JUNE 27, 2016
JUST RECENTLY, on February 28, 2016, the last surviving American veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Delmer Berg, died at the age of 100. As a 21-year-old trade unionist, Berg was working as a hotel dishwasher when he saw a Young Communist League poster urging volunteers to defend democracy in Spain from General Francisco Franco’s coup. Berg sailed for France and crossed the Pyrenees. He fought in the mountains of Teruel and at the Ebro River — the battle that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Two years later, with shrapnel from an Italian bomber still embedded in his liver, Berg left Spain just as Franco began his 36-year dictatorship.
The departing International Brigade volunteers were given a loving send-off in Barcelona. Spaniards climbed lamp posts and sycamore trees, leaned from balconies draped with flags, and crowded onto sidewalks to throw kisses, flowers, and notes of thanks to the war-weary volunteers. Among them were 200 of Berg’s fellow Americans who had survived despite bombing by Hitler’s air force, brutal battles in Jarama and Belchite, the icy waters of the Ebro, and Franco’s ubiquitous firing squads.
Parliamentary Deputy Dolores Ibárruri, known as La Pasionaria for her charismatic oratory, told the departing volunteers, “You are history, you are legend.”
In his new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, veteran journalist and award-winning historian Adam Hochschild brings La Pasionaria’s “legends” to life. His vivid descriptions capture both the highest moments of Spain’s Civil War — like the euphoria of liberated Barcelona — and the very lowest ones — like the despair of young soldiers in the trenches, infested with lice, surrounded by dead bodies, and soaked with rain and mud, trying to fight while sustained by a meager gruel of potatoes and dried beans.
Who were these young men propelled by their ideals to fight in Spain?
In a world gripped by the Depression and the rising threat of totalitarianism, many in the United States viewed the 1936 victory of the Popular Front in Spain as a ray of hope. The Nation magazine stated, “It has been many months since Europe has furnished news as encouraging for democracy as are the results of the Spanish elections.” After the electoral victory, political prisoners were freed and workers took ownership of many factories and farmlands. General Francisco Franco was assigned to the distant Canary Islands.
But the backlash was swift and furious. From Germany, Adolf Hitler sent planes to transport Franco and his Nationalist troops back to Spain where they began the “limpieza,” or cleansing, spreading terror and bloodshed in the Republican zones. In Badajoz, where farm workers had taken over large estates, 1,800 were marched into a bullring and machine-gunned down.
Trade unionists, teachers, priests, and anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Republicans were executed, often in public. In Seville, women were raped — the emblem of the old order branded on their breasts. Twenty pregnant women in Toledo were shot. Beloved poet Federico García Lorca was assassinated in Granada. Everywhere, bodies were left on the streets and in plazas as gruesome warnings.
Though both Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco, the Republicans’ pleas for international help were met with deaf ears. President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted a “moral embargo,” providing no goods or arms to either side.
At first, only Mexico responded, sending 20,000 rifles ammunition and food. But it was not enough to sustain the resistance. It was the support from the Soviet Union that made the difference. Initially, the weapons they sent were a mismatched array of antiquated arms, some from World War I and others left behind by the counterrevolutionary forces during the Russian Revolution, including American Winchesters from the 1860s. Lincoln volunteer Alvah Bessie was surprised to see that the antiquated rifle he was issued bore the stamp of the Russian Imperial Eagle beneath the Soviet hammer and sickle.
Even more important than the weaponry, the Communist International recruited volunteers from around the world to fight Franco: 35,000 to 40,000 answered the call. They joined the Spanish Republican Army as the International Brigades.
In the United States, the Communist Party recruited volunteers: three quarters of the Americans were members of the Party or its youth league. They came from 46 states, although a third were from New York. Like Berg, many were trade unionists who knew each other from picket lines on the waterfront and the garment district. They included the grandson of a Mississippi slave, a Native American who grew up on a Sioux reservation, a rabbi, an acrobat, and the son of a governor of Ohio. Half of the volunteers were Jews. Sixty were from the City College of New York, and at least 10 were from another New York institution: the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Their average age was 29.
The Party banked on the enthusiasm of the young Americans, but they also had to be politically pragmatic. They named the US battalion after Abraham Lincoln so it would not be condemned as leftist. Family members of the volunteers were given commemorative pins depicting the Liberty Bell.
Because the Party was worried about being charged with recruiting for a foreign army, it ordered the volunteers to say they were traveling to Europe as students or tourists. Yet, since each man was issued a black cardboard suitcase with yellow straps, they easily identified each other on the flagship Normandie that took them to Le Havre.
Arriving in France, they met up with other volunteers — from Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and a dozen other countries — and shared baguettes, wine, cheese, and multilingual verses of the “Internationale.” Their arrival in Spain was met with bands and cries of “No pasarán.” Their morale was buoyed not just by a sense of adventure, but because they sensed they were on the front lines against fascism — and they were prescient. Franco’s military was bolstered by airplanes, armaments, and roughly 80,000 troops from Hitler and Mussolini. And despite Roosevelt’s “moral embargo,” the tanks and planes were fueled by oil from Texaco.
Luminaries from all over the world flocked to Spain to witness the historic moment. Among them were Jawaharlal Nehru, Paul Robeson, Errol Flynn, and Langston Hughes. Upon returning home, they extolled the courage and commitment of the Spanish people.
