Spain in Our Hearts – A Worthwhile Addition to Spanish Civil War History

Adam Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is an excellently written contribution to histories of the Spanish Civil War. It does have some points against it but overall I would recommend the book.

Spain in Our Hearts was a book I was considering where to place on my frequently growing reading list. I was looking through it at a store and figured I would get it. Then I saw a quote on the cover that told me I should read it soon: “With all due respect to Orwell, Spain in our Hearts should supplant Homage to Catalonia as the best introduction to the conflict written in English.” That grabbed my attention as someone who was introduced to the Spanish Civil War, as well as a world of politics I scarcely knew, by a copy of Homage to Catalonia I picked up at a yard sale as a teenager.

Hochschild skillfully brings archival research together with other histories to tell the stories of international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, primarily Americans. The text discusses who they were, why they got involved, what they had to contend with in Spain, and how they said they felt about it. It includes wealthy, poor, black, white, male, and female actors, Loyalists and Nationalists. The narrative is gripping, moving, informative, and punctuated with memorable episodes like a writer tagging along on a daring sabotage raid.

A significant strength of the book is how it locates the Spanish Civil War in the international political situation of the time: Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia, Hitler’s maneuvering in Europe, Stalin’s ruthlessness, politics in the USA.

The two major flaws I see are that the book could use more background on the situation in Spain prior to the outbreak of the war, and that its sample of American volunteers focuses too narrowly when it comes to political affiliation.

To be sure, a large percentage of the Americans who fought Franco were Communist Party members, and the book does look into what they believed and whether their beliefs were shaken. However, a book about Americans in the Spanish Civil War ought to include some of the anarchists who went to Spain, whether famous personalities like Emma Goldman or lesser known activists.

As for conditions in Spain, the young Spanish Republic was trying to overcome a near-feudal situation in the face of stiff opposition from monarchists, fascists, and the politically powerful Spanish Catholic Church, all while dealing with anarchists and radical socialists pushing for revolution. Spain had a long history of violent politics, including brutal crackdowns and assassinations carried out by partisans of various political affiliations. Hochschild does give a brief overview, but much of the situation in Spain comes in trickles and a reader might not get a sense of why there was a war to fight in Spain.

Overall I would say Spain in our Hearts is a good book and I would recommend it. It does indeed make a good introduction to the war, though Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain is certainly a stronger overview. Whether it makes for a better introduction than Homage to Catalonia is another question, but I would certainly say the books are different in scope and style.

Adam Hochschild, Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2016, paperback 2017)

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