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Books and Authors Tales of Romance and Idealism in Spanish Civil War

June 3, 1986

PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) _ Holding back memories too painful to recall and too private to share, Marion Merriman waited almost 50 years to tell her story of the American brigade which fought in the Spanish Civil War.

She kept the battlefield diaries her husband, brigade leader Robert Hale Merriman, wrote in his tiny script. But she couldn’t bring herself to read them. She remarried, reared three sons by her second husband and rarely spoke of her life in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Even now, following the publication of her book, ″American Commander in Spain,″ written with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Warren Lerude, Marion Merriman Wachtel, 76, sometimes weeps when she thinks of those days in Spain.

Sitting in her book-filled living room, she recalls a line from Ernest Hemingway, the most famous chronicler of that often misunderstood conflict:

″The dead sleep,″ she begins, then stops, tears in her eyes and her voice choked. After a few moments, she composes herself.

″The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight,″ Hemingway wrote in 1939, a year after Merriman was lost in battle, half the 3,200 American soldiers had been killed and the International Brigades had disbanded.

″Our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die. ... Our dead live in the hearts and the minds of the Spanish peasants, of the Spanish workers, of all the good, simple, honest people who believe in and fought for the Spanish Republic.″

Mrs. Wachtel and Lerude, combining the style of a first-person memoir with the detachment, research and attention to detail of a journalist, have crafted a dazzling story of love, courage and idealism.

Battle scenes as powerful as the shrieking images in Picasso’s ″Guernica″ are described by Merriman, other soldiers and war correspondents such as Hemingway and poet Edwin Rolfe. Published by the University of Nevada Press, the book is annotated and contains an extensive bibliography.

Hollywood already loves it. Lerude says more than 15 filmmakers are interested in turning the story into a movie.

Merriman, a model for Hemingway’s scholarly Robert Jordan in ″For Whom the Bell Tolls,″ emerges not as a swashbuckler, but as a thoughtful, sensitive and intellectual hero of human proportions.

″At a time when true heroes are a rare species, as we are force-fed clownish Rambos in the mass media, the remembrance of Bob Merriman is a healing experience,″ said author Studs Terkel. ″His story tells us, yes, there were such men, and hopefully they may still be around.″

Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who attended the University of California with Merriman, remembered him as ″the most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley.

″Later he was to show himself the bravest, as he fought for the cause that just a few years later would commit millions to the struggle against Mussolini and Hitler.″

Merriman, putting idealism into action, gave up a promising career as an agricultural economist when he joined thousands of volunteers from 54 countries trying to stop the march of fascism and prevent a world war.

The United States had remained neutral as Gen. Francisco Franco, backed by hundreds of thousands of troops from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, tried to overthrow the Spanish government.

However, the American volunteers ignored the Neutrality Act and rushed to Spain, many dangerously crossing the Pyrenees to fight beside Loyalists defending the republic after the first shots were fired on July 18, 1936.

″There’s a misconception that the war was a fight between communism and fascism, when it wasn’t that at all,″ Mrs. Wachtel says. ″It was simply a fight against fascism, home grown but mainly from abroad. We thought if we could stop Hitler in Spain, there wouldn’t be another world war.″

About half the volunteers were communists spurred by Moscow, Mrs. Wachtel says, but the rest were, like her husband, simply men who cherished liberty.

″We were dreamers,″ she says. ″It was rather quixotic.″

They fought neither for money nor glory in what came to be called ″the pure war.″ Their pay was the equivalent of about 20 cents a day, yet many Americans at home dismissed them as ″Reds″ or mercenaries.

″Even today it hasn’t been made clear in history books who we were and what we were doing there,″ Mrs. Wachtel said.

She joined her husband after he was wounded the first time in early 1937, and served as an office worker, messenger and friend to other soldiers.

She still has a slightly moth-eaten uniform of culottes, shirt with corporal’s stripe, Sam Brown belt and military papers, and meets occasionally with some of the surviving Abraham Lincolns.

Although slowed by arthritis, she has been speaking lately in public to set the record straight.

″There’s still room for idealism,″ she told students at a local high school. ″There are still dictators. You can’t be cynical or apathetic. You have to do what you think is right.″