The Abraham Lincoln Brigade - A Profile in Courage, Honor and Hope

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade - A Profile in Courage, Honor and Hope

by Stephen Lendman

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was an American contingent
of about 2800 volunteers who fought on the side of the
Second Spanish Republic during the country’s 1936 -
1939 Civil War against the fascist Nationalist
rebellion under General Francisco Franco. From 1937
through 1938, it aimed to stop international fascism
under Hitler and Mussolini that led to WW II. This
essay explains who the “Lincolns” were, why they’re
important, and what their relevance is to America
today under George Bush. First a look at the Spanish
Civil War and why these Americans fought in it.

The war began when Franco’s troops invaded Spain in
July, 1936 to unseat an unstable Republic that
developed from the social dislocations after WW I.
Post-war saw a wave of revolutionary unrest that led
to the military dictatorship of General Primo de
Rivera in 1923. Rapid decline followed under him after
the boom years of the 1920s. It weakened Spain’s
monarchy, returned the country to republican rule, but
things weakened when a liberal-Socialist coalition
tried addressing agrarian problems that beleaguered
all Spanish governments for generations. Reforms
failed and so did the coalition. It came apart after
an attempted military coup on the right and an
anarchosyndicalist insurrection on the left that
culminated in the Casas Viejas massacre of Andalulsian
peasants in January, 1933.

By summer, Spain’s many parties and organizations
began regrouping and polarizing. In November, the
Spanish Confederation of Right Groups (CEDA) coalition
replaced the liberal-Socialists. Positions then
hardened on the left and right leading to the 1934
“October Revolution” when Asturian miners in northern
Spain became the epicenter of a general uprising
throughout the country. It brought “Army of Africa”
commander Francisco Franco from Spanish Morocco to the
mainland for the first time in five centuries to
defend “Christian Civilization” from “red barbarism.”
It was the start of class and regional conflict that
became the Spanish Civil War two years later. 

It pitted an alliance of Nationalist forces on the
right under Franco against a “Popular Front”
Republican/Loyalist coalition consisting of trade
unionists and their political organizations:

—the General Confederation of Workers (UGT), a labor
federation of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and
an anarchosyndicalist General Confederation of Labor
(CNT);

—they, in turn, were allied with the Workers Party
of Marxist Unification (POUM) coalition of Spanish
Trotskyists, Communist Left (ICE), and Workers and
Peasants Bloc; the United Socialist Party of Catalonia
(PSUC); and the small Communist Party (PCE).

Few in America remember the Spanish Civil War, its
significance or even that it happened which says a lot
about the state of education in the richest country in
the world. It should be the best anywhere but instead
opts for mediocrity, ignorance and an effort to
produce good citizens, most barely literate, to serve
the nation’s ruling class and not the greater good.
That, however, is a topic for another time.

The Spanish Civil War - July 17, 1936 - April 1, 1939

Like all extended wars, this one was ugly. Before it
ended in April, 1939, hundreds of thousands died and
many by mass killings that included Hitler’s infamous
fire-bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937 that
destroyed the town and killed an estimated 1650
people. An eye witness described it as follows: “The
only things left standing were a church, a sacred
tree, the symbol of the Basque people….There hadn’t
been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had
been mainly a fire raid….A sight that haunted me for
weeks was the charred bodies of several women and
children huddled together in what had been the cellar
of a house. It had been a refugio.” The same scene was
repeated throughout the town. Guernica was in flames,
but it was just a warmup, a prelude for what lay
ahead.

April 1, 1939 marked the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Five months later in September, Hitler invaded Poland,
and the world again was at war with Spain staying out
of it this time. Franco instead concentrated on
solidifying power at home while nominally supporting
his fascist allies. He imprisoned and slaughtered tens
of thousands of his opponents in a post-war
bloodbath/reign of terror. The Spanish war, while it
lasted, however, was an historic revolution, and how
different things might have been had the other side
won. A radical working class movement, never seen
before or since, lost out to a fascist alliance that
became dominant and is now resurgent in America.

Back then, it was a rare time when oppressed workers,
peasants and leftist intellectuals stood on one side
and were aided by Soviet Russia, the international
Socialist movement and the International Brigades.
Against them were centralized state power elitists
that included monarchists, the Catholic church, and
the landowning and industrial fascist right supported
by Germany, Italy and Portugal. Workers wanted a
classless, stateless social democracy with
implications far beyond a civil conflict in Spain.

