 1939, a brutal civil war raged in Spain. The forces of the new, democratically-elected Republic, including workers, intellectuals, and idealistic international volunteers, fought against fascist Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by most military officers as well as monarchists, landowners, and the Catholic Church. With the support of the dictatorships in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy—as western democracies including the United States stood by—Franco emerged victorious and ruled Spain until 1975.

The war left more than half a million dead in combat or from hunger and disease. Many more were seriously wounded and hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes.

Among the war’s dead were 750 Americans, part of a contingent of 2800 American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought against fascism and for the nascent Republic. In his new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1938-1939 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), acclaimed historian and journalist Adam Hochschild explores the war through the lives of these idealistic young volunteers as well as American journalists, scholars, dreamers, and even a right-wing oil company executive who supplied Franco’s fascist army.

Mr. Hochschild’s book is based on extensive research, including the discovery of diaries, letters, and other documents that were never published. By focusing on American involvement in the war—the “dress rehearsal” for the Second World War, he offers a unique perspective on the unraveling of the Republic.

Mr. Hochschild profiles Lincoln Brigade volunteers and other American idealists, including Kentuckian Lois Orr who recounted the forging of a “workers’ paradise” in Barcelona; the heroic Lincoln Brigade officer Robert Merriman who disappeared in action; and many other committed anti-fascists, the forebears of those who struggle for social justice today. Spain in Our Hearts also details the impressions of renowned writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell, as well as a rival pair of New York Times’ reporters who wrote incompatible accounts from different sides of the conflict, and the brilliant but largely forgotten correspondent Virginia Cowles.

In chronicling the course of this first war against fascism, Mr. Hochschild also details the “devil’s bargain” the Republic made for the support of Stalin that led to limited aid from the Soviets but also sparked internecine rivalries and at times bloody feuds between the factions on the left.

Mr. Hochschild’s other books include, among others, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize and a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award; Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History; and To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. He also is a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. Hochschild’s work has been recognized for advancing the teaching and writing of history and even affecting political change. For example, King Leopold's Ghost sparked a re-assessment of the legacy of colonialism in the US universities and beyond while forcing Belgians to confront and deal with the horrendous human cost of their brutal colonial past.

In 2008, the American Historical Association honored Mr. Hochschild with its Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, a prize for someone outside the academy who has made a significant contribution to the study of history.  “Throughout his writings over the last decades," the Association's citation said, "Adam Hochschild has focused on topics of important moral and political urgency, with a special emphasis on social and political injustices and those who confronted and struggled against them.”

Mr. Hochschild kindly responded by email to a series of questions about his work.

AMERICAN VOLUNTEERS BEFORE BATTLE OF THE EBRO (Henry Randall 15th Brigade Films and Photographs Collection, Timiment Library, New York University).

Robin Lindley: What inspired Spain in Our Hearts, your new book on Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War?

Adam Hochschild: I first got interested in the war because I knew half a dozen of the American volunteers. All are dead now, but two were colleagues when I was a cub reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960s and two others were good friends of ours for many years. I’ve also long admired George Orwell’s memoir of fighting in Spain, Homage to Catalonia, and came to admire it even more in writing this book. Finally, this is the only time that some 2800 young Americans went off to risk their lives in someone else’s civil war. How could you not be interested?

Robin Lindley: There are thousands of books on the Spanish Civil War. Can you discuss what you expected to add about the war, your original conception of the book, and how the project evolved as your research progressed?

Adam Hochschild: I didn’t have any original new analysis of the war, but that’s not the kind of history I write. What I always try to do in a book is to bring a period of time alive by focusing on 10 or 12 people who lived through it, and whose lives intersected in some way. It’s always more interesting if you can find men and women who were fierce rivals, or who loved each other or hated each other—and there are some of each of those in Spain in Our Hearts. And I’m always looking for people who won’t already be familiar to most readers but who left, in one way or another, a vivid human record of what they felt and experienced.

LOIS ORR (Courtesy of Elizabeth Cusick).

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for the book--archival work, interviews, site visits, etc.?

Adam Hochschild: First, I spent many months poring through every book I could find about Americans in the war—memoirs, biographies, histories. And skimming, at least, hundreds of articles. This was my casting call for characters. Then, once I’d more or less zeroed in on who they were, I spent a lot of time in archives. More at the Tamiment Library at NYU than anywhere else, because that’s where the papers of several hundred American volunteers are. When I visited the Hoover Institution archives at Stanford to see the papers of a journalist who was one of my minor characters, a helpful archivist there, David Jacobs, told me about someone who became a major figure in the book: Lois Orr. She was a remarkably observant 19-year-old Kentucky college student who went to Europe on her honeymoon and then saw the Spanish Revolution from the inside. Hoover had some of her and her husband’s papers as well, and a fascinating unpublished memoir she wrote.

