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Syria and the Failure of the Multicultural American Left

Six Years of Syrian Civil War: Why Assad is the Franco of the Middle East, and why the United States has done so little to help his victims—80 years after liberal-minded Americans took up arms in the Spanish Civil War

Yoav Fromer
February 13, 2017
(Photo: Wikipedia)Six Years of Syrian Civil War
Aerial bombing of Barcelona, 17 March 1938, by the Italian air force.(Photo: Wikipedia)(Photo: Wikipedia)Six Years of Syrian Civil War
(Photo: Wikipedia)Six Years of Syrian Civil War
Aerial bombing of Barcelona, 17 March 1938, by the Italian air force.(Photo: Wikipedia)(Photo: Wikipedia)Six Years of Syrian Civil War

Among the countless heartbreaking images that came out of the earthly inferno of Aleppo, one remains particularly haunting: that of a grief-stricken mother cradling the lifeless body of her child emerging out of the rubble and raising her face to the heavens in a deafening cry of despair. The human tragedy in the war-ravaged Syrian city mercilessly bombarded by Russian jets operating in the service of Bashar Assad was so disturbing because it was so familiar. Invoking nearly identical scenes of anguish from Picasso’s Guernica, the iconic painting that commemorates a similar aerial evisceration of the Basque town by Hitler’s Condor Legion in 1937, the indiscriminate and methodic targeting of civilian populations by the Assad-Putin-Hezbollah axis was ominously reminiscent of the horror’s perpetrated by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces and their fascist allies during the Spanish Civil War.

The similarities between Spain 80 years ago and Syria today are too eerie to ignore: Historically tempered, long-brewing ethnic-religious tensions erupted into brutal civil wars that tore apart fragile states and saw acts of unimaginable barbarity committed on both sides. In Syria, an Alawite-Shiite minority is fighting against loose bands of Sunni and Kurd opposition groups—like the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish militias, and Jihadists such as ISIS and Al-Nusra—who are deeply divided among themselves and often at each other’s throats. Better-armed, better-trained and actively supported by foreign powers like Russia and Iran, the dictator in Damascus enjoys the apathy of Western democracies that insist their failure to intervene on the side of the victims is actually a higher form of realism or the product of their principled rejection of war. Substitute Assad for Franco, opposition groups for the motley crew of rival communist, anarchist, and Marxist militias that made up the Spanish Popular Front and were marred by similarly deep ideological, religious, ethnic, and geographic fault lines, and the story begins to sound the same. Add to that the devastating intervention of Germany and Italy on Franco’s side and subsequent, albeit reluctant, embrace of the Soviet Union by a desperate republican government ignored by timid Western powers, and you witness history repeating itself, in the worst of ways.

But reading Adam Hochschild’s account of Americans involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, sheds light on one important difference: In Spain, unlike in Syria, Americans didn’t look the other way, even when their government did. Many of them, thousands actually, not only spoke out, raised funds, mobilized support, and tirelessly pressured the White House to intervene—but took up arms and went over to Spain to fight, even die, for the cause of the republic. “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts,” wrote French novelist Albert Camus, lending Hochschild the title of his book. Considering the relative silence and persistent inaction regarding the atrocities in Syria under President Barack Obama and now under President Donald Trump, one cannot help but wonder: What is it then, if anything, that lies in the hearts of American intellectuals today?


For the admirable, though mostly forgotten, group of American men and women who fought in Spain, places like Jarama, Brunete, Teruel, and the Ebro River where some of the deadliest modern combat occurred, were codenames for honor, solidarity, and self-sacrifice. Transcending overly romanticized portrayals of the international brigade by celebrity writers turned wartime correspondents like Ernest Hemingway (whose novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was a fictionalized account of some of his experiences in Spain), Hochschild sketches an intimate portrait of a generation of Americans whose unwavering commitment to universal justice seems, in a contemporary light, as unimaginable as it is laudable.

