Edward Rothstein and Ronald Radosh have reviewed, in the NY Times and NY Sun respectively, the history exhibition, Facing Fascism, which recently opened at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit chronicles the participation of New York City youth in that opening salvo of World War II, the Spanish Civil War.
In their reviews (Rothstein in a milder, and Radosh a more virulent form), it seems, they are attempting to refight the battles of the Civil War itself and the subsequent Cold War. Though I have not yet seen the exhibition (I will be in NYC shortly and will try to see it then), it seems that Rothstein-Radosh may have at least one valid criticism. They contend that the curators and funders of the exhibit have engaged in hagiography toward the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. They believe that making martyrs and heroes out of these fighters masks the nefarious activities of the Soviet Union during the War and its efforts to turn the Royalist forces and Spain itself into a totalitarian Soviet Republic. The evidence they present of Soviet manipulation of the International Brigade volunteers is persuasive. It may be true that the motives of the Communists were as suspect as the Francoists.
However, there is one major problem with the Radosh argument that the Soviets would have been as bad or worse than the Francoists. We’ll never know because Franco won and the Royalists didn’t. We know how evil Franco was because he had the opportunity to realize his viciousness in power. We know much less about how a Royalist government would have operated.
Rothstein seriously understates the scale of Franco’s evil in this passage:
Franco was indeed a ruthless tyrant whose victory led to wide-scale purges, cruel imprisonments and extensive constraints.
For “purges” read wholesale murder of thousands of political opponents. “Extensive constraints?” Is that all? Four decades of tyranny and the best you can muster is this?
As for Radosh, his biases are a mile wide and a mile deep. We should note that he is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, one of the leading neocon think tanks. The article is published in the Sun, the leading Neocon newspaper. And while there are serious arguments worth grappling with in his review, the fact that the Lincoln Brigade was not actually a “brigade” but a “battalion” is certainly not one of them. He is so intent on proving the perfidy of the CPUSA that he must use even this obscure angel dancing on the head of a pin to make his argument.
What is most noxious about Radosh’s perspective is the complete absence, except as a bit player, of Franco from his discussion. The evil is all on the Communist side. Royalists and Lincoln Brigade members are at best dupes and at worst malevolent bullies on the make. No mention of Franco the tyrant, fascism, the alliance with Hitler and Mussolini, Spain’s forty years of abject penury and tyranny at the hands of Spain’s fascists. This is a fatal and unforgivable omission on Radosh’s part which sullies whatever else he might have to say.
In the rush to indict the Brigade before the bar of history, Radosh also distorts the record of a fighter I actually knew, Milt Wolff. When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, I attended a weekly writer’s workshop held at Milt’s home. He was a dynamic, funny and affable fellow with a clear spark of energy and wit about him. I knew he was a Spanish Civil War veteran and that he’d later served in the War. Only later would I learn that he’d also been an officer in the O.S.S., the WWII-era precursor to the CIA.
Knowing all this, you may put the following into better perspective than Radosh does:
Wolff gave [a speech] to the Lincoln vets’ convention in 1941, two years after the pact was signed, but before it expired:
Under the dishonest slogan of anti-fascism, [President Roosevelt] prepares the red-baiting, unionbusting, alien-hunting, anti-Negro, anti-Semitic Jingoistic road to fascism in America … he drags the American people … closer and closer to open participation in the imperialist slaughter in which the youth of our country will, if he has his way, join the … bloody and bloated corpses on the battlefields the world over; for the greater glory of foreign trade and the brutal oppression of free people at home and abroad; we accuse him, Franklin Demagogue Roosevelt. … We fight against the involvement of our country in an imperialist war. … We stubbornly oppose every move of Roosevelt and the war-mongers.
Radosh attempts to make Wolff out to be an automaton in the service of Communist propaganda. Admittedly, this speech reads pretty poorly in the light of historical events. Hopefully, it wouldn’t have been one I would’ve made or agreed with if I were alive then.
But Radosh neglects to point out that Wolff changed his mind and fought admirably for his country. The neocon historian would no doubt cynically point out that Wolff waited to fight until the German-Soviet pact collapsed and the Russians declared Hitler public enemy number 1. But the truth is that Radosh leaves out all reference to Wolff’s World War II military service. This is another unpardonable omission.
Finally, whether or not the idealism of those who fought in the Brigades was attenuated by the behavior of the Soviet Union I believe these young men who fought and died to stop fascism deserve our admiration. Certainly, we ought to know about the background to their sacrifice and service and use it to place everything else in proper perspective. But no belittling historian like Radosh can succeed at tarnishing their record using such deeply ideologically tainted and tendentious arguments.