New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews’s papers I saw at Columbia, much Roosevelt Administration material at the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park, and journalist Louis Fischer’s papers at Princeton. An archivist there told me, “No one has looked at these for quite a while.” For some odd reason, this made me think I might find something interesting and I did—a letter Fischer wrote, when based in Moscow, to Stalin, offering to brief him on a trip Fischer had just made to Western Europe. The man was insufferably arrogant and loved to hobnob with heads of state.

Something else I’m always looking for is raw materials to construct a dramatic scene. One opens the book: two American volunteers, John Gates and George Watt, desperately fleeing a Nationalist encirclement, strip off all their clothes and swim across the Ebro River, where the Republic holds the opposite bank. They wait, shivering and exhausted, by the side of a road, and then along comes a car with two people in it: New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews and Ernest Hemingway. Such a moment is a writer’s dream, because all four men left a record of it. Matthews and Hemingway wrote newspaper dispatches the same day, and Gates and Watt much later both wrote books and were the subjects of long audio or video interviews. Opening the book this way allows me to introduce the war and some people who will be characters in the story.


Robin Lindley: Your previous books of history deal with vexing moral issues and injustice. How do you see the arc of your work and how does your new book fit in?

Adam Hochschild: Ever since the authors who wrote the Bible, people have been writing about good and evil. To me there’s nothing more interesting than trying to evoke moments when men and women risked their lives to battle horrendous injustice, whether that meant opposing Stalinism in Russia, fascism in Spain, colonialism in Africa or slavery in the Caribbean. It’s hard for me to imagine spending four or five years working on a book if there isn’t some pressing moral issue at the core of the story.

Robin Lindley: It seems that many of the American volunteers were communists and many were also Jewish. What’s your sense of the main reasons these young Americans volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic—just 18 years after the wasteful slaughter of the First World War in an America that was increasingly isolationist?

Adam Hochschild: Roughly three quarters were members of the Communist Party or organizations in its orbit. Exactly how many were Jews is less certain, because so many first and second generation immigrants to this country—and Party activists--changed their names. But certainly at least a third were Jewish.

Most of the volunteers were of course woefully naïve about the Soviet Union. But I think they were 100% right that the greatest danger then facing the world, especially Europe, was an aggressively expanding fascism. “For us it wasn’t Franco,” said one volunteer, Maury Colow of New York. “It was always Hitler.”

Robin Lindley: While Hitler and Mussolini supported the fascist forces of Franco with men and modern equipment, it seems Soviet aid to the Republic was sporadic and inadequate. What did you find that American Lincoln Brigade volunteers experienced in terms of training, equipment, medical support, and other necessities for effective combat units? Were volunteers aware of the shortcomings of Soviet aid?

Adam Hochschild: The first few hundred American volunteers were rushed into combat to prevent Franco from encircling Madrid. They had only a few weeks’ inadequate training, with no bullets for their rifles until the last day. One batch even arrived at the front still in civilian clothes, wearing Ked sneakers.

As more arms arrived, the training improved. Soviet arms aid was a mixed story: Stalin used it to clear a lot of decades-old antiquated weaponry out of his warehouses. But he also sent up-to-date tanks and fighter aircraft, and the crews to man them, which were decisive in preventing Franco from capturing Madrid early in the war. Some American volunteers became aware of the first problem when they found themselves with rifles that still had the double eagle of Tsarist Russia. But they were grateful to see those Soviet fighters in the sky when all the major democracies had refused to sell arms to the Spanish Republic.

Robin Lindley: You note that a number of African Americans served with the Lincoln Brigade. How did they fare in this military organization? Did they face discrimination in their units?

Adam Hochschild: Some 85 black Americans took part in the war, as soldiers, or, in a few cases, doctors or nurses. For most of them, it was the first time in their lives when they didn’t experience discrimination. The Communist Party was very eager to show it would treat African Americans as equal, and one black officer, Oliver Law, was made commander of the Lincoln Battalion. Survivors disagree on how qualified he was for the job, but he went into action and was killed in combat only a few days after being appointed.

Robin Lindley: You focus on Americans who fought for or sympathized with the democratic Spanish Republic. Did you find stories of Americans who fought with or otherwise supported Franco’s forces?

Adam Hochschild: There were a handful, soldier-of-fortune types. Unfortunately none of them left anything in the way of diaries, letters or memoirs that I was able to find. However, a young Briton, Peter Kemp, fought as a volunteer with Franco’s forces and wrote—I hate to say this of someone with fascist sympathies—an extremely good book about it. It’s a vivid, well-told story, open about some of his own conflicting feelings, such as at a moment when he was ordered to shoot a prisoner and clearly would have been shot himself if he hadn’t done so. Several times he fought opposite the American units and at one point he and his men overran a position abandoned so hastily there was unopened mail left behind. He writes movingly about reading, in his own language, these letters from wives, sweethearts and children to men fighting “for a cause in which they believed as deeply as I believed in ours.”

