16 Ravensdene Park,
Belfast BT6 0DA,
Northern Ireland.
Tel: 028 9064 7106
Fax: 028 9064 7106

This is an archive of material
mainly from 1992 until December 2020.
Please go to our CURRENT WEBSITE
for material from January 2021 onwards.
What's new?

Billy King


Nonviolence News


Readings in Nonviolence

Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions welcome).

What are the limits of nonviolence? This piece from Teresa Huhle about the Spanish Civil War challenges us through the experience of US citizens who fought militarily against fascism – and continued to struggle at home against war and injustice. The Irish experience in the Spanish Civil War is depicted in Christy Moore’s powerful song ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’. As always, if you would like to share your thoughts on this, or anything else, they are very welcome. - Ed

A few reflections on the commemoration of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

by Teresa Huhle

“…No men ever entered earth more honourably than those who died in Spain.” Ernest Hemingway wrote these words in a eulogy entitled “On the American Dead in Spain” in 1939. A community of memory that since more than seventy years devotes time and energy to commemorate the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the United States – as the about 2800 American volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) are commonly called – has repeated the verse in many commemorative performances. Since March 2008 Hemingway’s praise is engraved in stone on the first national monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that has been erected in the United States. The monument – 45 onyx panels framed in a slightly bended steel construction – uses Hemingway’s words, 25 other writings, 4 maps and 21 photographs to tell the history of these men and women, who are American anti-fascist heroes to some and un-patriotic Communists to other

Four months after the inauguration I was in San Francisco and visited the monument many times. Sometimes I would just sit there, look how the colour of its stones changed when the sun went down. Or I went there to write down all the poems and writings on it. Or I observed how many people stopped and what they looked at. And one day I came with a little microphone and went after everybody who had stopped to take a closer look. I introduced myself as a German history student who was writing her MA thesis on the process that led to the erection of the monument and asked them if they would tell me why they had stopped and what they thought about the monument. Immediately they asked me back: “You came all the way from Germany to San Francisco to ask what I think about this monument?”

So I explained why the answer to this question was “yes”: It was two years earlier when I first consciously heard about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I was sitting in a history class on anti-Communism in the 1950s in the United States and we were analyzing a Hollywood Black List from the FBI. Dorothy Parker was on the list and among the accusations the FBI had listed, was the fact that she had donated money to a relief organization for Spanish orphans in the Republican Zone. I was stunned: why did the FBI think this donation proved her a threat to the inner security of the United States? I started to research on the relations between the United States and Spain during the war, on the American relief organizations that tried to help the Spanish Republic and on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as the group of people who get involved directly. I was fascinated by the history of these men and women who voluntarily fought against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, who were harassed by various government agencies after their return, who became heroes for the New Left in the 1960s and who have been and still are commemorated by a small but very persistent group of people after more than seventy years.

Their history touched a question that I – considering myself a pacifist – often wondered about: are their moments in history when I think the best solution was or has been to take up arms even though it contradicts almost everything I believe in? To tell it right away: I have not found an answer to this question and I’m glad I haven’t. Travelling to the United States, studying the monument, interviewing the people who are responsible for its erection and the ones who incidentally came by the monument while I was there – the experience generated more questions than answers, but was still extremely fulfilling.

Two different things happened during my research. On the one hand I academically distanced myself from the version of history the admirers of the Lincolns tell and came across more and more parts of the story that I felt critical about, for example the military language the organization Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) used – an example is the title “Commander” for the head of the VALB Posts. On the other hand I was less and less able to resist the emotional power of the commemoration. When I watched a movie about the Brigade or heard one of the famous folk songs about them – like “Jarama Valley” sung by Woody Guthrie – I had tears in my eyes within seconds. Too powerful was the transported idea of the “Good Fight” against Fascism that could have prevented World War Two and Auschwitz. “Could have” – an impossible thought from my historic point of view, but an emotionally striking message in the commemorative context.

The people I interviewed, the people who are responsible for the monument are children and friends of the veterans, of whom only about thirty are still alive. Most of them are also political activists and have been part of protest movements since the 1960s. The veterans have marched against every U.S. war since Vietnam. And the monument pays tribute not only to their fight in Spain, but to all the struggles they have participated in since they came back. For the second generation, the generation who accomplished the monument, this part of their legacy is just as important to remember as the fight in Spain.

On the monument you have a picture of Lincoln Brigadiers marching in Spain, but you also have a picture of the veterans demonstrating against the First Gulf War. You might call it contradictory to commemorate soldiers as heroes and being active in anti-War movements. But for the people I spoke to, the core idea to commemorate is that there were young men and women who stood up for ideas they believed, who chose to do something and who devoted themselves to all different kind of causes throughout their lives. This idea is maybe best captured by the words of Lincoln veteran Abe Osheroff on the monument: “If you look out the window and see a hungry emaciated child and do not feel a desire to do something to make the world a little better – then you're not a complete human being.”

Copyright INNATE 2016