Writers & Company

Adam Hochschild on learning from dark moments in history

The author of the bestselling King Leopold's Ghost has written a powerful book, Spain in Our Hearts, about American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
Historian Adam Hochschild's 2016 book, Spain in Our Hearts, is about American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. (Spark Media)
Listen to the full episode1:01:04

This interview originally aired on Jan. 29, 2017.

Historian and reporter Adam Hochschild has dedicated his career to telling stories about horrific acts — from slavery to Stalinism — and the courage of the politically engaged people who fight them. His novel King Leopold's Ghost chronicles the atrocities perpetrated by the King of Belgium at the turn of the 20th century and Spain in Our Hearts focuses on American involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  

Adam Hochschild spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Berkeley, Calif.

Why he was drawn to the story of King Leopold of Belgium

"I had always thought of myself as somebody whose main interest is human rights. I had a strong interest in Africa, and I ran across a passing reference to the fact that during the time that King Leopold owned the territory that is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was an enormous death toll. It's estimated by most historians at being around eight to 10 million people. I was startled. I knew the conquest of Africa had been a bloody business, but that many people killed in one territory? What was behind this?

"I started to read, and I realized that at the time this was going on — roughly the first decade of the twentieth century — it was the major human rights scandal in the world and received an enormous amount of attention. Since then, it got completely forgotten. I decided I was going to explore this, and that became King Leopold's Ghost."

A social revolution during the Spanish Civil War

"For the first six or eight months of the Spanish Civil War, a remarkable social revolution took part in northeastern Spain, which the war correspondents largely ignored. Franco and the Nationalists' initial attempt to seize power had failed, because in certain areas they were defeated by hastily organized, badly armed worker militias that were put together by left-wing political parties and trade unions.

"Most of these militia members were anarchists, a tradition that was very strong in Spain. For months, these worker militias ran a huge swath of the Spanish republic and they put into effect a far-reaching social revolution. Workers took over factories, estates, transportation systems. It was a remarkable series of events that was eventually snuffed out."

Leaders and demagogues, then and now

"Having written Spain in Our Hearts and then looking at the situation we're facing with Trump becoming president, I see some uncomfortable resemblances between him and the demagogues who flourished during the 1930s — not just in Spain and Italy and Germany, but in a number of Eastern European countries as well. I think you see it in the way Trump makes this appeal to people — 'Don't worry about the details, place your trust in me and I'll fix it.' All of these folks hearken back to an imagined glorious time in the past. Trump says 'Make America great again,' Mussolini spoke about the Roman Empire, Franco spoke about the glory days of the Spanish Empire in the Americas — there's always that appeal to what the wonderful Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński calls 'the great yesterday.'

"Another classic element of demagoguery is that you blame all of a country's troubles on an outgroup of some sort. For Hitler, of course, it was the Jews. For Trump it's sometimes Mexicans, sometimes Muslims. Another consistent thing among these demagogues is that the 'great yesterday' that they imagine is a time when women knew their place. They weren't uppity, they were sexual objects, not corporate leaders or political leaders. They certainly didn't run for president. I wouldn't call Trump a fascist, but I would say there's a real element of demagoguery in his appeal that he used to get elected, and it reminds me, very uncomfortably, of the 1930s."

Adam Hochschild's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast: El Paso by the Montréal Guitare Trio. 

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