The Abraham Lincoln Brigade -
A profile in courage, honor and hope
by Stephen Lendman, December 2007
Was inspired to write this after hearing
a wonderful talk and discussion on them in Chicago. Felt this
was a story needing to be told as most people know nothing about
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.