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

Image of Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939
Release Date: 
March 28, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

Adam Hochschild’s book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 gives us a different take on reporting about wars and their effect. He does it from the point of view of several volunteers who lived the event, believing their work could change the direction of the war.

Perhaps not one of the most well known of wars in history, at least not to Americans, it is considered a small, but brutal war. Much of what we learned about the Spanish Civil War we found through literature such as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or through rival stories from New York Times journalists.

During the 1930s in America, the Great Depression held the country in its clutches, and as people looked for other means of survival, many were caught up in the allure of Communism. Many of the people who joined the fight for Spain had reached out to this political system as a way of life remote from the pain of the Great Depression in America.

“. . . many people . . . experienced the world in black and white: if you were outraged by the hunger, joblessness, and inequality of the West, then Russia had to be the shining path to a better way.”

Hochschild introduces us to a number of people who struggled with their new beliefs. These American wanderers watched as Hitler began his march across Europe, and they agreed that, “Whatever faults the Soviet Union might have . . . it seemed the only major nation taking a strong stand against the most dangerous development on the planet: fascism.”

The book does not follow strict chronology because the author introduces the reader to a variety of characters; and the importance of the story does not relate in chronological order—it relates to the point in time when a given character enters the story. This moving back and forth throughout the war is not distracting because the focus is on the characters—the war is the stage upon which they act.

Hochschild gives the reader insight into the backgrounds of several of these Americans, as well as some other Europeans who followed the attraction of the war in Spain. Two of the characters that weave back and forth throughout the story are Robert and Marion Merriman. Robert was considered to be a model for Hemingway’s protagonist, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Merriman, who did not survive the war, was described by Sandor Voros as a man with an “‘egalitarian streak’ that had led Bob to remain under fire with his men . . .” Although his body was not recovered, several stories of the havoc of the war left no question in anyone’s mind as to the cause of his death.

Many, if not most of the characters shown throughout the story were wordsmiths of a sort—journalists, authors, novelists with many different forms of communicators each with a story to tell—while others told their stories through letters to home.

One of the most famous of all was Ernest Hemingway whose novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during this conflict. He is not painted in the brightest of colors by many people who encountered him, yet in spite of the brash, boastful, and demanding personality he displayed, Hemingway exhibited “an almost proprietary love for Spain . . . [H]e was enraged by the Nationalist coup, which he saw as an act of great violence against a culture he loved.” This love drove him to some reckless activities in attempts to save volunteers who took more visible actions against Franco than Hemingway did himself.

While Hochschild does an excellent job of developing characters that believed in their cause for good and their desire to help the Republicans even to their death, there were also unsavory characters that rose to the top to assist Franco in his war.

Torkild Rieber, a naturalized American citizen, originally from Norway, rose through the ranks from a clipper ship deckhand to CEO of the Texas Company, aka Texaco. Texaco was long known as an impetuous and aggressive company, and Rieber found his niche it its ranks.

“Texaco had become Spain’s principal oil supplier the year before the Nationalist coup. When Franco . . . made [his] grab for power, Rieber decided not to follow his contract with the Republican government’s state oil company . . .” Instead he turned his attention toward the new players in the game.

Hochschild presents a fascinating account of the relationship between Rieber and the Nationalists of Spain; Rieber and Texaco; Texaco and the Nationalist; Texaco and the Axis powers; and most important, the relationship between Texaco and America relative to the Spanish conflict.

Although the story unfolds through the many characters involved in the war, Hochschild builds the story’s foundation upon the horrific events of the war. The book is peppered with maps of the various battles that were fought including the siege of Madrid, the battles of Jarama and Guadalajara, and of Brunete. Three maps—Spain in 1937, Spain in 1938, and Spain in 1939—reflect the growth of the Nationalist movement and the shrinking Republican defense.

While Hochschild paints pictures of the Americans who gave up so much to join the Republican movement and defend the elected government, he sums up the feelings of the American government’s sense of these people and their actions in the last chapter, Kaddish when he describes the homecoming reception they received upon their return.

“When 148 returning American volunteers arrived at New York on the liner Paris on December 15, 1938, awaiting them seemed to be, in the words of . . . Milton Wolff, ‘more cops than people.’”

Although greeted by friends and family, “the vets slipped back into their old lives uneasily.” Much had not changed in American from the time these volunteers left. “The equality . . . experience in Spain was still decades away in the United States. The continent the Lincolns had left sped toward war.”

Although Franco did not officially become part of the Axis, he remained close to Hitler, granting aid where he could as well as sharing the benefits he took from his war experience. In this final chapter, Hochschild speculates on what Europe would have looked like had the Spanish Republic prevailed.

As with all stories, fiction or nonfiction, the reader wants the loose ends tied up before reading “The End,” and Hochschild does an admirable job of accomplishing this. At the end, he informs about the experiences of the characters he drew upon, and he goes back to the stage upon which they acted: the war and its aftermath including the Cold War environment after World War II and their Communist leanings.

Spain in Our Hearts is a poignant story of the deep beliefs of the people he writes about, and focuses on how a small but determined group faced hardship in both entering into and returning from this conflict. Hochschild opens up a whole new perspective on the Spanish Civil War. His research is a learning tool, well written and provides a fascinating perspective on war from inside the hearts of the people who fought it.