Around 2,800 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, an estimated 750 of whom never came back and were killed or died during the fighting. Although Hochschild, an acclaimed nonfiction author and journalist who had previously written popular histories about the legacy of Stalinism, World War I, and King Leopold’s rapacious exploitation of the Congo, doesn’t delve into the complex historical circumstances that caused and complicated the war (which are thoroughly discussed in the more comprehensive histories by Paul Preston and Antony Beevor) his focus is on the personal experiences of what seems to be an almost endless cast of characters whose dramatic flair and extraordinary lives could each warrant their own biography.

Among the most prominent members of the Abraham Lincoln brigade—as the American volunteer units in Spain came to be known—was Bob Merriman. A towering, broad-shouldered, and soft-spoken graduate student from California, he left Berkeley’s economics department during the Depression and, with his wife Marion, traveled to Moscow to write his doctoral dissertation. When fighting broke out after Franco’s coup against the democratically elected Spanish government, it was only a matter of time before this gentle giant who felt “tormented” by the fate of the republic did something about it. An ROTC cadet who had held a commission in the Army reserves, he quickly hopped on a train and crossed Europe to join the republican army, where he was appointed the American battalion’s second in command and eventually made his way up the ranks of the international brigade to become a major. He had, as one comrade put it, “the physical strength of the athlete combined with the reserved manners of the scholar and the introspective expression in his eyes bespoke great inner power.”

The journalist Martha Gellhorn, who covered the war for Collier’s and would later become Hemingway’s third wife, recalled how Merriman described the fighting like a teacher explaining material to his students back in Berkeley and noted that “his voice made you want to call him ‘Professor.’ ” Before engaging in battle, Merriman recorded in his diary: “Marion, dear, I love you! I am willing to die for my ideas—may I live for them and you!” He didn’t: Although his body has never been recovered, it is assumed that he was killed while heroically leading his beleaguered troops near the Ebro River.

Then there was Joseph Seligman Jr., a native of Louisville, Kentucky, whose father was a former chairman of the Republican Party and a very prominent attorney. He, too, abandoned his academic studies at Swarthmore College during his senior year and forfeited plans to study philosophy at Harvard in order to fight for the republic. Initially turned down because of his young age, he paid an Irishman he met $15 for his identity papers and enlisted under his name in a British battalion. In a letter to his parents mailed by a friend after he had already left the country, he explained: “I am going to Spain. … I am really too excited and angry … to do anything else” because “Spain seems to me to be the crucial test.” He pleaded with his family, “Please don’t try to follow or catch me.” They did, but it would prove futile: Seligman received a fatal bullet to the head in the first day of the battle for Madrid.

Disorganized and disoriented, hundreds of Americans, often dressed in urban street clothes and wearing Keds sneakers, made their way—against the stern warnings of a State Department that did its best to stop them—on boats, trains, buses, and by foot to the frontlines with little, if any, military training. There was Hyman Chaim Katz, a rabbi from New York; Samuel Levinger, a rabbi’s son from Ohio; Alvah Bessie, the former stage actor and writer who left two children and a wife in Brooklyn; David McKelvy White, the son of a former Ohio governor who had studied at Princeton and taught English at City College; James Neugass, who, after stints at Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, had published poetry for The Atlantic Monthly before finding himself behind the wheel of a republican ambulance; Toby Jensky, the daughter of Russian immigrants who left her job as a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital to care for the injured republican soldiers (one of whom fell madly in love with her); John Cookson, an assistant professor from the University of Wisconsin whose tombstone near the Ebro River is apparently the only one still standing of any American killed in the war; and Charles Orr, another university economics instructor, who, with his new wife, Lois, cut short their honeymoon in France and hitchhiked to Barcelona to help the republic any way they could.

