Monday, March 26, 2007

My Grandfather Was Not a Member of the International Brigades. But If He Was, He Would Be Pissed I Think.

What is happening to the legacy of the International Brigades? In Poland, as part of the larger anti-Communist-past "Lustration" project, the ruling Kaczynski twins have initiated a series of reforms intended to eliminate the International Brigades from Polish history. They are now referred to as "criminals and traitors" by the government. If the Kaczynski's law is passed, International Brigade veterans, many of whom also fought in WWII, will no longer receive special government pensions. All references to the Spanish Civil War will be stricken from street signs and school names. [For a good introduction to just how generally awful and anachronistic the current Polish regime is, see here and here.]

In America, meanwhile, a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called "Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War" is stirring additional controversy surrounding the very same issue. The museum displays, chiefly, the history of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteer unit of the International Brigades that went to Spain and fought on the side of the Republic against Franco. Writing in The New York Times, the art critic Edward Rothstein recently excoriated the exhibit for what he sees as its "attempt to rehabilitate the Communist left;" for its failure to deviate much from "what would have once been called the party line;" for its efforts "to re-establish the civil war as a morality tale;" and for its uncritical lionization of a Lincoln Brigade that was "blind — or worse" to the threats of Soviet Communism, the relative tameness of Franco's ambitions, and lastly, the freedom-spreading Roosevelt government. Rothstein ends his piece with a rather odd and poorly substantiated claim that after the Civil War ended in '39 many in the Lincoln Brigade had deemed it necessary to take up the fight against the fascists at home rather than Germany. These men were not the heroes we desperately want them to be, he concludes. It seems, then, that Rothstein too would be partial to the Kaczynskis' interpretation that the International Brigades were more or less traitors and criminals.

I have too many problems with Rothstein's essay to expound in this post. That said, even having never seen the exhibit, I still don't think it would be fair to criticize Rothstein's general thesis that the works on display give an unfortunately naive account to a complicated event. I am concerned, though, that these kinds of eviscerations of the International Brigades are applying to much "presentism" to the past. One needn't be a living breathing Communist to reserve some sympathy for the men who went to Spain in '36. One must always remember the context.

As the members of the Bridage themselves recount in the 1984 documentary "The Good Fight," the 1930s were desperate times to be a working-class American. The international capitalist order seemed broken for good. Fascism was on the march in Europe, and was far from invisible in New York City. When the Spanish Civil War began with a right-wing coup against a problematic though democratically elected government, many Americans of all classes waited to see if fascism would continue to spread in the European continent. When Germany and Italy entered the war on behalf of the fascists, many of these same Americans watched in horror at the democracies' silence, their neutrality -- and in some cases tacit support -- which so obviously was resulting in giving the upper-hand to the fascists. With no prospects at home, many members of the working class went to Spain to fight what they truly believed was The Good Fight. They were driven by ideology and the hope that their efforts would help produce an end to the horrors of fascism, and the desperation of life under capitalism.

In a complicated war which pitted Spanish extremists of left and right, Soviet Communists, German Nazis, and Italian Fascists, one could argue that the International Brigadists were the most selfless and purely motivated contingent of all of the combatants. Their judgments may be deemed excessively, or even dangerously, "naive" by historians seventy years later, but the general decency of these men was and is clear. Heroes? Maybe, maybe not. Traitors and criminals? Fools and knaves? If Spain itself had the last word, the debate would be over.
Last week, the Spanish senate unanimously supported a motion of solidarity with the Polish members of the International Brigades against their government's attempt to expunge their legacy.


Blogger Scantron said...

What's ironic about this whole situation is this--after the failure of the Republican forces in the civil war, wasn't the official Stalinist "party line" that the war effort had been screwed by those, including Americans, other foreigners, and non-Soviet-aligned revolutionary Spaniards (who should probably be given priority here), who had refused to follow Soviet leadership and had attempted to "revolutionize" Spain completely? This seems to be the thrust of Orwell's book, anyway. If so, is there anyone who hasn't disowned these poor idealists? But maybe the International Brigades were loyal to the Soviets, I don't know. Also, maybe you saw the recent commemoration of the war by Eric Hobsbawm and the subsequent attack on his article by a dude named Stephen Schwartz at It made aldaily. Google it and check it out.

I don't really understand this historical whitewashing. I mean, obviously Soviet Communism in the 1930s was a threat to the rest of the capitalist West that many people had recognized, but not anywhere near the level post-WWII. This was shortly before our own government would be calling him "Uncle Joe" in wartime propaganda, after all. I know hindsight is 20/20 but isn't that the whole point--wouldn't that "absolve" the international Republicans of the "blindness" they may have experienced then? Rothstein may still have his points, but the Kaczynski's don't.

2:39 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

Hey Robot,

In the future can we please stick with American news?

Kind Regards,

Hippie Killer

1:11 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Scantron -- Your second paragraph is right on the mark. If the International Brigades were loyal to the Soviet Union in the early 1940s, they weren't the only ones. Is it no longer true that The United States was allied with the Soviets in World War II? One needn't dispute the pragmatic rather than ideological nature of this alliance to maybe... I don't know... not freak out if there were a couple of thousand Americans who also thought it would be a good idea to fight alongside, or even with, the Soviet Union against European Facsism.

I did read the Hobsbawm, and Schwartz's response. What I remember thinking about them both is that they go a bit too far in their argument. Hobsbawm makes the intellectually fatal sin of denegrating Orwell and apologizing for the Soviet's aggression in the "civil war within the civil war." Schwartz, as I recall, also goes too far in arguing for the need to Españify the conflict, arguing that if your narrative of the civil war isn't somehow 95% a Spanish story, then you're some kind of chauvinist, ignorant, asshole. Giving Spanish intellectuals/actors more of a voice is surely a much needed enterprise, but a) Hobsbawm is far from the only, let alone most egregious example, and b) Spanish historians themselves are not blind to the fact that their civil war was about more than just their country's particular problems. The conflict became internationalized precisely because it involved ideologies -- all of which would play themselves out on a much larger and bloodier scale in the same year the war ended.

Hippie Killer -- You're absolutely right as well, but allow me to respond, briefly. One of the reasons men like you and me (as opposed to many of the anti-US of A fembots on this blog) can appreciate the splendor that is the American empire, is that we appreciate that wherever you are, you can't escape its power. The sun never sets on this son of a bitch, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop talking about these pesky proxy wars we always need to put down.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

That's a good assessment of the Hobsbawm/Schwartz pieces. I'll be honest, I saw them first linked to on Sullivan's site and I sent him an email complaining that he was presenting an unfair view, which is how I viewed Schwartz. (I mean, how do you call Hobsbawm an "historian" in scare quotes when he's the fricking President of Birkbeck College? Schwartz also claimed that Hobsbawm didn't know Catalan, which is just false.) I thought it was weird that Sullivan would even link to a squabble between two far leftists, but it wouldn't be the first time I called ol' Andrew "clueless."

2:06 AM  

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