They were Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain against the fascists—Franco, backed by Mussolini and Hitler—in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). As of last March, there were only four of them still living in California and only 33 of them surviving in all of America: the men and women of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. No one hears much about them any more. Franco’s fascists won that war, plunging Spain into darkness.
The July 17, 1936, coup attempt by far-right Spanish nationalists started the civil war that included atrocities like the bombing of the city of Guernica, immortalized in Picasso’s painting. The intent of the Nationalists under Franco was to consolidate power and eliminate all political opposition from the left.
Among those who answered the call of the Republican cause were these American volunteers for Spain, who left 800 of their comrades buried in the Spanish earth. Altogether, there were about 3,000 Americans in the International Brigades. The U.S. government called them “premature anti-fascists.” After World War II, they also found themselves on the McCarthyites “blacklists” of the 1950s.
They were longshoremen, garment workers, college professors, students, artists.
Here’s a sample of their courage. No one asked or forced them to go off to fight in Spain. Just to enter the country, they had to climb the Pyrenees in the winter on foot, at night—a fourteen hour trip up and over. Then they took on the Luftwaffe and Franco’s mercenaries in their first fight outside Madrid at Jarama. They died, these young men, who’d been in America the week before.
I was fortunate to travel to Spain with them for their 60th reunion in 1996. The Spanish people certainly haven’t forgotten them. There were glorious celebrations in Madrid and Barcelona to welcome them.
“No pasarán!” the crowds shouted. The fascists “shall not pass.”
Men like Milton Wolfe and Bill Bailey, who survived Spain, will now pass into history, but they will not be forgotten. Finally, there’s a memorial to these gallant Americans in San Francisco. Contributions to support the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives will help to keep their valor from slipping from public memory. Please donate to ALBA; 1799 Broadway, Room 227; New York, NY 1003.