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Posted on: September 22nd, 2018 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild

Throughout history there have been rare moments of moral clarity. The Spanish Civil War was one. In 1936 the Popular Front won the election with a promise of bringing Spain out of a feudal system where 1% of the population held all the wealth of the country and the remaining 99% were no better off than serfs. As equalitarian euphoria swept through Catalonia, normal hierarchies were set on their head. George Orwell, who came to Spain to fight for the new democracy, found himself under the spell of a transformed classless Barcelona.

“Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had disappeared. Nobody said Senor or Don or even usted, everyone called everyone else Comrade and Thou.”

Other reports from Barcelona were equally tantalizing. “The great Liceu opera house had been turned into a people’s theater. . . .pawnshops were forced to give back objects to their poorer customers.  Mansions confiscated from the wealthy had been converted into housing for the homeless; union cooks and waiters at the restaurant of the city’s Hotel Ritz, with its elaborate chandeliers, white linen and monogrammed china, had pushed the tables together into long rows and turned it into a people’s cafeteria for working-class families and the city’s poor.”

For those used to privilege this was a great threat, and it didn’t take long for Francisco Franco to lead a fascist coup against the new democratic government. Franco made it clear that his aim was to turn the country into a military dictatorship. Hitler and Mussolini quickly allied with him and provided the arsenal and forces he needed. Western democracies, the United States, France and Britain, demurred, refusing to help the struggling Republic. With no other options, the Republic accepted arms and aid from Communist Russia. The irony was that “defenders of the Republic were fighting for one of the finest causes beside one of the nastiest of allies.”

Without scruples or hesitation, the Fascists set about to eliminate all those who didn’t think as they did. Political opponents were tortured; people were murdered for belonging to labor unions; hospital wards were machine-gunned; and cities were bombed to rubble as Hitler field-tested his new weapons. The carpet bombing of Guernica represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air and inspired the century’s most famous painting by Pablo Picasso.

While the governments of the democracies hesitated, ordinary citizens did not. Volunteers came from more than 50 countries to join the International Brigades. Risking their lives to save Spain’s infant democracy, 2,800 Americans fought there. 750 of them died.

As a last ditch effort to appeal to the conscience of the world, the Prime Minister and his cabinet withdrew the international forces from the battlefields. They hoped to pressure the democracies to insist that Franco withdraw Hitler’s and Mussolini’s forces, which didn’t happen. On October 28, 1938, the Republic held a grand parade as a final tribute to the International Brigades. The volunteer soldiers and medical support marched down Barcelona’s grand avenues past the gutted buildings and peeled away apartment house walls. They walked, sometimes ankle deep in flowers, to receive the thanks of the grateful citizens. “The roar of cheering was continuous.  It was like a wave that never broke, but poured on. . . Women rushed into our lines to kiss us.  Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. . . .We tasted their tears.” The response was very different, however, when the volunteers reached their home countries.

The fledgling Republic lost the war in 1939. Spain was left to endure 36 more years of Franco’s ruthless dictatorship.

What was learned? In January 1939, too late, Franklin Roosevelt told a cabinet meeting that he now felt the arms embargo to have been “a grave mistake.” The French novelist, Albert Camus, wrote “Men of my generation  have had Spain in our hearts. . . . It was there that they learned . . . that one can be right and yet beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”

What can we learn now?  Hochschild’s book allows us to feel the universal sorrow for the human struggle that played out in Spain. From such sorrow, we can nurture the resolve to champion human rights and justice, regardless of the cost and the uncertain outcome.

Dorothy Sampson



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