When Did World War II Start? And When Will It End? Reflections inspired by Guernica [part 1]

August 30, 2023

Barton Carter in Spain.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, James D. Fernández had agreed to visit Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid with a group of students from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.  The trip was canceled, and instead, he delivered a zoom lecture to the students about Guernica without Guernica, which we reproduce here, in two parts (conclusion in the December issue).

When does something, anything, begin? When does something, anything, end?

These are the kinds of questions that would often get me in trouble as a kid. My school teachers weren’t very interested in such fuzzy inquiries. And at home, my no-nonsense and always-occupied mom had a standard response to these sorts of Saturday-morning musings: “Jimmy: you’re talking crazy again. Things start when they start, and they finish when they finish. Like this conversation; now go and play, I have things to do…”

These questions bother a lot of people because beginnings and ends are among the few things we usually feel most certain about. The details of whatever it was that happened between the start and the finish of something, that we might disagree about; that might be open to interpretation. But beginnings and endings? We tend and we need to carve those in stone. Literally. And we spend a good part of our lives marking and commemorating those rock-solid landmark certainties in our own trajectories, and in the trajectories of our families, communities, nations.

But let’s stop for a moment, and put aside the Monday-to-Friday-nine-to-three certainties that have been chiseled into us like the Roman alphabet; let’s channel our curious inner kids, on one of those lazy Saturday mornings, when we’re not busy memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance or studying for a History quiz…

When does something, anything—a war, a love, a movement—actually begin? When does something, anything, actually end?


On a picturesque campus in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, there is a college chapel. And in that chapel, there is a bronze plaque dedicated to the Williams College faculty and students who died during World War II. And on that plaque, among the dozens of engraved names, places and dates of death, there is one entry that jumps out: “Barton Carter, Calaceite, Spain, 1937.”

An American dying in World War II in 1937! And in Spain! Surely, this must be some kind of mistake…

Any schoolgirl will tell you that World War II began in Europe on September 1, 1939. Any schoolboy will cite December 7, 1941 as the day that World War II began for the United States. The men and women who, after that date, volunteered or were drafted to take part in World War II, would come to be celebrated as the “Greatest Generation,” extraordinary people who made tremendous sacrifices and demonstrated great heroism in the effort to put down Fascism once and for all.

But Barton Carter? He died in Spain, four full years before Pearl Harbor, two long years before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Carter was a volunteer in what would come to be known—somewhat inaccurately—as the Spanish Civil War. Though this so-called Civil War did pit Spaniard vs. Spaniard, the conflict quickly became international, as within days of the onset of the coup that unleashed the war, Hitler and Mussolini intervened on the side of the insurgent generals, and before long, the Soviet Union would come to the aid of the loyalist forces. To the chagrin of Spain’s democratically elected government—and of antifascists all over the world—the UK, France and the US, in full appeasement mode, decided to remain neutral, and even imposed—and enforced—an embargo on the sale of arms to the Republic.

The war in Spain was felt with great force and immediacy in the US. In an unprecedented display of international solidarity, some 2,800 American men and women risked life and limb by traveling to Spain, to take up the fight against international fascism. These volunteers, eventually known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were just the tip of the iceberg. Hemingway’s now iconic portrait of an American participant in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls features a rugged and solitary WASP idealist from Montana. But most of the non-fiction volunteers emerged from vast, intensely mobilized communities, which were decidedly urban, working-class, and ethnic. For each man or woman who took the extraordinary step of volunteering in Spain, there were thousands who stayed behind, raising funds to send medical supplies to the besieged government, urging the FDR government to “Lift the Embargo Against Loyalist Spain,” and doing their bit to “make Madrid the tomb of fascism.”

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain came to occupy a space in the US imaginary similar to the place held by Vietnam in the 1970s, or Syria in the 2010s, or Ukraine in the 2020s; a relatively small piece of far-away real estate that seemed like the point of collision and upheaval of all of the world’s major ideological tectonic plates. And for those three long years, all eyes were on Spain. And yet…

Exactly six months after Franco’s troops marched triumphantly into Madrid, Hitler invaded Poland and, according to most standard accounts, World War II was officially underway. The horrors of that war undoubtedly help explain why the memory of Spain was subsequently eclipsed and almost forgotten in the US. But there were other forces in play in the immediate post-war period that would help transform how—and even if—Spain would be remembered.

