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La Despedida

War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil WarWar Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass and Peter N. Carroll and Peter Glazer

Reviewed by Dan Kaufman
The Nation

"Who could see you and not remember you?" Federico Garcia Lorca wrote in 1926, describing the brutality of the Guardia Civil, Spain's paramilitary police, toward his beloved Gypsies. Ten years later, at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, that brutality would be visited upon Lorca when fascist soldiers loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco executed the poet and dumped his body in a fosa comun, a mass grave, near Granada. For decades, Lorca's insistence on remembrance clashed with Spain's post-Franco pacto del olvido, or pact of forgetting, an agreement between the government and the army that opened the door to democracy in exchange for a sweeping amnesty of the Franco regime. Recently, however, the pact has shown signs of unraveling. In 2007 Spain's Socialist government enacted the Law of Historical Memory, which for the first time officially acknowledges the victims of Franco's dictatorship. The law also allows anyone with evidence of a mass grave to ask the state for help in unearthing and identifying any human remains found in it. Last October, after a decade-long effort by Spanish human rights groups, the crusading judge Baltasar Garzon ordered the exhumation of nineteen Francoist mass graves, including the one believed to hold Lorca's corpse. Yet more than seventy years after Lorca was killed, the resistance to excavating the country's repressed memory remains fierce; a week after Garzon issued his order, Javier Zaragoza, Spain's chief prosecutor, challenged it on the grounds that the judge lacked jurisdiction. Fearful that the country's Supreme Court would agree with Zaragoza, Garzon tactically withdrew his order, referring it instead to Spain's provincial courts in the hope of keeping the investigation alive.

By chance, around the same time last year an unexpected exhumation of literary remains dating to the Spanish Civil War was completed with the publication of War Is Beautiful, a long-lost memoir by James Neugass, a volunteer ambulance driver during the conflict. The book's publication is remarkable for many reasons, not least the survival of the manuscript. In 2000, more than fifty years after Neugass died of a heart attack in a Greenwich Village subway station and nearly as many years after most of his papers were destroyed in a cellar flood, a book dealer discovered a manuscript of Neugass's in a Vermont bookstore that was believed to have come from the collection of Max Eastman, onetime editor of the influential leftist magazine The Masses. It had most likely been sent to Eastman for review, and in the margins someone, perhaps Eastman, wrote, "The title, 'War is Beautiful,' is a Fascist slogan. If this is naive and misdirected irony it is very dangerous." Five hundred pages long, an incomplete copy of the typewritten manuscript wound its way to Neugass's son Paul, and then to Peter Carroll and Peter Glazer, historians of American involvement in the conflict. The pair edited the original manuscript, now housed in a university library, and shaped it into the book published last year.

Nearly 3,000 Americans volunteered to defend the democratic Spanish Republic from a military revolt led by Franco, who was aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Shortly after the war began, the US government forbade Americans from entering Spain, so most entered the country illegally, usually by crossing the Pyrenees at night or occasionally by stowing away on small ships that embarked from France. The volunteers formed two American battalions and later became known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A separate, legal organization for aiding the Republic, called the American Medical Bureau, was founded by a New York surgeon named Edward Barsky. (The bureau owed its legality to a State Department exception for groups providing humanitarian aid.) Barsky established base hospitals in churches and monasteries, and set up a mobile medical unit. At its peak strength, Barsky's staff included more than 100 doctors, nurses and drivers. Neugass, a 32-year-old poet who made his living as a fencing instructor, cook, social worker and janitor, arrived in Spain in November 1937 and was assigned to be Barsky's aide and an ambulance driver.

For Neugass, two facts of the war were inescapable: Hitler and Mussolini were providing overt military support for Franco, and the Non-Intervention Agreement signed by the Western democracies, crucially France and Britain, forbade any involvement in the Spanish Civil War, including the sale of arms to the Republic. Italy and Germany were also signatories to the treaty, but they openly defied it: Italy dispatched more than 75,000 professional soldiers to aid Franco, and Germany mobilized pilots and a fleet of ultramodern bombers. (Responding to Germany and Italy's involvement in the war, the Soviet Union sent military equipment and some 3,000 personnel to aid the Republic.) Neugass's mind drifts to those tactical facts repeatedly, even when his immediate problem is commonplace. "The lack of a tire pump can kill a man as easily as the lack of a helmet. I haven't got one of those either. All of them are up at the lines...or should be," he wrote. "The entire country is organized to strengthen the thin thousand mile dam of dugouts, men and munitions which separate not only the Republic but every democratic nation on earth, from fascism." His metaphor proved prescient; five months after the Republic fell, Hitler invaded Poland.

