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Spanish Civil War

In 1920, a young man from a prominent Spanish family, Jose Robles Pazos, accepted a position in Baltimore as a language instructor. Two years later he was offered an associate professorship at Johns Hopkins, and over the next 15 years he built a considerable career, full of research accomplishments and unusually warm friendships with colleagues.

Alert to his Baltimore surroundings, Robles became the first translator into Spanish of 13 books by H.L. Mencken, in the 1920s one of the best-selling writers in America. Robles married a Spanish woman, Margara Villegas, and together they raised two children: Francisco, born in Spain in 1920, and Marguerite, born in the U.S. four years later. Both children went to Baltimore public schools and thrived there.

Why Jose Robles built his career in the U.S.—why he did not remain in Madrid, where his family was well-known, and where he enjoyed advantages—is hard to say at this remove in time. He was young and politically engaged, and it may be that he found Spain stifling under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, who ruled during most of the 1920s. Or possibly his friendship with John Dos Passos, the young American novelist, had something to do with it; the two men met as students in Madrid, and Dos Passos opened a door into America for Robles, his generosity and adventurousness signaling something important to the European.

Every summer, with the end of classes at Hopkins, the Robles family would decamp for Spain, to spend time with friends and relatives. In the summer of 1936 they arrived just in time for the outbreak of civil war. Robles, sympathetic toward the democratically elected government that had replaced Primo’s autocracy, volunteered his services to the Republic; this government, also known to history as Loyalist, faced a military insurgency led by Francisco Franco, a resourceful field commander closely identified with the Falange, the Spanish Fascist movement.

At first the Loyalist side seemed sure to win. The coup failed to gain much popular support, and many elements in the Spanish armed forces also rejected it. But Franco petitioned Hitler and Mussolini for aid, and soon Italian and German soldiers were arriving in tens of thousands, along with shipments of arms and material. A war of an epochal ferocity now began. Civilian populations were purposely targeted; it was in Spain that the Kondor Legion, of the German Luftwaffe, pioneered the terror bombing of noncombatants, a tactic made infamous in the Second World War, for which the Spanish Civil War was a kind of dress rehearsal.

Jose Robles was not a soldier. He was a conscientious, intelligent, discreet, and subtle intellectual; he was also remarkably fluent in French, English, and Russian, along with Spanish and other languages. The besieged central government gratefully put him to work as an interpreter and aide, and in short order he was working on the highest levels of the Loyalist war effort. The Western democracies—France, England, the U.S.—declined to aid Republican Spain in any substantial way, creating a vacuum of influence, which the Soviet Union filled. The years of the war were the years of the height of the purges in the U.S.S.R., of what came to be known as Stalin’s Great Terror. Stalin sent arms and personnel to Spain to help shore up the Loyalist effort, but the same murderous paranoia that characterized life in the Russian homeland in the 1930s came to color life in Spain, too.

By fall of 1936, Jose Robles was writing to H. Carrington Lancaster, his friend and head of the Romance Languages Department at Hopkins, in regretful terms: “I would prefer to be arriving instead of this letter,” he wrote in French, “but for the moment there isn’t a way for me to get out of here.” Robles had been made an officer in the Spanish army. He had been put to work in the Ministry of War and also in the Junta de Defensa, the command group responsible for preventing an outright conquest of Madrid. He had also been serving as aide and translator to Gen. Vladimir Gorev, the highest-ranking Soviet officer in Spain and chief of the Soviet military secret police.

Letter from Robles to Lancaster, head of the Romance Languages Department, in which he regrets his inability to return to Hopkins

The matters of state to which Robles was privy were thus among the most anxiously guarded secrets on the Republican side. They included matters of military strategy but also detailed information about the extent of Soviet influence, the degree to which Stalin, and not elected Spanish leaders, was directing the war. And then Robles vanished. Early in December 1936—probably on the night of December 9—some men appeared at Robles’ apartment and asked him to come with them. He did not resist.

A month later, his 16-year-old son, Francisco, wrote to Lancaster at Hopkins: “Through misunderstanding and perhaps the personal feelings of people with whom he worked, my father, Jose Robles has suffered a rather disagreeable mishap. My father was working lately at the Ministry of War and more recently [at] the Soviet Embassy. By orders from Madrid he was arrested….Nobody, from the Minister of State and the Russian Embassy down, has been able to find out a concrete reason for this ridiculous arrest.”

Francisco, known to friends and family as Coco, would never see his father again. “Now, my mother, my sister, and I are running out of money,” he confided to Lancaster. “We have decided to resort to the University through you. Three hundred dollars would be enough for the present. Since it is difficult to introduce money into Spain at present, the American consul has given me the following directions.”

Coco’s decision to turn to Johns Hopkins University was a wise one. Hopkins, in the persons of H.C. Lancaster and Hopkins President Isaiah Bowman, began a campaign to influence events in distant, war-complicated Spain. Bowman wrote the State Department asking officials to do everything possible to effect Jose Robles’ release. The Department of State replied that its hands were tied, since Robles was a Spanish citizen not an American. However, the department was forwarding $300 provided by the university to Miss Marguerite Robles y Pazos (Robles’ 12- year-old daughter); Marguerite had been born in the U.S., and thus the State Department was within its rights to act in her behalf.

For the next five years, Lancaster tried to get to the bottom of the Robles case and, when he learned the worst—that his good friend had been murdered, almost certainly by Soviet agents—he dedicated himself to saving the rest of the Robles family. This was by no means an easy effort, nor one certain to succeed. The word that was being spread about Jose Robles was that he had been a double agent—a Fascist spy—and his family was for that reason under suspicion. Were they to ask too many questions, they themselves might have been made to disappear. In the archive of letters that Lancaster later donated to Hopkins, we read of Coco Robles’ growing awareness of his family’s tenuous position. His letters to Lancaster, full of requests for material help and of deep expressions of gratitude, are carefully coded; everything was being read by political censors, Coco knew, and he was eager to communicate as much as he could of the truth without making of his father’s murder a dangerous cause celebre.

There were many more trials ahead for Margara Robles and her children. Possibly to prove the family’s loyalty, Coco volunteered for service in a Loyalist guerrilla unit; as he wrote to a friend, “I’m a soldier in the Spanish Republican Army fighting a foreign invader. Two years ago I was about to enter Johns Hopkins. Things certainly do change.”

Captured by Nationalist troops, he was sentenced to death, and he would almost certainly have been executed but for the intervention of the State Department, which acted at the behest of Robles family friends.

Coco was kept in a Francoist prison for a number of years, but after World War II he was released and allowed to join his mother and sister in Mexico, to which they had emigrated with the financial and legal help of Lancaster and others. Coco Robles would eventually marry and have children of his own, and he would make a distinguished career as an engineering professor at the National University of Mexico (UNAM). But before that, in the spring of 1940, writing from a prison in Zaragoza, Spain, he saluted Henry Lancaster on the occasion of Lancaster’s 20th year as a Hopkins professor.

“Esteemed friend,” he wrote in Spanish, “through [a mutual friend] I have heard of the homage that your former students are preparing you….I was not one of your students, but perhaps I might have been if events had been different, and I, too, wish to honor you. It moves me to think of the friendship that united you and my father, and of all that my mother and sister owe you for the aid given them in the resolution of their affairs. Perhaps some day I will have the opportunity to stretch out my hand to thank you in person.”

Robert Roper is the author most recently of Now the Drum of War:
Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. He teaches in the Writing Seminars.

photography by Will Kirk/
Photos, Letter from Jose Robles, and newsclips courtesy of Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University