The barbarity of the Spanish Civil War, in which both Republican and Nationalist (fascist) forces committed widespread atrocities, is brought graphically into focus by author Adam Hochschild in a discussion of the fate of Republican women captured by General Francisco Franco’s troops.
Rape was employed as a weapon of war by the fascists, with officers especially encouraging their Moorish troops. Hochschild writes about an incident witnessed and reported by John T. Whitaker, a correspondent with the New York Herald Tribune. Whitaker was with Nationalist troops at a crossroads on the main road to Madrid. Two teenage girls were brought before a major. Their only crime: one of them, a textile factory worker, was carrying a union card.
After interrogating them, the major “had them taken into a small schoolhouse where some 40 Moorish soldiers were resting. As they reached the doorway an ululating cry rose from the Moors within’’.
Whitaker “stood horrified in helpless anger”. When he protested, the major replied, “Oh, they’ll not live more than four hours.”
On the Republican side, brutal killings of real and perceived enemies were routine in the months following Franco’s military revolt on July 17, 1936, against the democratic government in Madrid, a left-wing coalition under the umbrella of the Popular Front. In particular, Spanish anarchists, a prominent political force in Catalonia, were known for violence.
“The people targeted in these early months were Nationalist supporters of all sorts: landowners, shopkeepers, businessmen — particularly those known for acting harshly toward the poor,’’ Hochschild writes.
“As in the French Revolution, the Catholic clergy was also a prime target … The Church was seen as a hand-maiden of the big employers and landlords, promising abundance in the next world to workers denied their fair share in this one. Altogether, nearly 7000 clergy were put to death, one of the largest such massacres in modern times”.
It was to this brutal conflict that thousands of young men and women from around the world were irresistibly drawn. Most declared for the reformist Spanish Republic, with its radical programs of nationalisation and redistribution, including several dozen Australians, who are commemorated in a small monument by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.
It is with the American volunteers, who made up the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington battalions of the XV International Brigade, that Hochschild is mostly concerned in Spain in Our Hearts.
The author teaches journalism at the Uni- Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 By Adam Hochschild Macmillan, 352pp, $34.99
Republicans battle for the Alcazar in Toledo in 1936, left; Ernest Hemingway flanked by fellow writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Gustav Regler in Spain in 1937, right