Neugass's memoir, drawn from a contemporaneous diary, follows the haphazard rhythm of the war, moving jaggedly between boredom, fleeting triumphs and terror. Brief, vivid descriptions of daily life, such as an unpalatable dish of bacalao ("tastes like rawhide soaked in glue then boiled in machine oil"), mingle closely with unsentimental depictions of wounded soldiers. "A sniper got Fred Mowbray of New Orleans in the base of the spine," he writes. "Paralyzed from the waist down, urine accumulating in the kidneys, he begged to be catheterized.... He begged for morphine, which could not be given him. Crying all the more pitifully because he was not delirious, Fred was carried out of the ward and evacuated this morning. I hear that spine cases, sooner or later, all die." Neugass sometimes sounds like a world-weary, Popular Front Raymond Chandler. "The clay complexion of death is international," he writes. "What can you do? Go out and make more dead."

Conversant in Spanish and acquainted with Spain from his travels there before the war, Neugass is periodically able to slip out of his American skin and steal a local perspective of the conflict. During a short respite in Mezquita, a small town near the Aragon front, he is invited to join an impoverished family of twelve for dinner. "I was asked to eat," he writes. "When I looked at the size of the single earthenware jug in the fireplace, I answered that I had already had supper.... The mother lifted the crock from the fireplace and emptied a steaming mass of potatoes." The family insisted that Neugass share their food with them: thirteen people ate off a single plate. When they finished the potatoes, the meal was over.

After dinner, Neugass interviews the father of the family, a landless peasant. Neugass asks the man what political party he belongs to. "Soy revolutionario, como todos," he answers. Pressing the point, Neugass asks again to which party he belongs. "De los matafascistas.... I believe in the fascist-killer party," the man answers. "But which party is that?" Neugass asks. "That is every political party," the man replies. "What is communism?" Neugass asks, switching tactics. The man replies hesitatingly, "I don't know...significa, significa...tractors!... And the other parties also...communism, socialism, anarchism...it all means...machines for the land!"

The desperation of the peasant was typical of many who toiled at the bottom of Spain's semifeudal agricultural system. Much of the Spanish countryside was divided into enormous agricultural estates called latifundios, and the estate owners generally considered their workers to be almost indistinguishable from their other property. Between 1918 and 1921 a series of peasant uprisings erupted in southern Spain. Though the army and the Guardia Civil eventually put down the laborers' revolt, sporadic strikes and reprisals continued throughout agrarian Spain. The landowners, anxious to subjugate the peasantry, enthusiastically supported Franco's military revolt against the Republic, which had been trying, with limited success, to introduce land reform and break up the latifundios. Gen. Emilio Mola, an architect of the rebellion, articulated the fascists' method to regain control over the peasants in a martial law proclamation on the second day of the war: "Re-establishing the principle of authority unavoidably demands that punishments be exemplary both in terms of the severity with which they will be imposed and the speed with which they will be carried out."

Neither the landowners nor the fascist troops needed much encouragement. As the British historian Paul Preston details in a profile of Capt. Gonzalo Aguilera, an estate owner and press officer for Franco, the day before Mola's proclamation Aguilera lined up his workers, randomly selected six and publicly shot them as a warning to the others. (Aguilera's actions are not surprising in light of what he told an AP correspondent about the Spanish masses. "They are slave stock," he said. "They are good for nothing but slaves and only when they are used as slaves are they happy.") Near Cordoba, at the beginning of the war, a landowner shot ten of his workers in retribution for every fighting bull the workers had slaughtered for food during a brief collectivization of his estate. Outside Seville, fascist officers made peasants dig their own graves before shooting them. Just before the peasants were murdered, the officers mocked them. "Didn't you ask for a plot of land?" the officers yelled. "Now you're going to have one, and for ever."

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."

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 communiques 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 communist 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 Sebastien 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 Cordoba 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 Banos, 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.

Like Guernica, Segura endured a massive, unanswered aerial bombardment, another casualty of the Republic's outmatched forces. Barsky ordered Neugass and other members of the medical team to exhume civilian bodies from the ruins to prevent an outbreak of the plague. While sifting through the rubble, Neugass saw a farmer and his wife kneeling on the floor, staring at their bloodstained infant child. "The child had been suffocated," he writes. "Major B.'s [Barsky] hands can do many things but they cannot repair death. Remembering his first and useless instructions, the mother again and again breathed into the lips of what had been her daughter." Within a month, after a harrowing retreat through fascist territory in which he was nearly killed, the exhausted and emotionally drained Neugass decided to return home to "write what I had seen in Spain."

