American writer William Herrick’s account of his experiences as a volunteer in the Lincoln Battalion of the XVth International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War: 1

LincolnBat
Members of the Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades

Before us, looming purple in the descending sun, were the Pyrenees. They stood, a majestic wall, between Europe and Spain, that exotic mix of Christ, Mohammed, and Moses. My people may have been expelled, but were not forgotten. It was we, Unamuno had written, who had introduced the use of olive oil in Spain, and no one in Spain cooked a meal without olive oil. Laugh if you will, but what you eat determines in large measure who you are. The Christians had made sex prurient, the Moors had produced the canto hondo of Andalucia, and we had pressed the olive.

As the sun descended, the mountain crests shadowing mysteriously, several ancient buses appeared. We were not to march over the mountains as we had assumed; France still cast a blind eye. My heart beat faster, and I could hear its every thump. We were suddenly deathly quiet. We rolled; we were on our way into Spain. Don’t forget, our leader, Phil Bard, said, if anyone asks, we’re not Communists, we’re anti-fascists. On entering Spain, we were to lie, and on leaving Spain, we were also to lie. Sorry, history is just not romantic and pure; it is real, very real, very, very real. It has that sickly sweet odor of decaying rat.

High in the mountains, we crossed the French border. The guards saluted us and waved us through. We were in Spain, and greeting us were Anarchist border guards with rifles held high shouting, “Viva la revolucion! Viva la revolucion!” And we responded as previously instructed, “Long live the Frente Popular!” We were just plain, anti-fascist democrats. We fooled no one except, to use Lenin’s term, the useful fools, the sympathizers who rallied, round our cause.

We were in Spain. And now one of the boy scouts, as Joe Gordon called them, began to sing, Browder is our leader and he shall not be moved. I had tojoin in, even Joe did. This was our group, our compact mass.

Late at night we reached Figueras, a mountain town dominated by an immense heap of stone called a fortress. In what seemed to be a dungeon cell, I and the lone vaquerro, a Cuban named Cardenas —we had already become good friends, muy simpatico with barely a word said between us (he spoke English, no problem there)— shared a hard stone floor. Excited as we were, two would-be heroes, we slept.

After a breakfast of strong black chicory coffee and a large chunk of hard Spanish bread, we were excused for several hours. I sneaked off by myself; I didn’t want the hindrance of Party discipline. The town seemed on holiday. Flags flew everywhere, every color imaginable. People smiled at me. There was much laughter. We said comrade, the populace here said compafiero, friend, companion; it was the term used by the Anarchists. By the time I left Spain, some ten months later, comrade was a term of disparagement, accompanied by spit.

Not speaking or understanding the language was hellish. I ran into Gladnick, but told him to get lost. He was already speaking Spanish. He picked up languages the way an infant does, naturally. He spoke Russian, his native tongue, and English, of course. In the twenty-four hours we were in Le Havre he was already speaking French. In Spain, among the International Brigades, he would speak Polish with the Poles, Italian with the Italians, and Spanish, too, of course. He was totally without inhibition; he just waded in.

I stopped in the Party oflice. In Catalonia it was called PSUC, United Socialist Party of Catalonia. There were red flags, pictures of Stalin, and of La Pasionaria. The young women and men there were all over me. I smiled broadly. They grinned back. ‘Norte Americana? Sí sí. Frente Popular? Sí sí Arriba democracia! Abajo Franco! Sí sí. Me cago e Franco! Sí sí sí sí. Laughter. On the way down from the fort—which, incidentally, was run by the French Party— I had passed the office of the POUM. Off limits. Lousy Trotskyites. In Pravda, Stalin had said they were to be exterminated. Natie’s crowd. I stopped at the bottom of the hill for dough dipped in boiling oil, powdered with sugar—better than any donut—and a cup of hot chocolate. Delicious. Nodded to comrades, but hurried along by myself.

