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When I was 21, I visited Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Chagrin Falls is small town lovely, an embodiment of the mind of Sherwood Anderson. One morning, I was getting breakfast at a cafe on the square. A delivery man came in. He wore a beret. After he finished his errand, he made a loud, fist in the air “Come The Revolution” speech. Folks smiled politely, nodded tolerantly, good Midwesterners. But not a one missed a chew of their breakfast.
I was astonished. I had never heard anyone speak like that. When he left, the woman at the next table explained that he was the town Marxist. He gave that speech every morning. “That old coot fought with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War.” I didn’t know much then about the Spanish Civil War — The practice war for World War II, right? — but I knew enough to be impressed.
I’ve been thinking about that old coot, and about the Spanish Civil War. Nowadays, when we consider fascism, we tend to consider Germany and Italy. But I am inclined to think of Spain as the more pertinent example for our time. From this I draw three lessons.
First, that veteran was absolutely right in his opposition to fascism. It is necessary to fight fascism early and unrelentingly. Silence is not an option, nor is concession. Some fought fascism in Spain, but most of the world remained silent or gave concessions to Europe’s fascists. Concessions like giving Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. Silence like during the Holocaust. Second, it is nice if you can convert fascists to democratic republicans. If that fails, it is necessary to completely defeat them. Third, just because you are right, this doesn’t mean you are going to win. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion was right. But theirs was the lost cause. Americans like to say, “We defeated fascism in 1945”. Tell that to the Spanish, who weren’t free of Franco until he died in 1975 at age 82.
From 17 July 1936 until 1 April 1939, the Spanish Civil War was a clash between those who supported the duly elected republican government, and the Fascist rebels lead by, among others at first, Francisco Franco. The Nationalists, as the rebels were called, received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republicans received aid from the Soviet Union, as well as from theInternational Brigades, composed of volunteers largely from Europe, but also from Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America, and the United States among others. The war is often framed as fascist versus communist. However, research makes it clear that, while there were many communists, those in the International Brigades, like the Lincoln Battalion, were of varied persuasions united by anti-fascism. Put simply, the Spanish Civil War was anti-fascist versus fascist.
“We defeated fascism.” Amnesty International reports that there are more mass graves in Spain than there are “killing fields” in Cambodia. Estimates of the dead from Franco’s “white terror” during the war vary wildly, but always number in the tens of thousands. One scholarly estimate puts the death toll of “La Represión Franquista”, The Francoist Repression, at 400,000. After the civil war, Franco continued to persecute opponents, the last Spanish concentration camp closing in 1947. Heinrich Himmler visited Spain in 1940, and was reported to be “shocked” by the savagery of Franco. One shudders at the thought of what “shocked” the architect of the Holocaust. Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, reported that, shortly after the war, there were 200 to 250 daily executions in Madrid alone.
But that couldn’t happen here, right? I am mindful of former Secretary Of State Madelaine Albright. “[F]ascism is not an ideology; it’s a process for taking and holding power. A fascist is somebody who identifies with one group – usually an aggrieved majority – in opposition to a smaller group. It’s about majority rule without any minority rights.” I’m also mindful of my personal variation upon that saying by Pastor Martin Niemöller. ‘First, America banned the Muslims, then we jailed the immigrants, then we shot the Jews … .’ But fascism couldn’t happen here, right?
At Yale, right after World War II, Stanley Milgram did an experiment. His experiment measured whether participants would follow orders. Like good fascists. A “teacher”, the unwitting subject of the experiment, administered electric shocks whenever a “student”, really an actor, mistakenly answered a question. These fake electric shocks gradually increased in a manner that appeared, to the “teacher”, to be fatal to the “student”. If there was the slightest hesitation, an authority figure would resolutely order the “teacher” to continue. Despite the screams of the “student”, almost every “teacher” continued until the “student” was reduced to an ominous silence. The experiment was repeated many times around the United States. The results were almost invariably the same. There are a lot of questions about The Milgram Experiment. But, for the purposes of this essay, I take Milgram’s work as cautionary tale.
Could it happen here? A seizure of power? An aggrieved majority? No minority rights? Well, there’s Trump. Then there’s angry white people. There’s Islamophobia, kids in cages, homophobia, and “The Jews will not replace us.” Add to all that a few folks who “just follow orders.” Of course it could happen here.
It is worth considering again the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Just because your cause is righteous, moral, true, this doesn’t mean you are going to win. Therefore, it is necessary to fight fascism early and unrelentingly. Silence is not an option, nor is concession. It would be nice if we could convert fascists to democratic republicans. If that fails, it then is absolutely necessary to utterly defeat them.
Because fascism can happen here. That’s what that old coot in Chagrin Falls knew.
Copyright 2019 John Samuel Tieman
John Samuel Tieman is a poet and historian who lives in St. Louis.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), almost forty thousand men and women from fifty-two countries, including 2,800 Americans, volunteered to travel to Spain and join the International Brigades to help fight fascism. The U.S. volunteers served in various units and came to be known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. (Source: ALBA!)