They were attracted to it when Franco invaded and
threatened their vision. Spontaneously they seized
factories and other workplaces, collectivized the
land, formed workers’ militias throughout the country,
dismantled the pro-fascist Catholic church,
confiscated its property, and established political
institutions run by workers’ committees. It was a
remarkable event for a short-lived social
transformation toward a genuinely autonomous, free and
democratic society until Franco finally prevailed.

In a decade of economic depression, disillusion, the
rise of fascism, torment and turmoil up to WW II, the
Spanish revolution was a sign of hope for
working-class emancipation across the world, including
in the US. It inspired intellectuals, trade unionists,
and others as well as freedom-fighting men and women
of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They went Spain to
support the type government they wanted at home and
hoped would emerge if the “Popular Front” prevailed.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

They were around 2800 American volunteers who fought
alongside the “Popular Front” Republican Loyalists as
the American contingent of the International Brigades.
From 1937 to 1938, they joined with 35,000 others from
52 countries to defend the free Spanish Republic
against Franco’s Nationalist fascist alliance.

They were mostly young men and women from across
America, deeply affected by the The Great Depression’s
despair, and they feared the fascist scourge engulfing
Europe could affect them back home. They were
ordinary people - working class, students, teachers,
artists, dancers, athletes, the unemployed and others
unified in a common belief that it’s “better to die on
your feet than live on your knees.”

Most were members of the Young Communist League (CP).
They allied with Industrial Workers of the World
members (“Wobblies”), socialists forming their own
(Eugene) Debs Column, and unaffiliated others. They
were all committed in a common struggle. Some sought
escape from The Great Depression, others went to fight
for a better world unavailable at home, but all wanted
to defeat fascism and risked their lives to do it.
They also risked arrest or recrimination back home by
defying a State Department prohibition against
traveling to Spain so by doing it they broke the law.

It was worth it for what many saw as the
quintessential struggle between democracy and tyranny.
British author, social critic and journalist Eric
Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell, felt the same. He
went to Spain in 1936 to be with the Republican side
and joined with the POUM coalition. He later wrote
about it in what some call his finest work - “Homage
to Catalonia.” It sold just 50 copies in his lifetime,
but another to it with a copy owned, read and admired
long ago by this writer. It was more about social
revolution than a civil war and centrally about
tyranny against socially democratic forces on the
left. 

The allied groups on both sides, however, had their
own agendas. On the left, the socialists (POUM) wanted
a worker-controlled government, the communists (PSUC)
a centralized one, and the
Anarchists/Anarchosyndicalists (CNT) one that was
decentralized. On the right, Franco loyalists wanted a
fascist Spain like in Germany and Italy, latifundistas
(big landowners) wanted a feudal system, and the Roman
Catholic Church supported the monarchy and had its own
elitist, pro-fascist conservative agenda.

The “Lincolns,” wanted democratic freedom and fascism
defeated. Its volunteers became known as the Abraham
Lincoln Brigade although fighting units chose their
own names and identities. In keeping with the “Popular
Front” culture, they became part of the Fifteenth
International Brigade along with nationals from other
countries. They called themselves the Abraham Lincoln
Battalion, the George Washington Battalion, and the
John Brown Battery that included 125 doctors, nurses,
ambulance drivers and technicians with the American
Medical Bureau. They were all volunteers for a noble
cause and among them was the first ever racially
integrated unit in US history and first one ever led
by a black commander. Most never fired a rifle or had
military training, but they were committed to learn
and they did fast.

They also practiced what they believed in the ranks
and created an egalitarian “peoples’ army.”
Rank-and-file soldiers at times elected their own
officers and generally shunned traditional military
protocol. With them were well-known, or aspiring,
writers, artists, composers and filmmakers, including
James Lardner (son of Ring Lardner Sr.), Joseph Vogel,
Ralph Fasanella, Conlon Nancarrow, Edwin Rolfe, Alvah
Bessie, Phil Bard, William Lindsay Gresham and famed
author Ernest Hemingway. He supported the “Popular
Front,” went to Spain in 1937 to report on the war,
and spent most of it with the International Brigades.


