The Spanish Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

by A. D.

A map of Spain in 1936

During the years preceding World War II, Europe changed. New countries formed and the older ones fell apart. One of the older countries in turmoil was the kingdom of Spain. From 1936 until 1939, a bloody, violent civil war raged within its boundaries. Stretching from the northern part of Africa to the Pyrenees Mountains, the fighting led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards, Italians, Russians, and Americans. The Americans were volunteers who formed a little known, but well-respected legion called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Together with the Spaniards and Russians, they fought to protect an ideal many Americans take for granted, democracy.

The War and its Causes

In the early 1900's, Spain was ruled by the monarchy of Alfonso XIII. His family, the Bourbons, had ruled since the 18th century. However, Spain had fallen on hard times. The Spanish-American War of the 1890's had created unrest in the once strong kingdom. There were calls for social, land and economic reforms. In order to restore the peace after a Moroccan revolt, King Alfonso made his army's general, Miguel Primo de Rivera, a dictator. Primo successfully stopped the rebellion, but his new power and the suspension of the constitution intensified an already serious situation. Soon, the dictator's rule came to an end "when in 1930," as Davis (1975) wrote, "Primo's brother officers turned against him, he resigned and went into exile in Paris."(p. 3)

After Primo's resignation, Alfonso again took over the government. In the next year, liberals and socialists called for a republican form of government. In 1931, no longer able to control his country, Alfonso ordered new parliamentary elections. The Republican candidates won, and the king was forced into exile.

The elections began the short era of the Spanish republic. Though the democratic style was popular, there remained powerful conservatives in Spain, supporters of the monarchy and of the Catholic Church. The republic alienated these people by ending the Church's role in education and the Cortes, Spanish parliament. (Davis, 1975)

The Republic gained in popularity in the next few years until in 1933, the CEDA party developed. The Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Parties) exposed the failings of the republic. Davis described the republic:

It had begun some land reform, increased wages, given self-government to Catalonia, established religious freedom, built a record number of new schools, expanded public works programs, and reformed the military. But in the process it had outraged the army, embittered the Catholics, frightened the middle class, and disappointed the masses of poor people who were its natural supporters by not moving fast enough or far enough to give them land and food.(p. 92)

Due to the outrage, the president of the Republic, Niceto Alcala Zamora, mandated an election. The Republicans or Popular Front won the elections again. Their victory sparked riots, protests and violence on both sides of the political issues.

Meanwhile, Spain's military and CEDA was planning a rebellion against the Republic. The soldiers rallied around their leader Francisco Franco. The relatively small revolt turned into a large civil war. In October, 1936, Franco headed the Council of National Defense, the rebel or Nationalist government.

Although, the rebellion began in southern Spain, there were small uprisings to the north. Despite the growing Nationalist or Rebel forces, many Spaniards remained supportive of the republican government. The Republicans or Loyalists maintained their strength and were often able to successfully battle against the rebels. (Hills, 1992) The Nationalists gained control of Morocco, north-central Spain, and the southwestern section of Spain, near the Portuguese border. On the other side, the Republicans maintained their grip over the Mediterranean coast, Madrid, Catalonia, and the Basque area. (Davis, 1973)
Areas under Nationalist control in early 1937

The Rebel forces quickly became strong due to foreign support. Germany saw the Civil War as a way to test new weapons. Italy's fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, pledged support through his men. He sent 70,000 soldiers to fight for the Nationalists in Spain. (Goldston, 1972)

Republican forces were not as lucky to have foreign support. The Soviet Union gave a little, but others countries preferred to maintain neutrality. Unfortunately, due to a lack of support, the Loyalist forces weakened and were unable to withstand the ever constant fighting. (Tucker, 1986)
The Spanish flag

Soon, the Rebels took control of more and more Republican lands. In 1938, they gained control of Catalonia, the northeast corner of Spain. In early 1939, their march continued south to the central area of Spain around Madrid. There the republicans tried but could not defend their capital.

Finally, in March 1939, the Loyalists were defeated in Madrid. The war ended officially in April, after three years of bitter, hate-filled fighting. Nearly three hundred thousand men and women had died, but that was only a part of the total death rate resulting from the war and its aftermath. When Generalisimo Francisco Franco became the official dictator of Spain, he imprisoned supporters of the Republic, although they had stood behind a legal institution. His new fascist government was created illegally and governed for thirty five more years.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The threat of Fascism inspired young Americans to journey to the Iberian Peninsula in order to fight General Franco and his rebel forces. The volunteers came from all over America. Many outsiders considered the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to be Communists. In reality, some were. They were dissatisfied with the state of American economics during the Great Depression and were interested in the idea of a new system. Communist organizations often paid the price of the trip to Spain for their members.

