Social Justice through Books – Hochschild Reading List
Adam Hochschild has made social justice his lifelong subject. An urgency pervades all his books – in Spain in Our Hearts, the reader can’t help but be affected by the commitment of the Americans who went to Spain to fight on the side of the Spanish Republic. In those dark days, the world really did seem like it was on the brink – millions of jobless and starving people worldwide, totalitarians like Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini who took advantage of people’s discontent to fuel their own agendas.
I’m going to get to my favorite Adam Hochschild books in a moment, but I first want to mention two books about the Spanish Civil War that I thought were terrific. One is nonfiction – the other is a mystery by an author who specializes in books set in Europe in the tumultuous period between World War II.
The first is Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill. This book, like Hochschild’s, vividly portrays the violence and brutality of this bitter conflict, and it features some of the same characters – the New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews and the American writer Ernest Hemingway, among others.
Vaill told the story through the experiences of three couples – Hemingway and his lover, the journalist Martha Gellhorn; the great war photographer Robert Capa and his sweetheart, the photographer Gerda Taro, and a Spanish couple that stood the most to lose in the conflict.
The writers told the story to a Western audience – the photographers produced images that are still remembered today as some of the greatest war photography ever produced. The Hotel Florida is where the foreigners stayed, a place of danger, courage and at times, a little glamour.
It was the job of the republic’s press officers, Arturo Barea and his Austrian lover, to make sure these journalists got the story out, and they knew how to play on Hemingway’s desire for danger. But by the end of the war there was little glamour. Even Hemingway, a tough nut, was shocked by the brutality of the conflict, as the soldiers of the republic steadily lost ground.
In his most recent novel, Midnight in Europe, the great spy novelist Alan Furst made the Spanish Civil War his subject.
In this book, the Spanish Republic is well on its way to losing the war, and many Spaniards have fled the country. Christian Farrar is a Spanish attorney working in Paris, trying to untangle the many problems of Spaniards who have fled the country and have left their businesses and fortunes behind.
Christian leads a quiet life, but then he is presented with a proposition far more dangerous than his day job: to buy munitions for the Republicans on the international arms market (not to give anything away, but this involves stealing an entire train). Furst’s heroes generally survive their scrapes, but his stories are always shadowed by the reader’s knowledge that for these people, teetering on the abyss of World War II, things are about to get much darker.
Now, on to Adam Hochschild’s books. He has written seven, but I want to call out three in particular:
Half the Way Home was Hochschild’s first book. He was already well known as a San Francisco journalist, particularly his role in founding the progressive left-wing magazine Mother Jones. What a lot of his admirers did not know was that he was born into a world of immense privilege. His father, Harold Hochschild, controlled one of the world’s largest mining firms. Harold believed that the world was a hard place, and that he had to train his only son to follow in his footsteps. The result: Adam was terrified of his father.
A trip to South Africa at 16 opened Adam’s eyes to the terrible working conditions in his father’s companies’ mines, an experience that turned Adam into an activist. But this book is not a condemnation of his father; it’s a retrospective attempt to understand him, and that makes it even more valuable.
His book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa , may be his masterwork.
The King Leopold in question is Belgium’s King Leopold II, and the true story is simply awful – it documents the reign of terror the king set in motion in the Congo Free State in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, when he ran this land as his personal colony, reducing the inhabitants to a state of virtual slavery.
As many as 8 to 10 million Congolese – half the population – lost their lives. They were beaten or whipped to death for failure to meet production targets on rubber plantations; they were worked to death in mines. They died of famine and disease.
Finally a small group of Europeans, determined to expose the King, brought the situation to the attention of the world, and Leopold was forced to turn his personal colony over to the Belgian government. He went to great lengths to see that the story never came out, but thanks to some diligent investigators and historians, it did. This immensely disturbing true story is told with great discipline and force by Hochschild – though nine out of ten publishers rejected the manuscript, it won several history prizes.
Finally, on a slightly more upbeat note, Hochschild’s great book Bury the Chains tells the story of a band of English activists who, in the late 18th century, battled the special interests of the slavery trade in England – and won.
It started with one MP, Wilbur Wilberforce, but eventually the cause was taken up by the British Parliament. It was a bitter battle – slaves were essential to the production of sugar cane, a key product of Britain’s colonial empire. More than 2 million were shipped to the Caribbean during this era.
There are some amazing characters in this book, including John Newton, who started out working on slave ships and ended up fighting for slavery’s abolition, thanks to a religious conversion. He wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” There are musicians, freed slaves, and schoolteachers. They all worked tirelessly to end slavery. Finally, in 1833, the British parliament passed an emancipation bill. It would take three more decades for America to do the same.