Anti-Fascists and Archives: An Antidote to Amnesia

It is ever-important to excavate and preserve the history of struggles for justice – not to be nostalgic, but to find sources of inspiration and tactical knowledge to fuel positive social change. This post is about that.

The Spanish Civil War was the immediate forerunner of World War Two, and the front line of the popular struggle against global fascism. A 1936 coup against the Spanish Republic was led by right-wing generals, with support from an outsized officer corps, a domestic fascist party – the Falange – and much of the Catholic church. Faced by fierce resistance from Spain’s politicized working class, the coup faltered.  Within weeks, however, Spain’s Army of Africa was airlifted by German planes from Spanish Morocco to Seville; and its generals gained financing from some of Spain’s wealthiest capitalists, as well as aircraft, armaments and soldiers from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. A failing military coup then transformed into a protracted civil war.

England, France, and the United States stood by, in the face of the Spanish Republic’s repeated pleas for support.  Indeed, the Ford Motor Company supplied a fleet of trucks to the rebels while Texaco sent them fuel, both on credit.[1] Appeasement – the official name for this policy was “nonintervention” – persisted until the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.  By then, five months after the fall of Madrid, it was too late. 

Immediately as it got underway, however, the Spanish Civil War gripped the political consciousness of a generation.  Nearly 40,000 volunteers from sixty-one countries came to defend Spanish democracy against the troops of Spain’s General Francisco Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.[2] Many were Communists, but the volunteers constituted a broad Popular Front force; indeed, a recent historian asserts, “only one political and moral category fits almost all the Brigaders.  They were anti-fascists.”[3]  The Soviet Union both helped organize the International Brigades and supplied military aid to the Spanish Republic, though on a much smaller scale than Germany and Italy.

Nearly 3000 of the volunteers hailed from the United States. Attached to different units of the loyalist (Republican) forces, collectively they became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.[4]  Among other noteworthy attainments, the Lincolns boasted the first African American to command white troops in US military history.

The war was relentlessly brutal, and the Lincolns suffered severe casualties.  With Franco’s victory, Spain was ruled for the next 35 years by an authoritarian dictatorship which routinely practiced torture and disappearance against those it regarded as enemies. Nearly half a million loyalists fled to France at war’s end.  Some Brigaders went on to join Resistance forces, in France, Italy, and the then Yugoslavia. Many ultimately emigrated to Mexico and other countries.

Meanwhile, many of the surviving Lincolns stepped forward to serve, or try to, in World War II, where they helped put an end to German, Italian and Japanese fascism.[5]  And many continued to affirm their identity as “fighting anti-fascists.” As the US Cold War got going after World War II, the Lincolns worked successfully with other groups to prevent the seating of a Franco delegation at the founding conference of the United Nations. While they focused their efforts, especially on Spain and the plight of the Spanish refugees, they also threw themselves into struggles against US racism; US military support for Chiang Kai-shek in China; the application of the Truman Doctrine against communism in Greece and Turkey; and the US’s Taft-Hartley ‘slave labor law.’[6] One of the leaders of the Lincolns recalled, “Anything that was anti-fascist we were into.”[7]

However, their activism prompted harsh reprisals. Virtually from the moment they returned to the United States in 1938, the volunteers were singled out for having been “premature anti-fascists” – supposed enemies of the US state.[8] They often suffered harassment, official and unofficial, disparagement, and blacklisting. During the 1950s, some went to prison for what were deemed violations of anti-subversion laws. It became an uphill climb to keep alive a public memory of their brave civic commitment to anti-fascism, and its historic importance.  In 1985, then President Ronald Reagan even declared that the Lincolns had fought “on the wrong side.”[9]

This history was both vilified and erased; but a nation’s archives not only preserve the history of people’s struggles for democracy and humanity but also allow such struggles to be reclaimed.  As a society’s changing present alters the needs it makes of its past, archives may offer pathways toward redressive social action. 

Thankfully, this is true for the volunteers who went to Spain.  Established in 1978, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive (ALBA) is devoted not only to conserving the Lincolns’ history, but to relating the memory of the great 1930s fight against Spanish fascism to contemporary struggles for social justice.  This is vital today, when fascism’s threat is once again rising. 

ALBA, states the organization, “is an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights. ALBA works to preserve the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as an inspiration for present and future generations.”

ALBA digitized its historically important collections including the James Lardner Papers, the Herman Greenfield Papers, the Miriam Sigel Papers, and the Marjorie Polon Papers.  They contain journalistic accounts of the war and letters from ALB volunteers who died in the war. The physical collections are housed in NYU’s Tamiment library; however, everyone can access digital collections through the Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York.

ALBA’s journal, The Volunteer, recovers and publishes experiences of the Lincolns’. A comprehensive Brigade Biographical Database Directory has been compiled; it permits users to learn about individual volunteers.  ALBA works with high school and college students to explain the importance of the Lincolns for US and international history.  It also hosts lectures, workshops, interviews, films and teaching institutes. You will find more about their endeavors to keep this important history alive on the ALBA’s website.

In 2008, an outdoor monument to the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – the sole such  commemoration to their bravery in the United States – was erected in San Francisco.  Like the ALBA itself, it creates what historian Peter N. Carroll calls an “antidote to amnesia.”[10]

[1] Paul Preston, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020), 325.

[2] Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and The Spanish Civil War (London: Bloomsbury: 2020).

[3] Tremlett, International Brigades, 7.

[4] An excellent history is Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

[5] Tremlett, International Brigades, 9-10.

[6] Carroll, Odyssey, 276, 284.  Also, Nelson Lichtenstein, “Taft-Hartley: A Slave-Labor Law?” Catholic University Law Review, 47( 3), 1998.

[7] Carroll, Odyssey, 300.

[8] Carroll, Odyssey, 209-94, especially 250-64.  More generally, Ellen Schrecker, Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown: 1998), 105.

[9] Quote in Tremlett, International Brigades, 534.

[10] Marina Garde, “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Monument in San Francisco,” October 18, 2017.

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