From Guernica to Human Rights Cover

From Guernica to Human Rights

Essays on the Spanish Civil War

Peter N. Carroll

Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2015, 224 pages

Book Review published on: December 21, 2018

From Guernica to Human Rights examines the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. Peter Carroll's expertise on the Spanish Civil War shows throughout the book, one of several he has written on the subject. In From Guernica to Human Rights, he reveals the personal side of war through letters and interviews with the participants. The result is insightful revelations on the motives and experiences of people who choose to participate in a war only obliquely related to the nationalistic rationales of most states and warriors. The chapters are a collection of works that are often written and published independently; thus, the book follows no unifying story nor is it a general or military history of the Spanish Civil War.

Nonetheless, there is a recurring, almost obsessive, focus on questions of ideology amongst the participants and their detractors. Carroll explores the communist orientation of most of the volunteers, although taking pains to point out they were not universally communist. Those in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other international volunteers had clear-eyed insight into the dangers and aggressiveness of fascism years before those traits became apparent to the governments of powerful democracies. In addition, many American volunteers came from societally disadvantaged backgrounds. Many Jewish people, African Americans, women, and recent immigrants anticipated the implications of a fascist victory and fought as a racially and religiously integrated unit decades before the United States military did. While the volunteers had commendable discernment concerning fascism, they were less visionary with regard to the Soviet Union. Carroll is perhaps too apologetic on this aspect of the volunteers, but it does not prevent him from producing the sober assessments of a skilled historian.

The book’s contributions are threefold. First, it humanizes the Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers in a manner rarely seen in history books—it’s focused on more highly aggregated social developments and actions. Second, Carroll reveals the intricacies of political motivations and relationships between the volunteers and the American Communist Party and the Soviet Union, security services such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Army, and McCarthy-era politics. Carroll exposes simplistic and monolithic explanations as inadequate. Third, the book provides anecdotal evidence of the importance of ideology. For example, Carroll posits ideology is a prophylactic against posttraumatic stress disorder. With the increasing use of information warfare, military readers may find From Guernica to Human Rights a useful source for further research into the relationship between ideology and combat effectiveness.

From Guernica to Human Rights has one minor omission—elites are overrepresented. Although Ernest Hemingway is the most famous personality in the book, and not a volunteer but a fellow traveler, one is struck by the number of writers, playwrights, and artists among the volunteers. One suspects ordinary people among the volunteers could be underrepresented and create a bias toward ideological explanations. Regardless, I highly recommend From Guernica to Human Rights for anyone, military readers in particular.

Book Review written by: Richard E. Berkebile, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas