A is for The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

by RS on April 1, 2012

 

To kick off this abecedarian challenge, I’d like to introduce the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.In Julius, Corinne carries with her a talisman of sorts, Alvah Bessie’s memoir, Men in Battle. The book is about Bessie’s time serving in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Julius also includes three elderly veterans of the Brigade who ally themselves with Corinne when trouble brews at the magazine.

There have been several books written about The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the best way to approach this is to give a broad summary that will give readers an idea of their role in the Spanish Civil War. At the end of this overview, I’ll provide some links and a short bibliography in case you want read more about the ALB.

And now Dr. Schiller shall commence with her lecture . . .

Let’s clarify one itty-bitty thing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—it was actually a battalion within the XV International Brigade that consisted of six battalions from several countries as well as Spanish conscripts. There were a number of battalions and these included The George Washington Battalion that later merged with the Lincolns, but the André Marty Battalion from France, the Garibaldi Battalion that consisted of Italians and Spaniards, the Thälmann Battalion, which was German and so on.The Lincoln volunteers fought in Spain from 1937 through 1938 and consisted of 2,800 American members who illegally traveled to Spain (arriving in Paris, traveling south and then crossing the Pyranees into Spain) to defend the legally elected Spanish Republic against a military coup led by Francisco Franco and three other generals. The “Abies,” as they were known, fought alongside with approximately 35,000 antifascists from 52 countries. These battalions were organized the Comintern.

So you can get an idea of who volunteered to go to Spain, the recorded demographics of ALB volunteers show that they came from just about anywhere in the U.S., although it appears that about 20 percent of the volunteers came from New York City) and from a number of professions including artists, seamen, teachers, students, doctors, the unemployed, and union workers. The average was in the mid-20s. In terms of religious faith approximately 1,250 were Jewish.  The Battalion was also the first racially integrated military unit in the U.S. and it was the first to be led by a black commander. More than 60 percent of the volunteers were members of the Young Communist League, or the Communist Party, Wobblies, and socialists (who formed their own Debs Column for Spain, but were closed down by US government).

Due to conservative pressure in the United States by leading groups like the Catholic church and big business, the U.S. was part of the nonintervention pact (along with France and England).  The U.S. embargoed aid to the Spanish Republic, even though prominent people who were close to FDR, like the First Lady, tried to convince him to lift it but because of politics, FDR backed down (a mistake that he later admitted during WWII). In the meantime, Germany and Italy used Spain as a testing ground for their tanks and airplanes. Companies like General Motors and Texaco actually assisted Franco with trucks and fuel. The only two governments to aid the Spanish Republic were the Soviet Union and Mexico, which sold them armaments, but these never made it to the volunteers because of they were compounded at the French border.

Idealistic right from the very start, the Lincolns attempted to create a people’s army where in some cases soldiers elected their officers. Traditional military protocol was eschewed and each section had a political commissar who explained the politics of the war. But in spite of their idealism, the Lincolns were ill-equipped to fight Franco and his allies thanks to embargoes and not having in their possession weapons that actually worked. At the close of the war, the Lincolns lost nearly 750 men  (James Lardner, Hollywood 10’s Ring Lardner’s brother, was reportedly the last Abraham Lincoln Brigade member to die in action). By November 1938, Spanish prime minister Juan Negrin ordered the International Brigades to withdraw.

The volunteers who returned to United States were hailed as heroes by the  Left, but because they illegally participated in a non-American war they received no official recognition for their bravery and they were labeled as “premature anti-fascists” which would be turned against them during the McCarthy period when many of the members were harassed and forced out of their jobs, and blacklisted by the American government.

Yet ask an “Abie” if he had any regrets about going to Spain and the answer has was always been no. In 1980 Alvah Bessie told author Peter Wedyn in The Passionate War: “This is the most important experience of my life, and it always has remained so, and I have never regretted it for a moment.”

To read more about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, I recommend the following books:

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: American in the Spanish Civil War, by Peter Carroll

Men in Battle, by Alvah C. Bessie

Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, edited by Alvah Bessie and Albert Prago

The Lincoln Battalion, by Edwin Rolfe

Mississippi to Madrid, by James Yates

Comrades, Harry Fisher

On the web:

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

The Abraham Lincoln Brigades of the Spanish Civil War

And of your listening pleasure:

 

 

3 comments
cecilieaux
cecilieaux

1. Where can I find out about the challenge?2. I think "Homage to Catalonia" by George Orwell is the best piece of English writing in the 20th century.3. Had relatives who fought in Spain, some on one side, some on the other.

RebecaSchiller
RebecaSchiller moderator

 @cecilieaux Click on the black and white image on the top right and that will take you the challenge. I think, though, it's too late to sign up although you can just do it and publicize it via FB. 

RebecaSchiller
RebecaSchiller moderator

 @scmorgan You are one of the faithful, Sarita! I'm happy that you liked the post. I had to rework several times so it was too dry or pedantic. Tomorrow's will be better since I'm writing about a fellow traveler. One that we all know and love (or at least  I love).

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