HELL AND GOOD COMPANY: The Spanish Civil War

HELL AND GOOD COMPANY: The Spanish Civil War

When I walked out of the train station in Barcelona, I was confronted with a machine gun. Someone in the Guardia Civil was interested in looking at my papers (and I don’t mean my writing). The gun was hanging off his shoulder and swinging slightly like a compass needle. He was wearing an odd-shaped helmet. The Guardia Civil is a military force with police duties. Spain had been under the control of a fascist dictator since 1939, but Franco had died a few months before (in November, 1975). We had been hearing nightly reports on a radio in France about his declining condition.

I was spending a year in Europe with a Belgian woman.1 When we were in Paris we had a room with a balcony in a quiet neighborhood near the Sorbonne. We returned from a ballet at the Paris Opera one night and were falling asleep when a bomb went off, breaking all the windows on the block, including ours. A Spanish bookstore a few doors down was blown up, the iron grate torn and twisted. People were out on their balconies in their nightclothes, sweeping up broken glass.

2My parents were concerned that things might be a little dangerous in Spain with Franco gone. A few Guardia Civil were shot, but it’s a big country. What was more evident, in my limited experience, was how the young people I met were so lively, wanting to forget the past, with so much darkness emanating from the Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939 (with estimated casualties of 500,000). Time magazine referred to it as “a little world war,” given the involvement of other countries on both sides. It was something of a test bed for World War II, which began a few months after it ended. Unfortunately for the shaky coalition of the government, the fascist rebels had enormous support from Mussolini, who contributed 100,000 troops. One reason Italy didn’t last through World War II was its having given so much to the fascists in Spain.

They also had the support of Hitler, by way of the Condor Legion, with 600 planes, 200 tanks, and thousands of volunteers from the German Air Force and Army.

At the same time, Franco was using foreign mercenaries from North Africa against his own people.

Historian Paul Preston said, “Unmoved by the fact that the central symbol of rightist values was the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, Franco did not hesitate to ship Moorish mercenaries to fight in Asturias, the only part of Spain where the crescent had never flown. He saw no contradiction about using the Moors, because he regarded left-wing workers with the same racialist contempt he possessed towards the tribesmen of the Rif.”


click to watch Franco deliver victory speech (w/English subtitles)

The Moroccan Regulares joined the rebellion and played a significant role in the civil war. In a 2009 news story, Reuters reported, “About 136,000 Moroccan fighters fought for the Generalissimo’s Army of Africa, the feared vanguard of a force that, ironically, Franco portrayed as a Christian crusade against godless communists.”

Considering who was helping the fascists in Spain, you might think the Republic would have gotten more support from Western democracies, but that wasn’t the case. The Republic couldn’t get oil on credit, while companies in Texas were selling oil on credit to Franco. The Soviet Union was helping for the first half of the war, with Stalin selling equipment to the Republic, but it was nowhere near the assistance that Franco received from Germany and Italy. There were 40,000 foreign volunteers, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.2 Between 6,000 and 8,000 of them were killed.

Rhodes PortraitRichard Rhodes has written a book on the Spanish Civil War called Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made.

He was at City Lights on February 18, 2015, and I went to hear him talk. He has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard and MIT. On the table was another book he wrote, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986). There were about twenty people there.

He said there was a large amount of material in the archives, including eyewitness accounts, and that is what he had focused on. Much of this material has been ignored, being in the shadow of World War II. Ferlinghetti knew people who had been in the Lincoln Brigade. Rhodes mentioned For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) by Hemingway, and said it was an accurate account of the war.

George Orwell barely survived his time in Spain, and went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia (1938). The side he fought on was …supported by most urban workers, a large share of peasants, and much of the educated middle class.

It is hard to imagine how miserable the conditions were back then. 60 percent of the Spanish people were illiterate in 1936, mainly because of the Roman Catholic Church, which was on the side of the wealthy (and was Franco’s ally during the Civil War). The Church was so hated that during the early stages of the war 6,000 priests were executed by anarchist militias. This was finally stopped as it was bad PR—among other things.

Spanish hospitals were dirty and awful. Amputated arms and legs were thrown out a back window, along with other hospital trash, and left there. The nurses were nuns who could not undress the wounded men, who were left lying on cots. Rhodes referred to it as a lazaretto, but said there were medical innovations. There had to be, as the conditions were so backward. Wine bottles and milk bottles were used for storing blood. Blood transfusions were becoming more common.

