Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War
By Cecil D. Eby
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007
Between the Bullet and the Lie, by Cecil Eby, appeared in 1969 as a welcome change from the politically correct line on the Spanish Civil War and the role of the International Brigades in that conflict. Eby never considered a sequel but the material kept coming, including new revelations from the Soviet Union. The result is Comrades and Commissars, by far the best work on the subject and the latest triumph of memory over not only forgetting but over the agit-prop that still passes as the conventional wisdom.
The Old Left handlers of Lincoln Battalion lore, Eby found, are not interested in what happened but what should have happened, and why. The men themselves, in this view, were "nothing" but "the cause was everything." The cause, handled by the Comintern and Communist Party, was to make Spain the first Soviet colony.
"We must act in the guise of defending the Republic," said Georgi Dimintrov, Comintern boss. "When our positions have been strengthened we can go further." The Spanish War, Eby observes, "was the best recruitment gimmick the CPUSA ever had." Not all 2800 Americans who fought were CP and even among those there is some variation.
Some were genuinely interested in defending the Spanish Republic and fighting fascism. Others were about enforcing Communist Party power and privileges. Like Hemingway, who also jostles in these pages, Eby does not hesitate to give the Communist elite a good boot. He cites "pussies like Joe Dallet," who "studied how to pass as working class." In Spain Dallet segregated officers from rank and file at mess. As Eby helpfully notes, Dallet's widow married Robert Oppenheimer, which later gave Steve Nelson, another Communist commander in Spain, a chance to filch American atomic secrets.
Far from a lumpenproletariat, many American fighters were part of an activist elite, with no military experience whatsoever. Eby is interested in them as individuals and follows their passage to France, their half-baked training, right into the reeking trenches. The encyclopedic detail includes conversation and even jokes. Every battle is mapped and one gets the feeling the author could easily dismantle some of the weapons, such as the French Chauchaut machinegun, which usually failed to work. The writing is superb throughout.
"Trying to fill the gaps in the Lincoln Battalion with untrained replacements was like stuffing putty into rat holes." And, "as the train rolled south in the dark, long sausages strung from luggage racks like a line of hanged men wobbled from side to side." The image is telling because Eby also charts how the Spanish conflict became an exportation of Soviet purges, what one revolutionary called the "spy disease," that "Russian syphilis." As this narrative confirms, many volunteers found out the hard way that the enemy on their side was more dangerous than anything General Franco had to offer.
The NKVD, precursor to the KGB, came to Spain in fall of 1936 and took control of Spanish Republic's military police. Volunteers had to contend with political commissars who could overrule military commanders. Their job was to eliminate Trotskyites, socialists, anarchists, and generally anyone less that worshipful of the party line. They also watched for other deviations. Soviet observers admired the military prowess of Major George Nathan, who was refused membership in the CP because of his sexual orientation. The soldiers came to call the commissars "comic-stars," and sometimes gave back as good as they got. One Lincoln vet called the commissars "thought control agents" but they also worked as executioners.
Eby describes how Comintern boss Andre Marty created a special prison camp outside Albacete for political deviants. After soldiers got drunk he ordered a commissar to "shoot a few in the presence of others" and "tie the others to trees in the heat of the day." Which in Spain can be pretty hot. Marty admitted to 500 executions and near the end of Comrades and Commissars Eby astutely notes that "nobody in the United States was ever shot out of hand – like men at Marsa or Castadefels – for voicing minority opinions."
Contrary to leftist legend, the Internationals held themselves aloof from Spaniards in their outfits, refused to learn Spanish, and promoted Spaniards only under duress. It was easier to find a Spaniard that spoke German or Polish than a brigadier who spoke even rudimentary Spanish.
The famous slogan, no pasaran!, derives from a line of French General Henri Petain, who said of the Germans in 1916 that ils ne passeront pas. The soldiers in Spain changed no pasaran! to "no f------ pan" over the lack of bread. The rations were rotten and they drank cognac better described as "a blend of olive oil and low-octane gasoline." CP bosses got better food and were free to come and go from the states while the soldiers remained essentially captives. The escape stories, including Orwell's, confirm that getting out of Spain was harder than getting in. Soldiers' passports were confiscated and later used in Soviet espionage.
Readers new to this subject will understand that the Spanish war became a cause celebre. Actor Errol Flynn showed up for one day. So did Stalinist crooner Paul Robeson, who did not sing in the trenches of Teruel, as Party propaganda claimed. British Laborite Clement Atlee also made a brief appearance in which he gave the clenched-fist salute and said, "No pasaremos." That gaffe was funny but also true.
The Internationals, despite 331 Soviet tanks, failed to pass on to victory and in some cases they turned tail and ran. Eby writes that the American losses at Belchite were not only the highest in Spain but "the most devastating defeat of an American military unit in history." He shows how, and why, the Internationals failed to stop Gen. Franco from cutting the Republic in half. That turned out to be better for Spain than any form of Soviet imperialism, the greater cause of the CP. John Gates, a CP boss who bailed after the Khrushchev revelations, told anybody who would listen that "there was more liberty under Franco's fascism than there is an any communist country."
Eby disposes of the "premature anti-fascist" legend and notes that the party dropped anti-fascism entirely during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when the Party organized "spit brigades" against dissenters. Eby might have added the observation that, had the Republic prevailed, during the Pact there would have been Nazi military bases in Spain, something Gen. Franco never allowed. Such bases would have made WWII a much tougher fight.
Comrades and Commissars is history at its finest but also works as a post-grad course in Communist mendacity, a guide to the Left during the thirties, and even as a code book to Hemingway. Here readers meet Robert Merriman the model for Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Eby's work deserves a wide readership and a national book award, but that is not a likely outcome.
Revisionists still rule, and that type of historian, says Eby, has a compulsion "to distort or conceal truth when writing about Communist subjects." As with the Old Left gatekeepers, "Loyalty became the supreme virtue. Truth was expendable."