Robin Lindley: The U.S. government prohibited aid to either side in Spain. You tell the little known story of American corporate support for Franco, notably from Texaco. What did you learn about this corporate support for the right-wing forces? Did the U.S. government do anything to curb this illegal assistance?

Adam Hochschild: It is amazing to me that historians have not paid more attention to the crucial role of Texaco, and its CEO, Torkild Rieber, in supplying Franco’s Nationalists with most of their oil. This rarely rates more than a footnote, if mentioned at all, in histories of the war. The Roosevelt Administration knew this was going on, but, sadly, even though Texaco was violating several provisions of US law, decided against any major prosecution.

What FDR and his people didn’t know was that Texaco’s swashbuckling Rieber, a man who loved dictators, was selling the Nationalists all this oil at a huge discount—and was also supplying them with a stream of intelligence about oil tankers from other companies heading for the Spanish Republic, the kind of detail useful to Franco’s bomber pilots and submarine captains looking for targets. This has been discovered and written about in Spain in recent years by a retired petrochemical engineer, Guillem Martínez Molinos. I am deeply grateful to him for sharing some of his Texaco documents with me.

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that correspondent Martha Gellhorn not only filed vivid stories about the war in Spain, but also pleaded with her friend First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to urge her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to end the embargo of arms to Republican forces in Spain. What did you find about Gellhorn’s pleas and the response of the Roosevelts?

Adam Hochschild: Eleanor clearly sympathized deeply with the beleaguered Republic, but only once let her guard down enough to admit to Gellhorn, in a letter, that she felt “ashamed” the US was not supporting it. But Franklin felt he had no constituency in the US for getting involved in a European war. Most historians also believe that before running for reelection in 1936 he secretly promised the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church—which hated the Republic, where mobs had killed thousands of clergy--that he would not take sides in the Spanish war.

In early 1939, when it was too late, FDR told a cabinet meeting that not selling the Republic arms had been a “grave mistake.” He was right.

Robin Lindley: The personalities you follow in your book are fascinating. In addition to the volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade, you feature several American journalists. You describe a “herd mentality” of American journalists. How did you see that tendency in reporting on the war?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve done some reporting from overseas myself, occasionally from conflict zones. Something you always notice in such places is that journalists cluster together. If you’re filing reports daily, there are good reasons for this, because the last thing any reporter wants to get is a message from the editor back home saying that a rival newspaper or network has reported this or that, and why haven’t we heard anything about this from you?

So the foreign correspondents in Spain mostly tended to cover the same stories: gains and losses on the battlefields, and, above all, the years-long siege of Madrid. They almost entirely ignored the remarkable social revolution which flourished for some months in Spain’s northeast, where workers took over factories and peasants seized land on a scale that had never been seen before in Western Europe. And they completely ignored the Texaco story. You would think that when being bombed in Madrid they would at least look up at the sky and ask: whose fuel is powering those aircraft? Or that their editors at home might ask the same question. But we can say with near complete certainty—because these days so many old newspapers are digitized, and I’ve searched, carefully—that not a word about Texaco’s dealings with the Nationalists appeared in the US daily press during the war.


Robin Lindley: I was impressed by your account of reporter Virginia Cowles who it seems has been largely overlooked by history. How did her work compare with the reports of better known correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn?

Adam Hochschild: In my judgement, Cowles was the best English-language journalist on the scene. She’d never been to college, never covered a war before, and was only 26 years old. But she wrote beautifully, and didn’t miss anything. She was alert to the problem of herd behavior, and even mentioned it in one article. And, most unusually, she was absolutely determined to see what this war looked like from both sides, becoming one of the very few correspondents to report from both Republican and Nationalist Spain. In the latter, she was the first journalist to get Nationalist officers to admit that they had bombed Guernica. (In the face of worldwide outrage, Franco maintained for decades that the town had been blown up by retreating Republican troops.)

Robin Lindley: The Lincoln Brigade fought bravely but it seems they suffered horribly with defeat after defeat under poor leaders while facing overwhelming, well-equipped enemy forces. What’s your sense of how these young volunteers kept fighting as long as they did?

Adam Hochschild: The senior Americans had very little military experience, but a much worse problem was outdated or insufficient arms—when the Republican forces were up against a far larger army equipped with the latest Nazi weaponry. And not all of the volunteers were heroes. At least a hundred Americans deserted, maybe more. Who can say that many of us wouldn’t do the same, if faced with such terrible conditions? But I think most Americans fought on because they genuinely believed in their cause, and--like soldiers in other wars—they didn’t want to let their friends down. Also, they were convinced that this was the first act of a much larger war to come, and they were right about that.

