For many a decade, schoolchildren of all ages have been taught to revere the alleged heroism of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought the forces marshaled by Generalisimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Since Franco received aid from Hitler in the 1930s in his effort to dislodge the government supported by the Soviet Union, the story goes, taking arms against Il Claudio was the equivalent of firing the first salvo at the Nazis.
One year ago, for instance, the University of Washington screened “Souls Without Borders,” a “tribute to the International Brigades, an assortment of volunteers who traveled from over fifty countries to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.”
“Particular attention is paid to the 2,800 Americans who joined in the struggle while still reeling from the Great Depression.”
Such a version of events has allowed the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to call themselves “premature anti-fascists” and to paint their detractors as useful pawns of the Axis. Thus, these American volunteers, whose Soviet ties were documented by several congressional committees and government agencies, were labeled among the “victims of the McCarthy Era hysteria” by their multitude of academic, journalistic and literary admirers.
The question is, how closely does that perception match up with reality? Well, for one thing, Franco apparently never thought of himself as much of a stand-in for Der Fuehrer.
“Francisco Franco, allegedly a quintessential fascist dictator, also refused Hitler’s demand to hand over Spanish Jews, saving tens of thousands of Jews from extermination,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his landmark study Liberal Fascism. “It was Franco who signed the document abrogating the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.”
“Meanwhile, the supposedly ‘liberal’ French and Dutch eagerly cooperated with the Nazi deportation program.” Glossed over in most historical treatments of the Spanish Civil War as well is the nature of the “democratically elected” Soviet-backed government Franco displaced.
“In the exuberance of electoral victory, leftist mobs attacked political opponents, churches and clergy,” Herbert Romerstein wrote in his 1994 monograph Heroic Victims: Stalin’s Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War, “A spokesman for the right, José Gil Robles, complained in the Spanish parliament of over a thousand assaults, 269 political murders and the burning of 160 churches.”
As for the Brigadiers themselves, they look much better from a distance. “A 1986 Soviet source claims that the Soviet Union sent 806 military aircraft, mainly fighters, 362 tanks, 120 armored cars, 1,555 artillery pieces and about a half million rifles,” Romerstein wrote. “The Soviets pointed out, however, that not all of this material reached its destination as some Soviet vessels and ships chartered from other countries were sunk by the Italians or forced into ports held by Franco’s Nationalist Forces.”
“The Soviets also claim that about 3,000 Soviet volunteers participated in the war, including 772 airmen and 351 tank men.” Among these volunteers were the American renegades who became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Actually, “The post-war organization was called the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, despite the fact that no such unit existed in Spain,” Romerstein notes. “There was the Abraham Lincoln Battalion which later merged with the George Washington battalion.”
An expert on Soviet forgeries at the United States Information Agency (USIA), Romerstein retired from USIA in 1989. His retirement coincided with the opening of the Communist International’s files during the Yeltsin years in the former Soviet Union, archives he visited frequently.
In Heroic Victims, he shows how the combat casualties who the VALB insisted were killed in action were actually liquidated as deserters. His latest report, for America’s Survival, Inc., drops another nugget on the VALB.
It seems that the VALB’s claim to be the first responders to the Nazi menace is a bit shaky in other ways too. For one thing, they pathetically fell in line when Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin.
“The American people look upon the veterans as the foremost champions of democracy and anti-fascism,” VALB “Major” Milton Wolff stated in May of 1941. “We must utilize this prestige in the boldest fashion to explain the fundamental difference between their imperialist war—which we vigorously oppose—and the Spanish people’s defense of democracy which we just as vigorously supported.”
Wolff did not have to offer such explanations much longer. Later that year when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and broke the pact, the Soviet fronts did another about face.
Wolff himself affixed his name to a May 1941 VALB pamphlet entitled Western Front Now! “Let us show the British and the Soviet people that we are with them all the way,” he declared.
He accomplished half of those goals.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.