US History/Spanish Civil War



The Great Depression heightened instability in Europe. The Treaty of Versailles had unrealistically addressed war reparations, causing a debt spiral between Germany and the Western Allies and the United States. The German nation felt humiliated by the Treaty's terms. This contributed significantly to the collapse of the world financial markets and led to an economic catastrophe that spawned a political vacuum which allowed new, more radical-than-traditional politicians to emerge on the world scene. These included such men as Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Hideki Tojo, Chiang Kai-shek, and Francisco Franco.

The Spanish Civil War

Fighters in the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War (July 18, 1936–April 1, 1939) was a conflict in which the incumbent Second Spanish Republic and political left-wing groups fought against a right-wing nationalist insurrection led by General Francisco Franco, who eventually succeeded in ousting the Republican government and establishing a personal dictatorship. It was the result of the complex political, economic and even cultural divisions between what Spanish writer Antonio Machado characterized as the two Spains. The Republicans ranged from centrists who supported capitalist liberal democracy to communists or anarchist revolutionaries; their power base was primarily secular and urban (though it also included landless peasants) and was particularly strong in industrial regions like Asturias and Catalonia. The conservative Basque Country also sided with the Republic, largely because it, along with nearby Cataluña sought autonomy from the central government which would later be suppressed by the centralizing nationalists. The ultimately successful Nationalists had a primarily rural, wealthier, and more conservative base of support, were mostly Roman Catholic, and favored the centralization of power. Some of the military tactics of the war -- including the use of terror tactics against civilians - foreshadowed World War II, although both the nationalists and the republicans relied overwhelmingly on infantry rather than modern use of blitzkrieg tactics with tanks and airplanes.

The number of persons killed in the Spanish Civil War can be only roughly estimated. Nationalist forces put the figure at 1,000,000, including not only those killed in battle but also the victims of bombardment, execution, and assassination. More recent estimates have been closer to 500,000 or less. This does not include those who died from malnutrition, starvation, and war-engendered disease.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade

Re-enactors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was an organization of United States volunteers supporting or fighting for the anti-fascist Spanish Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigade.

The name "brigade" is something of a misnomer, as there were several American battalions organized under the Fifteenth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican army. This brigade was loosely organized by the Comintern and was made up of volunteers from nations around the globe. The George Washington Battalion, Abraham Lincoln Battalion, John Brown Anti-Aircraft Battery were part of the American contingent. Other U.S. volunteers served with the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion (Canadian), the Regiment de Tren (transport) and in various medical groups. The name Abraham Lincoln Brigade was used to include all the U.S. volunteers, regardless of which unit they served with.

Most of the people making up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were official members of the Communist Party USA or affiliated with other socialist organizations. The IWW, or "Wobblies", were lightly represented. However, the brigade was made up of volunteers from all walks of American life, and from all socio-economic classes. It was the first unit of soldiers made up of Americans to have an African-American officer, Oliver Law, lead white soldiers.

American volunteers began organizing and arriving in Spain in 1936. Centered in the town of Figueras, near the French border, the brigade was organized in 1937 and trained by Robert Merriman. By early 1937, its numbers had swelled from an initial 96 volunteers to around 450 members. In February 1937 the League of Nations Non-Intervention Committee banned foreign national volunteers.

Self-motivated and ideological, the Lincolns attempted to create an egalitarian "people's army"; officers were distinguished only by small bars on their berets and in some cases rank-and-file soldiers elected their own officers. Traditional military protocol was shunned, although not always successfully. A political commissar explained the politics of the war to the volunteers and tended to their needs and morale. The Lincoln Brigade helped ease the pressure on Madrid, giving the Republic time to train and organize its own popular army. The subject of respectful news reports by such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Matthews, Martha Gellhorn, and Lillian Hellman, the brigade helped strengthen anti-fascist opinion in the United States. Yet the Lincolns and the Republican military, fighting with inadequate weaponry, could not withstand the forces allied against them. By the end, the Lincolns had lost nearly 750 men and sustained a casualty rate higher than that suffered by Americans in World War II. Few escaped injury. In November 1938, as a last attempt to pressure Hitler and Mussolini into repatriating their troops, Spanish prime minister Juan Negrin ordered the withdrawal of the International Brigades. The Axis coalition refused to follow suit and Madrid fell in March 1939.