Ran into Joe. Call me José, he said. José can you see? He joined my laughter. We were already very close. He was with Ruby, also known as Uriah Heep. I left them. Inhaled the mountain air, this exotic foreign air with its smell of olive oil. Flags all over. Red flags. Red and black flags. Red, gold, purple. Red and green. Oflices of what seemed to be dozens of different political parties. A big smile pasted on my face. Elation, strangeness, fear all mixed in one. Nodded to armed Spanish militia, bandoliers strung from shoulder to belt, each wearing his own inimitable uniform. A motley crowd. Tough. It was they who had stopped the Franco rebellion cold. Without them there would have been no civil war, Franco would have won almost immediately. I smiled at them. They smiled back.

It was time to go back up the hill to the fort. Past the Party offices. Past the POUM ofiices, the party that my best friend believed told the truth. As far as I knew he had never lied to me, though I had—if only by omission — lied to him many times. Looked around once, twice; no one I knew in sight. Slipped in. Red flags. Hammer and sickle. Pictures of Marx, Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky. Pictures of their leaders, Andreu Nin and Joaquin Maurin. Maurin had been captured by the Nationalist forces and was still alive because his brother was an archbishop; proof, the Party said, that he was in the pay of Franco, a spy, a traitor, a Trotskyite. Viva la revolución! Viva la revolución! Brigadas Internationales?

Sí sí. ;’Norte Americano? Sí sí. They couldn’t believe it. Asked again, Norte Americana? Si, Americano. They pushed leaflets, pamphlets in my hand. They were me, they were my twin. Salud, compañero. Sí, salud. I ditched the criminal evidence as I sneaked out, looking first this way and that.

The fort was in turmoil, new volunteers arriving constantly: refugee Germans, Italians, Belgians, Poles, Hollanders, French; anti-fascists all. The word “Communist” was not spoken. If you didn’t know their language, you tried Yiddish and as often as not were answered with a smile and a stream of Yiddish. Most of them spoke it much better than I. The Europeans still wore their civilian clothes, and were a ragged lot. Alongside them, we felt like millionaires. Then we donned our doughboy olive drabs for the first time. The puttees were difficult. We were helped by Joe and a man named Royce, an American army veteran who had fought in Nicaragua against Sandino. Now he was a Communist. In our uniforms, we felt very dressed up, very military. Our international comrades stared at us in astonishment. We looked so superior. Little did they know. Most of them had had their year in their country’s military. Most of us had never held a gun.

I tried, but can’t say it better than I did in my novel ,‘Hermanos! It is in a letter from Joe Garms to Jake Starr, the novel’s protagonist.

We get off the train in Barcelona and there are these Catalans with armbands CNT FAI AIT POUM PSU PSUC UGT USC IR (Left Republicans what the hell they doin here) and a million people are out lining the streets to meet us. These guys with the armbands they line us up by country, the Irish, the Germans, the Belgians, us, and we march up the Barcelona boulevards and pass a statue of Columbus banners flying red gold purple black red white blue the works and a million people on each side of the street and its real quiet as we march you can just hear our heavy army shoes pounding the cobblestones quiet like I never heard it in my life a million people crowding the sides of the streets their mouths a little open just looking at us and its so quiet you can hear the guy next to you breathing and your own heart too, and the banners are flying red purple gold CNT UGT FAI AIT PSUC USC IR POUM hammers and sickles fists hammers big posters real beautiful too. Dead quiet. A million people and they’re looking at us as we march up the boulevards the Irish and the German exiles in their old raggedy clothes and us in our 1917 doughboy uniforms and dead quiet and I don’t know what it is. I snuck a look at this redheaded bignosed kid who come to meet us at the station an American who fought already in Madrid wearing dirty coveralls and straw sandals and he all most split a gut laughing at us in our uniforms but who marched with us. I see him sneaking a look at me a strange look on his face as we march under the colored banners and these million people crowding there dead quiet with their mouths a little open. This kid got a strange look on his puss, a tough bastard too, and its quiet all around us and then like the sky opened up and began to let go with a hundred thousand cannon the million people begin to yell and it sounds like the whole world’s yellin hermanos hermanos hermanos brothers brothers brothers Oo! Er! Pay! Unios Hermanos Proletarios and it sweeps over us, takes us in its arms, a million people yelling and this kid who fought in Madrid without any guns he begins to cry and I begin to cry too and other guys too are crying. A million people loving us up and we’re loving them up too.

