Peter N. Carroll. From Guernica to Human Rights: Essays on the Spanish Civil War. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2015. 216 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-238-0.
Reviewed by Brian R. Price (Hawaii Pacific University)
Published on H-War (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was fought between a coalition of fascists, conservatives, and property owners, supported by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, led by Francisco Franco on one side and a communist-dominated coalition that included socialists and small-d democrats supporting the Spanish Republic on the other. Coming as it did on the eve of the Second World War and widely viewed (then and now) as something of a dress rehearsal for the war, the Spanish Civil War signaled a new kind of conflict, one driven by ideology rather than by pure nationalism. Peter N. Carroll’s From Guernica to Civil Rights is a compendium of essays written over the author’s long career as a writer and tenured professor of history. The essays seek to disentangle the motivations of Americans drawn to serve in the war on the republican side, in particular fighters in the International Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as well as the support/challenge they received from American artists and writers, such as Ernest Hemingway. Relying on hundreds of interviews, correspondence, and images of the war he has personally gathered over a lifetime, Carroll argues that Cold War views of communism as monolithic obscure the republican and antifascist sentiment that motivated many of the 2,800 fighters who went (illegally) to fight. As he writes, “By going to Spain to fight fascism, the men and women who served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade stepped outside the political consensus to defend the principle of democratic government in a foreign country” (p. 131). They did so at great expense, and this book is intended as a kind of memorial to their sacrifice.
As a collection of essays written over a considerable span of time, there is significant overlap in content and argument, as the author notes with an apology in the preface. Carroll notes that many of the essays have been refined or rewritten as new evidence has surfaced, such as the opening of the Moscow archives or his discovery of oral histories or letter caches. Although this is a historical work, the selections are essays, rather than histories, so they often lack citation to aid the student who wants to check on a quote’s context or accuracy. This shortcoming is due to the essay form, certainly, but I would have been more satisfied had the references been more substantial. There are numerous places where the author makes assertions regarding the motivations of one side or the other in the war, but for Franco’s side in particular there are no citations of evidence supporting the assertions; indeed, the author seems to share the republican side’s tendency to view Franco’s coalition as monolithic, rather than composed of a coalition responding to a perceived threat. He is more nuanced on the republican side, as will be discussed in detail below, but in both cases, from a historian’s perspective, the lightly cited writing weakens the argument. This is unfortunate because the author clearly has spent a lifetime gathering a cache of fascinating and illuminating documents, but we glimpse only a very few, although some of those are quite interesting.
Despite this flaw, the work is a substantial contribution to our understanding of the republican side of the war. It is a “war and society” book that looks at the composition of the 2,800 volunteers of the brigade and attempts to separate their ideology from the “monolithic” Stalinist one Carroll finds dominant in Cold War era and post-Cold War era studies. There can be no doubt of the author’s identification with members of the Lincoln Brigade or his self-declared obsession with the conflict. In my view, this represents at once the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
In building understanding of the republican side, from their own perspective, there is perhaps an unintended benefit: we see how those on the “left” (communists, socialists, and democrats) saw their opponents. While he refers to Franco’s coalition throughout the book as “Fascist”—the word drawn from the frequent and well-established narratives of the fighters themselves—there is no sense of nuance for understanding Franco’s side, which was composed of staunch Catholics (who might have had religious motivations rather than political ones); landholders (potentially opposed to the communist-led insurgents for a variety of social, economic, and personal reasons); and members of the Fascist Party. Carroll does not mention that Franco’s party, Falangismo, was itself a nationalist party that may be seen as in competition with the communists, advocating strong Spanish nationalism; a renewal of the Spanish empire; an anticapitalist, syndicalist economy based on a partnership of workers and employers; and a “third way” between capitalism and communism that claimed to respect private property. Indeed, Franco purged elements of the Falangismo he considered to be fascist. Carroll’s work is valuable, however, precisely because it illuminates how his sources may have seen their adversaries as monolithic fascists. Certainly, as he notes, that is how the opponents saw the Republic, as left-wing communists or communist sympathizers. It strikes me that each side saw the other with a blend of fear, disgust, and even hatred, a view that seems to accord with the times, as well as with the Cold War and post-Cold War studies on the conflict. The war was an ideological one, and ideologies tend, in my observation, to obscure understanding of the opponent; the Spanish Civil War seems a lesson in the intractable destruction that can result when ideologies collide. This is valuable.
In almost every essay, Carroll’s intent remains to rehabilitate the motivations of those who fought with and under the communists, arguing that their ideology focused on antifascism, liberty, and republicanism rather than on Stalinist-driven communism. Of these, he finds the first the most important, because it might separate them from their communist leadership. He writes, “It is likely that many of the volunteers combined such earnest patriotism with ideological desires and went to Spain to fulfill promises of the Communist International and perhaps to hasten the social revolution in Spain and elsewhere. But there are very few surviving statements of volunteers who said that. By contrast, nearly all did say that they went to Spain to fight fascism. Communists certainly had reasons to fight fascism, but so did other social groups” (p. 66).
The difficulty is that while such groups had multiple identities—and Carroll does a superb job of illuminating them, as we will see below—three quarters of them were also communists. By downplaying or eliminating the communist ideology from the narrative, Carroll romanticizes their passion, although he is not wrong to show us the depth of passion and commitment that an ideology can hold. Importantly, we have no granularity as to what “fascism” meant to the volunteers; it was a common term applied to all kinds of “counter-revolutionary” regimes, democratic among them. American radical groups have termed the American government fascist as well, as opponents to the Iraq war did with President George W. Bush. It seems to me that definitions matter, and that words like “liberty” and “republicanism” can be quite problematic when used in an ideological context. The author may be right, that these expressions accord more closely with mainstream democratic values than is usually appreciated, but he may not. This is where more detailed citation would have been extremely useful.
