What They Did in Spain

Review: Histories of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and Communist intervention in the Spanish Civil War

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April 29, 2018

Recently, David Simon, the television writer, producer, and creator of The Wire and The Deuce, announced that he is developing a six-hour miniseries titled A Dry Run. Its subject is the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, those young Americans who went to fight in Spain in defense of the country's elected Popular Front government. The election resulted in an armed rebellion of generals commanded by Francisco Franco. From 1936 until the Republic's defeat in 1939, Spain was embroiled in a brutal civil war. While the West refused to intervene, the Soviet Union was the only country to come to the government's aid. The supporters of the elected Popular Front government (a coalition of socialists, communists, and moderates) argued that had the United States abandoned its policy of neutrality and given the government military aid, the Franco "fascists" would have been defeated. Then perhaps the "maelstrom to come," as Simon calls World War II, might not have happened.

Simon, as his Wikipedia entry makes clear, calls himself a social-democrat and proudly defines himself as a man of the left and says he opposes "raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent any social framework, absent any sense of community, without regard to the weakest and most vulnerable classes in society." (You can find a complete explanation by him of his views here.) For him, capitalism might generate wealth but "offers no moral answer to how people can live or how societies thrive." Indeed, he told Variety, "When the Spanish Republic was threatened capitalism chose tyranny. So the better men who could not abide that choice came to Spain [to fight]."

When it comes to discussing the nature of the Lincoln Battalion, the left usually describes it as composed of heroic idealists who volunteered to fight fascism and defend democracy, making this characterization one of the most cherished myths of the old Communist and fellow-traveling left. It is therefore important to ask Simon if this is the view of the battalion that he intends to develop for his series.

This myth, however, is not confined to the left but has gone mainstream. Sen. John McCain wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled "John McCain: Salute to a Communist" after reading that Delmer Berg, the last living veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, had died in March of 2016 at the age of 100. Acknowledging that Berg was an "unreconstructed Communist" his entire life, McCain nevertheless believes that Berg and the other volunteers "professed to fight for the preservation of democracy" and were part of groups of "idealistic freedom fighters from abroad."

Even the Communists, he wrote, "believed they were freedom fighters first, sacrificing life and limb in a country they knew little about, for a people they had never met." Knowing full well the horrendous record of terror inflicted upon the world by Communism, McCain nevertheless concluded that he still "harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain." Indeed, he felt that way since age 12, when he read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, whose hero, Robert Jordan, fought and died for the Spanish Republic.

McCain's heartfelt piece reveals that he, like so many others who have opinions about the Lincoln Battalion, in fact know little of the real motivations of so many of the volunteers. First, they did not decide on their own to volunteer to fight in Spain because they opposed the rebelling generals' attempt at a coup. They volunteered only after the Communist International (Comintern) made the call. Many, however, were not aware of how their efforts would be used to fulfill the Soviets' goals. The truth is, as historian R. Dan Richardson writes in his study of the battalion, the men were highly motivated, but above all were a "significant political, ideological and propaganda instrument … used by the Comintern for its own purposes … an integral part of that interlocking directorate which was the Soviet-Comintern apparatus in Spain."

Richardson's view was seconded by the last American commissar of the Lincolns, John Gates, a leader of the American Communist Party who would quit the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. His men, he said, "fought with the best of intentions, they held noble ideals, but they fought in a system controlled and run by the Russian Communist leadership, then under the control of Stalin." The result is that the Soviets insisted "on adherence to the policy advocated by the Spanish Communists," which meant eschewing revolution and, on the surface, supporting a bourgeois or middle-class left-tinted Republic that would be firmly under Communist control.

One wonders if Mr. Simon is aware of this, and whether he will take this crucial point into consideration in depicting the American volunteers and follows through on what happened to them in Spain. Undoubtedly the battles he portrays will be accurate. The press interviews inform us that he has gone to the major battlefields to look at them and to get an accurate picture of what the volunteers faced as they fought Franco's legions.

Has he read, I wonder, the single most important volume on the battalion, written by Cecil D. Eby—Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War? Stanley Payne, the leading American historian of Spain, calls it "the best book ever written about the Lincoln Battalion," and he writes that while Eby does not "accept the standard politically correct line,… neither does he go to the opposite extreme." Sympathetic to the volunteers on the human level, Payne writes, he at the "same time [shows] the real character of the politics involved."

Eby too went to all the battlefields, but also used the most recent previously unavailable oral history interviews, records from old Soviet files in Moscow, and many other archives in Spain and elsewhere. Readers will find that the Battalion volunteers were often used as "shock troops," sent into battles in which the leaders knew they would be slaughtered, and not have a fighting chance to retard or defeat the Franco forces.