And we all feel like dancing and singing and crying. We’re going to make a new world, a great new world, where there’ll be no poor and no wise bastards who think they own the whole goddam place. We all own it and we’re goin to fight for it.

That’s the way it was, I swear it. Yes, I cried, andjoe cried, and lots of others. We cried.

This is what I had lived for. And when I say I cried, it was also with a pang of sadness. It was not my party that was in ascendance here, it was the POUM and the Anarchists. They had defeated the army and its fascist allies and taken the city and the province. They had formed voluntary collectives in town and country, in the fields and the factories. They were not mere grouplets, they were large parties. The Anarchist union, the CNT, was said to have over two million members; the POUM in alliance with revolutionary peasants was a mass party. In this city, my Party was the grouplet. I can hear Natie laughing at me. And we called them the enemy. Soon we would prove their treason with forged documents. It was the indomitable Ortega y Gasset, among others, who fought the lie and proved the lie. To no avail; my comrades from the imported NKVD prevailed and hounded them to prison, and some to death. Long live Ortega. Long live Orwell, who revealed the lie as well. Still, after some forty thousand books, there are those who prefer the smell of skunk, as Rebecca West called it, to the truth.

So we marched through the din, the flags and banners furling and unfurling in the Mediterranean breeze, the gold sun soaring, and the populace roaring its cannonading welcome. They would be betrayed but never beaten. And as we of the International Brigades marched, each group would be led off to the barracks of one or another political party, one to the Karl Marx barracks of the Party, another to the barracks of the CNT, another to that of the FAI, the Federation of Iberian Anarchists. Half of us were led, where I don’t know; and the rest, unlucky us, we were led into the Lenin barracks of the POUM! Phil Bard, our political commissar, must have shit in his pants. An asthmatic, he paled so whitely I thought he would die then and there. I am sure it was held against him the rest of his life. Bravely, he smiled. Their leaders smiled. We had come to help them in their revolution. So they thought. They hailed us, Viva los Norte Americanos! They fed us cold potato soup and garbanzos and mountains of bread and fruit and jugs of red wine, and then they all rose and we with them and we sang the Intemational Soviet shall be the human race, and then we got the hell out of there alive and marched back to the railroad station and left that fucking city that didn’t know yet that Stalin had ordered it not to be a revolution but only a fight for democracy so that England and France and perhaps even the United States would think that he had given up on such foolishness as socialist revolution. And just to make sure his back was covered, he was already dealing with Adolph Hitler.

The train was crowded with peasants carrying livestock, chickens, lambs, one a piglet. They were friendly and gave us huge slabs of pork and bread, and taught us how to drink wine from leather botas that everyone seemed to have. We had a hilarious time leaming to drink from them. You placed it on your elbow, put its mouth just above your open lips and raised your elbow high over your head, then squeezed the pouch. Until we leamed to aim, squeeze, and swallow simultaneously, we wasted an awful lot of wine. The Cubans among us had an easy time of it. Instead of having done bayonet drill without bayonets or broomsticks, we should have had Spanish lessons. The train was very slow, very bumpy, and it took us many hours to reach Albacete, the I.B. headquarters base. It looked like a town in a cowboy movie, flat, stucco instead of clapboard, yellowish, dusty. As we marched through the cobblestone streets we passed groups of ambulatory wounded, and stopped once in awe as a company of German Internationals marched past us in machinelike precision, singing Berthold Brecht’s and Hans Eisler’s “Song of the United Front.” It was more than real, it was right out of a movie in a movieland town. They were heroes and soon I would join them. My, how much I wanted to be a hero, wanted to be taller than tall. At the end of the movie, that dark-skinned nurse we passed and I would kiss and clinch.

