When Adam Hochschild started researching the Spanish Civil War a few years ago, he knew it was already the subject of hundreds of books and thousands of articles. Trying to find something new to say about it, he kept returning to one question. Where did Gen. Francisco Franco, who received planes and tanks from Nazi Germany, find the oil to run an army?
Hochschild combed through archives until he found a shocking answer: Franco’s oil, which allowed the fascists to seize Spain, came from the United States. In particular, it came from Texaco, a company then run by an admirer of Franco named Torkhild Rieber.
Few historians have examined Rieber as an architect of the Nationalist victory in Spain. Hochschild, the author of eight books about history and memory, as well as a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, set out to change that.
“Powerful corporations like oil companies often make their own foreign policy,” he said.
When I talk about the book at libraries and bookstores, somebody always asks, “Is there any way Texaco can be held to account?” I wish there was. But we unfortunately have a hard enough time holding corporations to account for injustices they commit right now, in the present.
The resulting book, “Spain in Our Hearts,” which came out in March, makes Rieber the central narrative character, weaving his story into the larger drama of the Spanish Civil War. At times, the book’s investigative approach echoes one of Hochschild’s best-known works, “King Leopold’s Ghost, “which documented the incredible violence perpetrated by Belgian colonizers in the Congo.
Hochschild spoke with Nieman Storyboard about how he balances narrative and investigation.
Are you a journalist or a historian?
Well, journalists tend to begin research on something by going to places and talking to people. Historians tend to begin research on something by consulting written sources, libraries and archives. I certainly have learned a great deal by reading carefully the work of really good historians. But then I do like going to places and talking to people.
Some of your writing might be described as “historical investigative journalism,” or even “investigative history.” It smuggles that investigative sense of urgency—the feeling that there’s something hidden that we ought to know—into the past.
Yeah. When I’m working on a much-studied field—and there are thousands of books about the Spanish Civil War—I’ll often find specialists mentioning something in passing that seems worthy of attention. Here, the big one was the Texaco story.
I got really fascinated by this, and thought: How can I find out what else happened during this period regarding Texaco?
It sounds kind of looking for a smoking gun, as an investigative reporter might do. Similar tactics, but applied to historical texts instead of to living people.
I wish I could call them up, but of course they’re all dead.
Happily, I discovered somebody who was very much alive: Guillem Martínez Molinos. A historian who knew something about Spain told me about an article Martinez wrote. It was in Spanish, and every other word was Texaco, Rieber, Texaco, Rieber. And I thought, wait a minute, this guy has really discovered something.
Martinez had gotten into the archives of the old Spanish nationalist oil company, and discovered this remarkable information about how Texaco had this whole intelligence channel—that they were sending all this information to the Nationalist High Command. Just the kind of stuff that would be useful to bomber pilots and submarine captains looking for targets.
He also discovered another piece of information—that Rieber had been such an enthusiast for Franco that he had sold them all this oil at a big discount! I was fascinated. And then it occurred to me: Can we trace this material to a particular sinking or capture of a tanker? And in one case, you could! And this is the episode I described in the book.
You read the history books, and they’ll all say the United States was neutral in the Spanish Civil War. But here was an American-based corporation that had supplied information to the Nationalist High Command that allowed them to capture an oil tanker.
How do you strike the balance between the narrative—the storytelling—and the complicated details that you’ve just walked me through?
Sometimes you luck into finding somebody who is not only someone you want to expose, but also someone who’s an immensely colorful character. Torkild Rieber, for example, who is a writer’s dream because he was such a colorful, profane, bigger-than-life character. It’s wonderful when that happens.
But I think the one thing you have to be careful about is never to let your desire for colorful character or a lively narrative lead you to say anything that can’t be backed up by the facts. And so I tend to try and be very careful in getting a source for absolutely everything.
I got into that habit when I was writing “King Leopold’s Ghost,” about the exploitation of the Congo by Leopold of Belgium. I knew that there were millions of people in Belgium who had no idea that anything like this had happened. Unless I could provide documentary sources, they weren’t going to believe it.
Telling the story through the investigations of others gives your writing a sense of discovery. We go back into the past and what seems like a closed case—but because we see it over the shoulder of someone else, we get to follow a character who adds drama to the story.
I like that phrase “over the shoulder,” because that what I’m always trying to do. This, in a way, combines the narrative and the investigative part of this sort of writing. I’m always trying to think about when I’m doing a piece of history, through whose eyes can I bring it to the reader? Is there a confrontation, an event, a rally, a vivid dramatic moment of some sort?
When a big investigation comes out, someone can be held to account. But that’s not the case here. So in a way, there’s a feeling of powerlessness about historical wrongdoing.
When I talk about the book at libraries and bookstores, somebody always asks, “Is there any way Texaco can be held to account?” I wish there was. But we unfortunately have a hard enough time holding corporations to account for injustices they commit right now, in the present. It’s still harder I think to hold them to account for things that were done 80 years in the past.
Does that say anything about the limits of this kind of historical journalism?
It’s always difficult to exact any kind of reparations, in moral or financial terms, for things that happened far back in the past. But I do think it’s very important to put it on the historical record.
I hope that the book makes people a little more aware of what American companies are doing today. I hope it makes them want to scrutinize corporate practices more carefully. And realize that powerful corporations like oil companies often make their own foreign policy.
I think that all one can do in writing history is to try to put things on the record in an honest way. You can’t really control what’s done with that, but I think exposing it is almost always a good thing.