This aside, Carroll makes many good points in his efforts, conceding that three quarters of those who fought were avowed communists, but noting that one had to declare oneself a communist to get into the fight. He counters the commonly held view of those who fought as young idealists, offering interesting statistics. The average age was 27 ½. Most were unmarried and came from large cities, many of which (such as New York) had a high percentage of immigrants. He notes that a good many were of Jewish descent, and that treatment of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany prompted their decision to oppose fascism. Carroll’s case is perhaps strongest here, where the blended ethnic motives likely interwove with other strands of ideology, but he offers excellent quotes in support of his case. He looks at several interesting women participants, who drove ambulances or participated as nurses (some seventy served), devoting an entire chapter to their profiles (“American Women in the Spanish-American War”), and African Americans (some ninety served), who also took up the challenge, turned off by the economic malaise of the Depression and the anguishing pressure of segregation in America. The social roots of those who served form perhaps the most interesting essay, “The Social Origins of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” a much-revised work that has two parts, one arguing directly against the reach of Stalinist advisors on the ideology of those who served and a second part that looks at their demography.
Carroll argues that “ideology, not scholarship, typically serves as the guiding point both for the assumptions and conclusions as well as for the methodology of the work” (p. 56), referring to Cold War and post-Cold War studies, exacerbated by the top-down view enhanced by study of the Communist Party archives opened in Moscow during the 1990s. He finds the monolithic idea of communism problematic, and it is here that he faces a potent challenge, because he must address the historical evidence left from the above-mentioned archive, charging that in Cold War and post-Cold War scholarship the republican fighters “do not exist as historical actors, but only as people who followed the dictator’s [Joseph Stalin] orders; there is no distinction between party leaders and followers; there is no room for individual dissent, or personal passion” (p. 61). In making this case, he offers two arguments. First, he argues that the volunteers appear to have opposed the Allies’ war with Nazi Germany, although he notes also that their opinions shifted in parallel with the Soviet Union in 1939, reinforcing the appearance of confirmation. Second, he finds that some noncommunist members opposed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, and that the VALB (Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) did not represent the views of the noncommunist members who failed to join. These two points do not quite make the case. Did not the VALB align with Soviet policy? Did not the majority support the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939? The author makes a good case that some dissented from Soviet policy, but he cannot seem to decouple the Communist Party apparatus in Spain from Moscow. Later, he offers that the efforts by the Communist Party leadership might have been different than the efforts of the followers, but he offers little evidence. He may be right, but without the evidence, the passionate defense remains an assertion.
While I find the most impactful material in the above-cited essay, “The Social Origins of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” there are a number of other interesting chapters that make the volume worthwhile. In his first chapter, “From Guernica to Human Rights,” the author makes a good case for the importance of focusing on the social history of conflicts like the Spanish Civil War, by looking closely at expressions of why individuals fought and examining expressions of antifascism; but, with the term “fascism” undefined, we do not really know to what extent they subscribed to the length and breadth of the communist ideology. But he finds in this struggle the roots of the modern human rights movement, in the passion, humanism, and sacrifice of the volunteers and others like them. Certainly this is a laudable thing worthy of study.
His chapter 7, an essay entitled “Ernest Hemingway, Screenwriter,” includes a number of rare letters between Hemingway and Donald Friede of the Myron Selznick Company, responsible for the production of the film adaptation of his From Whom the Bell Tolls, written mostly in 1942, detailing problems with the writer’s interpretation of his work. This is valuable historical material for students of film or American social history of the period. Carroll deserves significant credit for bringing this material to light.
Chapter 9, “Premature Anti-Fascists, Again,” discusses the anguished postwar experience ofvolunteers who returned to the United States. This piece is a powerful bit of social writing that first appeared in the The Volunteer in 2003. In chapter 10, provocatively titled “The Myth of the Moscow Archives,” the author attacks two works based on the archival material, judging them ideologically motivated rather than rooted in scholarship. He argues that, “While the Moscow archives can provide an immense amount of raw data, the records do not necessarily make anyone more knowledgeable. Facts are easily bent; fictions easily refined into history” (p. 142). The author, who traveled to Moscow as one of the first to view the archives and had many documents microfilmed and deposited into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) collection now at New York University’s Tamiment Library, expresses outrage that the records have been used to reinforce what he sees to be misinterpretations of the volunteers’ motivations and of the history of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He cites several conclusions by recent authors he finds especially egregious, but, to me, this signals that the debates will range on for a time yet, as the material that Carroll has painstakingly assembled is interpreted and debated. The author’s efforts to bring nearly one hundred thousand documents on microfilm to the ALBA collection is laudable, but I am uncomfortable with the sharp dismissal of studies founded on them, citing only an inaccuracy or two to discredit entire works. I would argue that the problem of ideology cuts both ways.
From Guernica to Human Rights represents perhaps a personal kind of festschrift, a laudable testament to a passionate historian’s long obsession with a little understood chapter in American and international history. He makes a number of very good points, illuminating something of the perspective of those Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and those who supported them, like Hemingway. His passion provides an unexpected and welcome window into the perspectives of those defending the Republic, though there remains room for further nuanced study into what precisely the ideas of “fascism” and “liberty” meant to those brave idealists who flaunted their government to fight against Franco and the Falangismo coalition.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Brian R. Price. Review of Carroll, Peter N., From Guernica to Human Rights: Essays on the Spanish Civil War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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