Although Americans came to fight in Spain from all walks of life and social strata, a great deal of them were intellectuals who had come to defend particular ideas they held dear. Three-quarters of them were Communist Party members and at least a third from New York. No fewer than 60 were students, faculty, staff or graduates of City College—the famous hotbed of radical ideas that also bred famed New York intellectuals like Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol. Nearly half of all volunteers, Hochschild estimates, were Jewish, and 10 alone came from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of Brooklyn. As a result, echoes of Yiddish filled the trenches of La Mancha and Catalonia. And for all their social, economic, ethnic, geographic, and even political differences, the Americans were united by a profound commitment to democratic values and a prescient fear that, as the Jewish journalist briefly turned republican soldier Louis Fischer warned: “If democracy is crushed in Spain, Rome and Berlin will be convinced that they can with impunity continue their campaigns against small states. The turn of the larger states will come later.”


Upon awaking after a day of lying unconscious, the first thing one gravely ill patient in a San Francisco hospital asked in the fall of 1936 was: “Has Madrid fallen?” Although the Syrian Civil War is now entering its seventh year, it is hard to imagine too many Americans taking such interest in the fate of Aleppo. Most Americans have remained silent. And one cannot but help drawing comparisons with Hochschild’s heroes to wonder why.

There are several explanations for this, and it is Hochschild himself who helps point us toward them. As the republic’s situation gradually worsened and the nationalists gained ground, many of the American volunteers underwent their own disillusionment. At the start of the war the young newlywed Lois Orr, mesmerized by the short-lived anarchist revolution unfolding before her in Barcelona, noted that “everything was new and different, anything was possible, a new heaven and a new Earth were being formed.” By its end, however, even the most Pollyannaish believers had their doubts: The Moscow show trials, Stalin’s great purge, the deadly infighting between rival republican militias, and ultimately the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Berlin and Moscow in 1939, all contributed to shattering the faith of many by exposing the lies and hypocrisy that undergirded the Stalinist regime they had extolled as the republic’s savior and role model. Like George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia chronicled his disenchantment with radical ideas while fighting for the republic’s Marxist militia (POUM), many Americans in Spain lost faith in the appeal of ideology and the feasibility of grand political formulas to transform society.

The experiences of the Casanova-like Louis Fischer—who seemed to have a jealous lover in every city, among them Stalin’s youngest daughter, Svetlana—are telling: Prior to the war, he appears to be a Soviet lackey fond of writing sympathetic and rosy accounts of life under Stalin. But by the late 1930s, with every bit of news that came from Moscow regarding yet another of his friends who had disappeared, one senses a small part of his heart breaking. Eventually, he would offer his own intellectual repentance in The God That Failed—the famous anthology of essays by ex-communists recalling their tales of disillusionment. In 2012, Rebecca Schachter, whose uncle, Phil, was an American volunteer who went missing in the battle of Brunete, journeyed there to say Kaddish for him. “I told him we honored his goodness and idealism and that the world turned out to be a much more politically complicated truth than he could have known then” she recalled. This realization in the complexity of politics and consequential limits of its efficacy was a sobering lesson for many quixotic intellectuals who, as a result, disengaged from politics and retreated into introspection.

The tectonic shift in the position of intellectuals within American society undoubtedly also helped create the conditions for our current apathy. Regardless of where they came from or what they did, many of Hochschild’s protagonists thought of themselves as outsiders, in spirit if not in form. Even the relatively affluent or successful among them, like the writers and academics, still shared a sense of alienation and critical detachment from their society that fueled their need to go abroad in search of belonging. But within less than two decades, this shared sense of alienation would quickly dissipate: The postwar affluence had not skipped over the intellectuals, many of whom suddenly found their radicalism increasingly mollified by the comforts of middle-class life and especially the newfound respectability and influence it had afforded them in universities, the media, and government posts. So alarmed had the literary critic Irving Howe become by this transformation that he help found in response a new magazine, aptly titled Dissent, and used it to lament what he regarded as “the age of conformity.” Given the continued public acceptance, security and even support which most intellectuals (thankfully) continue to enjoy in America today, it is no wonder that many have lost interest in looking abroad and trying to change a world that, from their perspective, at least, hasn’t treated them all that badly. Instead of fighting power, they got used to identifying with it—as intellectual life degenerated into the comforts of political partisanship.


