Spanish Civil War Still Resonates for Idealists

MADRID, 1937:

Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade From the Spanish Civil War

Edited by Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks

Routledge, 506 pp., $40

The Spanish Civil War - once again.

It resonates at various levels. First, as an intense, romantic struggle by leftists of all persuasions, advancing their idealism in a troubled world. Hemingway put it best: "You felt that you were taking part in a crusade. You fought for all the poor in the world, against all tyranny, for all the things that you believed and for the new world you had been educated into."

Second, as a battle between communism and fascism, the crucial opposing ideologies of the l930s. Despite the fascist victory, however, Hitler benefited but little, for Franco maintained a stubborn neutrality throughout World War II. Finally - and above all - as the culmination of a century of strife within Spain, of democracy vs. hierarchy, of centralism vs. regionalism, of aggressive secularism vs. a rigid Roman Catholicism, and of quasifeudal landowners vs. land-hungry peasants.

Ironically, though these internal conditions fueled the war, it is its grand, global aspects that have received the most attention, the easy assumption that it was part of a vast fascist conspiracy against which all good men and true were honor-bound to do battle. So it is in this book, which mixes remarkable idealism with, alas, painful political ignorance.

For nothing compelled the 2,800 young Americans - known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade - to volunteer, cross the Atlantic, cross the Pyrenees into the Republic, train hard, fight aggressively, and suffer severe casualties: 700 dead, plus many wounded. Nothing, that is, aside from their ideology, the communism the editors carefully avoid mentioning.

The 40,000-man International Brigades were led, equipped, financed, and organized by the Communist International. Yes, it fought for the Republic, but as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy.

And this struggle occurred simultaneously with the great purges sweeping Russia after l936, a terror lightly dismissed in occasional letters home from the Lincolns as a mere episode, the destruction of a few Trotskyites.

Harry Meloff, writing home in May l937, insisted that "It's absolutely essential to get rid of the Trotskyites who tried to disrupt this unity, and consciously knew that they were playing Franco's game." He wrote of the new Spanish government that was "purging the rear of any pro-fascist elements."

Such remarks tell us little about the war itself, which the letter writers treat in simplistic, black-and-white terms that gush incessantly about the high Republican morale. Not the war, but American Communism in the '30s underlies the book. The Lincolns emerge as young, unmarried Communists of working- or lower-middle class backgrounds from big cities: Chicago, San Francisco, and particularly New York. Many were the sons of immigrants who had imbibed leftism in the old country and were further radicalized by the Depression, the rise of fascism, and of Nazi anti-Semitism. In this environment, communism was common.

By contrast, there is Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia." Having begun with a skeptical, sophisticated political outlook, Orwell quickly grasped the ugly truths of the war. The Lincolns, beginning as true believers, learned nothing and forgot nothing. Only in the scrupulously realistic letters of several American doctors and nurses do we get a sense of the real war, dogged and grim.

Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews books on history for the Monitor.

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