La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War | The Nation


La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War

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Neugass's memoir is particularly important given the growing revisionist tendency in accounts of the Spanish Civil War published in the past decade. Prominent articles by George Packer in The New Yorker and Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair echo the sentiments of George Orwell--who in Homage to Catalonia described the Soviet-backed purge of the revolutionary militia he'd joined, and cautioned that any postwar Republican government was "bound to be Fascistic." Both Packer and Tanenhaus suggest that Spain would have faced a Stalinist future if the Republic had prevailed, and they praise Orwell as a singular prophet. Packer writes that unlike Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, "Orwell kept his bearings, neither turning the war into a stage for his own psychodrama nor wilting under the pressure of ambiguous reality." Tanenhaus's piece, "Innocents Abroad," asserts that the traditional view of the Spanish Civil War as a noble fight against fascism is the "last great myth of the 20th-century left" and that the conflict "brutalized and corrupted the idealistic young American volunteers." Like Packer, Tanenhaus praises Orwell as an exception to "the literary rule" and points out that Homage to Catalonia sold only 700 copies when it was released in Britain in 1938. In their unqualified admiration for Orwell, however, Packer and Tanenhaus slight the cautionary note in Lionel Trilling's introduction to the first American edition of Homage to Catalonia, published in 1952. Orwell, Trilling wrote, "told the truth, and told it in an exemplary way, quietly, simply, with due warning to the reader that it was only one man's truth."

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Dan Kaufman
Dan Kaufman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has written previously about the Spanish Civil...

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For Packer and Tanenhaus, Orwell's criticisms are backed by a trove of Soviet-held documents (the "Moscow Archives") unearthed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Particularly influential in the English-speaking world, and cited in Tanenhaus's piece, is a selection of these documents edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov and published in 2001 under the title Spain Betrayed. This collection, consisting mostly of private communiqués between Russian military and diplomatic officials in Spain and various officials in Moscow, provides an intriguing glimpse into the Soviet involvement in Spain. Interspersed with the documents are commentaries written by the book's editors. The book asserts that the newly discovered documents prove the Soviet Union "sought to take over and run the Spanish economy, government and armed forces in order to make Spain a Soviet possession."

Yet the documents teem with contradictions (sometimes within the same document) and resist such oversimplified conclusions. Revealing too are the documents the editors chose to exclude. As Helen Graham, a British scholar of the Spanish Civil War, points out in a thoughtful review of Spain Betrayed, the editors include only one document from 1939, when a military rebellion against the Socialist prime minister revealed how little the Soviets actually controlled the army and government of Spain. (Material from the Moscow Archives relating to this late rebellion was published in 1999 by two Spanish academics, Antonio Elorza and Marta Bizcarrando.) Graham is baffled by the lack of any context in the editors' commentary. "Professor Radosh and his co-editors leave entirely out of account the broader picture of Republican Spain at war," she writes. "It is as if they see it as a blank screen waiting to be written on by Soviet and Comintern players."

In his Vanity Fair article, Tanenhaus writes that several Lincoln deserters, whose names disappear from the Moscow Archives, faced "potential death sentences." But as Peter Carroll, Neugass's editor and the author of a scholarly history of the Lincoln Brigade, notes in a pointed essay called "The Myth of the Moscow Archives," there can be a vast difference between potential and actual. One of the men whom Tanenhaus suspects might have been shot, an African-American soldier named Edward Carter, returned to the United States after fighting in Spain. Carter served in the US Army in World War II and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Clinton. Carroll, who was one of the first researchers to view the Moscow Archives, stresses the need for skepticism and rigor when drawing on the archives' documents: "Reports sent to the Kremlin by Soviet generals can hardly be taken at face value or treated as statements of policy without considering that reporters serving under Stalin would, to put it mildly, attempt to place themselves in the best light."