The Lincolns returned home as heroes of the anti-fascist cause but enjoyed no official recognition of their deed. Many Lincolns soon aroused bitterness within sectors of the Left when, with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in 1939, they supported the CP's call for the United States to stay out of WWII. Once the United States and the Soviet Union entered the war, however, many of the veterans enlisted in the armed forces or served with the merchant marine. In a foreshadowing of the McCarthy period, the armed forces designated the Lincolns "premature antifascists" and confined them to their bases. Many successfully protested and were allowed to see action. Among the core agents of the Office of Strategic Services were Lincoln veterans whose contacts with the European partisans, forged in Spain, were key to OSS missions.

The International Brigade was used by the Loyalist army for several battles in Spain. They unsuccessfully defended the supply road between Valencia and Madrid in the Jarama Valley from February 1937 until June 1937. They were also present at the battles of Brunete, Zaragoza, Belchite, and Teruel.

The Brigade was a cause celebre in the United States, however. Liberal and socialist groups organized fund-raising activities and supply drives to keep the Brigade afloat. News of the Brigade's high casualty rate and bravery in battle made them romantic figures to an America concerned about the rise of Fascism around the world.

The war dragged on and the Fascist forces gained victory after victory over the Spanish Republic. The International Brigade was withdrawn from battle by the Spanish prime minister in spring of 1938. Most of the surviving Lincolns were repatriated promptly afterward, and were welcomed home as heroes.

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, members of the Brigade were castigated as supporters of the Soviet Union. Following World War II, at the height of the "Red Scare", former members of the Brigade were considered security risks, and branded "premature anti-fascists".

The US volunteers of the International Brigades adopted the song "Jarama Valley" as their anthem, which was the older song "Red River Valley" with new lyrics. The song was also translated into Catalan. The effect of the War on Americans can be guessed from Ernest Hemmingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Violence During the Spanish Civil War


The opening weeks of the Spanish Civil War were characterized by horrendous atrocities, most of them inflicted by an inflamed working class upon conservatives in general and Catholic clergy in particular. Ultimately, 12 bishops and hundreds of priests and nuns and seminarians were slaughtered. The reprisals taken by the nationalists were as brutal, though usually less picturesque in their cruelty. Europe looked on in horror as a country once recognized as the center of Western Civilization descended into bloodshed on a scale not seen since the ghastly events of WWI. The new tank warfare tactics and the terror bombing of cities from the air were features of the Spanish Civil War which later was a significant part in the general European War. The Spanish Civil War had cost the nation somewhere between 600,000 - 800,000 lives, counting deaths in battle and executions, as well as civilians killed by bombing, starvation, and disease. Under the new regime thousands more would be condemned to death, imprisoned, or forced into exile. The war ended with the victory of the rebels, who called themselves the Nationalists, the overthrow of the Republican government, and the exile of thousands of Spanish Republicans, many of whom ended up in refugee camps in Southern France. Apart from the combatants, many civilians were killed for their political or religious views by both sides. [1][2]

America and Europe During the Spanish Civil War


After World War I, U.S. Blacks confronted once again the forces of white supremacy and a revitalized Ku Klux Klan. Yet the appearance of a Communist government in Russia in 1917 opened new vistas for African American militancy. After Lenin's Communist party came to power in the Soviet Union and boldly proclaimed "the wretched of the earth" should rule the world, African American resistance took on new meaning. In Chicago, an African Blood Brotherhood led by Cyril Briggs talked of arming Black men for self-defense and called for unity with white workers to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. In 1924 Briggs led his followers into the U.S. Communist party.

Other African Americans also turned to the Communist party for inspiration and organizational support. The most significant African American Communist of this early era was World War I veteran Harry Haywood. During the 1920s Haywood headed for the Soviet Union. In 1928 at a Comintern conference he embraced a proposal that Blacks who lived in the sixty contiguous southern U.S. counties (where they accounted for a majority of the population) be entitled to self-determination including the right to secede from the United States. Such ideas became the basis of the Communist party's organizing among southern Blacks during the 1930s. Haywood later served briefly as a commissar in the Lincoln Brigade.


  1. Meditz, Sandra W., Solsten, Eric, ed. Spain A Country Sturdy. Library of Congress-in-Publishing Data,1988. Print.
  2. Griffin, D. William, Ortiz-Griffin, Julia. Spain and Portugal: A Reference Guide From the Renaissance to the Present. Library of Congress-in-Publishing Data, 2007. Print.

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