From Spain In Our Hearts
by Adam Hochschild
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Daybreak, April the 4th, 1938. Shivering, exhausted and naked, two bedraggled swimmers climb out of the freezing water and onto the bank of Spain’s Ebro River, which is swollen with melted snow from the Pyrenees. Both men are Americans.
The country is in flames. For nearly two years, the fractious but democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic, has been defending itself against a military uprising, led by Francisco Franco, and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Franco, who has given himself the title of Generalissimo, has a framed photograph of Adolf Hitler on his desk, and has spoken of Germany as ‘a model which we will always keep before us’.
The skies above the Ebro this dawn, are dark with warplanes, state-of-the-art fighters and bombers, flown by German pilots, that the Führer has sent to the Generalissimo. On the ground, tanks and soldiers from Italy, some of the nearly 80,000 troops the dictator Benito Mussolini will loan Franco, have helped launch the greatest offensive of the war. A powerful drive from the western two-thirds of the country, which Franco controls, its goal is to reach the Mediterranean, splitting the remaining territory of the Spanish Republic in two.
Franco’s prolonged battle for power is the fiercest conflict in Europe since the First World War, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen, even then. His forces have bombed cities into rubble, tortured political opponents, murdered people for belonging to labour unions, machine-gunned hospital wards full of wounded, branded Republican women, on their breasts, with the emblem of his movement, and carried out death sentences with the garrote, a medieval iron collar used to strangle its victim.
Battered by the new offensive, the Republic’s soldiers are retreating chaotically, streaming eastward before Franco’s troops, tanks and bombers. In some places, his rapidly advancing units have leapfrogged ahead. The Republican forces include thousands of volunteers from other countries, many of them Americans. Some have already been killed. Franco has just announced that any foreign volunteer taken prisoner, will be shot.
Cutting through rugged mountainous country in Spain’s north-east, the fast-flowing Ebro, the country’s largest river, marks the line between death and safety: the east bank is still in Republican hands. Small clusters of American volunteers, trapped behind the lines, have succeeded in slipping past Franco’s troops by night, navigating by the North Star. After three days with little sleep, pursued by soldiers, tanks and cavalry guided by spotter planes circling overhead, they reach the Ebro before dawn, near a point where a bridge appears on the map. The bridge, they discover, has been blown up, and there are no boats. A few of those who cannot swim, desperately tear a door from an abandoned farmhouse, to use as a raft; other non-swimmers enter the river clinging to a log. Swept away by the current, at least six – four of whom are wounded – will drown.
The remaining three Americans who can swim, strip off their boots and all their clothing, and plunge into the icy water. One of them lands far downstream, but two young New Yorkers, John Gates and George Watt, who has a sprained ankle and a shrapnel wound in his hand, wade out of the water together, on the far side. As morning breaks, they head east, hoping to find someone who can tell them where the remains of their unit might be. ‘We walk stark naked, and barefoot, over a seemingly endless stretch of sharp stones and burrs, that cut our feet,’ Watt remembered. ‘We are shivering from the cold, and our feet are bleeding when we reach the highway. … A truck comes down the road. I wonder what must be going through the mind of the driver, seeing two naked men standing on the highway. He hands us a couple of blankets, and drives away.’
Gates recalled the next moment this way: ‘Hungry and exhausted, I felt I could not take another step. … We lay down on the side of the road, with no idea of who might come along, too beat to care. … Suddenly a car drove up, stopped, and out stepped two men. Nobody ever looked better to me in all my life. … We hugged one another.’
In the black two-seater Matford roadster are a New York Times correspondent, Herbert L. Matthews, and Ernest Hemingway, who is covering the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. ‘The writers gave us the good news of the many friends who were safe’, Gates wrote, ‘and we told them the bad news of some who were not’. Hemmingway and Matthews had often reported on the American volunteers in Spain, and knew some of them well. Many are now missing, including Major Robert Merriman of California, chief of staff of the XV International Brigade, last seen some ten miles away leading a party of soldiers about to be encircled by Franco’s troops. None of the four men by the river have any news of his fate.
‘There are hundreds of men still across the Ebro’, wrote Watt. ‘Many are dead; some are drowned. How many captured? We have no idea. Matthews is busy taking notes. Hemingway is busy cursing the fascists.’ The novelist’s notorious strut and bluster were on full display, though his audience consisted only of two wet, shivering men, wearing nothing but blankets. ‘Facing the other side of the river’, as Gates remembered it, ‘Hemingway shook his burly fist. “You fascist bastards haven’t won yet,” he shouted. “We’ll show you!”’
The war in which these four Amerians encountered each other near a riverbank, so far from home, was a pivotal event in Spain’s history. At the time it was also seen as a moral and political touchstone, a world war in embryo, in a Europe shadowed by the rapid ascent of fascism.
Few American volunteers doubted that they were fighting the first battle of a world war to come, and they were right: where else, after all, were Americans being bombed by Nazi pilots, more than four years before the United States declared war on Germany and Japan? In other countries as well, many felt the Spanish war to be the era’s testing ground.
‘Men of my generation’, wrote the French novelist Albert Camus, ‘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.’