The recollections of the surviving Lincoln veterans, who now number only a couple dozen, are the most poignant reminders of the need to heed Trilling's warning. George Sossenko, a 90-year-old vet who fought in the anarchist Sébastien Faure Century and was later adopted by the Lincolns, recently told me, "The Soviet Union, with some assistance from Mexico, was the only country which helped the Spanish Republic. They put a lot of money in it. No need to say that they didn't want to have on their side other ideological groups competing with them." At the same time, Sossenko feels that the divisions in the Republic were overemphasized and varied widely. He mentioned his anarchist militia as an example: "I was on the Aragon front with Durruti's army [Buenaventura Durruti, the Spanish anarchist leader], and very often we received Russian supplies and weapons." Sossenko, like Neugass, believes that the focus on the left's infighting is meant only to obscure the larger betrayal of Republican Spain by the Western democracies.

Jim Benet, a 95-year-old ambulance driver with the Lincolns and a former editor and reporter at The New Republic, was particularly unimpressed with Orwell's account. "In the first place he was terribly arrogant," Benet told me. "He wanted it to be about a different thing than it was." Benet feels that Orwell, who understood little Spanish, was missing a key part of the story. ("When I came to Spain, and for some time afterwards, I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it. I knew there was a war on, but I had no notion what kind of a war," Orwell admits in Homage to Catalonia.) "I think the people who were connecting it only with the Russians and Stalin were overreaching," Benet said. "It did seem to us at the time that basically this was a Spanish thing, and of course people took sides. The Russians took sides and the Germans took sides, but basically it was a Spanish conflict."

Still, some of the vets were strongly critical of the Soviet presence in Spain. Maynard Goldstein, a 95-year-old Lincoln volunteer and likely the last American survivor of Jarama, the brigade's first battle, worked closely with the Soviets after he was promoted to intelligence officer. "Our problems were the Russian system of government, of military operation," he told me. "I got into fights with the Russians." After the civil war ended, Goldstein planned to spy on the Nazis in Belgium for the Soviets. He returned to New York and awaited contact from Moscow, but after a year with no word he gave up; instead he became involved in the Communist Party in the Bronx before breaking with the party in 1948 over Tito. Despite his criticism of the Soviets, however, Goldstein doesn't blame them for the Republic's loss. "The fascists were the professional soldiers," he said. "Did we have any great battles? No. It was a question of holding the lines, and that wasn't easy."

Other volunteers, like Neugass, embraced a nonideological, though fierce, antifascism. Neugass describes a scene on the Córdoba front where a group of Lincoln soldiers were attacked at night and forced to withdraw to the next hill, leaving behind several wounded men. Before morning, as the Lincolns were approaching the hill, they saw large fires burning. The wounded Americans were being burned alive. "Not only were there no fascist wounded brought in that night," Neugass writes, "but no prisoners were taken."

Despite those brief moments, Neugass wasn't prone to vengeance. "I am a poor hater of people and a great hater of ideas," he writes. Toward the end of his service in Spain, he describes a moment that sheds light on the meaning of the title he gave his manuscript. In a relatively unscathed village near Segura de los Baños, the site of one of the Republic's last-ditch counter-offensives, Neugass manages to buy 250 extremely scarce eggs for the wounded men and the hospital staff. Besides the Republican wounded, the hospital had taken in an injured, delusional fascist prisoner whose hunger complicated the delicate question of distributing the eggs:

A great change came over the fascist this morning. Sana [a nurse] had soft-boiled a quantity of eggs for the patients. As she worked down the ward, carefully feeding liquid gold into the mouths of each man, I wondered what she would do when she got to the fascist. The sheet had come down from his face and he was for once quiet. The eyes of even the half-conscious were on him and on Sana. Would he be fed?... The fascist should be given an egg although the other wounded in the ward look at him as if he were the one who shot them, and perhaps he was.... With the entire ward looking at her, Sana held the fascist head-case in her arms and fed him two soft-boiled eggs. She is not Mary Magdalen and he is not Christ. If this is religion, then I am religious.

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