Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

by Adam Hochschild

Hardcover, 2016

Call number




Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2016), Edition: 1, 464 pages


For three crucial years in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War dominated headlines in America and around the world, as volunteers flooded to Spain to help its democratic government fight off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Today we're accustomed to remembering the war through Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Robert Capa's photographs. But Adam Hochschild has discovered some less familiar yet compelling characters who reveal the full tragedy and importance of the war: a fiery nineteen-year-old Kentucky woman who went to wartime Spain on her honeymoon, a Swarthmore College senior who was the first American casualty in the battle for Madrid, a pair of fiercely partisan, rivalrous New York Times reporters who covered the war from opposites sides, and a swashbuckling Texas oilman with Nazi sympathies who sold Franco almost all his oil -- at reduced prices, and on credit. It was in many ways the opening battle of World War II, and we still have much to learn from it.… (more)

Media reviews

"Hochschild narrates such tales with prose that is consistently vivid yet emotionally restrained. His main contribution is to retell a familiar story with a focus on Americans and an unromantic assessment of why the “good guys” lost, so that he adroitly evokes the commitments of Americans on both sides while eschewing any retrospective cheerleading for the Republic."
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"Hochschild is an exceptional writer; his narrative is well-paced, delivered in clear prose, and focused on important and colorful details of the historical moment. Volunteers from around the world....saw the Republican cause as a last-ditch effort to stop fascism before it spread across Europe, and Hochschild tells their story beautifully."

User reviews

LibraryThing member BLBera
At the end of the book in the chapter title "Kaddish," a niece of one of the fallen volunteers of the International Brigade visits the area where her uncle was last seen:
"...somehow I managed to say kaddish for this son, brother, uncle. All this brought up enormous emotion. It hardly seemed just my own, or my family's. It felt part of a universal sorrow for the human struggle that played out in Spain during those dark days that were just the beginning of the trauma and tragedy that overcame all of Europe and throughout the world..."

This book is the story of the American men and women who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. Hochschild did a tremendous amount of research for this book, bringing alive these people through their letters and diaries. He also draws on the reporters and writers who were there; and we learn about the inspiration for [For Whom the Bell Tolls]. The use of letters and diaries really bring the people to life.

He also does a great job of putting the struggle in context. He addresses questions of whether WWII would have occurred if the Allies had helped the Republic and whether the Republic would have become a satellite of the Soviet Union. We all know how it ends, yet as I finished this book, I had tears in my eyes, saddened that the idealism of the men and women who volunteered was not supported or honored during their lives. It's also sad to see that many things don't change; governments are still run by expediency rather than by morality. Franklin Roosevelt, whom I admire, knew it was right to support the Republic, but didn't want to lose voters. Media didn't tell the whole story, and corporations - Texaco here -- made a lot of money off the suffering of others. So, this story is relevant.

This is the best kind of narrative nonfiction. And there are plenty of helpful maps and pictures. Wonderful, wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
Best known today as that war Hemingway wrote about in [For Whom the Bell Tolls], the Spanish Civil War was conscientiously ignored by much of the world. For many who do know of it, it's seen as a minor prelude to World War II. It was more than that, as Adam Hochschild explains in [Spain in Our Hearts]. For Germany and Italy, and to a lesser extent the USSR, it was a testing and training exercise for war to come. For Britain, France, and the US, it was a blown opportunity. For the Spanish, it was a catastrophe, of course; by 1939, the war was over and 36 years of vicious totalitarian rule was beginning.

As 1936 began, Spain was effectively a feudal society. Wealthy industrialists, landowners with holdings sometimes exceeding 75,000 acres, and the Catholic Church were the country's powers. But elections in February unexpectedly turned the government over to the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal, socialist, and communist parties. Less than 6 months later, martial law was declared in Melilla, a city of Spanish Morocco, by the Spanish Foreign Legion. According to Hochschild, the "key plotter" was General Francisco Franco. "Ambitious and pu­ritanical, an architect of the elite Spanish Foreign Legion, he was driven by a fierce belief that he was destined to save Spain from a deadly conspiracy of Bolsheviks, Freemasons, and Jews (no matter that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had expelled the latter from their realm in 1492, during the Inquisition, and that few had ever returned)."

