Book Review: Politics as sidelight

June 11, 2015

Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015). 

hell-and-good-company-9781451696219_hrIn the 40 years since the end of the Franco regime, scholarly work on the Spanish Civil War has plumbed its international significance as the first clash of the political ideologies of the twentieth century, as the first instance of targeting of civilians in aerial bombardment, or as the harbinger of new uses and abuses of propaganda. Writers have also examined a variety of local issues as well. What motivated the Spanish soldier and civilian to fight, or not to fight? How did one side win the war; how did the other lose it? Was the nature of violence unique to Spain or the product of a more comparative understanding and treatment of “the enemy” in this moment in world history? And what role does the Spanish Civil War continue to play in setting contemporary politics in a national “coming to terms with the past” that has defined so many other postwar experiences? 

According to Richard Rhodes in his new work, Hell and Good Company, such historical complexity has left behind key components of the war: the “human stories that [have] not yet been told or [have] been told only incompletely.” For Rhodes, historians apparently remain far too embedded in the politics of the era, asking only simplistic questions: “who was a communist, who was a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull.” Unfortunately, this is a false premise, a simplistic dismissal of historians who continue to “mull” the war. 

For Rhodes, historians apparently remain far too embedded in the politics of the era.

Rhodes’ book, distilled almost entirely from English language sources, actually approaches the war in a quite traditional way. It is a cinematic portrait governed by the rules of a cinematic portrayal: a worldwide event understood entirely through a group of characters who move about the narrative, appearing, disappearing and then re-appearing for a final time at the end of the book in a series of “what happened to them” vignettes. 

What we are left with is a kind of anti-interpretive interpretation, replete with human drama but stripped of the very meaning of the war for the people who did fight in it, both international volunteer and Spaniard. Surely, the reasons that dragged international volunteers to the war were not to experience hell and good company alone, as if war were an inevitable endeavor people just find themselves in, both horrible and romantic at the same time. Certainly, some of the reasons people fought, like party affiliation and ideological affinity, were what contributed to and actually produced the hell and the good company in first place. To treat their politics as a sidelight in the midst of a very ideological war is to tell a portion of the story, and a portion that purposefully eliminates human complexity.

Rhodes offers a numbing political statement about the war and its significance.

To be sure, Rhodes provides a good and well-told story for an audience that wants to be inside Picasso’s studio as he paints his antiwar masterpiece, Guernica, or that enjoys peering into the closet in Hemingway’s Madrid hotel room to see the stores of ham, cigars, soap and alcohol that bolstered the writer’s fame for wartime ingenuity and moxie. And in the most interesting parts of the book he gathers some less famous characters into the portrait. Rhodes includes nurses and doctors, Spanish and international alike, who perfected blood transfusion for wartime medicine. Rhodes is drawn to the dedication of medical professionals and their resourcefulness, all of which assuredly kept this war from being worse. Rhodes’s stories are often successful in this character-driven work. One cannot quickly shake off the New York Times correspondent, Herbert Matthews, confessing to eating cats “for want of any other meat” during the first months of the war, or a touching scene during the retreat from Teruel in 1938 of exhausted soldiers facing one more impassable obstacle, a herd of sheep blocking the entire convoy. The American surgeon Edward Barsky, one of the heroic recurrent characters of Rhodes’ story, must choose between plowing through the sheep or prolonging the suffering of the living and dying soldiers while they wait for the animals to trudge along their way. Barsky cannot bring himself to drive through the flock and instead shepherds them into houses that line the road, deploying one soldier in each house to mind the sheep while people and ambulances pass. Rhodes portrays these moments with a writer’s expert hand.

But amid the enjoyment with which one consumes these chapters, the reader does not lose the feeling that using these details to paint a broader portrait of the war as mere human drama between fighters, writers, soldiers, lovers, and comrades, offers a numbing political statement about the war and its significance. There is a danger in burying the meaning of past events by dismissing dense but real ideological contests and political fights that sparked them. As a result, Rhodes’ book in its desire to uncover some aspects of the past tends to bury others that are equally, if not more important. Losing the ideological forest for the romantic trees leaves us with an all too neutral account.    

Book Review editor Joshua Goode teaches history and cultural studies at the Claremont Graduate University.