Thursday, December 30, 2010

Legends of Our Time

I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade by Peter Carroll. The book tells the tales of some of the 2800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain against the fascist revolt led by General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Carroll, who served as official historian for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) organization, had access to a great deal of source material, some of it previously unpublished, and took advantage of the opening of Soviet archives in the 1990s to examine materials long unavailable to historians. His focus is unique, detailing the lives and struggles of the men and women involved during, but also before and after their service in the Spanish Civil War. What emerges is a collection of biographical vignettes, lives in brief, which also serve to reveal the history of the radical movements in the United States from the Great Depression to Gulf War I.

Carroll is, of course, dealing with a limited sample, primarily composed of the people who remained politically active or who returned to such activism after a period of time, and the reader is well advised to remember that perhaps the majority of Spanish Civil War veterans who returned to the US (some 930 died in Spain), became depoliticized and often unconcerned with VALB or other organizations. It is well too to remember what I consider to be perhaps the most fascinating element of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s: the astonishing belief in the power of ideology and political systems to change the world for the better. The Great Depression seemed to reveal a fatal weakness in the traditional Western capitalist system, and most national political systems appeared to be incapable of ameliorating the suffering of their citizens. People began to look for alternative systems, and found them in the radical movements of the Left and Right.

What is difficult for the modern American reader to understand is the depth of belief among those involved in these radical movements, and the unity of purpose imposed by socialist, communist, and fascist party structures. The political cynicism that is so common today was often wholly absent among the primarily working-class followers of the radical movements. These men and women saw communism or fascism as solutions to the problems of their nations and the world, and truly believed that these political systems would really work, if everyone just got behind them. They were possessed of a socio-political naivety that is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. And their views were widely held. Think about it: when was the last time you heard of 2800 Americans volunteering to go and fight in a war that the US government actively avoided involvement in? When was the last time you read about American citizens defying the State Department to travel across the Atlantic and sneak into a country in order to fight against a cause that they found abominable?

Readers Mine, between 1936 and 1939, elements of the armies and air forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy deployed in Spain on the side of their fellow fascist Franco, while the US, UK, and France held to neutrality laws that insured that the forces of the legally and democratically elected republican government of Spain would not receive the support and weapons necessary to defeat these fascist forces that in less than four years would plunge the world into the largest, most horrific conflict in human history. Arrayed against these forces was a small Spanish Republican Army, bolstered by International Brigades composed largely of radical leftists, with some support from the Soviet Union. And in the XV International Brigade were 2800 Americans, many of them communists, who chose to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini and Franco when their government would not, because they believed that people working together could make a better world than dictators, and they were willing to put their very lives where their mouths were.

Oh, I’m not saying that the American Communist Party and the Lincoln Brigadiers were angels. Their party line came from Moscow and Stalin more often than not, and duplicity and secrecy were standard operating procedure in party politics, but the individuals who risked everything to fight in Spain by and large did so because they truly believed that it was the right thing to do, because the Spanish people should be allowed to determine their own fate and their own government. They were naive, and young, and they were defeated, coming home to take up their lives again, many fighting bravely in World War Two in the US Armed Forces, only to face the terrific persecution of the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism, and eventually to emerge as the elder statesmen of the protest movement, working for the Civil Right Movement and protesting the Vietnam War. They are remarkable people, though now all but passed from the earth. They will not pass from memory though. In the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibarruri, in her farewell address to the survivors of the Lincoln Brigade in 1938:

“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend.”

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