Their ranks were also subject to desertion and mutinies, as took place after the massacre at the Jarama Valley in 1937. Eby writes: "Desertion began to assume epic proportions." The public never learned about this, since General Janos Gal, a Soviet officer who was in charge, cordoned off the entire XVth Brigade, of which the Lincolns were part, and banned journalists from going to the Jarama sector. Later, only the pro-Communist Western press was allowed in, and their correspondents wrote about "the heroism of the Americans" and "said nothing about massacre or mutiny." As one American commissar put it in an unusually candid admission, the Lincolns were led as "sheeps to the slaughter."

These questions are fundamental. If, instead of Eby, Simon depends upon the deeply flawed book, Peter Carrol's The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, he will find a volume that glorifies the Lincoln volunteers and endorses the political vision of the international Communist movement. The book is filled with errors, and false claims that were easily discovered. (I enumerated these in a review of the book, which appeared in the New Republic on Jan. 30, 1995.)

One also finds evidence of how the leaders of the Lincoln Battalion helped the Soviets in getting rid of those suspected of Trotskyism or anarchism. The late Herbert Romerstein, an expert on communism and author of a pamphlet titled Heroic Victims: Stalin's Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War, found new material in the Moscow archives. One reported on a trial of 12 American deserters, who it appears were convicted and executed. Deserters, Romerstein notes, also referred to those who deserted from the official party line, not only to those who deserted their posts. He uncovered a report on one Harry Rayfield, who never returned home and simply disappeared. His Communist Party unit in the Battalion chastised him for "organizing a committee … to try and improve the soldier's conditions and also … [that of] the working people in the locality." What upset the commissars is that his agitation was made "in an intelligent and veiled way and [he] bases his argument on things that really exist," such as soldiers not getting pay due them. Yet, he still appeared at Communist Party cell meetings in Spain, and thus his accusers determined that "we believe that this comrade is a Trotskyite … and we ask him to be watched." Calling any Lincoln soldier a Trotskyite was a call for their execution. As the famed Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, known as "La Pasionara," told the troops: "Trotskyists must be exterminated like beasts of prey."

Simon may be unaware of the Soviet Union's real aims in Spain. First Stalin sought to give enough arms and weapons for the Republic's army and the volunteers to fight, but not enough to win against Franco. The aid came with a price. The Soviet Union took all of Spain's gold reserves in exchange for the tanks, guns, and aircraft they sent. Stalin hoped that by entering and extending the fight, the Western nations would end their neutrality and join the Soviets in fighting Hitler.

The USSR's second goal was to control the incipient revolution taking place in cities like Barcelona, and to assure that the Republic's army would be under the control of Soviet advisers and officers; that the Republic would eventually become what the Soviets instituted in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II, so-called People's Democracies. Indeed, the Comintern’s leader, Georgi Dimitrov, explained in 1936 that "we should not … assign the task of creating soviets and try to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain…. We must say: act in the guise of defending the Republic" and only after the "fascist counterrevolutionary elements" have been destroyed, "proceed from there" and "go further."

That admonition, however, included making certain that all non- and anti-Communist groups of the Spanish Left would be neutralized. Along with advising generals, Stalin sent into Spain both the Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, and Soviet secret police—the NKVD, as the KGB was then called. The NKVD carried out assassinations, like that of Andres Nin, the leader of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), whom Stalin considered a deviationist and Trotskyist. Soviet intelligence agents also sought to help the brigade leaders ferret out supposed anarchists and Trotskyists from its ranks. Andre Marty, the French leader of one of the brigades, by his own account had executed 500 soldiers for "desertion" or "Trotskyism," a figure many believe to be modest.

For someone supposedly concerned with totalitarianism, Mr. Simon should be aware that with its intervention, the Soviet Union sought to change a popular revolution on the left into a totalitarian police state. It tried to accomplish this through control of the Republican Army, the secret and uniformed police, and the newly created Spanish intelligence service, the SIM. All vestiges of democracy, including freedom of speech and assembly, as well as self-government, would destroy the leftist Republic.

Enrique Castro, a Spanish CP leader and commander of the Fifth Regiment, told his troops their aim was to "become another Soviet republic in area of great importance to Communism." While the army would appear to be an army of the Popular Front, "that army will be our army.… But we alone know this.… We shall direct it, but above all, we must appear to others as combatants of the Popular Front."

Perhaps one Lincoln Battalion veteran, the late William Herrick, who wrote an autobiographical novel based on his experience in Spain, Hermanos!, put it best: "Yes, we went to Spain to fight fascism, but democracy was not our aim." One hopes that David Simon will take into consideration this real history, before he and his colleagues complete the script.

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a contributing opinion columnist for the Daily Beast, is coauthor with Mary Habeck of  Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War.

Published under: Book reviews