In the book world, there is developing a subgenre of history-writing that takes an event or a place in world history and examines it from the perspectives and perceptions of the Americans who were present.
An example from 2010 is Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson. A year later came The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.
Now, here’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild.
It seems to me that there are positives and negatives to this approach.
On the plus side, the presence of Americans in the text makes it easier for American readers to relate to the topic. It’s as if these fellow citizens are stand-ins for us. They are coming from a world we are familiar with and finding themselves in a different place. Their reactions are, in some way, our reactions. Or, to use a piece of jargon, we at least know where they’re coming from.
This permits us as readers to take in the history more easily, as if we were experiencing it.
A story-telling tension
There is a tendency, anyway, in modern history-writing to weave into the narrative the thoughts, feelings and accounts of everyday people. So, any book about, say, Paris would include the stories and words of everyday Parisians. These stories and words are a way to humanize the history, to bring it to the level of the average person and show what it’s impact was.
The use of Americans in this role is similar, but with one significant different. The recollection of an American about living through the London blitz, for instance, will be very much the same as an account from a Briton. The difference, though, is that, in many cases, the American is free to leave. The American has a home across the ocean to return to if and when he or she wants to, a home where bombs are not being dropped.
This undercuts the history-writer’s account, it seems to me. True, an American in this case has a perspective on what’s going on that a resident doesn’t. But, at the same time, the American doesn’t have the perspective of the resident, specifically, the investment of the resident — and, so, the reader doesn’t get that. The residents have to live with whatever happens. The Americans can leave any time.
So, even though it’s a plus for American readers to experience an event or place from the vantage point of a fellow American, it’s also a negative.
What’s also a negative, from my point of view, is that this approach has a built-in story-telling tension that is difficult to resolve. How much attention should the writer give to the Americans in the text and how much to the event or place itself?
I found McCullough’s book about Americans in Paris to be frustrating for this reason.
As always, McCullough had wonderful anecdotes to tell and fascinating people to describe — but, in reading The Greater Journey, I felt that the role of Americans in the major events in the city’s history was negligible. I wanted to push them aside and have McCullough tells me the history of Paris, period.
“What they believed in”
Spain in Our Hearts doesn’t have some of these problems because the Americans who are at the center of Hochschild’s story volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, most of them for the constitutional, left-wing Republicans against the fascist Nationalist coup led by General Francisco Franco, an acolyte of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Although these Americans had another home to go to, they were participants in the war in a way the tourists in Paris, for example, weren’t. They fought and many died for Spain. Indeed, Hochschild notes:
Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in.
They were as much soldiers in the cause as were the Spanish and as were any of the other foreigners who fought for the Republicans in the International Brigades.
Perhaps it was happenstance, but Hochschild avoids too much of an American-centric focus to his book by not relying completely on participants from the U.S. In fact, for the first two-thirds of his book, most of the fighters he quotes aren’t Americans, but British. About 3,000 Americans fought for the Republicans, compared with about 2,500 Brits, but that number included the writer George Orwell as well as several others who were eloquent amateurs.
In fairness, the subtitle of might have read: Americans and Britons in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
“Everyone was happy”
And Hochschild doesn’t limit himself to people who later wrote memoirs in English. For instance, he quotes a French fighter about an aspect of the political revolution that took place during the war in Catalonia within the Republic:
“Four couples had been united since the beginning of the revolution. Accompanied by their families and their friends, they appeared before the secretary of the committee. Their first and last names, their ages and their desire to unite were recorded in a register. Custom was respected and the festivity was assured. At the same time, in order to respect libertarian principles, the secretary pulled out the page on which all these details were inscribed, tore it into tiny pieces while the couples were descending the stairway, and, when they were passing under the balcony, threw the pieces at them like confetti. Everyone was happy.”
As a writer, Hochschild is definitely on the side of the social revolutionaries in Catalonia and Barcelona as well as an admirer of the Republic in its fight against the fascist Franco. He is, after all, one of the founders of the left-wing Mother Jones magazine, as well as the author of several earlier books, such as the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998) and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2005).
Nonetheless, he is at pains to give a relatively objective account of the Nationalist side of the war although, because of his American-centric focus, he keeps it to a minimum since few Americans fought for Franco.
There were many Moors in the Nationalist army, and the image of these dark-skinned, hardly civilized warriors was terrifying to the Republicans. Still, Hochschild finds a way to see their humanity:
Although the Moors were demonized by the Republicans, they were themselves victims of extreme privation. Although entirely illiterate, with few prospects of employment, they had been drawn to the army from impoverished Moroccan villages in a time of severe drought by a hefty enlistment bonus of cash and food that promised survival for their families.
The Red Scare
Even so, it seems to me that Hochschild stumbles when he fails to examine a key reason why Western nations such as the United States refused to supply arms or otherwise support the Republic in its fight with the Nationalists — the revolutionary nature of the Republic and its embrace of socialism.
This was an era in which leaders and citizens in many nations around the world feared Socialism as a form of Communism. It was a fear that reached back to the French Revolution, and it was a fear that, earlier in the century, came to fruition in Russia with the Communist takeover in 1917.
During an international economic depression, the haves in every nation were afraid that the have-nots would rise up in a similar way.
I don’t think Hochschild needed to go deep into this subject, but Spain in Our Hearts would have been helped if a few pages or so had been included to provide a context in which the reader could better understand what had happened.
Perhaps for Hochschild, who is in the 70s, the reality of the Red Scare goes without saying, but many younger readers who didn’t grow up during the high tensions of the Cold War wouldn’t realize the Manichean nature of world politics for most of the 20th century.
“Tasting his tears”
I’m not sure why — again, it’s probably happenstance — Hochschild is able to find many more quotes from Americans to weave into the closing chapters of his account. The best are from poet-novelist James Neugras, an ambulance driver, who, describing a retreat, wrote:
“The English…came up the road in the moonlight. Too tired to swear, the men were wordless. The torn blankets over heads and shoulders and tied like skirts around the waist, the shoes wrapped with rags, the rifles on their shoulders gave them the appearance of a battalion of women beggars. Ranks of stretcher-bearers with eight-foot- spearlike poles added to the biblical quality of the scene.”
Another American, actor Alvah Bessie, wrote about the capture of some Nationalist soldiers:
“We were startled to see that they looked so much like us. Spanish, dressed in nondescript pickup uniforms, dirty and uncombed, unshaved, exhausted and patently terrified.”
As the war drew to an end and a Nationalist victory, the Republic made a vain effort to win help from the Western democracies by sending the remaining soldiers in the International Brigades home.
During a final march of the international soldiers through Barcelona — when they were told, “You are history. You are legend…. We shall not forget you.…” — Milton Robinson, a wounded medical student, was one of several riding on a truck. He recalled:
“A little boy, nine or ten years old, stood on the corner. Tears streaked a dirty line down his face. He saw our truck bearing down, bandages flash about. He dashed out, met the truck, and clambered up the side. Tears still streaming down his face, he thrust his arms about me, and kissed me on both cheeks. I kissed him tasting his tears.”
Patrick T. Reardon