NW homage to Catalonia

The UW installs a monument to our country's oldest living freedom fighters.

THIS COMING WEEK, a nearly forgotten and long-neglected group of American heroes finally will be memorialized in a ceremony at the University of Washington.

Three years before Hitler’s columns swept into Poland and five years before the US entered World War II, thousands of volunteers from around the world took up arms to fight a fascist takeover in Spain. For some reason, the United States ever since has been sadly lacking in tributes to the 3,000 Americans among this group of Spanish Civil War freedom fighters. A newly installed monument to the group, known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, will be dedicated on the UW campus on Wednesday, October 14, at a 2pm ceremony in the HUB auditorium.

The installation of the monument comes at a time when only 145 veterans of the Lincoln Brigade are still alive, with most in very poor health, says brigade veteran Abe Osheroff. The 83-year-old North Seattle resident served with the Lincolns in 1937-38 and has taught courses on the Spanish Civil War at the UW and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Fellow Seattle veteran Bob Reed and UW Spanish professor Tony Geist were also instrumental in proposing the monument and shepherding the concept through various university boards and committees. University officials originally proposed a plaque on the HUB student center wall, but the final design places it on a large slab of granite flanked by benches outside one of the main entrances to the center. The monument costs several thousand dollars and is funded by private donations.

Typical of the American volunteers, Osheroff was a young idealist active in labor organizing and radicalized by the crushing poverty of the Great Depression. He was appalled by the rising tide of fascism across the world—the militarization of Germany under Adolf Hitler, the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, and Japan’s bloody conquest of China. In Dreams and Nightmares, the award-winning 1974 documentary by Osheroff and Larry Klingman, he recalls that Hitler “represented everything I hated: supercop, superboss, super-anti-Semite—and I couldn’t do anything about it…. Here was my chance to join the fight.”

Once in Spain, the foreign volunteers struggled to find food, obtain arms, and even communicate with one another. “We were long on speeches, but short on weapons and equipment,” Osheroff recalls in Dreams and Nightmares. A fluent Yiddish speaker, he found himself in demand as a translator, as all of the national contingents included many Jews. The Lincoln Brigade was the first integrated US fighting unit and—when under the command of US Army veteran Oliver Law—the first one to be led by an African-American officer.

FIGHTING ON THE REPUBLICAN side in the Spanish Civil War was a risky proposition. The fascist forces under Gen. Francisco Franco included the well-equipped Spanish army, which was aided by German and Italian naval and air forces in its effort to topple the democratically elected government. The governments of France, England, and the US blocked the sale of armaments to the legitimate Spanish government, but allowed trade with Nazi Germany, so the products of American corporations (including General Motors, DuPont, and Texaco) were easily funneled to the fascist armies.

On the other side were poorly equipped citizen-soldiers, bolstered by some 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries. Many were anti-fascist Europeans from France, Germany, Italy, and the Slavic countries.

The foreign volunteers were often outnumbered and suffered heavy casualties. At Jarama, an inexperienced Republican commander ordered a force of 450 American volunteers into a suicidal charge, resulting in 120 deaths and twice as many men injured. Osheroff himself was injured for the second time in March 1938 and returned to the US. The Republican leaders sent all the international volunteers home a few months later in a futile effort to convince the fascists to give up their foreign support. The country fell to the fascists in early 1939.

“We all volunteered for World War II,” says Osheroff. “To us, it was the same war.” Lincoln vets were bitterly disappointed that Franco was allowed to remain in power after the war (mainly through his willingness to let the Cold War­obsessed Americans site military installations in Spain). Although Lincoln veterans (many of whom had been Communist Party members) suffered persecution during and after World War II, Osheroff says the ill treatment they faced “was nothing” compared to that faced by their Spanish and European comrades, many of whom were executed or imprisoned.

Osheroff notes proudly that Lincoln veterans had an impressive record of activist involvement after the war. He was active in the civil rights movement and joined a group of Lincoln vets who traveled to Nicaragua in 1985 to build housing; Reed has a similar record of involvement in local causes.

Reed, a UW grad who has studied the activities of Lincoln volunteers from the Northwest, says he hopes the dedication of this memorial will lead to others around the country. “I think it’s about time,” he says, noting that monuments to Spanish Civil War volunteers are plentiful in most European countries.