After the war in 1940, he wrote his famous novel, “For
Whom the Bell Tolls.” It became a Hollywood film in
1943 and was the top box office hit of the year even
though it failed to tell what really happened on the
ground. It’s the story of a young American in the
International Brigades attached to an anti-fascist
guerilla unit. The novel’s theme is how the main
characters react to the prospect of death in a
struggle for their vision and how they bond and are
willing to die for its sake. It was how Hemingway
felt. He spoke publicly on it to raise money for the
Republican side he supported.

The “Lincolns” fought bravely and took casualties,
including at the town of Brunete near Madrid where
half its contingent was wiped out. But they gave as
much as they took until Republican forces began losing
later in 1938. It took a great toll on both sides,
including on the International Brigades as the war
continued. It finally ended for the “Lincolns” and
other International Brigades volunteers in late 1938.
Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin struck a futile
deal with Hitler to repatriate captured forces and
ordered them withdrawn. He didn’t understanding what
others later learned that Hitler didn’t make deals. He
imposed them.

Of the 2800 “Lincolns,” around one-third perished.
Survivors came home heros, got no official recognition
for their efforts, were lucky to escape recrimination
for breaking the law, but were later harassed and
hounded as explained below.

One survivor was its last commander - freedom-fighter,
novelist and well-known peace and civil rights
activist Milton Wolff. Hemingway described him as “23
years old, tall as Lincoln, gaunt as Lincoln, and as
brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded
battalions at Gettysburg. He is alive and unhit by the
same hazard that leaves one tall palm tree standing
where a hurricane has passed.” He was part of Spain’s
bloodiest battles at Brunete, Quinto and Belchite but
managed to emerge unscathed.

Wolff arrived in Spain in 1937, trained as a medic,
became a machine gunner with the Washington Battalion
and then its leader. When Commander Dave Reiss was
killed, Wolff took over and led its great offensive
across the Ebro and Sierra Pandols. He then went home
when the International Brigades left Spain in 1938 but
continued fighting fascism as an activist, speaker and
novelist in spite of being branded a “premature
anti-fascist” and getting caught up in the post-WW II
anti-communist hysteria. It affected anyone of
prominence who was accused of leftist leanings along
with many other “Lincolns” hounded by the FBI,
Committee on UnAmerican Activities, and Subversive
Activities Control Board (SACB). They lost their jobs
and were prosecuted under the Smith Act and state
sedition laws although few had convictions hold up. 

This was how a nation that defeated fascism rewarded
them and then wiped them from the historical record
for added shame. They’re remembered, however, in the
official Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). The
effort was founded in 1979 by Lincoln Brigade living
veterans as an “educational and humanitarian
organization devoted to the preservation and
dissemination of the history of the North American
role in the Spanish Civil War….and its aftermath.”

It’s committed to preserving the memory and record of
these heroic freedom fighters and their sacrifices by
“continually expanding archival collections in
exhibitions, educational programs, publications, and
performances (to preserve) the legacy of activism and
commitment as an inspiration for present and future
generations in working conscientiously and effectively
toward a better and more just society” - the one
“Lincolns” fought and died for 70 years ago without
success.

On the eve of the great war, the Spanish Republic
ended on April 1, 1939 when Madrid fell to the
Nationalists and then Valencia. It held out under
great pressure but gave it up the next day. In the
end, the revolution failed from its own divergent
ideologies and internal conflicts. They frustrated
Orwell enough to say “Why can’t we drop all of this
political nonsense and get on with the war.” It also
lost to a more powerful Nationalist force that
outmanned and outgunned them because Hitler and
Mussolini supplied many more aircraft, artillery
pieces, tanks, bombs, small arms and ammunition to
give Franco the edge.

It let him outlast Spanish Republican forces that got
less aid from the Soviet Union while countries like
Great Britain, France and the US stayed technically
neutral. But a careful look shows otherwise. Britain
and France refused to supply arms or assist the
Republican side. Even FDR’s government was
duplicitous. It pressured the Martin Aircraft Company
not to honor an agreement made prior to the 1936
insurrection to sell aircraft to the Republic and also
strong-armed Mexico not to ship Republicans war
materials that were bought in the US for that purpose.
The Mexican government complied and instead sent some
financial aid.

