If I were a writer I would want to be Adam Hochschild. I have just finished his latest book, Spain in Our Hearts, Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). By MARK HEYWOOD.
The final pages of Spain in Our Hearts recount the journey back to the Spanish battlefields of the niece of a 21-year-old American socialist who had travelled to Spain in 1937 as a volunteer for the International Brigades and been killed and disappeared without trace. Finding a communion with her long dead uncle on a hill-top close to where he was reported to have died, she reflects that “the world turned out to be a much more politically complicated truth than he could have known then”.
How right she is. I first encountered the Spanish Civil War through reading Leon Trotsky’s The Spanish Revolution and then through Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Hochschild returns to this pivotal moment in 20th century history, telling a tale of how in 1936 and 1937 American democrats and socialists of all hues, men and women (let it be noted), white Americans and black, made their way to Spain to fight a war to defend a new democracy from fascism. It became a fight to the death between idealists and their oppressors.
Hochschild makes a politically complicated story simpler by making it human again. In his tale of the 2,800 American socialists who travelled to Spain he brings back to life the nobility, tragedy, treachery, hypocrisy and barbarity of the war as if it was happening yesterday.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Adam Hochschild is an American journalist, a writer, a democratic political activist and philanthropist. For the last 20 years he has been restoring lives and histories, chiselling from out of the criss-crossing fabrics the texture of historical narratives; pulling from the sweep of history individual men and women who fought for social justice.
His stories are set in some of the greatest theatres of human history; the Belgian Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa), the campaign against the slave trade (Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves), the First World War (To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918) and now the fight against fascism in Spain.
Hochschild proves himself to be a truth-teller in the tradition of Orwell and Hitchens. His style is less polemical. Yet you sense that his writing is just as much of a political project and interestingly – for us – he attributes part of his politicisation to the few months he spent in 1962 as an intern working for Contact, a liberal anti-apartheid magazine founded by Patrick Duncan.
That was half a century ago, yet Hochschild has more to do with South Africa’s recent history than he may be aware.
I first read a Hochschild after I was given a copy of Bury the Chains by Zackie Achmat. Since then quite a number of the new generation of social justice activists have been inspired and motivated by his works, and have passed them on to other activists. What inspires us is that each book tells a tale of how individual agency and ideals, combined with imagination, mobilisation, public education and protest, can change societies and the world for the better.
Did you know, for example, that the European protest movement that eventually led to the abolition of slavery started with a meeting of a handful of men in a print shop in London in 1787? Or that more than 6,000 men and women were imprisoned in Britain for refusing to serve in the First World War?
His are our shadow histories, the truths hidden by official narratives about the individuals we do not learn about at school. They depict an unbroken thread in the methods of social justice activism across the centuries.
The beauty of reading a Hochschild though is that although we learn a lot, his writing is not ideological and therefore neither turgid nor didactic. History is brought to life through the blood, sweat and tears of real human beings. This way we have a chance to get at the real meaning of oppression and the highs and lows of the fight against it.
Little remembrances can be striking. One US volunteer, after crossing the Pyrenees on foot, noted in his diary: “First sense of fear from planes, instead of beauty.” Nine words to remind us of the banality of evil. They remind me too of the following matter-of-fact lines that open The Lion and the Unicorn, an essay by George Orwell written four years later:
As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kindhearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.
In the midst of a suffering that we are aided to imagine it is these quirks of humanity that remind us that it is human beings who fight and die in wars. For example, Marion Merriman, a volunteer whose hero husband Bob was killed in the last days of the retreat from Franco, records in a letter how one US volunteer tried to convince her “that it was my Party duty to go to bed with him since I was a Party member and he needed me”.
Some things don’t change.
However, reading a Hochschild is not just about making sense of the past. It also has a few salutary lessons for the present. As I said, some things don’t change.
The first is of the opportunism and hypocrisy of modern democratic governments who often would rather appease tyrants than take a stand on democracy and human rights. The West’s failure to defend the Spanish people opened the door to Nazism. Hitler used Spain as a theatre for testing his weapons. Spain in Our Hearts tells of the vain efforts of activist-journalists like Martha Gellman, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to get the US and British governments to supply arms to the Republican forces. Neither Eleanor nor FD Roosevelt could claim not to have known what was going down in Spain or what the stakes were. Yet they ignored. Thus Hochschild asks a number of “what ifs”:
“What if the Western democracies had sold Republican Spain the arms it repeatedly, urgently tried to buy? Might these have been enough to defeat the aircraft, submarines and troops dispatched by Hitler and Mussolini? And if so, would Hitler still have sent his troops into Austria, Czechoslovakia, and finally some dozen other countries?”
The second is of the role that big corporations often play in fomenting and sustaining war. Throughout the civil war Franco’s army was provided with petrol on credit by Texaco boss, Torkild Rieber, as well as intelligence about the movement of ships providing oil to the Republican side. As Hochschild puts it: “The United States might be neutral, but Texaco had gone to war.”
Finally, the book is a reminder that savagery of one human to another is intrinsic to war. Today there is justifiable outrage at the beheadings carried out by ISIS. But such merciless savagery didn’t start with Islamic fundamentalism. It started in the West. While Republican armies were not immune from the use of torture and summary execution, it was Franco who perfected it, gleefully using the garotte on thousands of people, supporting mass rape as a weapon of war, executing more than 200,000 of his opponents. That this man was permitted to govern Spain until the 1970s is unbelievable.
Any war is mad. But it is as important to question the behaviour that give rise to it, as the behaviour of those within its vortex.
Eventually 750 American volunteers lost their lives in a war that through combat and political killings claimed nearly 500,000 lives. The pathos of war is summed up in the words of one young volunteer, Hyman Katz, who was killed in the combat. On 25 November 1937 he explained in a letter to his mother that had if he had not joined the war he would have been haunted through life by the question:
“Why didn’t I wake up when the alarm clock rang?”
It’s a question as old as time itself and an apt one for South Africans in 2016. DM