Robin Lindley: Are there a couple of Lincoln Brigade volunteers who typify these brave, idealistic young Americans that you’d especially like readers to remember?

Adam Hochschild: Actually the Lincoln I most warmed up to personally was English, Pat Gurney, a London sculptor, who started out in the British Battalion but joined the American one when most of his British friends were killed. He had a wonderfully wry eye for pompousness and hypocrisy, whether it was that of VIPs who briefly visited the trenches with “something of the character of a Board of Guardians paying their annual visit to an orphanage,” or of rigid, humorless Communist Party officials for whom “any hint of levity was treated like farting in church.” Gurney was not a Party member, but one American medical volunteer whom I liked a lot, the poet James Neugass, was. His eloquent diary, only discovered recently, has none of the heroic, Party-line rhetoric that mars some memoirs of the war, and is extremely honest about his own increasing exhaustion and fear.


Robin Lindley: Wasn’t the Spanish Civil War the first modern war where civilians became targets—and precursor of massive deaths of civilians in the Second World War? The savagery of the war and massacre of innocents is heartbreaking, as captured so vividly in works such as Picasso’s iconic painting of the bombing of Guernica.

Adam Hochschild: Actually, no. Millions of civilians died in colonial wars in Africa, Asia and the Americas. And civilians were in effect targets in World War I, when the Allies threw a tight naval blockade around the Central Powers to cut off their food supply, while German submarines sank the Lusitania and other ships with civilians on board. But subsequent advances in aviation were enormous, and meant that fleets of new German bombers were able to drop a vastly higher tonnage of bombs on Madrid, Guernica and other parts of Spain than Zeppelins could drop on London two decades before. So for the first time many blocks of cities were entirely leveled. People were shocked.


Robin Lindley: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is probably the best known novel to come out of the war. How did Lincoln Brigade veterans respond to this story of an American loner fighting for the Republic?

Adam Hochschild: Most liked it, although Communist brass were dismayed by its acid portrait of several Party officials, and by its hero, a non-ideological former college instructor who was not from the working class.

The historian Peter Carroll unearthed something amusing. Steve Nelson, a prominent American Communist and a well-liked officer wounded in Spain, published a review calling the novel “a monument in American literature.” The Party’s national committee demanded that he retract his praise, which he then dutifully did, dismissing the book as “hailed in the literary salons of the bourgeoisie.”

Robin Lindley: Volunteers who returned from the war were not greeted with parades. Indeed, some, like Dr.Edward Barsky, were vilified and later became targets of red-baiting members of Congress during the McCarthy era. How did most of the volunteer survivors fare after the war? Did any achieve prominence in the US military in the Second World War or later?

Adam Hochschild: When the volunteers returned, and for three decades more, J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director, and he harassed them mercilessly, for years regularly sending teams of agents to question these men—and their employers. Many returned volunteers lost jobs as a result, and often had already had their passports seized when the ship bringing them home docked in New York.

After the US went to war in 1941, more than 425 entered the armed forces and 100 more the merchant marine. How they fared there depended on whether they had a commanding officer who shared Hoover’s paranoia, or who was smart enough to know that here was a man with military experience. A number of Lincoln veterans were decorated for bravery in the Second World War, and at least 21 were killed.

Robin Lindley: Your book has resonance now as we discuss fascism and inequality in this presidential election cycle as well as hear demands from young, idealistic Americans who want to see changes in government and policy. How do you see the resonance of the Spanish Civil War and the stories you tell now?

Adam Hochschild: We live in quite a different world today, but one that still has enormous injustice, and some nasty, hate-based right-wing movements.

It’s risky to take some event from eighty years ago as a total model for what to do today, but I do hope it can be inspiring for readers to learn more about people of an earlier time who cared passionately about justice and risked—and often lost—their lives for those ideals. And I include among them not just those who fought in the International Brigades, but the young people from many countries who, like Lois Orr, were attracted by Spain’s from-the-bottom-up social revolution centered in Barcelona. And those like George Orwell, who didn’t hesitate to criticize what he saw as injustice and repression, whether it came from fascists or Communists.

What are the comparable struggles today? The answer to that varies from one country to another, and there are more worthwhile battles for justice than I can count. One struggle, for example, that ought to unite us all is that to slow down climate change. Otherwise many of us are going to be underwater, with the poor, and poor countries, suffering the most. When I see young people from organizations like 350.org getting arrested in protests at the White House over this issue, I think: the spirit of the Lincoln Brigade lives on.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments and insights Adam and congratulations on Spain in Our Hearts.