About the Author
Richard Rhodes is the author of numerous books and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He graduated from Yale University and has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Appearing as host and correspondent for documentaries on public television’s Frontline and American Experience series, he has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard and MIT and is an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Visit his website: RichardRhodes.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Hell and Good Company ONE
News Arrives of the Death of Others
Barcelona, 25 July 1936: In the glare of Spanish summer, the first witnesses to the igniting civil war are leaving to tell the world. Many are American and European athletes enrolled for the anti-fascist People’s Olympiad, canceled now, meant to be an alternative to the official Olympics about to open in Nazi Berlin. They crowd the deck of an overburdened Spanish boat hired to evacuate them, pressing at the dockside railing for a last look. Above the harbor the high pedestaled statue of Christopher Columbus, its gilding gone like Spanish power, points them west to the New World, but the promenade of the Ramblas behind it that follows an old streambed up into the heart of the city is strewn with shattered trees, dead horses, burned cars. Bullets have pockmarked the façades of churches; blood dries on barricades of paving stones. The city has been pacified and crowds sing, but fascist snipers still hammer death from rooftops and empty windows.
A young American woman at the railing, Muriel Rukeyser, poet leaving to tell the world, locates her Bavarian lover on the crowded pier—
At the end of July, exile. We watch the gangplank go. . . .
They met on the tourist train coming down from Paris, the tall, voluptuous woman and the tall, lean man, a runner, an exiled anti-Nazi. They wasted no time. Three days and nights of lovemaking with no common language on the hot train halted by the general strike outside the battling city and then he released her, joined the International Column—
. . . first of the faces going home into war
the brave man Otto Boch, the German exile . . .
he kept his life straight as a single issue—
left at that dock we left, his gazing Brueghel face,
square forehead and eyes, strong square breast fading,
the narrow runner’s hips diminishing dark.
An English journal had commissioned her to cover the People’s Olympiad, a last-minute substitute for an editor who had begged off to attend a wedding. She had departed London for Spain that late July unaware that the shooting had already begun. From mid-June to mid-July more than sixty people had been assassinated in Spain and ten churches set on fire; a spate of bombings had shaken the country. In that season she would remember as the “hot, beautiful summer of 1936” she was twenty-two, with dark, thick hair and gray eyes, intensely intelligent, already a prizewinning poet. It was her first time out of America.
Muriel Rukeyser was an early eyewitness to Spain’s civil war. Those germinal days would change her; the war would be a touchstone of her poetry for the rest of her life. The war of Spanish democracy against its fascist generals and landed rich and their North African mercenaries would change the lives of everyone it touched. Enlarging to a “little world war”—Time magazine’s coinage—it would serve as a test bed for new technologies both of life and of death.
In London the porter at Victoria Station had spoken to Rukeyser of European war. She found Paris bannered with “posters and notices of gas-masks.” There she had boarded the metal-green night express to little Cerbère in its Mediterranean cove, the last stop in France, where a fan of rail yard behind the town narrowed to cross the border through a tunnel and fanned out again behind Spain’s Port Bou.
The different gauges of the two countries’ tracks required a change of trains. While Rukeyser and her fellow passengers transferred on the shuttle train that Sunday, the forty-three-year-old traitor Francisco Franco Bahamonde, once the youngest general in the Spanish army, approached his country from the Atlantic side. Since March Franco had been idling in rustic exile in the Canary Islands, a thousand miles from Madrid, expelled there by the Republic to limit his influence. Now the London correspondent of a Spanish royalist newspaper was spiriting him in a chartered twin-engine Dragon Rapide to Tetuan, in North Africa opposite Gibraltar, where Spain’s faithless Army of Africa awaited him. The generals’ rebellion on the mainland needed reinforcements for its coup to succeed; the Spanish people, taking up arms, were already putting down rebel uprisings in cities all over Spain.
After Rukeyser passed through customs in Port Bou there was time for a swim. The train on the Spanish side was slow, local, and hot, Olympic teams and Spanish and foreign passengers stifling now on benches in wooden third-class cars. Beyond the train windows the terrain turned mountainous, the earth red-gold.
“The train stops at every little station,” Rukeyser notices, “rests, moves as if exhausted when it does move.” Two Spanish soldiers pass through the car in black patent-leather hats and “comic-opera uniforms with natty yellow leather straps,” smoking English cigarettes and pointing out olive orchards, castles, and churches. “There is time to point out any amount of landscape,” Rukeyser notes drily. At the stations the soldiers stick their guns out the windows, saluting the armed workers patrolling the platforms.