Meanwhile, Picasso hadn’t painted for a year, which was very unusual for a man of his protean habits. He was going through a divorce, with his wife taking half of everything, and he didn’t want to make any more paintings until the divorce was over. Eventually he had a commission for a mural, but didn’t have a subject. Then the Germans bombed the civilians in the small town of Guernica. Rhodes said there was a direct line of theory and technology running from the bombing of Guernica to the bombing of Hiroshima.3

Picasso had his subject. The composition covers a 10 x 25 foot canvas and is in black and white, reminiscent of a newsreel. Most of the figures are looking up and screaming. He wouldn’t allow Guernica (1937) to be shown in Spain until Franco died. Rhodes said when he was young he would go to New York and look at it for an hour at a time.


The sentimental is the flipside of the vicious, and the two-dimensional Franco was both. He combined a religious sentimentality with cruelties that were way beyond the call of duty. Even the Nazis were surprised, advising him to take Madrid and don’t bother with small towns. He didn’t trust anyone, and felt he had to pacify the people, shooting anyone with a union card. He had tens of thousands of people executed after the war was over, and made slave laborers of thousands more. Many were forced to work on Franco’s monument to the war.4

Rhodes said that, until recently, the Civil War was not talked about very much in Spain. It was too painful and controversial. When he interviewed Kurt Vonnegut in The Paris Review, they talked about firebombing. The first round of bombs reduce a city to kindling; then you drop incendiary bombs to burn it; then you drop more explosives to hold off or kill the firemen and make it impossible to put the fire out.

He talked about the Santa Lucia cave, where the Republicans put together a poorly lit hospital with 120 beds. Triage was used, with the wounded separated into three categories:

  1. those who were likely to live,
  2. those who were likely to die, and
  3. those for whom immediate care might make a difference.

He mentioned Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)5, a leftwing writer and poet who was in Spain when the Civil War broke out. Out of that came her poem “Mediterranean”. I found this quote at the beginning of one of her poems, “Democritus Laughed”:

…the primary purpose here being simply to indicate that, whatever ‘free play’ there may be in esthetic enterprise, it is held down by the gravitational pull of historical necessities…”

– Kenneth Burke, in Attitudes toward History

LorcaDuring the Q&A I asked him if he had written about Federico Garcia Lorca. He said no, the Civil War started only a month before Lorca was arrested and shot and buried in an unmarked grave near Grenada. He was one of the best poets and playwrights in Spain, and only 38 when he was killed by a Nationalist militia. There is some debate as to why he was targeted, but being a homosexual and a socialist didn’t help.6

I later asked Rhodes about Orwell and the factional strife on the side of the Republic. Having fought with one of the militias, Orwell barely escaped being put on trial by the Stalinists for fighting with a group that had Trotskyist affiliations. Rhodes said the Soviet Union had secret police in Spain, the NKVD, with Stalin more worried about the Trotskyists than he was about the fascists.

Earlier, Rhodes explained the title of the book—Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made—which refers to a paradox of war: it is instrumental in opening the gates of hell, but it has an allure of camaraderie. As a soldier you are following orders and hanging out with others who are in the same circumstances. It is a controlled mob mentality, a brotherhood of the expendable, a fatalistic group identification. This latter was a factor when men rushed off to join the army in World War I, tired of social alienation and wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. Unfortunately, this bonding comes at a brutal price for everyone.


  1. A few days later we were stopped again by the Guardia Civil, with my girlfriend becoming angry at having to show her passport. It reminded me of when her mother was pregnant with her while the Nazis were in town. Her mother insulted a collaborating official and was thrown in jail.
  2. I have always heard the Abraham Lincoln Brigade mentioned in a positive light, as a group of volunteers who were fighting fascism in another country. Reading a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, I found this comment: “I remember as a young lad in the 1950’s having to read a form and swear I had never been a member of about thirty organizations, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—that was to get a job in a supermarket” (Alan Towson).
  3. He also noted that Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”,  was married to a woman whose previous husband was killed while fighting in the Lincoln Brigade.
  4. We spent a week in Madrid, staying with a leftwing professor of economics. There was a side-trip to Segovia to see a Roman aqueduct (still working). On the way I noticed a huge cross in the distance. It was the Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, for those who died during the war.
  5. As if she hadn’t experienced enough disturbing things in her life, her secretary in the 1970’s was Andrea Dworkin.
  6. While in his late 20’s, Lorca had an intense friendship with Salvador Dali. Eventually he wanted a romance, but Dali refused (or so the story goes). A year later, in 1929, Dali made a film with Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). Lorca thought it was about him, being from Andalusia.

Steven GraySteven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).