For Whom the Myth Tolls

In a New York Times op-ed a week ago, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) lauded the recently deceased Delmer Berg and other Americans who volunteered to fight on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, which began 80 years ago. Berg was thought to be the last living veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a unit of American volunteers who fought in that storied but oft-mischaracterized conflict that took place from 1936 to 1939.

The war, which pitted the Soviet-backed defenders Spain’s Leftist government against a Rightist rebellion led by General Francisco Franco and assisted by Adolf Hitler, was seen by many Americans as a way to halt a fascism on the march.

McCain does allow that the Soviets, who supplied the volunteers with money, weapons and advisers, were duplicitous. And he makes clear that he disagrees with the beliefs held by Berg, a lifelong communist. Even so, he basically retails the story of the Brigade that the American Left has peddled for eight decades despite the debunking of scholars like Burnett Bolloten, Stanley G. Payne, Ronald Radosh, and Mary Habeck.

Voiced by Berg and other like-minded keepers of the fame, the narrative is that the American volunteers came to Spain to defend not communism but democracy. These were idealists who stood for self-determination and the protection of civil liberties, and who sacrificed life and limb for these cherished concepts. End of story.

Or is it?

Since George Orwell, a volunteer in Spain who served with a Trotskyite unit (hated as much as, in fact more than, the Francoists by certain foreign operatives directing the defense of the Spanish Republic), blew the whistle on Soviet purges behind the lines, historians have been able to validate with evidence what Orwell felt in his gut. In particular, Radosh and Habeck, unearthing Comintern documents, were able to show that the Soviets were fully intending to import their murderous Purge Trials into Spain. (Orwell was on their liquidation list.)

But there have also been veterans, as bloodied as Berg, who witnessed events that ran counter to the Leftist narrative. Like Berg, the novelist William Herrick[1] was a fervent communist who signed up with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Unlike Berg, he began to see the true face of the American Communist Party and its Soviet sponsors. What he admitted to himself, and to the world, shook his faith and eventually destroyed it.

He, like Orwell (and like John Dos Passos, who I will discuss below), had a most sickening experience: noticing that his comrades were disappearing under mysterious circumstances. One of these was Marvin Stern, who had established a good combat record but who made the mistake of criticizing the fighting effectiveness of the Brigade’s American commanders. Stern was almost immediately pulled from the front lines, and the American commissars in charge of his squad were told not to inquire into his fate.

Herrick nonetheless did bring up his missing friend with a Party official, whereupon that official tersely warned him that “in Party matters friendship doesn’t count. The Party comes first.” Herrick didn’t heed the advice and even dared to criticize communist policy. While recuperating after getting wounded, he shared his thoughts with his then-girlfriend, a nurse. She promptly reported him, and what happened next haunted him for the rest of his life: An execution team led by Soviet secret policemen took him from his bed and made him stand with them while they “coolly put to death three Spanish leftists.”

Invalided home, Herrick was hazed by his fellow communists. Because he dared to attend a speech by the Socialist Party chief Norman Thomas, an anticommunist, he was fired from the communist-controlled furriers’ union. Still, he continued to consider himself a communist, albeit one with doubts. These doubts became certainties when Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. Disgusted with the way the Party defended this action, Herrick resigned and never looked back. He immediately took to the streets, picketing outside the offices of the furriers’ union and waving a placard on which he proclaimed himself the “first victim of the Pact.”

When Herrick published his memoir of his experiences fighting in Spain, the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade hardly lived up to their reputation as liberals. They confronted liberal columnist Paul Berman for daring to run an interview with Herrick in the Village Voice. For Berman, it was a telling moment. As they “thrust their faces into mine and shouted and shook their fists,” Berman could imagine what they had been like when they were “disciplined liars” for Stalin back in the Spanish Civil War time.

This is not the kind of person John McCain seems aware of. The former prisoner of war in Vietnam had taken to heart a fictional character, Robert Jordan, from Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 From Whom the Bell Tolls (on which I have commented before on Law and Liberty). True enough, Hemingway has his fictional alter ego risk his life to strike a blow against fascism in Spain. And Jordan dies a heroic death at novel’s end (manning a machine gun while nursing a broken leg). But Jordan—apart from being braver than the writer who created him—never fully rises above being a mindless tool of Josef Stalin.

Hemingway’s novel does include behind-the-line executions—but they are presented as the work of warped individuals rather than as standing orders from Moscow. The character of Robert Jordan, though he insists the communists could not “own his mind,” very much surrenders it to them. Whenever he feels dread or unease about the ruthless things he is ordered to do, Jordan wanders back to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy to calm himself. Indeed, Hemingway had himself accepted what came to be called the “necessary murders” of this conflict, even when carried out in death-squad fashion by Russians against the very people they were supposedly helping. The disappearance of José Robles—the friend of Hemingway’s colleague John Dos Passos who turned out to have been killed by Soviet agents—was not troubling to Hemingway, who assured a stricken Dos Passos that rumors about Robles’ being a fascist spy must be accurate.

It is truly ironic that a real-life war hero should so admire Robert Jordan, a fictional Party-liner and apologist for tyranny who exits For Whom the Bell Tolls with all of these tendencies intact. The senior senator from Arizona was only a boy when he adopted this role model. Now it might be time for him to try to learn what really happened in Spain. For there was indeed American sacrifice of life and limb in that war—not just at the hands of fascists but at the hands of communists, in the name of communism. There were indeed admirable fighters—the fighters who told the truth and had their characters assassinated for their trouble.

[1] In discussing Herrick, I am indebted to Jim Burns, whose review of Herrick’s memoir Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), can be found at http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/prose/william_herrick_and_the_spanish.htm