Eighty years after the first Americans went to war against Nazi-backed fascists, a small group of historians trying to preserve the volunteers’ memory has found their services unexpectedly in demand.
“Why are people puzzled over the meaning of that word, fascism?” asked Peter Carroll, a historian of the Spanish civil war at Stanford University. “Do I thinkis Adolf Hitler? No. But there are patterns of contempt for opposition by political leaders that are as unacceptable and intolerable as National Socialism.”
For decades, Carroll has worked with a nonprofit, the, which hosted reunions for the volunteers. As the survivors aged, the nonprofit turned to awarding human rights work, and more recently started a workshop for high school teachers on how to teach history in an age when politics feels inescapable.
Tracy Blake, an Ohio high school teacher who has taken part in the workshop, said students have grown fascinated, and sometimes frightened, by the news. “They see the connections anytime we’re talking about oppression,” he said. “They ask questions about whether or not we could go down this or that road.”
, fought alongside the forces of the democratically elected Spanish government against the fascist rebels commanded by Gen Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 civil war.
The International Brigades included around 2,800 Americans, but US textbooks often relegate them to a footnote.
The average US volunteer came of age in the Great Depression, from a Jewish or immigrant family in New York, and their politics were progressive to the point of socialism, or well past it. They defied Franklin Roosevelt’s ban on fighting for, which was motivated by fear of rising communism and divided public opinion.
“The United States didn’t officially embrace anti-fascism until after Pearl Harbor,” said Sebastiaan Faber, a historian at Oberlin College. “The role that the volunteers played complicates any conventional, smooth story.”
With Britain and France, Roosevelt refused to sell Spain weapons, even as American corporations such as Texaco enthusiasticallywith Franco. Celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh – whose America First Committee became a Trump – showered on the Nazi regime as war broke out in 1936.
The war did not go well for the Lincolns, who were used as shock troops. Their allies – a coalition of Republicans, communists and anarchists – fell to violent power struggles. The only power to support Spain was the Soviet Union, itself turning inward as Josef Stalin directed the murder and imprisonment ofof people.
Marina Garde, Alba’s executive director, said the volunteers “could see what was happening. It was the beginning of something else that had to be stopped.”
“We kind of forget now, so long as we have what we need,” she added. “It’s important not to forget.”
Back home, the survivors were hounded by anti-communist lawmakers. When the Subversive Activities Control Boardup Lincolns in the 1950s, its members heard brutal testimony, including from a black volunteer who told them: “Being a negro, and all of the stuff that I have had to take in this country, I had a pretty good idea of what fascism was.”
The historians have taken this testimony, along with propaganda posters, letters and other documents to high schools around the US, to help teachers confront the resurgence of “alternative facts” and extreme politics in American life.
“How can we speak responsibly about fascism today,” Faber said, “while resisting the temptation to assume that we’re smarter now than people were 50 years ago?”
Faber and Carroll were wary about direct analogies to the 30s, but they argued that the Lincolns, with so little black and white in their stories, have critical lessons for Americans today.
“They stood up time and time again, in some ways too much, that they could be tarred and feathered and dismissed,” Carroll said. “But they all felt like you had to do something, you couldn’t sit by and say it’s not my business.”
“History is not about strangers, history is about us,” he added. It’s what we do in 2017.”
Some progressive activists have explicitly taken up the legacy of the Lincolns, including at least some of their children. Jo-Ann Triantafyllos, the 66-year-old daughter of a volunteer, worked for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and joined recent anti-Trump protests. She said she was heartened to see young people in the streets, and that her father would have joined them.
The last known American volunteer, Delm Berg, also would have joined, according to his son, Tom. Berg’s father died last year aged 100, a lifelong communist who fought in the second world war and worked for progressive causes well into his 90s.
“If his health had stayed up he’d be doing it to 150. He would be fighting thetooth and nail, calling people, passing out fliers,” his son said. “I’m glad he’s not living through this.”
A handful of leftwing activists have followed the Lincolns’ example to extremes, joining Syria’s civil war to defend Rojava, where anarchists havea partly in the model of Catalonia in the 1930s.
“I look at the Spanish civil war and see the hope but also the tragedy, that we aren’t destined to win. We can lose,” said Josh Dukes, a 34-year-old activist in a US-based group that supports Rojava. “We kind of have to do it ourselves.”