The leftist government fought to defend the election results, to defend its reforms, to hold on to power. While it had a military, its military leaders —well, former leaders— were leading the revolt. Thus the Republican defense was conducted by Spanish loyalists (anarchists, socialists, and communists of various stripes) and by a hodge-podge of volunteers from the US, Britain, France, the USSR, and other countries, all of whom had leftist sympathies. Hochschild reports that some Americans were true believers who'd moved to the Soviet, became disillusioned, and left to share in the defense of Spain. Most found disorganization, persistent bickering over ideologies, and unqualified officers. Guns and ammo were in very short supply, and this because, as the author writes, "the embattled Republican government faced an extraordinary paradox. The only major nation willing to sell it arms and ammunition was not another democracy. It was Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union." He continues:

...Stalin waited in vain for Britain or France to provide weapons to the Republic...Several months after the coup, he finally dispatched the first shiploads of Soviet arms to Spain...
  By autumn the Soviet Union was not just quietly selling the Re­public arms, but also sending military advisors, pilots, and tank crews. Eager to make use of the tremendous sympathy for the Republic among leftists throughout the world, the Communist International, or Comintern, through which Stalin controlled Communist parties in other countries, passed the word to begin recruiting special bri­gades of volunteers to help fight Franco.

Citing an overriding focus on the Great Depression, FDR kept the US government from getting involved. As the war continued, and as he was besieged by anti-Franco partisans, FDR hid behind the threat that the Catholic vote would turn him out of office. Hochschild notes that "[w]hen running for reelection in 1936, FDR was believed to have quietly promised the American Catholic leadership that he would not take sides in Spain." Blaming the Catholics was convenient, he adds, "because the liberals pressing the president to sell arms to the Republic were will­ing to believe anything ill of the Catholic Church, as were Roosevelt's fellow upper-class WASPs. 'Dammit... if I lift the embargo,' FDR said to one person who came to lobby him for the Republic, 'the Catholics will crucify me!' "

The shocking aspect, to me, was that quite a number of America's big international businesses sided with Franco. Texaco in particular supplied all of Franco petroleum needs ON CREDIT. "By US law," Hochschild writes, "the export of 'arms, ammunition, and implements of war' to other countries at war was prohibited. Early in 1937, a congressional resolution made clear that any weapons destined for 'the unfortunate civil strife in Spain' were included in the ban." Texaco skirted the ban by double-manifesting oil shipments on its tankers. They'd leave port in the US with a shipment ostensibly going to some non-warring destination, then unseal the manifest for the true destination once the tanker was in international waters.

In addition, Texaco, through its European sales apparatus, collected information on shipping by rivals and forwarded details to the Nationalists (Franco's forces). Ford and GM, with manufacturing plants in Europe, supplied vehicles to Franco, but not to the legitimate government. Firestone supplied tires. Repercussions for these businesses were nil.

As the war spread across Spain, the ultimate defeat of the legitimate government was foretold by the Fascist forces behind Franco: Germany and Italy. Hochschild:

Over the course of the war Germany alone would send Franco antiaircraft batteries that helped cripple the Republican air force, the newest field artillery, some 200 tanks, and more than 600 military aircraft. Most equip­ment was of the latest models, since the Wehrmacht was eager to try them out in battle. Altogether, some 19,000 German troops, aviators, instructors, and advisors would see action in Spain or take part in training thousands of Nationalist officers and NCOs….
 emsp;Mussolini's airplanes were less advanced, but he would send the Nationalists 762 of them by the war's end, as well as 1,801 artillery pieces, at least 149 tanks, 223,784 rifles, 3,436 machine guns, and large quantities of bombs and ammunition. Nearly 80,000 Italian troops would eventually fight for Franco.

Hitler especially reaped great rewards for his assistance.

For him Nationalist Spain was also a crucial source of raw materials. He demanded payment for his aid in copper, in iron ore, which Germany was acutely short of, and in pyrites, which yield sul­fur and other minerals. These were supplies he wanted for building up his armed forces…
  The greatest aid Spain provided the Nazis, however...
[was] the wealth of experience that German aviators and other military men gained in nearly three years of the civil war. Twenty-seven different models of Nazi aircraft were tested in Spanish skies. As air force chief Hermann Goring later put it when on trial at Nuremberg, the Spanish war was an opportunity "to test my young Luftwaffe. ... In order that the personnel, too, might gather a certain amount of experience, I saw to it that... new people were constantly being sent and others recalled.

In the end, the Nationalists crushed the Republicans. Texaco, GM, Ford, and other American companies got paid. The German Luftwaffe used its experience in crushing Poland, in overwhelming the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and in besieging Britain. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were killed in the aftermath, and the nation was plunged back into feudalism until Franco's death in the 1970s.

Spain in Our Hearts is an excellent history, thorough and footnoted. We learn about the Internationals in the trenches, the horrible conditions under which medical treatment was provided, the efforts of news correspondents to get the story run in their newspapers. Hemingway turns up, of course, and not always in complimentary terms. George Orwell's experiences and his reports of them are covered. A vexing, frustrating story. I give it both thumbs up!
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LibraryThing member hermit
This is well written and easy to read book that covers in narrative form the history of the Spanish Civil War. We see history unfold through the eyes and experiences of various Americans who participated on both sides of this conflict. I have a better understanding now why most western countries did not support the democratically elected government which was at the time of the revolution were communist and the military coup of the nationalist which were supported by Hitler and Mussolini.

