It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. — Albert Camus
Spain, 1932 — Sensitive to his low ratings in informal popularity polls, King Alfonso XIII voluntarily abdicates his throne rather than suffer the indignity of being unloved by his subjects. This single historic act ends Spain’s traditional monarch, and after centuries of domination by the Catholic Church, the country finally emerges from the Dark Ages into a twentieth-century awareness of Western influences. The first popular elections in Spain’s long, repressive history result in the birth of the Spanish Republic. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, suffering economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression, is speedily moving to the extreme political right.
The infant government is plagued by factionalism — Basque separatists, fiercely geocentric Catalans, anarchists, workers, communists, and several shades of socialists all tug at the republic’s new foundation. By July, 1936, the Catholic Church has formed an unholy alliance with Spanish fascists and monarchists. Together they rise in armed rebellion against the short-lived, legally elected government. Aid quickly arrives from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Fascist funds, troops, and sophisticated German weapons are thrust against the hapless defenders of the republic, who band together to establish the Popular Front, a coalition of diverse groups — anarchists, labor unionists, socialists — whose common goal is to rid Spain of the fascist elements that threaten destruction of their uncertain democracy.
Autumn, 1936 — The response outside Spain comes swiftly. Despite widespread popular sympathy for the cause of the republic, 27 nations, including the United States, sign a nonintervention treaty and stand aside as the fighting intensifies. Only the Soviet Union heeds Spain’s call for help, but the assistance is erratic. Trainloads of Soviet arms are detained for months at the French border and most munitions never reach their destination.
Private citizens representing 53 nations ignore the nonintervention treaty and intercede individually on behalf of the republic. Over two and a half years between 1936 and 1939, almost 40,000 volunteers stream into Spain to join various international brigades. Americans are the last group to join with the 15th International Brigade, which consists of Slavic, French, British, and Canadian battalions, as well as a battalion called the Campesinos, comprising Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and South Americans. Several United States battalions are formed, but due to early heavy losses, they consolidate and become the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. They come to be known as the legendary Lincoln Brigade.
San Diego, 1980 — Dave Chriss balances a Scotch and water on the arm of a crushed-velvet chair in his Mira Mesa living room. He awaits the arrival of seven other senior citizens who survived the Spanish Civil War and are about to hold the first official meeting of the country’s newest, smallest chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Though they are only recent acquaintances, they are inextricably bound by their mutual membership in one of the most exclusive fraternities on earth. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives when they traveled to a foreign land in order to fight in defense of an ideal.
Impatient, Chriss pours another shot of Scotch. His ruddy complexion, thick hands, muscular arms, strong, craggy features, and stocky build suggest Zorba, a quality captured in the portrait of him wearing a Greek sailor’s cap. The painting dominates the living room. As he rubs the dark rings of sleeplessness around his eyes, he remembers how the Great Depression produced the radicalism of the Thirties, and then how the New Deal promised all things to all people. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s buoyant optimism, he recalls, that dispelled the apathy and despair of that time and began to fill him and millions of other Americans with hope. But the hope mingled with social turbulence from the labor movements blossomed. Everyone had a plan for reform, from Father Coughlin of Detroit to Huey Long of Louisiana; from Wobblies to anarchists, communists, socialists, and Farm-Laborites. Yet the dichotomy between the promise and the reality was enormous. The flawed American Dream quickly doubled membership in the American Communist Party.
The conscience of the '30s impelled action, and Americans also joined student groups, labor unions, and Popular Font groups; they attended demonstrations, supported boycotts, and marched on picket lines in a developing spirit of internationalism. High school dropout Dave Chriss, a sometimes grocery clerk in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived with his mother and sister, considered himself a member of the international working class. “I was barely 21 years old, unattached, and idealistic,” says Chriss, “and I didn’t know communism from rheumatism. I was a political innocent. I spent all my time in the neighborhood — in Brighton Beach — mostly in the pool rooms.”
It was in those billiard dens, and in union halls, college campuses, YMCAs, social gatherings in private homes throughout the United States, and at street and park rallies that people kept up with national and international events. Spain was on everyone’s lips. Gallup polls indicated that 76 percent of the American population favored the republic. Time, Newsweek, and other prominent national magazines sympathized along with those prophetic enough to fear the impact of European fascism. Sympathetic groups held fundraisers to by ambulances, medical supplies, and food for Spain’s struggling Loyalists. Letters were written to the Roosevelt administration protesting the selling of munitions to Italy and Germany. According to Robert Rosenstone in his book Crusade of the Left, these same arms quickly made their way into the hands of Franco’s fascists and were used to kill American volunteers who suffered from lack of supplies and training. There were a few, however, who wished to do something more than write letters or drink martinis for democracy; and for those 3500 Americans who chose to confront reality in its most urgent, brutal form, the opportunity to reach the front lines in Spain quickly presented itself.