Nearer Barcelona the signs of fighting increase, militiamen with rifles guarding road intersections along the way. At one station a miliciana, a girl in a simple cotton dress leading a troop of boys with guns, works through the train. The determined girl searches bags and luggage for photographs, fotografías, confiscating them, pulling film from cameras. A panicked American woman tells Rukeyser the girl and the armed boys must be communists bent on stealing, but a calmer Spanish passenger says the “fascists”—Franco’s nationalists—have been killing any armed civilians they identify from photographs. The young people handle the cameras carefully and return them to their owners intact.
Around midday that Sunday the train halts in Montcada, a small town seven miles above Barcelona: the beleaguered government in Madrid has called a general strike. How long they would be stuck there no one knew. They would not have wanted to continue into the Catalan capital yet; the uprising was still raging. The New York Times’s Barcelona correspondent, Lawrence Fernsworth, described hearing “continuous volleys of rifle fire” in the city that bloody Sunday, “clattering hoofs and bugle calls . . . men shouting and others screaming in anguish . . . screeching flocks of swallows flying back and forth in a frenzy as bullets whistle among them.” Fernsworth saw “riderless horses [that] galloped over the bodies of the dead and the dying. From windows and rooftops everywhere spat more rifle and machine-gun fire. Motorcars overfilled with armed men raced through the streets. . . . Fieldpieces, now in the hands of the populace, boomed from street intersections. Their shells tore through the length of the streets, slicing off trees, exploding against a building or blowing a stalled streetcar or an automobile to bits.”
By Monday evening the republic’s militias had gained control and Fernsworth found only “splotches of blood drying on the pavement where the wounded had been taken away” in the Plaza Cataluña, the city center at the head of the long, tree-lined walk of the Ramblas. “Empty cartridges and bandoliers were lying about everywhere.” With bloodshed and more broken walls and Dolores Ibárruri, the woman they called La Pasionaria, on the radio crying “No pasaran! [They shall not pass!]” Madrid had been secured as well.
The Spanish people were fighting alone. Even the government they had elected, a coalition just six months old, was riven with dissent. In the past decade they had endured a rump monarchy and then a right-wing dictatorship. In 1934 the coal miners in the northern mining district of Asturias had revolted. Franco, hastily appointed army chief of staff, had been called in to put down the revolt and had done so brutally with mercenaries from Spanish Morocco, the people the Spanish called Moros. The Moroccans were enthusiastic and inventive killers: castrating the wounded was a favorite sport, robbing the dead a recreation.
When Spain voted for democracy in February 1936 the new leaders had banished Franco to his post in the Canaries. From that exile he had plotted with his fellow generals to stage a coup d’état. Moors had first invaded the Iberian Peninsula in A.D. 711 and it had taken the Spanish seven hundred years to drive them out. Ferdinand and Isabella had completed that reconquista and Columbus had sailed in the banner year 1492. Now the rebel generals were rallying the Moors’ descendants in the name of Christian Spain to overthrow the legitimate Spanish government and hack their way to power. “Glory to the heroic Army of Africa,” Franco radioed the mainland army and navy bases in late July 1936, floridly, when he had secured North Africa at the beginning of the coup. “Spain above everything! Accept the enthusiastic greetings of those garrisons which join you and all other comrades in the Peninsula in these historic moments. Blind faith in victory! Long live Spain with honor!”
It was urgent that Franco move the Moroccan mercenaries and Spanish Foreign Legionaries who supported the rebel generals to the Peninsula—to mainland Spain—or the nationalist coup d’état would fail. But ordinary seamen in the Spanish navy rejected the rebellion. When their nationalist officers resisted, the seamen killed them. In those first days of conflict the chemist José Giral, for a few brief weeks the prime minister of republican Spain—it was he who had dissolved the army and ordered the people armed when the coup began on 19 July—sent the navy to blockade Morocco and quarantine the colonial rebellion in North Africa.
The rebels’ few gunboats were no match for the Spanish navy—no match, for that matter, for even the antiquated Spanish air force, which could strafe and bomb the nationalist transports. To move his forces to the Peninsula, Franco realized, he needed aircraft. A mission he sent to Italian prime minister and fascist Duce Benito Mussolini in Rome collided with one sent there from Navarre by Franco’s fellow rebel general Emilio Mola, confusing Mussolini about who was in charge. The nationalists’ leader at the outset had been sixty-four-year-old senior general José Sanjurjo, styled “the Lion of the Rif” for his victories in the coastal Rif region of northern Morocco, but with a trunkful of uniforms he had overloaded the little Puss Moth biplane sent to fetch him from Lisbon and it had crashed on takeoff and burned. Mola now commanded in the north, operating independently, and Franco in the south. Mussolini hesitated.
