Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company

Some of my recent reading about the 1936-39 Spanish Civil war was inspired by my recent visit to Catalonia: I’ve posted on Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain; George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia; back in 2014 I wrote about Javier Cercas’ semi-fictional Soldiers of Salamisin which the lives of real and possibly imagined heroes of that terrible conflict are recounted in the context of the post-Franco ‘pact of forgetting’ – la desmemoria. In 2000 the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded; here’s what they say on their website:

In the spring of 2002, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called on the Spanish Government to comply with international law, calling on Spain to: undertake a proper exhumation of the bodies; return the remains to family members; arrange for their proper burial; and undertake a judicial investigation of the facts surrounding the disappearances.

Such developments have enabled the ARHM to campaign for the exhumation of the graves of the estimated 134,000 who disappeared during the war, and in the Franco dictatorship in Spain 1939-75:

It is estimated that 200,000 men and women were killed in extrajudicial executions during the War, and another 20,000 Republicans murdered by the regime in the post-war years. Thousands more died as a result of bombings, and in prisons and concentration camps. [ARHM website]

The recent news of the pending exhumation of Franco’s body from its grandiose tomb at the Valley of the Fallen complex 30 miles from Madrid, where lie buried some 34,000 bodies – most unidentified – from both sides of the conflict has led to calls for a South African-style ‘truth commission’ in Spain. It’s to be hoped that this will end the ‘desmemoria’, and enable exhumation, identification and decent burial of as many of those victims of the fascist era as possible. (I’m reminded as I write this of Javier Marías’s treatment of this theme in many of his novels).

Cover of Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good CompanyPulitzer Prizewinning author Richard Rhodes has produced in Hell and Good Company something rather different from the standard and well-known histories of the war by the likes of Hugh Thomas, Anthony Beevor and Paul Preston. He does give a highly readable, well researched chronological account of the war, from Franco’s shipping over thousands of Moorish mercenaries to support his coup against the democratically elected socialist Republican government, to his ultimate victory, taking Barcelona and finally Valencia, whence the government had decamped from besieged Madrid.

Also well known, and retold here, is the story of the military support provided to Franco by the shambolic but ruthless Italian duce and by Hitler – who cynically held back some of his troops and munitions to ensure the war dragged on as long as possible, to distract the attention of the British and French from his own sinister preparations for world domination.

Rhodes gives us the familiar stories of the big names associated with the war, including writers Orwell, Hemingway, Gellhorn and Dos Passos, and artists Picasso and the Catalan Miró. More interesting are the profiles of less prominent participants, from volunteers in the International Brigade to doctors and nurses (like Patience Darton) who pioneered medical and technological developments such as blood collection systems and the methods for preserving and subsequently using the stored blood in field-hospital transfusions – or simply made huge personal sacrifices in their struggle against the larger, better trained and better equipped fascist Nationalists.

The western democracies and the USSR effectively abandoned the anti-fascist Republic, while fascist states leapt at the chance to crush a leftist regime while establishing a strategically vital political-geographical foothold in preparation for the world war to come:

[French and British] businessmen allowed Franco to order on credit; Germany and Italy supplied him in exchange for shipments of Spanish minerals. The Soviet Union required the Spanish Republic to pay in gold, however, for its strictly commercial transactions. Spain shipped $518 million in gold to the USSR in late 1936, primarily to move it beyond the reach of Franco’s forces.

The Republic’s only major ally and supporter, the Soviet Union, gradually lost what little enthusiasm it had for the anti-fascist cause, and proved to be as cynical in its policies during the war as the Nationalists were murderous. Stalin seemed more anxious to eliminate anti-fascist, pro-Republican fighters like the POUM and the anarchists, as Orwell recorded, than to defeat Franco.

Particularly chilling are the accounts of the growing sophistication and thoroughness of the fascist aerial bombing campaigns that were to become such a feature in WWII; Spain was the testing-ground for Hitler’s infamous blitzkrieg – targeting and near-annihilation of largely civilian urban populations. Most famous, and related in sobering detail by Rhodes, was Guernica. The obliteration of the symbolic heart of the Basque Country by the ruthless German Condor Legion finally persuaded Picasso in Paris to paint his famous mural and openly declare his opposition to the fascist coup.

Despite shelters, Haldane reports that nationwide, up to May 1938, the number of Spanish children known to have been killed by bombing was 10,760…Civilian deaths from Franco’s bombing raids throughout Spain would total around 54.000 men, women and children among more than 100,000 civilian casualties from bombing alone.

The hardships endured by the thousands of Basque women and children evacuees foreshadowed the shameful anti-refugee callousness being witnessed again in Europe and elsewhere today. Near the end of the book Rhodes has this quotation from the Caudillo:

“Our regime”, Franco announced grandly [after his victory parade in Madrid], “is based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections”.

The ARHM website reminds us of Spanish-born philosopher Santayana’s famous statement, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. As one contemplates the anti-democratic behaviour of some of the western world’s leaders, and the disturbing rise of the forces of reactionary nationalist chauvinism, these are salutary words.

Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made is a Simon and Schuster paperback, published 2016. Unfortunately the black-and-white photo glossy plates numbered 15-26 in my edition are given twice; numbers 1-14 therefore are missing – annoying.