Article published on NPR Books, March 28th 2016.
Featured picture: Italian troops take part in a Nationalist victory parade in Madrid on May 19, 1939. Military aide from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini helped Gen. Francisco Franco win the Spanish Civil War. Len Putnam/Associated Press
Nearly 80 years ago, about 2,800 Americans volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The war began in July 1936, when Gen. Francisco Franco led a fascist military coup against the the country’s newly elected democratic government. It lasted until Franco’s victory in 1939.
Journalist Adam Hochschild tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “it was by far the largest number of Americans before or since who’ve ever joined somebody else’s civil war.”
Hochschild chronicles Americans’ involvement in the war in his new book, Spain in Our Hearts. He says that the majority of Americans in Spain (including writer Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the conflict) were sympathetic to the Republican forces who fought against Franco’s Nationalists.
“I think they were primarily people who were deeply alarmed by the menace of fascism,” Hochschild says. “People at the time really saw fascism not just as evil but as an aggressive evil that seemed to be spreading. … By 1936, [Adolf] Hitler was already talking very loudly about his desire to expand to the east. [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini, in 1935, … [invaded] Ethiopia, acquiring himself a colony.”
But Hochschild points out that not all Americans opposed Franco’s regime. For instance, Torkild Rieber, CEO of Texaco, helped Franco by providing his military with a steady and guaranteed supply of oil.
“[Rieber] violated American law in a couple of ways,” Hochschild says. “U.S. neutrality legislation was pretty strict and said that if you were selling anything to a country at war the oil couldn’t travel on American ships, but he shipped it on Texaco tankers.”
Hitler and Mussolini also sent Franco military aid, which helped propel him to victory and also presaged future European conflict.
“I think in many ways it was the first battle of World War II,” Hochschild says. “After all, where else in the world at this point did you have Americans in uniform who were being bombed by Nazi planes four years before the U.S. entered World War II?”
On the conflict at the root of the Spanish Civil War
Up until 1931, Spain had had hundreds of years of almost uninterrupted monarchy, mixed with a period of military dictatorship at the end. Then in 1931, the king fled, statues toppled and the country essentially became a democracy holding national elections.
In 1936, the election that year put in power a coalition of left and liberal parties which promised to do much more in the way of land reform [and] secularizing education — previously, education had all been in the hands of the Catholic Church.
This coalition won the elections and this was too much for Francisco Franco and a large group of right-wing army officers, who rose up in revolt in July of 1936. They wanted to restore the Spain of old, [a] Spain where the dominant institutions were the large estates in the countryside. No more of this nonsense of land reform; there would be no trappings of democracy, no free trade union. The army would reign supreme. It would be a military dictatorship, and education would be handed back to the Catholic Church. … It was a pretty stark difference between what two kinds of Spain these two sides wanted.
On why the Republicans lost the war
I think the Republicans lost the civil war because the other side was being heavily armed and supplied by Hitler and Mussolini. And the Republicans could not get any of the major democracies — the United States, Britain or France — to sell them arms because in all three of those countries there was a very strong feeling: We don’t want to get drawn into another European war. And smaller countries followed the lead of the big ones. So the [Republicans were] desperate to buy arms abroad … but they were not able to use this to buy American, French or British arms. I think that’s the real reason why they lost the war.
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