Del Berg, age 100, died last week, reputedly the last of several thousand Americans who fought in the 1930s Spanish Civil War for the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Apparently a proud Marxist-Leninist for most of his life, he joined the Communist Party USA. His grandson boasted to his school in recent years that his grandfather was a bold Communist.
Eighty years later it’s hard fully to appreciate the ideological passions generated by the Spanish Civil War, broadly pitting Fascists against Marxists. The conflict offered a cockpit to the worst and most murderous impulses of the last century. Hitler and Mussolini backed Franco’s rightist army with arms and men, while Stalin armed and subsidized the Spanish Republic, which included Communists and anarchists.
About 40,000 international volunteers flocked to the Spanish Republic, which they romanticized as an outpost in the global struggle against Fascism. Apart from German and Italian military personnel, an equal number of international volunteers served Franco, whom they extolled as a bulwark against Stalinism. Early in the war denizens of the Republic slaughtered thousands of priests and other Catholics, which amplified Catholic support for Franco, including many prominent American Catholics. Picasso famously portrayed a Spanish city’s destruction by Hitler’s Condor Legion in his painting Guernica. Churchill called interventionists on both sides “armed tourists.” Western nations remained neutral.
Franco’s victory was seen as a win for the Axis Powers, whom he disappointed by failing to join WWII, refusing Hitler’s pleas to seize Gibraltar from the British, and only sending “volunteers” to help with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler reputedly found his one summit with Franco the equivalent of a root canal, and Franco had feared the Germans might kidnap him. Various of Franco’s officers were pro-German or pro-British, often determined by bribery. Franco’s regime was oppressive but not totalitarian or ideologically anti-Semitic, and Jews in Spain were safe relative to the rest of continental Europe. Aligned with the West during the Cold War, Franco’s dictatorship was preferable to the Spanish Republic, which presumably would’ve remained faithful to the Soviets.
Old warriors for the Spanish Republic, if they escaped Franco, expended subsequent decades in activist exile. Among the most famous was the woman Spanish Communist orator known as La Passionara, or “Passion Flower,” who coined the defiant warning against Franco’s forces ever entering Madrid that became the Spanish anti-Fascist slogan, “Los fascistas no pasarán!!” She outlived Franco and returned to Spain in the 1970s. A video of her emotively orating praise at Stalin’s 70th birthday party in Moscow, with Mao looking on, is creepy and chilling.
Americans like Berg who faught in the Lincoln Brigade often gave themselves to civil rights and labor causes, opposing the Vietnam War, and urging USA disarmament. Their romantic Marxism is now seen by many as quaint.
Faint whispers of the Spanish Civil War arguably can be heard in the present USA presidential election. Sanders recalls the sort of crusading leftist who would’ve enlisted with the Lincoln Brigade. And Trump’s personalist, strongman rhetoric sounds to some at least rhetorically pseudo-Fascist, a style which appealed in the 1930s to a subset of Americans who despaired of democracy.
Fortunately America, rooted in British Lockean democracy and tolerant Christianity, has historically been immune to the violent and ideological extremes that contended in the Spanish Civil War. May it always be so.