Hochschild tells the story of this heady time with moving, well-paced prose exploring both international policy and intensely personal experiences. His past as cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and author of seven books, including Bury the Chains — winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the PEN USA Literary Award — and King Leopold’s Ghost, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, serves him well in this regard.
Yet Hochschild goes further than merely telling the story. The book is enriched by his stepping aside and sharing the front line reports from the many writers who were in Spain, including George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, André Malraux, Alvah Bessie, and Herbert Matthews of The New York Times.
For example, Orwell, who arrived in Barcelona as Eric Blair in 1936 after fighting on the Aragon front, describes the euphoria in the city:
In the barber shops were Anarchist notices solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. Revolutionary ballads of the naïvest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold in the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiamen buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.
Alvah Bessie, on the other hand, portrays the horrors of war as he describes the scene after the retreat across the Ebro:
We sat crouched around a lighted match under a blanket in a deep ditch, while [a courier] went through the mail. He read hundreds of names, but only about fifteen men claimed letters […] after the first few times nobody would say, “Dead” or “Missing”; we just kept silent.
Herbert Matthews lays bare the conditions of fighting in the mountain town of Teruel: “Nothing is protection against those icy blasts that come shrieking down from the north penetrating any amount of clothes […] the wind buffets you like a fighter boring in.”
Gellhorn used her considerable literary talent to try to persuade President Roosevelt to support the Republicans by writing to Eleanor, an old friend of her mother’s — to no avail.
Hochschild gives voice to unknown writers as well. Through extensive archival research he discovered previously unpublished letters, diaries, and notes from many of the American volunteers.
Lois Orr was in Barcelona at the same time as Orwell. A 19-year-old honeymooner from Kentucky, she had become enamored with the revolutionary spirit in the city and stayed to write English press releases for the Catalan government. In a letter to her parents, she wrote,
Barcelona’s ramblas was dazzling. Red, yellow, green and pink handbills and manifestos floated about our feet. Bright lights on cafes […] lit up red and black banners saying Confiscated, Collectivized. Every automobile in the street was decorated with the initials and colors of one or another workers’ organization. There were no more private cars. For any good revolutionary, Spain is the most valuable place in the world to be.
Jim Neugass, a volunteer ambulance driver, wrote of the wounded he carried from the Nationalists’ offensive in 1938, “When they are in my arms, I can hear their shattered bones grinding inside of their flesh.” As the Republicans retreated from the attacks of German Stuka dive bombers, he reported, the street “was clogged with peasants, carts, refugees […] Clots of unarmed soldiers, their hair white with dust of the road, crowded at the well. The bells of the church tower ceaselessly jangled a warning that planes were coming.”
If the Lincoln volunteers’ idealism was fueled by what they saw in Spain, it also gave them a glimpse of what a more egalitarian society in the United States could look like. In a luxurious country home, confiscated from Spanish royalty to become a makeshift 250-bed hospital, African-American Salaria Kea became head nurse, supervising five white nurses, something she had never experienced in her home country. Similarly, Oliver Law, a US Army veteran and Chicago cab driver, became the first black officer to head a battalion of mainly white troops. Tragically, he was fatally wounded while leading his soldiers up Mosquito Ridge at Brunete. “His career as a black officer commanding a largely white battalion had lasted only a few days, but nothing like it would happen in the US Army for many years to come,” Hochschild writes.
The International Brigades served on the front lines of all the major battles, and were killed at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the Republican army. Franco’s forces singled them out for imprisonment, torture, and summary executions. Though the Lincoln volunteers were celebrated for their heroism in Spain, they often found a rude welcome upon returning home. African-American soldiers disembarking in New York were denied lodging at hotels because of their color. During the seven-year McCarthy era, many of the veterans were hounded by government witch hunters and vilified as “premature anti-fascists.”
Sadly, many of the Russian volunteers met an even more cruel fate. As Hochschild notes, “Stalin’s paranoia always had a xenophobic tinge, and the ax of the Great Purge fell with particular weight on anyone who had served in Spain […] [because] they might have been corrupted by Western ideas or intelligence agencies.” The Soviet consul general in Spain, a hero of the Russian Revolution, was sent to the firing squad along with many other diplomats and soldiers. “Sometimes,” Hochschild writes, “their executions took place soon after the men had been publicly welcomed as heroes […]”
Just two weeks after La Pasionaria bid farewell to the International Brigades, came Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass. In Germany, Austria, and Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia, storm troopers smashed windows and set fires in Jewish neighborhoods, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, and began the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. The premature anti-fascists of the Lincoln Brigade had been right.
In Spain, Hochschild writes, “Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance” with mass arrests, torture, and executions. Fourteen thousand women were imprisoned in Madrid. Republican zones were deprived of basic necessities: in the cities, shivering families without coal burned furniture in their fireplaces to keep warm. In Barcelona, there was so little food that scurvy raged and the official ration was 3.5 ounces of lentils per day. Refugees poured over the Pyrenees to France. At least 20,000 Republicans were executed after Franco seized power.
Berg, the last surviving Lincoln volunteer, inspired an op-ed in The New York Times from Senator John McCain, with the startling title “Salute to a Communist.” The conservative and former POW wrote that he “always harbored admiration for [the Lincoln Brigade volunteers’] courage and sacrifice in Spain.”
Because of Hochschild’s exceptional narrative of this often overlooked moment in history, the Lincoln Brigade volunteers will no doubt have many more unlikely — and belated — admirers of their courage and sacrifice.