These young men and women differed greatly, their occupations ranged from idealistic jobs, like art or poetry, to more blue-collar jobs, such as mechanics. (Katz and Crawford, 1989) There was no clear definition of Abe Lincoln Brigaders. Some were fleeing the hardships of rural America while others were simply seeking new and grand adventures.(Lawson,1989) Whatever their motivation, Lincolns believed in their cause and were eager to assist in the fight against fascism.

The 2,800 Lincoln Brigaders were uniquely American. Their group was racially and economically integrated from the beginning, with members hailing from the streets of Brooklyn, from college campuses, and Native American reservations. In fact, the first black man to ever lead an integrated American military force was Oliver Law, a commander of the Lincoln Brigade who died during the Spanish Civil War. (Katz and Crawford, 1989)

In 1939, the interested volunteers began to organize. Some traveled to New York where they bought uniforms in the army-navy surplus stores. Because it was illegal to fight in a foreign war, they disguised themselves as tourists and left New York aboard the S.S. Normandie in 1936. The ship docked in France where the men and women took a train to the base of the Pyrenees Mountains. From there, Americans trekked through the mountains until they reached Catalonia, an autonomia ( a state) in northeastern Spain. Figueras, a Spanish town on the border became the center for organization, but the headquarters for all International Brigades was in Albacete, in southern Spain. (Lawson, 1989)

The number of American volunteers arriving in Spain rapidly grew from the ninety-six original people to nearly four hundred. They gave themselves the name, Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Despite the numbers, the soldiers were not ready for combat. Most had never fired a rifle, let alone seen real military training. Quickly, Robert Merriman was put in charge of training the International Brigade. He whipped them into shape and prepared the soldiers for battle.(Lawson, 1989)

The first call for the now four-hundred and fifty-man Abe Lincoln Brigade was in February 1937. The Republicans were looking to keep the important supply road between Valencia and Madrid open. The Lincolns were unable to defend the road because they were fighting alone. The battle in the Jarama Valley continued until June of 1937 and neither side left victorious. The first battle of the Lincolns was a blow to their numbers as 300 volunteers were killed or wounded. (Palmer, 1978)

In July of the same year, the Rebels advanced on the capital of Spain, Madrid. The Loyalists wished to divide rebel armies by capturing the small town of Brunete. The International Brigades were used to reinforce the successful Loyalists. However, in the process of going to the town, half of the Lincoln Brigade was killed. Fortunately, the Loyalists had captured the city. Unfortunately, it remained in Republican hands for only a short time before falling to the nationalists.

The next two battles in which the Lincoln Brigade participated took place in the late summer and early fall of 1937. They fought in Saragossa and in Belchite where the Republicans were victorious. (Katz and Crawford, 1989)

Another important victory for the Republicans came in December at Tereul. The town was occupied by the Rebels, but the Loyalists were expecting to take it back and keep their army united. In January, though, the city fell again to the Rebels and both sides lost large numbers of men to violence and winter extremes. (Katz and Crawford, 1989)

As 1938 went on, the Republican forces began to lose. The International Brigade numbers were declining sharply as were the numbers of Spanish supporters. No longer was there any hope or optimism among the Loyalist troops. The greater artillery, larger forces, and supplies of Franco's forces began to take their toll on the Loyalists. In the spring of 1938, the Prime Minister of Spain, Juan Negrin, decided to withdraw all foreign soldiers from the war. (Davis, 1973)

Soon after, the Lincolns disbanded. They left Spain as heroes and were praised and paraded through the streets. Of the nearly three thousand who fought, "less than 450 American volunteers remained in Spain," wrote Katz and Crawford. (p. 57)

After ruling for 35 years Francisco Franco died in 1975. His burial site here marks an end to the fascist rule he imposed upon Spain.

The male soldiers and female ambulance drivers and nurses were remembered and honored through monuments and memories. They had believed in their cause and given all they had to fight Franco and the growing fascist regime.

The Spanish Civil War was a fight between good and evil. Unlike most movies, the good side did not win. Instead of a peaceful republic, Spain turned into a war torn country with no identity. It became just another dictatorship of the mid-1900's. Until 1975, Spain remained a country without freedom. Now, it is once again a democracy where tradition reigns peacefully.

"No man ever entered the earth more honorably than those who died in Spain."

Ernest Hemingway, as quoted by Katz and Crawford (p. 79)


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This webpage was written by A. D., 3/23/98, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich east High School.

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