The elected government at the start of the military coup had a very large gold reserve that did not help them. It makes you wonder if the USA had sold supplies to the legitimate government for their gold reserve would the US economy have been strengthened and World War II prevented. Spain was a training ground for Germany’s new weapons and the author posits it may be considered the beginning of World War II.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Spain in Our Hearts declares up front it is not a history of the Spanish Civil War. Rather it is a series of vignettes about various Americans who went to fight with the International Brigades. The material is culled from period newspapers and private diaries. The people range from obscure teenagers to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell (who is not American hmm). It is narrated in roughly chronological order so people are dropping in and out at various points as the material for their stories becomes available or gaps appear. There is no main character, no mystery driving it forward, just interesting short scenes that come and go. These "group biographies" are not my favorite form of non-fiction nevertheless it is a testament (indeed monument) to the variety of experiences during the war. I have very little knowledge of the war and this provided useful summary of events and the role played by foreign fighters.… (more)
LibraryThing member EricCostello
In general, an overview of the course of the Spanish Civil War, with an emphasis on the American volunteers who fought for the leftist Spanish Republic. The author is clearly writing from a point of view that is sympathetic to the left (he talks about "social justice" in his introduction), though to his credit he does not shirk from noting what Stalin was doing in Spain through his intermediaries. A running theme is the perfidy of Texaco (which sold oil on credit to Franco, and engaged in dubious intelligence practices) and the Catholic Church. Luckily, the progressive point of view isn't oppressive, and you can enjoy the book on its merits. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member nicholasjjordan
This is one of those (many) eras of world history about which I knew less than the Wikipedia entry could tell me. To hear of how Spain's civil war fits into European history, at least back deep into the 19th century, and forward to the mid 1990s (and even in the recent global recession) was semi-mind-blowing. On top of all that information, the choices as a historian and narrator than the author chooses--lots of primary source work and choosing to follow closely individual Americans fighting and writing about the war--were all-around excellent.… (more)
LibraryThing member PCorrigan
An incredibly slanted version of the Spanish Civil War (SCW). I expected better perhaps from a guy who has somewhat of a 'reputation'. But this is a history wrapped inside a viewpoint that is never far from the surface. It starts early on page xix of the forward...the 'Soviet Union, whose government was at least as murderous as the Franco regime'. I nearly stopped reading the book right there. The Soviets had murdered 5 million or so by 1936 when the SCW began and continued on with another 5 or 10 million..who knows? Many died early in a Communist created famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 when American leftists like the author's hero Robert Merriman were slathering over themselves in adulation of that ideology. Nauseating. Pretty sure I would rather be shot than starved to death along with my family. So for a supposedly serious historian to start out with such an obscene comparison was daunting. The worst estimates of the Franco regime are around 200,000 wiped out. That was a good year in the Soviet Gulags. I guess the Solzhenitsyn is not required reading for Berkley historians. Throughout the entire book he dwells almost entirely and with loving detail on Nationalist atrocities of which there were a horrific number without a doubt. Republican atrocities on the other hand are usually handled in one brief paragraph and almost always with mitigating circumstances. Had the Republicans won does anyone (except perhaps this author) doubt for a second that their retaliation would have been anything less than the Nationalists? By 1938 the Communists ran the Republican effort--their track record elsewhere suggests that the bloodletting would have been every bit as violent as what actually happened on the other side. Even while retreating nearly the whole war the Republicans managed about 1/3 of what the Nationalists inflicted.

But I persisted and there were useful insights here and here, hence I gave it another star. I do not recommend this for one uninitiated into the SCW, although sadly it will be for many. Hugh Thomas and Anthony Beevor are far superior and are actual history books. The best thing about this book for American readers is the American connection of course and that is what rescues the book from the trash heap of pure propaganda. There are many sad and poignant tales of idealistic Americans (and others) who went over and fought for the Republican side. Interesting tales of Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Cowles and other are the best parts of the book, and of course Eric Blair (George Orwell!). And 'fake news' (from both sides) turns out to be not a new thing. He extols the International Brigades at some length and the retelling of some actions are both riveting and horrifying. It must be said that most of those volunteers were following an American Communist Party that worshiped at the altar of Soviet Communism that was already carrying out mass murder on a scale that is still mind-boggling. The evidence was there, but they chose to ignore it. Especially educated men like Merriman who had spent years in Russia. The author's endless attempts to garner sympathy or respect for that man left me cold. He and his like were just more enablers for the Gulag and I doubt shed a tear for the millions annihilated by it. They died in Spain supporting it, though some will see it differently.
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Watch Terry Tazioli and author Adam Hochschild talk about this book on Well Read:
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