Roosevelt said companies supplying the Republic were
unpatriotic, but had no such feeling for those trading
with the Nationalists like General Motors and the
Texas Company, now part of oil giant Chevron. It
cancelled contracts with Republicans but sold oil to
Franco much like the dealings Charles Highham
described in his 1983 book, “Trading with the Enemy.”
He documented how US corporations like Chase Bank,
Standard Oil, Ford, GM and IBM did business with the
Nazis in WW II in direct violation of the law. They
betrayed their country and got away with it.

The Spirit of the “Lincolns” in the Age of George Bush

In their day, “Lincolns” were anti-facist
freedom-fighters who are still respected by their
admirers. Since the Reagan era, however, they’d be
called “terrorists” because they oppose unfettered
capitalism and all its harshness.

Reagan launched his war on “international terrorism”
that was a precursor for what lay ahead. In 1981, his
Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, announced the new
administration would shift from Jimmy Carter’s
so-called “human rights” agenda to one focused on
anti-terrorism without saying what it was or that it
existed. Unexplained then or now is that the US is the
world’s leading exponent of the very scourge it claims
to oppose. Empires have that privilege. They get to
have it both ways. They make the rules that others
ignore at their peril.

They weigh on many today under George Bush who makes
Reagan’s era look tame by comparison. Post-9/11, the
administration declared permanent war on the world
without boundaries in space and time that won’t end in
our lifetime. It’s against any designated countries we
target with ones with the most energy reserves and
independent leaders topping the list. 

It isn’t just countries that are in jeopardy. Any
group, organization or individual qualifies if they
dare challenge US dominance or have views opposing
ours. As an anti-fascist group, the “Lincolns” would
be targeted because they wanted democratic freedom,
not tyranny. During the Great Depression and rise of
Nazism, they were galvanized to go to Spain to “make
Madrid the tomb of fascism.” They’d now target
Washington, their struggle would be nonviolent, but it
would put them at risk in an unfriendly environment to
dissent and a passion to express it.

Today, there’s a serious threat at home no different
from the extremist ideology “Lincolns” fought against
in Spain - the scourge of fascism now in America. It
mirrors the Nazi kind that was based on corporatism,
patriotism and nationalism; a claimed messianic
Almightly-directed mission; authoritarian rule;
bipartisan support; iron-fisted militarism; and
thuggish “homeland security” enforcers.

It illegally spies on everyone, conducts warrantless
searches and seizures, makes unwarranted mass arrests
and incarcerations, and can designate anyone, anywhere
for any reason an “unlawful enemy combatant” with no
corroborating evidence needed. It tolerates no dissent
at a time the law is what the executive says it is,
and checks and balances, separation of powers, and
equal justice for all no longer exist. It’s called
fascism, despotism or tyranny that masquerades as a
model democracy in an America only beautiful for the
privileged, no one else. It’s what “Lincolns” fought
against in Spain, now threatening the US 70 years
later.

The dominant media support it and are part of the
problem. They use hard right commentators, pundits,
and talk show hosts like CNN’s Glenn Beck who also
hosts a nationally syndicated radio program as a
platform for his type extremism. Media giant Time
Warner put him in prime time (starting May, 2006) to
boost ratings and billed him as “an unconventional
look at the news.” It barely disguises a hateful hard
right agenda. Beck is one of many right wing hawks. He
and the others attack anyone opposing the “war on
terror” that includes the Bush agenda of iron-fisted
militarism, permanent war, repression at home, and
gutting social services so the most vulnerable are on
their own and out of luck.

Muslims top their target list in the age of “terror.”
They’re demonized mercilessly on-air overtly and by
innuendo as well as being harassed and persecuted
through mass witch-hunt roundups, detentions,
prosecutions and deportations. So are Latino
immigrants with Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) shock troops the enforcers and media hosts like
Lou Dobbs fully supportive. This writer called him
“CNN’s Vice-President of Racism” in an August, 2006
article that included others like him. They target
others anyone voicing dissent at a time getting along
demands going along.

The “Lincolns” would be targets if they were active
and and similar groups as well. They’d be savaged in a
typical Beck comment like this one about Muslims: “We
need to be….lining up to shoot the bad Muslims
(meaning all of them) in the head (and) with God as my
witness….human beings are not strong enough,
unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up
razor wire (meaning concentration camps, Nazi-style)
and putting you (Muslims) on one side of
it….(meaning locked up inside).” 

He’s serious and is backed by an administration
targeting any perceived opposition with hardball
tactics that include secretly constructed homeland
concentration camps. They’re for tens of thousands of
aliens and anyone considered a threat to absolute
rule.

