Mar. 5th, 2016

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So, Delmer Berg is dead.

I didn't actually know about Delmer Berg until this week, until he died, but he was the last survivor of the Abraham Lincoln brigade, and his death means that a strange but relevant portion of American history has slipped from living memory.

It's strange to look back at the 1930s and think that, at that time, both fascism and communism were seen as possibly viable successors to democracy. It is strange to remember that Americans of that time, in the throes of the great depression, amid the labor struggles and the struggles for survival that characterized the United States during the mid-30s, were so alarmed by the spread of fascism that some of them chose to volunteer to fight against the fascists in Spain.

The Spanish Civil War was an odd time. In our age of cynicism it is odd to think that people saw these new ideas in statecraft as representative of a golden future yet to come. But the Spanish Civil War became the flashpoint for conflict, attracting people of all ideological stripes to all sides. It draw not only on eAmerican laborers and activists, but also on foreign fascists, news reporters, and foreign authors like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. It saw the final death of European anarchism, and the collapse of the League of Nations. It was an accurate prelude to World War II, a clash between German and Italian troops on one side, and Soviets on the other, through the crush of Spanish auxiliaries.

The Abraham Lincoln brigade fought for the Spanish Republic, despite the lack of support from anywhere else in the world for the survival of what began as a liberal democratic republic. They were not only committed ideologues, but also wanderers, vagabonds, troublemakers, and adventurers. Equipped by the Soviet Union (and only barely), and facing an increasingly well-equipped Nationalist force, they fought in the heart in the war. They were exposed to the fire of their enemies, and to the pettiness, capriciousness, and vindictiveness of their erstwhile Communist leaders. Some grew disillusioned, some reaffirmed their dedication to international worker solidarity, while perhaps growing apart from Stalinism.

The journey of adventurism and ideology, followed by hopeless battle and eventual disillusionment has uncomfortable parallels to the journey many volunteers for IS now undertake. It is also an uncomfortable reminder to the American Left that once the dedication to workers was so strong that people were willing to journey across the ocean and fight for worker's solidarity. And it's a reminder that people of all stripes are so caught up in the way they view the world that they are willing to cross it and risk death in order to protect their worldview. Sometimes they may even be right.

I can't say what good or ill came out of the Abraham Lincoln brigade, but they overcame terrible burdens and fought for an ideal of solidarity that many of us would choose to applaud against an enemy all of us would choose to loathe. For that they deserve to be remembered.

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danalwyn

November 2016

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