What ifs of the Spanish Civil War

Spain in Our Hearts
By Adam Hochschild
480 pp. Mariner Books. $16.

I recently completed a short story collection set during the Spanish Civil War, called The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War, and while reading it I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about the Spanish Civil War.

At least, nothing other than the basic three.

1. Hemingway participated (as a sort of glorified war correspondent) and famously wrote about it

2. George Orwell participated (like, actually fought in it) and famously wrote about it

3. The western democracies more or less stayed out, the Fascists all got in (on Franco’s side)

So I decided to educate myself a bit and then I remembered that I had this audiobook just sitting in my old Audible library (along with I can’t tell you how many audiobooks I have yet to listen to) so I listened!

And now I know a bit more.

As the title suggests, this really is focused pretty largely on Americans in the war (though Orwell and other Brits do get mentioned here and there as well).

Unfortunately, as for my third point of what I thought I knew, it turns out that by not getting involved, the western democracies very much got involved. Worse yet, American oil company Texaco was firmly on the side of the Franco and the Nationalists, and it is mentioned at numerous points throughout that without American oil, the Nationalists wouldn’t have managed to win the war.

Texaco’s chairman, Torkild Rieber, is about as villainous here as Franco, Mussolini, or Hitler. We learn that Rieber was himself something of a Hitler devotee and could not wait for National Socialism to come to the US. Despite his pretty open feelings on the matter, Rieber hobnobbed for years after World War II with the Hollywood and American political elite and seems to have made everyone forget that his friendship with Franco ensured a fascist foothold in Europe that lasted until the dictator’s death in 1975.

Sigh. Yes, this is another one of those books that makes you just want to throw up your hands and say, “WTF America???” I did, on more than one occasion. Of course, many Americans fought on the side of the Democratically elected Republicans as well. In fact, this wasn’t stated here, but I have to think that this was the most recent war that actually saw Americans fighting one another (some Americans went and fought on the Nationalist side too). Americans being killed with American oil and munitions, American war correspondents reporting on both sides, barely attempting to conceal their sympathies … quite the thing!

Of course any book that deals with the Spanish American War is going to deal with Hemingway. He’s pretty much the swaggering uber macho man here that he’s shown as being in every biography and film adaptation he’s depicted in. Passionate, something of an asshole, and prone to loud outbursts and arguments, he’s the larger than life figure you expect him to be.

Unfortunately, Hemingway’s muse, and third wife, Martha Gellhorn, a fantastic war reporter and writer in her own right, gets short shrift here and is only ever mentioned in regard to where she is in proximity to Hemingway, as well as some letters she writes to Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Spain in Our Hearts” takes the really interesting what-ifs — what would Spain have looked like if the Spanish Republicans had won? What would Europe have looked like? Would the USSR have come to dominate Republican Spain? — and quickly disregards them.

That the Republicans had villains on their side as well is clear, but Hochschild’s sympathies are clearly with them. It would have been nice if perhaps more time could have been spent on some of the atrocities perpetrated on their side as well.

I also must say, listening to this, I am again left absolutely astounded that anyone can legitimately feel good about being Catholic with how many times — and I’m not just talking about the inquisition — the Catholic Church has been on the side of absolute villainy. We already knew they backed Hitler, albeit perhaps somewhat covertly, but their chutzpah here in assisting Franco and the cause of fascism is just nauseating and puts me in mind of some of Christopher Hitchens’ excellent writings.

All said and done, “Spain in Our Hearts” is an educational experience, albeit perhaps only a partial one. It also frequently suffers from bouts of mundanity in its reporting of these events, in my opinion.

How different might the world look today if the West had thrown their support to Republican Spain?

We can only wonder.

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