Two years ago, in the New York Sun, Ronald Radosh disputed that the Lincoln veterans went to Spain to save its democracy. "The kind of republic the volunteers sought was a prototype of what the Soviet Union created at the end of World War II," he wrote. But the effort to disparage the vets' motives began even before Barcelona fell to Franco. In January 1938, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to FDR's attorney general, Homer Cummings, detailing the warnings of a confidential source regarding the volunteers. According to Hoover, the source told him that the Communist Party was sending men to Spain "to train such individuals in the art of military science so that they can be returned to the United States to lead the vanguard of the revolution in this country." Hoover concluded by urging Cummings to inform Roosevelt of this secret plot.

After the war, the Lincoln veterans were labeled "premature antifascists" by the US military and Hoover's FBI, and countless vets were harassed at work or at home by FBI agents. In the early '40s Edward Barsky started an organization aimed at aiding the hundreds of thousands of Republican refugees who were living in concentration camps in southern France. At the time, the United States was anxious to solidify its bond with the anticommunist Franco. Barsky was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he refused to comply with the subpoena, partly on the grounds that the hearing could expose the names of the refugees. In 1947 Congress held Barsky in contempt; after a series of court battles he was sentenced to six months in prison (he served five) and temporarily stripped of his medical license. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence in an 8-1 decision.

For the Republican refugees, the Supreme Court's ruling was simply a continuation of the West's abandonment of the Spanish Republic. A German officer with the International Brigades described the scene of the refugees' arrival at the French border:

That afternoon the Republican troops came. They were received as though they were tramps.... The Spaniards were asked what was in the haversacks...and demanded that they should be opened. The Spaniards did not understand. Until the last moment they persisted in the tragic error of believing in international solidarity.... The dirty road on which the disarmed men stood was not merely the frontier between two countries, it was an abyss between two worlds. Under the eyes of the Prefect and the generals, the men of the Garde Mobile took away the bags and bundles containing the Spaniards' personal belongings and emptied their contents into a ditch filled with chloride of lime. I have never seen such anger and helplessness as those of the Spaniards. They stood as though turned to stone, and they did not understand.

For the vets it was difficult to leave Spain to the ravages of Franco. Garzon's judicial order accuses Franco and thirty-four accomplices of the disappearance and systematic killing of more than 114,000 people between 1936 and 1952, many of them interred like Lorca in fosas communes. Franco also sent an estimated 1 million political prisoners to jails, concentration camps or to work on forced labor battalions. Like Neugass, Matti Mattson, a 92-year-old former ambulance driver with the Lincolns, knew it was just the beginning. "We said, Just wait, there's another one coming," Mattson told me recently. Mattson left Spain in November 1938, when all the International Brigades were sent home. "It was very tough because the war was still going on and the prime minister decided if he sends us home maybe the Italians and the Germans will be sent home as well," Mattson said. "We had lost a lot of territory and retreated all the way in the Aragon. Republican Spain had been severed in two parts." On April 1, 1939, Franco announced the end of military hostilities. The same day, the United States, which like the other Western democracies remained neutral during the war, recognized Franco's government.

Last October, around the time of the publication of War Is Beautiful, Mattson returned to Barcelona for the seventieth anniversary of his departure, the day the Republic called La Despedida, the farewell. At his small, tasteful apartment in Brooklyn, he showed me one tangible provision of the Law of Historical Memory, an application for Spanish citizenship offered by the Spanish government to all surviving members of the International Brigades. But Mattson's eyes glowed much brighter when he recalled La Despedida: how the International Brigades marched on the Diagonal through the city and how he heard La Pasionaria's famous speech urging the volunteers to come back "when the olive tree of peace is in flower." He recalled it all with extraordinary vividness, especially the gratitude of the Spanish people for the precious gift of solidarity. "I never saw anything like it," he said. "People lined up on the sidewalks. All the balconies were full and the windows were full and women had flowers -- they'd come running out and give you flowers. After a while there were so many flowers that you couldn't take any more -- the flowers were all over the street. It was paved with flowers."

Dan Kaufman, a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, has written about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the New York Times and the New York Observer.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. War Is Beautiful: An American...
    Used Hardcover $12.50
  2. The Long Goodbye
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. Homage to Catalonia (Harvest Book)
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in... Used Hardcover $14.95



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