The main ingredient, however, potentially responsible for the contemporary silence of many American intellectuals regarding Syria is probably the most surprising: multiculturalism. By what political scientists would call the law of unintended consequences, the very set of ideas aimed at empowering disenfranchised groups, is, at least in Syria, ironically also facilitating their violent suppression. During the farewell parade held in Barcelona to mark the international brigades’ withdrawal in October 1938, Dolores Ibarruri, a famous communist politician known for her fiery sermons (aka “La Pasionaria”), thanked the foreign volunteers for their sacrifice. “These men reached our country as crusaders for freedom. They gave up everything, their loves, their country, home, and fortune … they came and told us: ‘We are here, your cause, Spain’s cause is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind,’ ” she said before addressing them directly: “You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality.”

But it is this very sense of solidarity and universality that, inadvertently, multiculturalism has succeeded in eroding: In the process of removing unjust discriminatory barriers and amending historical prejudices, multiculturalism has accentuated new differences and established alternative cleavages. As one disheartened Aleppo resident recently asked a reporter: “You are silent because there are Muslims in our country?”

The answer is yes, but not for the reasons she implies. It is not because American intellectuals are bigoted that they remain silent, but the opposite is true: It is in order not to appear being so. For some, opposing the foreign policy of America’s first African-American President gives them the shakes. For some of them, any American foreign intervention automatically equals imperialism—the original sin of the West, in their eyes. Concerned with, among other things, establishing “safe spaces” on college campuses or boycotting Israel, they seem to have conveniently forgotten the plight of Syrians themselves.

Although Spain was white and Christian while the Syrians are (mostly) Arab and Muslim, those who traveled to Spain to fight often served alongside African-American volunteers—one of whom even commanded the Abraham Lincoln battalion for a short while—and considered their republican brothers-in-arms, regardless of where they came from, as just that: their brothers. Spain’s cause could be everyone’s because of their faith in the possibility of universal brotherhood solidified by the democratic adhesive of freedom, justice, and equality. But by magnifying certain traits like race and ethnicity that tend to separate us, identity politics have unintentionally undermined more basic moral and political principles that could bring us together.

Hochschild never mentions Syria. But reading his book while watching the evening news, one cannot help but do so, considering that it is such a timely warning. Despite its desperate pleas for help from fellow democracies like Britain, France, and the United States, the republic’s inevitable embrace of the Soviets was a necessity—not a choice—because they were the only ones willing to sell it weapons. “You mustn’t allow America to get away with passivity in this great fight,” Fischer wrote. “We take sides by doing nothing.” Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually conceded this when he admitted that the arms embargo had been a “grave mistake.”

A similar narrative is being played out in Syria today. Hesitant to intervene and arm the moderate rebel groups early on, America set the stage for the rise of jihadist groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra. Just as Soviet aid radicalized—and helped doom—the republic from within, the propagation of Islamic fundamentalism is helping to seal the fate of the Syrian opposition.

More ominous, however, is the destructive intervention of foreign powers. Hitler and Mussolini had provided Franco with advanced weaponry, advisers, and even combat units, without which he could never have prevailed. Putin, together with Iran and Hezbollah, has been doing much the same for Assad. But for the fascist dictators, Spain was a testing ground: They had already begun thinking about the next World War and had their sights set on far more pernicious goals. Had they been defeated in Spain, it is doubtful whether they would have set out to pursue them.

There is no doubt that Khamenei’s Iran and Putin’s Russia are different from Hitler’s Germany, and that the Syrian opposition in its current form isn’t exactly imbued with a Jeffersonian spirit. But neither was the Spanish republic. Many of the brave men and women resisting Assad are, nevertheless, on the right side of history. Aiding them any way we can in order to defend human rights and advance the cause of freedom is, therefore, not an imperialist but a humanist cause. And, as Hochschild reminds us, it was once an American one.


Read more from Tablet magazine on the consequences of the Syrian Civil War six years after its start here. Review Tablet’s long coverage of the Syrian crisis here.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.