Friday, March 25, 2016

Spain's Hold on Our Outlook

Today's New York Times had two major articles devoted to the Spanish Civil War. To me, this merely demonstrates that this regional conflict of the late '30s (1936-39) still plays a major part in the way we think about politics, war, government, and yes, lost causes. The first piece was a review of Adam Hochschild's new book, Spain in Our Hearts, which explores how we still must reckon with the influence of this particular conflict.

As the reviewer, Dwight Garner, notes, just on the artistic side, this war produced two of the greatest works of literature: Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and George Orwell's memoir, Homage to Catalonia.  The Spanish Civil War, of course, was where Orwell must have acquired his deep hatred of both Fascism and Communism. He fought for the Loyalists (Republicans), who, when not fighting the Nationalists, Franco's side backed by Hitler and Mussolini, were resisting being dominated by their major supporters, Stalin's Comintern. Orwell was no sunshine soldier: he suffered injuries in combat in Spain that likely helped shorten his life.

But if there is any magnificent and totally sobering artistic legacy of this war, it is, of course, Picasso's incredible huge mural, Guernica, depicting the carpet-bombing of a Spanish city by Franco's forces, but perhaps the most all-encompassing depiction of the horrors of war. This was produced by surely the preeminent painter of the 20th Century, who also sympathized all his life with the Communists, despite the wealth his art provided him, probably because he never forgot that the Communists supported the democratic government when no other great powers, not Britain, France, or the U.S., came to its aid. Not only would he not return to his native Spain while Franco ruled, but he kept Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in  New York until Spain eventually returned to democracy after Franco's death.

Thus there has always been something highly romantic about the brave volunteers who went to Spain on their own dime and put their lives in danger on behalf of an idea, that of the world's powers, only the Soviet Union was supporting. The Americans formed the American Lincoln Brigade, and last year, the last veteran of that noble cadre, died at age 100. Today he was memorialized by none other than John McCain in the Times, who respected Dwight Berg, who never renounced his Communism, for fighting for what he believed in on the side of the good guys in Spain.

It was good to see McCain behaving again like the maverick he was until he toed the party line to get himself nominated for President by the Republicans in 2008. In the 1950s, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets were not treated so kindly by Lincoln's GOP. The McCarthyites hounded them as Communists, whether or not they were such and, more important, whether or not it mattered in terms of their fighting in Spain. Many of them ended up fighting the Stalinists as fervently as they waged war against Franco.

The reason the memory of this unsplendid little war will never die was best expressed, perhaps, by Albert Camus, from whose words Hochschild took the title of his book: 
"Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded."

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