At the time, many perceived the Spanish Civil War as being entirely of a piece with what subsequently came to be known as World War II. For starters, the Lincoln volunteers frequently and presciently depicted themselves as soldiers who in Spain were attempting to stave off another world war. In November of 1937, for example, volunteer Hy Katz would write home to his mother:

If we sit by and let them grow stronger by taking Spain, they will move on to France and will not stop there; and it won’t be long before they get to America. Realizing this, can I sit by and wait until the beasts get to my very door—until it is too late, and there is no one I can call on for help? And would I even deserve help from others when the trouble comes upon me, if I were to refuse help to those who need it today?

In March of 1945, no less an authority than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself, in a private missive to a diplomat, would characterize the clear continuities he saw between the war in Spain and the rest of WWII:

Most certainly we do not forget Spain’s official position with and assistance to our Axis enemies at a time when the fortunes of war were less favorable to us, nor can we disregard the activities, aims, organizations, and public utterances of the Falange, both past and present. These memories cannot be wiped out by actions more favorable to us now that we are about to achieve our goal of complete victory over those enemies of ours with whom the present Spanish regime identified itself in the past spiritually and by its public expressions and acts.

Even a publication like Stars and Stripes, a semi-official organ of the US Armed Forces, would, in its European edition of July 1945, unhesitatingly affirm: “Nine years ago last week, the first blow was struck in World War II. On July 17, 1936, in the picturesque garrison town of Melilla, in Spanish Morocco, a Spanish general and his Moroccan regiments proclaimed civil war against the infant, five-year-old Republic and its government…”

From the vantage point of 1945 the general contours of how the Spanish Civil War was likely to be remembered into the future were clear: as part and parcel of the long struggle against international fascism. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Fifties…

Between 1945 and 1955, Francisco Franco managed to refashion himself completely. No longer an ally of the defeated Axis—in fact, he would claim that he had never really been such a thing—and invigorated by the chill of the Cold War, Franco repackaged himself as a stalwart anti-communist, ruling over a strategic land mass at the corner of Africa and Europe. And it worked. If, for FDR, Franco had been a pariah ruler, for Truman and Eisenhower, the Generalissimo would become a crucial partner in the war between “freedom” and “communism.” Truman and Eisenhower effectively helped end the Franco regime’s ostracization from the post-war international community of nations. In exchange, the US got to build an archipelago of military bases on Spanish territory.

For Franco to go from being “Adolph’s Man in Madrid” to being “Ike’s Man in Madrid,” a lot of history would have to get rewritten, on both sides of the Atlantic. And so it was. Peter Carroll reminds us of how it was not until 1952 that the first US edition of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” was issued. Orwell’s book was a powerful indictment of how the Communist Party had attempted brutally to squelch the social revolution that was unleashed in Spain in 1936, and Orwell’s anti-communist book quickly became a fixture of the Cold War canon. It didn’t seem to matter much to right-wing cold warriors that Orwell’s positions were, on the whole, far to the left of the official popular front communist stance during the Spanish Civil War.

And before long, in both Spain and the US, the Spanish Civil War could be talked about not as an opening bracket, a provisional beginning, for the antifascist World War II, but instead, as one of two things; 1) a self-contained exotic object, a kind of ethnic, fratricidal bloodletting, neatly bracketed and framed by its own deeply carved starting and ending dates [1936-39]; or 2) an early chapter of an entirely different story, the Cold War annals of communist mischief and perfidy.

But let us go back to the plaque in the chapel on the campus in the woods. From the vantage point of 1946, a community mourning loved ones lost in WWII could reasonably see fit to include Spanish Civil War dead in their tributes. Barton Carter’s name on that plaque in the chapel of Williams College in the woods of the Berkshires was right where it belonged. It just so happens that the answer to “When did WWII begin?” depends on where, when and to whom you ask the question.

James D. Fernández is Professor of Spanish at NYU, director of NYU Madrid, and a longtime contributor to The Volunteer.