Franco had better luck in Germany. His first message went out through diplomatic channels on 22 July, asking for ten transport aircraft, payment to be deferred. The German foreign ministry saw no benefit in supporting the rebellion and denied the request within twenty-four hours. Fortunately for Franco, Adolf Hitler’s Germany had a dual-track government. Franco’s second appeal passed through Nazi Party channels directly to Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, who alerted the Führer. The two expatriate German businessmen who carried Franco’s appeal from Morocco to Berlin in a commandeered Lufthansa Junkers-52 traveled on with Hess to Bayreuth, where Hitler was attending the annual Wagner festival.
Fresh from a performance of Die Walküre, “The Ride of the Valkyries” slow-rolling in his head, Hitler met Franco’s delegates in the Wagner villa at ten thirty on the evening of 25 July 1936. They had not had their dinner. The Führer asked a few skeptical questions. The rebels had no money? “You cannot begin a war like that.” Without help, Franco would lose? “He is lost.” But he warmed to the challenge and lectured Franco’s delegates undined for the next three hours. He called in his war and air ministers, Werner von Blomberg and Hermann Goering. Goering misread the Führer’s mood and objected to supporting the rebels—the Luftwaffe itself, he complained, only recently emerged from its Lufthansa camouflage, was short of planes—until he realized that Hitler had made up his mind. Then Goering discovered his enthusiasm for the Spanish project. At his Nuremberg trial the air marshal claimed he urged Hitler “to give support under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.”
Hitler had different motives. He paid lip service to keeping the Strait of Gibraltar free of communist control—to the Nazis, Spain’s Popular Front coalition was communist—but in fact he wanted to distract England and France from German rearmament with a challenge to France’s rear and Britain’s access to the Suez Canal. To fuel rearmament he wanted Spanish iron ore, mercury, and especially pyrites, the cubic crystals of fool’s gold—iron and copper sulfide—that yielded iron, copper, lead, zinc, and sulfuric acid for industrial processing. Spain, a country rich in metals, had mountains of pyrites to trade. Franco had asked for ten transports. Grandly, Hitler decided to send him twenty trimotor Junkers-52s that could be converted into bombers, with crews and maintenance personnel and six fighter escorts. With a nod to Wagner, he christened the operation Feuerzauber—Magic Fire—and went to bed contented; for the Führer, wizarding the fate of whole populations was all in a night’s work.
The Spanish republican forces needed aircraft as well. Giral had telegraphed Léon Blum, the socialist French prime minister, on 20 July, asking for bombs and bombers, but the French right wing howled. Blum in London on 23 July heard, he said later, “counsels of prudence . . . dispensed and sharp fears expressed.” English prime minister Stanley Baldwin put it bluntly enough. “We hate Fascism,” he is supposed to have said. “But we hate Bolshevism just as much. If, therefore, there is a country where Fascists and Bolsheviks kill each other, it is a boon for mankind.” Under pressure from the English, who favored Franco, Blum decided that nonintervention was the better part of valor.
The French were not opposed to private sales, however. The air ministry dispatched thirty-four-year-old André Malraux, the novelist and cultural buccaneer, to Madrid on 23 July to assess republican requirements. Briefed about the vicissitudes of the Spanish air force, most of whose officers however had remained loyal, Malraux toured the Madrid area and met with the Spanish president, Manuel Azaña. In an optimistic dispatch to the Paris newspaper L’Humanité he reported, “Madrid has been completely cleared as far south as Andalucía, to the east as far as the sea, to the west as far as Portugal. It is only in the north that the rebel army has sent out small advance guards, which have been beaten and pushed back beyond the hillsides of the Sierra de Guadarrama”—the mountain range that barricaded Madrid to the northwest. Back in Paris Malraux began buying planes and recruiting pilots. Both were dear, the planes antiquated, most of the pilots mercenaries prepared to engage the fascists in aerial dogfights for a monthly 25,000 francs in combat pay (about $35,000 today).
Mussolini, having sorted out who among the rebels was in charge, wanted cash for his aircraft. A fascist Spanish financier, Juan March, put up almost $5 million for the first twelve Italian planes, a mix of fighters and transports. Later March would buy the factory and recoup his investment several times over. The Italian aircraft began arriving in Morocco at the end of July, as did the German Feuerzauber flight.
In the harbor in Barcelona on 25 July, while Hitler...
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