We stood at attention in the middle of a bullring, and standing before us was the great man himself, the supreme commissar of the International Brigades, the mythic leadier of the Black Sea mutiny, executive committee member of the Communist International, politburo member of the French Communist Party, Andre Marty. Unlike us, he wore an I.B. uniform, khaki ski pants and jacket, and on his head was what had to be the largest navy blue beret in the entire world. He was, as I recall, a large man, or perhaps it was his reputation. He spoke to us in French English. We were, he said, like the Yanks of 1917, come to save Europe from the barbaric Hun. I recoiled. Lenin had called the First World War an imperialist war and had opposed it. It had been one of the most senseless wars in history. Millions of men had died to satisfy the ego and pride of their rulers. How far, I wondered, would the Popular Front line take us? Since a goodly number of my comrades there were Popular Front Communists, they probably took little cognizance of what Marty had said.

At rest, we were given what was now our customary bitter coffee and a large chunk of bread. Wine-filled leather botas were passed around, and we did much better than we had the first time with them.

During the break, Joe and I went on an exploration of the underside of the bullring stands, looking for the dressing rooms, the pens for the bulls, and so on. We discovered a room, the whitewashed wall of which was streaked with blood and pocked with bullet holes. For a long quiet moment we stood there in awe. Was it here the town’s fascists had been executed? For days after the beginning of the Franco rebellion, in city, town, and village the so-called right had murdered republicans, socialists, and communists or those they just plain hated, and the so-called left had murdered rightists, priests, nuns, falangistas, retired military officers, and, again, those they just plain hated. Who murdered more has been a subject of great debate. As if it matters which side killed more. Both right and left murdered tens and tens of thousands. It is what I have called the left/right pas de deux. Joe and I looked at the wall, looked at one another, and returned to our comrades.

We boarded trucks, and as we wound our way through the narrow streets of this Spanish cowboy town, the sight of the many wounded I.B. men stilled our usual ebullience. The boy scouts even failed to rouse us with Browder is our leader and he shall not be moved.

History books tell us that four thousand or so people were herded together in the environs of Badajoz and machine-gunned to death by rightwing murderers. Some twelve to fifteen hundred prisoners of war held by the Communists in the town of Paracuellos were shot down by order of Santiago Carillo, a Party leader, and Mikhael Koltsov, the famous Soviet journalist and intimate of Emest Hemingway. It was “done Soviet-style,” writes Stanley Payne, the eminent historian, “with large trenches prepared ahead of time and the executions done at the edge of the trenches.”

In Granada and environs, some forty-five hundred republicans and socialists were murdered in several days by the rightwing enemy. One of the murdered was the great Federico Garcia Lorca.

My dear Anarchists, those derived from the violent Bakunin and our old friend Nechaev, were as trigger-happy as the rest.

The history books say seventy-five thousand nuns and priests were killed at the beginning of the civil war by the left.

This sort of insensate murder filtered down even to our American battalion, and the rest of the I.B., I assume. In the diary notes found on the body of Harry Hynes, killed in battle (he was an Australian in the Comintern underground on the West Coast, the man who “organized” Harry Bridges and was a company political commissar) the following entries were found: “Heard later about an execution in which N.S. [P] was involved which sickened me.” And then, “I do not want to be part of the setup here. My heart is against so much that it represents. I saw the bodies of twenty officers, their heads cut open, riddled with bullets. Such a savage bloody execution after such a beautiful victory.”

André Marty, political commissar of the Intemational Brigades, saw non-existent Trotskyites everywhere. His goons roamed the front as iyell as the rear and left many dead. In his autobiography, written loogpfter the civil war, he modestly claims to have ordered the executions of only five hundred men. I daresay his memory was failing….