American partisans recall tragedy of Spain's civil war

The Premature Antifascists: North American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39; An Oral History, by John Gerassi. New York: Praeger Publishers. 275 pp. $42.95 cloth. $14.95 paper. American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, by Marion Merriman and Warren Lerude. Reno: University of Nevada Press. 255 pp. $16.95. Recalling the Good Fight: An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War, by John Tisa. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey Publishers. 235 pp. $12.95. The Spanish Civil War exploded 50 years ago this summer. It began with a military coup d''etat, on the third-world model, and escalated into a three-year war, ending on April 1, 1939. Some 600,000 Spaniards died, including 200,000 in Franco's prisons after it ended, while a half million more fled into exile. The war triggered privation, revolution, and scattered atrocities in parts of the Republican zone, repression and systematic butchery by the Nationalists, including intensive bombing of cities: Guernica was not unique.

The war created the longest personal dictatorship of our time: 39 years under Franco. And the war prompted open intervention by Germany, Italy, and Russia, while the neutrality of the democracies helped destroy the Republic by blocking its access to war material.

Most Spaniards today -- ascribing the conflict to mass mania, a destructive fever that spent itself -- would gladly forget it all, much as Germans and Austrians would Nazism. So there have been no official ceremonies this summer, only shudders over recent Basque terrorist acts, which stir memories of 1936 among the older generation.

Americans of the far left, however, for whom past glories offer hope for the post-Reagan future, perceive the war differently. They were then part of the liberal and radical mainstream, the great antifascist coalition portrayed in these three books about the famous Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers from the United States. The 1930s period in general, the Spanish war in particular, was their finest hour. Hence, these books -- published on the war's anniversary -- portray what was a defeat in positive and optimistic terms, as the high point of the lives of many participants, the world watching their struggle to save Spain from fascism.

Or so these authors see it. They are, however, content with clich'es and legends, with following well-plowed tracks. There is, for example, little new in John Gerassi's oral history, which is marred by an introduction that bolsters its impassioned hatred for capitalism with a bizarre, historical use of facts and figures.

Marion Merriman and Warren Lerude have written about her late husband, Robert Merriman (apparently shot after being captured in 1938), who studied economics at Berkeley, conducted research in Moscow, and became a remarkable combat leader of the international brigades -- and the model for Ernest Hemingway's Robert Jordan in ``For Whom the Bell Tolls.'' Unfortunately, this book explains little of his ability or his drives: He remains remote, impersonal, a little too good to be true.

John Tisa fought briefly outside Madrid, before gaining an insider's slot as a journalist and brigade archivist with a headquarters unit under the Comintern chieftain, Luigi Longo. Tisa was in a position to know a good deal, but his diary is hardly revealing.

So there is barely a word regarding the complexities of German, Italian, or Russian policy; the deep Spanish roots of the war (which was not simply a fascist conspiracy); the frictions within the Republican camp. Is this expecting too much from what are, after all, not historical monographs (of which Robert Rosenstone's ``Crusade of the Left'' remains the best on the Lincoln Brigade), but highly personal, often poignant celebrations of the human spirit?

Their ardent simplifications and Manichaean view of fascism are reminiscent of the American right on communism: Here is evil, to be defeated at all costs; and everyone should stand up and be counted.

If political frictions are simplified, so are personal ones. It is clear, for example, that Marion Merriman felt troubled and insecure in her role as the adoring wife of the glamorous Robert Merriman. That she should suffer in silence a rape by another officer to avoid any trouble or scandal suggests that the Lincolns were not quite the band of brothers of radical legend.

That morale sometimes slumped badly, that food was invariably short, that officers often blundered, that there were occasional deserters, and even virtual disintegration during the terrible defeat of April 1938: This does emerge from scattered testimony in Gerassi's book, adding a human touch to the conventional wisdom.

Still, the Lincolns were an unusually brave, cohesive, and hard-charging unit -- light infantry at its best -- fighting a pauper's war, yet often victorious. Why? Sociologists and historians contend that men fight for their buddies, not for ideology. The Lincolns generated intense fighting power by struggling for both, while following an egalitarian, self-respecting style that Israeli forces share. Not for the Lincolns the Spanish proverb: ``Behind the door of every barracks is a nail; when we enter the service we hang our manhood on that nail; when we get out, we may collect what's left, if any.''

Only half of the 3,000 Lincolns survived to worry about their manhood. In any case, theirs was a new type of conflict -- the international civil war -- a precursor of much that has followed since 1945, from Angola to Lebanon, Nicaragua to Vietnam, as worldwide ideological antagonisms interact with local conditions in the third world to detonate wars with which the most distant foreigners can identify, become emotionally entangled, and occasionally join.

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