It’s extremely threatening because all media giants
are supportive. They fill their programming with
Beck-like people while opposition voices are silenced.
The scheme is to instill fear and demand loyalty of a
government that may have in mind ending the republic,
replacing it with tyranny, and it’s arguable they’ve
already done it.

Renown print journalist George Seldes saw it emerge
during the golden New Deal era under Franklin
Roosevelt. If fascism threatened then, its could
happen any time, and no democracy is secure without
constant vigilance. Seldes monitored it around the
world as a foreign correspondent and at home. He was
one of the great independent journalists of his time
and did what’s practically extinct today outside
alternative spaces.

In his 1934 book “Iron, Blood and Profits,” he wrote
about a “world-wide munitions racket” citing WW I
militarists and weapons makers in Europe and America
as proof. Fascism was spreading in Europe, and he saw
it emerging in America with powerful corporatists
behind it. They included munitions makers,
industrialists and Wall Street bankers promoting wars
for profits. Seldes called them “merchants of death”
financing “patriotic organizations” promoting
“imperialism (and) colonization - by means of
war….the healthfulness of their business depends on
slaughter. The more wars (they got) the richer the
profits.”

They traded with the enemy, sabotaged disarmament
efforts, promoted war scares in newspapers, supported
dictators, and lobbied and bribed government officials
for continued conflict. “The war to end all wars” was
just a slogan as new dark forces arose in the 1930s.

Seldes returned to the theme in his 1943 book, “Facts
and Fascism,” that explained “Fascism on the Home
Front” in the book’s Part One called “The Big Money
and Big Profits in Fascism.” In Parts Two and Three,
he went into “Native Fascist Forces” in US industry
and the media of his day that had far less reach and
influence than now.

Seldes was an archetype crusading journalist. He was a
“witness to a century” (the title of his 1987 book)
until he died in 1995 at age 104. He saw it all by
covering the greats and infamous like Benito Mussolini
who expelled him for exposing truths he wanted
suppressed. So did Lenin after Seldes interviewed him
in 1922. He was very hostile to Seldes’ honesty that
was forbidden by Russian journalists.

Seldes also covered the Spanish Civil War and believed
it was a dress rehearsal for World War II. In “Facts
and Fascism” he wrote: “Fascism in Spain was bought
and paid for by numerous elements who would profit by
the destruction of the democratic Republican Loyalist
government.” He cited generals wanting glory, the
right wing conservative Catholic Church, the
aristocracy wanting the old order back, and the “force
of (big) Money” in Europe and America that wouldn’t
let social democracy interfere with business. He named
names, knew the risks, but was a rare journalist who
did what few others ever do - their job.

Seldes passed before the George Bush era, and the
“Lincolns” are just a memory in the ALBA archives
collection at New York University’s Tamiment Library.
It’s the largest and most important resource available
for study that includes their papers, oral histories,
films, photos, posters, and selections of the
microfilmed records of the International Brigades.
They’re maintained to preserve a historic record of
their achievements, memory and spirit and as an
inspiration to others. They represent courageous
freedom-fighters who volunteered to fight and die for
equality, justice and social democracy. It’s never
handed to us, is always imperiled, and is only gotten
and kept when men and women like “Lincolns” risk
everything for it. That spirit more than ever is
needed now with America’s freedom imperiled.

Sinclair Lewis feared it in his 1935 novel, “It Can’t
Happen Here.” It was about a charismatic self-styled
reformer, populist and champion of the common man
senator who became president. It was all a front to
hide his alliance with corporate interests and the
religious extremists of his day. He takes full
advantage of The Great Depression, supports a strong
military, and gets unconstitutional laws passed during
a national emergency. He further convenes military
tribunals for dissenters who are called unpatriotic
and traitors. 

Fast forward to the current era when we’re all
potential “unlawful enemy combatants,” there are no
freedom-fighting “Lincolns,” and the threat of
full-blown tyranny may be one more real or contrived
“terrorist” attack away. Stopping it needs the same
spirit of sacrifice “Lincolns” made when they risked
everything abroad for what they wanted at home.
Something to reflect on over the holidays. Something
to act on in the new year.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and
listen to the Steve Lendman News and Information Hour
on TheMicroEffect.com Mondays at noon US Central time.

 

 


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