Cover image for Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War By Cecil D. Eby

Comrades and Commissars

The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War

Cecil D. Eby

BUY

$46.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02910-8

$25.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05871-9

544 pages
6.125" × 9.25"
22 b&w illustrations/4 maps
2006

Comrades and Commissars

The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War

Cecil D. Eby

Comrades and Commissars is the best book ever written about the Lincoln Battalion. Eby does not accept the standard politically correct line, but neither does he go to the opposite extreme. Rather, he demonstrates a very good grasp of the volunteers as individuals, not as political puppets, and is thoroughly sympathetic to them on the human level, while at the same time showing the real character of the politics involved.”

 

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In the summer of 1936, Generalissimo Francisco Franco led a group of right-wing nationalists in a military attack on the Republican government of Spain—the start of what would become the Spanish Civil War. Despite U.S. laws banning participation in foreign conflicts, American volunteers began pouring into Barcelona in January 1937. The most famous of these anti-Franco groups was the band of 2,800 American fighters who called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. In Comrades and Commissars, Cecil D. Eby pushes beyond the bias that has dominated study of the Lincoln Battalion and gets to the very heart of the American experience in Spain.

Controversy has plagued the Lincoln Battalion from the very start. Were these men selfless defenders of liberty or un-American Communists? Eby has long been regarded as one of the few balanced interpreters of their history. His 1969 book, Between the Bullet and the Lie, won accolades for its rigorous and fair treatment of the Battalion. Comrades and Commissars builds upon that earlier study, incorporating a wealth of information collected over intervening decades. New oral histories, previously untranslated memoirs, and newly declassified official documents all lend even greater authority and perspective to Eby’s account. Most significant is Eby’s use of Lincoln Battalion archives sequestered in a Moscow storeroom for sixty years. These papers draw renewed focus on some of the most provocative questions surrounding the Battalion, including the extent to which Americans were persecuted—and even executed—by the brigade commissariat.

The Americans who served in the Lincoln Battalion were neither mythic figures nor political abstractions. Poorly trained and equipped, they committed themselves to back-to-the-wall defense of the doomed Spanish Republic. In Comrades and Commissars, we at last have the authoritative account of their experiences.

Comrades and Commissars is the best book ever written about the Lincoln Battalion. Eby does not accept the standard politically correct line, but neither does he go to the opposite extreme. Rather, he demonstrates a very good grasp of the volunteers as individuals, not as political puppets, and is thoroughly sympathetic to them on the human level, while at the same time showing the real character of the politics involved.”
“[Eby’s] Between the Bullet and the Lie (1969) was a good book and Comrades and Commissars is better. Cecil Eby’s book on the American volunteers who fought in the Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades (IB) in the Spanish Civil War exposes in lively detail what happened to the Americans in Spain.”
“The result of this new research is a detailed, forthright, and empathetic account of the short, but active life of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, set masterfully in the larger context of the Spanish Civil War and the politics of the American Left in the 1930s.”

Cecil D. Eby is a retired Professor of English at the University of Michigan. He is the author of eight books, including Hungary at War: Civilians and Soldiers in World War II (Penn State Press, 1998).

Contents

Preface

1. Getting There

2. Men of La Mancha

3. The Yanks Are Coming

4. The Jarama Massacre

5. Waiting . . . Waiting

6. Tourists and Trippers

7. The Torrents of Spring

8. The Washington Battalion

9. Stalemate at Brunete

10. The Road to Zaragoza

11. Fuentes de Ebro

12. Teruel—The Big Chill

13. Retreat from Belchite

14. The Rout at Gandesa

15. Postmortem

16. In the Penal Colonies

17. The Far Shore

18. La Despedida

19. “Premature Anti-Fascists” and All That

Appendix 1: Bibliographical Essay—Basic Sources

Appendix 2: Interview Subjects from the XVth Brigade

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Preface

When sorrows come, they come not single spies,

But in battalions.

—Hamlet, IV, v, 78

Non hic Centauros, non Gorgonas, Harpyasque

Ivenias, hominem pagina nostra sapit.

[No centaurs here or gorgons look to find,

My subject is of man and mankind.]

—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

The Lincoln Battalion numbered about twenty-eight hundred Americans who journeyed to Spain in groups of one hundred or fewer during 1937 and 1938 to join the Spanish Republic in its failed effort to subdue a right-wing coup led by General Francisco Franco. (About seven hundred and fifty died in Spain.) Their exact number will never be known because some early volunteers were killed before they could be counted, and others traveled under aliases or noms de guerre, allowing them to be counted twice or not at all. Passage to French ports from New York was paid by the CPUSA (reimbursed by the Spanish Republic), except for a small number of stowaways and men crossing on their own. Once in France they passed into the custody of the CPF (Communist Party of France), which arranged passage to the central base of the International Brigades at Albacete. There the majority went into the newly organized Fifteenth Battalion of the XVth International Brigade, while the rest became medical orderlies, truck drivers, or base personnel. (Later an American artillery unit named the John Brown Battery saw limited action with obsolete German cannon on the Toledo front.)

