Comrades and Commissars: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War
By Cecil Eby
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
Despite Orwell and Ronald Radosh or perhaps because of them, the Left still clings desperately to an unblemished view of foreign Communist behavior in the Spanish Civil War. Like so many sacred cows for the Left, the participants in the conflict, by virtue of having their hearts in the right place, must not be criticized or subjected to the same analysis brought to soldiers in other wars.
Cecil Eby rejects such boundaries and examines the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as simply soldiers in any other war: why and how they fought (anti-fascist motives and World War I weapons), the problems they faced across the lines and, more importantly, behind them, and the reception they faced stateside. The latter has been promoted by the Left then and now as that of a hobbling soldier betrayed by his own isolationist government and then validated by history as that same government enters a world war against fascism. But Eby documents another kind of betrayal for the returning vets—from the American Communist Party. Those lucky enough to dodge a bullet in the back of the head from those seeking to import the Purge Trials into Spain soon found themselves facing a CPUSA-backed purge less lethal but no less venomous for colluding with the Hitler-Stalin Alliance.
Like the residents at the Hotel Gaylords in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Party command both in Spain and stateside directed their hatreds and cynicism not at Franco, but at the most idealistic in their midst. Those questioning Party policy in Spain were soon imprisoned in detention camps and shot. Those returning home and questioning the “fascism is a matter of taste” line were blacklisted from communist-dominated unions, denied aid for comrades languishing in POW camps, and spit upon by female brigades (with knife-wielding men waiting to pounce if the women were insulted or struck).
Eby even has the intellectual courage to search for a war crimes tribunal like those in any war—and not just for crimes committed by Franco. As with so much else concerning communism in this period, the task fell to HUAC, that rogue’s gallery of anti-Semites and corrupt politicians who nevertheless provided the only public forum for those protesting the behind-the-lines executions. Those who testified were denounced immediately in the Party press as “Troskyite-Hitlerite filth”—a kind of validation that such homicidal hatreds existed in the Party and could be expressed with a secret police in tow. Others refused to help HUAC out of an Old Bolshevik-type desire to keep the cause unblemished. Those who pulled the trigger and were grilled unsuccessfully by the Committee, opted for memory loss rather than the fifth.
Against the popular image of Lincoln veterans being stamped “premature anti-fascists” and refused service in World War II, Eby shows that no such practice existed. Too many Lincoln vets earned combat medals for such a boogey-boo to have been in practice.
At their 25th anniversary, the Party high command showed how little the passage of time and events such as the Secret Speech and the Hungarian Invasion had dented their agitprop. The American government was still fascist and the Founding Fathers still citable as Popular Fronters.
Eby’s book is worthy to sit on the same shelf as Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The latter described a soldier-eye view of the treacheries; Eby’s provides a wider-screen version of it both during and after. In doing so, he has enhanced the volunteer’s doomed and heroic image but not in a way pleasing to the Left. They were truly fighting a two-front antifascist war, with bullets zinging at them across no man’s land, and others coming at them from behind.
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