This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, an important moment in history that has never received the attention it deserves as a prequel to the geopolitical changes of World War II, the Cold War and the culture wars that continue today.
The following essay is adapted from the reading I gave at Third Coast Review’s Kill Your Darlings live lit and improv series last month.
Did you ever feel you were born at the wrong time? I’ve always wished I was around in the 1930s when people were excited about politics and leftwing activism. I suspect that many of us—at least those who consider ourselves liberals — would have been Communists in the 1930s. Most liberal intellectuals and working class people did at least sympathize with the Communist Party USA then because it seemed as if they presented solutions that would help our country. And we were naïve about the cruel and violent aspects of the party in Russia. (It was not until 1956 that American leftists learned the full story of Stalin’s criminal legacy, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin.)
We certainly would have supported the anti-fascist, Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. The democratically elected government of Spain was anti-fascist, anti-clerical, anti-royalty, pro-education and yes, pro-communist.
in those years, we sat in saloons and union halls — in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, near stockyards and steel mills on the south side of Chicago – talking about unemployment, the evils of capitalism, the rise of fascism in Europe and the hope we saw in Spain. And some of us did something about it. Some of us went to Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939. The novel thing about this war was that volunteers from America and around the world went to Spain to fight for the good cause.
That good cause was our support for the legal, democratically elected, left-wing Republic of Spain, which faced a military coup by the fascist Spanish military led by Francisco Franco. The slogan was No pasarán and a raised fist. They shall not pass.
If I had been a young woman in the 1930s, I would have wanted to be on the ship that left New York harbor in December 1936—80 years ago. That was the first ship that took American volunteers to Spain. The people who went left without telling anyone their destination or talking to anyone about it on board ship. They knew they were committing an illegal act—because the State Department had banned all travel to Spain and those who went risked losing their citizenship.
A total of 45,000 volunteers from 53 countries formed the International Brigades who went to Spain in late 1936 and early 1937. Most of them traveled by ship to France and then had to travel by train to southern France and on foot during the night across the Pyrenees to Spain.
From the US, 2,800 left but a third of them didn’t come back. The American section of the International Brigades was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Two hundred Chicagoans were among the volunteers. I’m sure I knew some of them.
They were men with names like Paul Lutka, Sid Harris, Milt Cohen, Sam Gibbons, Charles Hall, Ed Balchowsky, Steve Nelson. And Oliver Law, an African-American who couldn’t serve as an officer in the Jim Crow US Army in World War I, but was a battalion commander in Spain. He died in battle a few months later. Aaron Hilkevitch, the last Illinois survivor of the Lincoln Brigades, died in 2008. A psychiatrist by profession, he remained an activist for left-wing causes throughout his life.
You can see some of them interviewed (and Balchowsky playing the piano) on the excellent 1984 documentary, The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Studs Terkel. The film is available to see and stream on Vimeo.
If I had gone to Spain, I would have been a photographer or a journalist, or perhaps a driver or nurse. Very few women were in combat. Most of the volunteers I would have met were from New York or San Francisco. They were mostly urban working class. About a fourth were Jewish, about 90 were African-American. Many were the children of Eastern Europeans who came here after World War I. They left to escape political repression and economic distress in their home countries.
In many ways, the Spanish Civil War was a culture war—urban against rural, modernity against tradition, freedom of expression against repression of ideas.
The International Brigades were sent out to the front lines with poor quality equipment, no uniforms—often little food or water–and little or no training. Some of them had never handled a gun before.
But the internationals were shock troops for the Republic. That’s one of the reasons their death toll was so high. Their remains are on battlefields named Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, the Ebro River.
Fascist Germany and Italy contributed weapons, warplanes, warships and 100,000 troops to the Nationalist cause—the fascist or Franco side. Russia and Mexico contributed some weapons and advisers to the Spanish government—the Republican side–but it was minimal compared to what Germany and Italy did. What did the US do? Nada. The US, Britain and France refused to support the Spanish Republic. They wouldn’t even sell them munitions or oil, even though Spain had plenty of gold to pay for them.
The war ended in 1939 as the fascists gradually rolled over all of Spain. Barcelona and Catalonia, the heart of the Republican cause, fell in January and February–and Madrid in March. Franco declared victory; his government was recognized by the good old USA. Democracy died in Spain. Franco ruled as the dictatorial Caudillo until he died in 1975.
The veterans of the Spanish Civil War continued to be political activists who later supported the civil rights movement and antiwar movements. The last American veteran died in February. He was Delmer Berg, who died at 99.
I tell this story because I believe we need to remember the Spanish Civil War and teach our kids about it. Why was it important?
- It was the prequel to World War II and the Cold War. And it prefigured the culture wars of today.
- The American volunteers went on their own dime to Spain. And most of those who returned were ostracized and threatened by the US government, the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for the rest of their lives.
- The war inspired many artists, writers, journalists and photographers. George Orwell wrote a memoir Homage to Catalonia about fighting with the POUM, the anarchists, a splinter group of Marxists. Ernest Hemingway covered the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance and gathered material for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- Photographer Robert Capa shot some memorable images, including the iconic image titled “Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier being shot down.
- Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard, was kidnapped and executed by the Franco thugs. His body was tossed in a mass grave and his remains have never been found.
- There were many others. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Andre Malraux, Salvador Dali, Martha Gellhorn, Willy Brandt, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Emma Goldman, Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos were involved in various ways.
- Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, captured the aftermath of the vicious aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German bombers flown by German pilots. About 1,650 people were killed, mostly women, children and old men, because the other men had gone off to fight the fascists. The bombardment of Guernica became a world symbol of the horrors of war.
- Picasso had left Spain and refused to return or to have his art displayed there as long as Franco was in power. Guernica’s home for years was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I saw it in the 1970s. Then recently I saw it at the Museo de Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it is now permanently installed.
Back to the present, I think we should vow to celebrate this moment in history by becoming knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War. Here are my suggestions for how you might do this.
First of all, explore the resources of ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights, as well as the history and legacy of the Spanish Civil War. You can sign up for ALBA’s mailing list here.
Readings about the Spanish Civil War
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The story of Robert Jordan, an American, who goes to Spain to fight with the International Brigades.
- Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005). A good resource for a basic history and timeline of the war.
- Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (2016). An engrossing history drawn from the letters and diaries of the participants.
- Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1994). Carroll had the advantage of interviews with some of the living veterans of the war.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell’s memoir about his time fighting with the POUM in Spain.
- Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems About the Spanish Civil War (2002). An excellent collection of poetry edited by a UIUC professor and published by the University of Illinois Press.
- Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961, rev. 2001). This is the definitive history of the war by the distinguished British historian.
Films about the Spanish Civil War
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, dir Sam Wood (DVD, 1943). It was a box office hit and nominated for nine Oscars. The bridge-detonation scene is based on Hemingway’s actual experience.
- The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, dirs Noel Buckner and Mary Dore, narrated by Studs Terkel (Vimeo, 1984).
- Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, dir Julia Newman (DVD, 2002)
- Land and Freedom, dir Ken Loach (parts are on Vimeo, 1995). This is a dramatized history of the war with actors portraying participants but also making use of documentary footage. I have not been able to find this film in one piece (probably because of copyright restrictions) although it’s possible to watch 9- or 10-minute sections of it on Vimeo.
- Plus Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Butterfly’s Tongue, Hemingway and Gellhorn, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and more.
In conclusion, remember this for today’s protests: No Pasaran!