So entrenched is the folk belief that once upon a time an Abraham Lincoln BRIGADE fought in Spain, that it borders on political sacrilege to report the sad truth that no such military unit ever existed—in Spain or anywhere else. To proclaim otherwise—whether through honest ignorance or intent to deceive—is entirely false. Back to basics: In the Spanish civil war a brigade consisted of from four to six battalions. There was, indeed, an Abraham Lincoln BATTALION, serving with other international battalions—French, Yugoslav, British, Spanish, and Canadian— in the XVth International BRIGADE, one of several international brigades, initially separated from regular Spanish brigades, and administered by the Comintern. The reason why the Lincoln Battalion alone was magnified into a whole brigade owed nothing to the men themselves (who were fully occupied with other things, like fighting a war) but to publicists in the CPUSA back in New York, who decided without permission from the Comintern or the Spanish government that the American commitment to the “War against Fascism” being waged in Spain would be magically quadrupled in size by altering a single word. History, as written by addicts of Communism, was less a record of what really happened than of what ought to have happened. “To enter into the details of inter-party politics,” writes George Orwell, “. . . is like diving into a cesspool.”

Nearly forty years ago I wrote a book about American volunteers in the Spanish civil war titled Between the Bullet and the Lie (from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia). After its completion it never crossed my mind to write a sequel. Enough was enough. But from all directions came heaps of new material: former combatants lodged their papers in university archives (most notably, Brandeis, Illinois, and Adelphi), while the official records of the Lincoln Battalion, carried to Moscow after the war, were copied by the VALB and archived at New York University. Moreover, I had over the years corresponded with Spaniards who had read my book after its translation into Spanish as Voluntarios norteamericanos en la guerra española (1974). Their contributions, while rich and important, had unfortunately arrived too late for use in my book. The most important of these was a letter from a Valenciano named Fausto Villar Esteban, who faulted me on some details about the battle of Segura de Los Baños (my version having relied on the published testimony of a former Lincoln commander). As it happened, Fausto Villar Esteban served from October1937 to April 1938 as a draftee in the Lincoln Battalion and had written a day-by-day memoir describing what he saw and felt among the Americans, followed by a meticulous narrative of his two years in Nationalist prisons after capture at Gandesa. He mailed me a copy with permission to use it however I liked. His manuscript is a unique source of battalion history because for the first time we see how Spaniards—who were largely written-off as second-echelon comrades even though they eventually outnumbered the Americans in the battalion—viewed their service in the International Brigades. Villar denied the claim of CP publicists that native Spaniards eagerly sought to fight with the Internationals. Almost without exception they wanted places in all-Spanish units, where, if captured, they could expect a prison term, not execution on the spot—the usual fate of brigaders taken in battle. Fausto and I exchanged letters for five years until his death in 1996. I arranged for a copy of his manuscript to be archived in the Labadie Collection of the University of Michigan Graduate Library and began to think seriously about writing another book about the Lincoln Battalion. In a real sense, this book is a memorial for Fausto Villar.

Back in the 1960s research in Lincoln history was often a maddening experience, as though falling into a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole. Out there—somewhere in the American republic—were hundreds of veterans who might be interviewed, but how to obtain their names, addresses, phone numbers? After World War II when the United States embarked on a purge of Communism, Lincoln veterans came under attack because an estimated 80 percent of them—Earl Browder’s number—had at one time or another been members of either the YCL (Young Communist League) or the CP, although enthusiasm for the Party sagged after their return from Spain.* Regarded as political automatons, they were hounded by what they called the “Federal Bureau of Intimidation” and feared that if they revealed openly and honestly what they knew, it would be construed as ratting on their former comrades and denigrating the nobility of the cause that had drawn them to Spain. As a result, the majority wanted to be left alone.

The obvious place for a researcher to begin was in New York with the executive secretary of VALB (Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade). He readily arranged meetings with veterans in the vicinity, but without fail he led me to men whose recollections conformed to what might be termed a rigidly canonical version of Lincoln history. Whenever I asked for addresses of veterans who had strayed from the fold—most notably because they had repudiated the CP—I met excuses. They were not available—ill health, no forwarding address, promises of anonymity, and so on. On the other hand, those who adhered to the Party line were usually available for interviews. Certain subjects were tabooed—rumors of wholesale desertions, prison terms for political deviants, jagged relationships with other Internationals, executions of volunteers. Had these things happened or not? Conversations with hard-liners often took this tack:

“I’m interested in what happened.”

“You ought to be interested in why it happened.”

“I know why—but the ‘what’s’ are scarcely known.”

“No need to know about them, if you understand why.”

Or

“I want to record the experiences of the men in Spain.

“You miss the point—the men were nothing, the cause was everything.”

“But there is no cause without the men.”

“True—but the men were means to the higher end.”

To write within the boundaries prescribed by VALB partisans is to enter a narrow space where mushy platitude and rusty propaganda have crowded out most of the air. “Assertion abounds,” writes an historian of neutral ground, “but only infrequently is it buttressed by any more authority than an earlier assertion by a like-minded author.”* Fortunately, on my own, after combing newspapers of the era, playing hunches, and placing hundreds of telephone calls, I found veterans willing to answer any question I might have.

Despite all the evasions and distortions, I never lost my admiration for these Americans who had shoved rhetoric aside in order to fight for a cause in which they believed, with matériel scavenged from dozens of countries, and in a place as remote for most of them as the moon. Their epitaph might read: “They fought well with what they didn’t have.” Any attempt to impose unity of thought or action on nearly three thousand men would be patently absurd. Instead, I choose to write a consensus narrative based upon scraps and fragments drawn from oral interviews and written narratives that do seem to say, “This is how it truly was.”

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