On March 29, 1939, Francisco Franco and his fascist forces overran the capital city of Spain, Madrid, and declared victory over their enemies, the Spanish Republicans. The Spanish Civil War is still a hot-button issue for ideological partisans on both sides of the aisle. At stake in these arguments is how to define what constitutes the left-wing and the right-wing in politics. Essays by Jacques Delacroix, Jonah Goldberg, John Holbo, Pseudoerasmus, and the late Ralph Raico are worth reading if you want to delve into whether fascism was left- or right-wing.
When the war started, the Nazis and the Soviets began sending weapons; the Nazis to Franco’s camp, the Soviets to the Republican’s camp. (The Republicans were a hodgepodge of socialists, liberals, and anarchists who banded together to defend the democratically-elected government Franco and his allies loathed.) The governments of democracies (and their undemocratic colonial possessions) officially steered clear of the war, though. London persuaded Paris to avoid the war in order to avoid conflict with Berlin, and Washington was in the midst of a post-World War I isolationist phase.
Although the governments of the democratic West eschewed involvement and declared neutrality, there was no legislation at the time prohibiting individual or collective efforts from participating in the war. So thousands of volunteers from the U.K. and its settler colonies, like George Orwell, and the United States set out for Spain in order to “fight fascism.” The American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, and of the 3,015 volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans, 681 lost their lives.
The volunteers were almost all political leftists with sympathies for the Soviet Union and socialism. (In 1936, Stalin’s and Lenin’s crimes against Soviet citizens were underreported, to put it kindly.) American volunteers first arrived in Spain in 1937 after the Republicans had issued a plea worldwide for volunteers to help them fight the better organized, Franco-led Nationalists. The Yankee volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in January of 1937 and Republican Generals ordered the battalion to the front lines the very next month, after 30 days of training.
The volunteers were to be used as cannon fodder for the Republicans, which explains the high casualty rate, but it was the disorganized front put on by the democratically-elected Republican government that is to blame for the high casualty rates, rather than some sort of prejudice or malice on the part of the Spanish Left. The volunteers almost all came from non-military backgrounds, too, as most were starry-eyed urban idealists who believed they were fighting injustice. After a meager 30 days of training, the Lincoln Battalion was marched to the front lines to fight a bunch of battle-hardened troops that mostly hailed from Spain’s colonies, where military governance was practiced and honed to near perfection.
In spite of the setbacks, and the fact that Madrid sent the much-battered Abraham Lincoln Battalion home after a year, the volunteers claimed moral victories, chief among them being the fact that their battalion became the first integrated military unit in American history (around 80-90 African Americans made their way over to Spain to fight against Franco). American literature flowered as a result of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, too, with Ernest Hemingway’s magnificent For Whom the Bell Tolls chief among them.
Because the Abraham Lincoln Battalion was unofficial, and with heavily leftist sympathies to boot, it never received any sort of official recognition from the federal government. There are four memorials dedicated to its service, though. Fittingly, the memorials are connected to universities or urban areas with strong leftist sympathies: Seattle’s University of Washington, the city of Madison, Wisc., City College of New York, and San Francisco. The Battalion, and the subsequent actions taken to keep its name alive and historically relevant, are perfect manifestations of America’s long and storied relationship with voluntary association, and one that we would do well to remember.