The Lincolns Are Leaving Us
by Nadya Connolly Williams, October 9, 2013
As of this writing, Delmer Berg is alive and well in his Tuolumne County, California, home at the age of 97. He is the last known member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of the nearly 3,000 Americans who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain in the opening years of World War II. From 52 countries 40,000 men and women came, even from China, to defend democracy in Spain during the bitter civil war of 1936 to 1939 against a wealthy oligarchy and factions of the church and military, which ended in a brutal take-over of the freely-elected republican government. These International Brigades, along with the Loyalists of the Spanish Army and people’s militias, were unable to defeat the fascist coup.
The definition of Fascism in Webster’s New World Dictionary: “A system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism, racism and militarism, etc.; first instituted in Italy in 1922.”
The triumphant dictator of Spain, General Francisco Franco, was allied early on with Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini. Franco was backed with a massive force of arms and would never have succeeded without Hitler's Condor Legions and Mussolini's Black Shirt troops and tanks. An estimated half million Spaniards died; including, at least 20,000 who were executed, and many more disappeared, starved or worked to death in prison camps after the war’s end. Many thousands were exiled or fled in mass emigration. Close to half of the international volunteers were to die in combat, including nearly a third, 900 in all, of the Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
The ensuing World War by these fascist regimes, the Axis powers, cost the lives of upwards of 30 to 40 million. Had the Western powers backed the defenders of democracy early on in Spain, like Del Berg did, perhaps the carnage could have been averted or reduced. One must not forget the collaboration, not just in France but throughout much of continental Europe, with the fascists. In fact many in the International Brigades continued to fight fascism by joining the Resistance Movements in their respective countries after leaving Spain. The scourge of Mussolini and Hitler were both eliminated in 1945, but Franco remained to become the longest standing dictatorship in modern Western European history — unleashing a reign of terror until his death in 1975.
With his near century-long life, Delmer Berg has been a keen observer of his country’s role in world history, watching with alarm as more democratic governments and movements were crushed. The Cold War began in earnest after Spain, with the West using the “fear of a Communist take-over” as a cover for empire expansion. Indeed, with Franco as a model, Western-backed elites and militaries of the Third World took heart. A CIA-backed coup in Iran deposed a democratically-elected government in 1953, imposing the megalomaniac Shah for 26 years; likewise in Guatemala in 1954 with essentially military rule to this day. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in the Congo in 1961 — installing the odious, but compliant, Mubutu; then “regime change” in 1963 in The Dominican Republic and in Brazil in 1964, and Indonesia in 1965, where the murderous General Suharto deposed the democratic President Sukarno (death toll 2 million) — all with US and Western power complicity and involvement. The attempt in Viet Nam failed, but cost 8 million South East Asians their lives, and 60,000 plus of our own sons. The people of Cuba and Nicaragua triumphed, in 1959 and 1979 respectively, but were both severely punished for their “disobedience.” Next came Greece in 1967 (helping to install “The Colonels” for seven years), Chile in 1973 with General Pinochet for 17 years, Argentina in 1976 with its ugly “Dirty War,” then the Reagan-era funding of the Contras in Nicaragua and the feudal-like oligarchies in Central America (Guatemala again, El Salvador, Honduras) — with close to half a million deaths there, and the list goes on and on — to say nothing of the West’s more recent interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. As political historian Noam Chomsky says, it’s always about domination and the resources — plunder and profit — Colonialism in new clothes. All this can be considered part of the shameful fallout from the Spanish Civil War and a people’s defeat.
So what is the legacy of the Lincolns? Beyond this past history, men like Del Berg guide and inspire us to stand up and take action for what is Just. Around the world today, the sacrifice and courage of the International Brigades are remembered, honored and passed on to the young. Ernest Hemingway, who came to Spain to cover the war, said no nobler men entered the Spanish earth than the members of the International Brigades. He was speaking of the thousands of Brigadistas who were buried in mass and unmarked graves, giving their lives for a foreign cause. Del Berg survived, though gravely wounded, and returned at 22-years-old to California in 1938.
“I was born into a very poor farm family in Southern California.” said Del in a recent interview in his Sierra foothills home. “We lived near Modesto [in California’s Central Valley], and I became a radical early on in life.” Born on December 20, 1915 of Ukrainian and Dutch ancestry, the lives of his family were made even more miserable and precarious during The Great Depression. To Del the hardships of so many came directly from the Capitalist system, where the 1% did very well, while the majority suffered unemployment and poverty. Thus, at age 21, he joined the Young Communist League, which was among the many and diverse organizations recruiting volunteers for Spain.
The Spanish civil war was widely viewed as primarily a class war of the wealthy elites of the church, military and oligarchy against the masses of impoverished peasants. In short, Spain of 80 years ago was just emerging from a feudal society. “There is no civil war in Spain,” asserted one prominent American labor leader at the time, who happened to also be an avowed anti-communist. “It is an invasion of a democratic country by hostile forces of fascism and Nazism as part of a plan to subdue workers in every land. American labor cannot ignore this threat to itself.”
As an example of how disparate the politics and backgrounds of the Lincolns was, a Northern California resident, James Benét, who as a 23-year-old also fought in Spain, came from a famous and well-to-do literary family. After a successful career as a journalist for The New Republic, The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED-TV, and as a professor at UC Berkeley, Benét retired, and died at the age of 98 in December, 2012. He said of his time in the Spanish Civil War, “Spain made a man of me. Going to Spain was the right thing to do. You couldn’t have a better beginning in life! We thought then, and I know now, the civil war was a genuine attempt by the Spanish people to defend democracy against the tyrannical and inhuman regimes of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.”
Unlike Benét, Del Berg had already received some military training in the Oregon National Guard infantry, then the US Army 76th Field Artillery. At Manteca High School, he’d studied Latin, which helped him to become proficient in Spanish, and he’d also read Cervantes’ Don Quixote, starting a fascination with Spain. After arriving in-country in February of 1938 at the age of 22, his past military experience was put to use, and he was assigned to laying communication lines for anti-aircraft artillery from Republican bases to the battle fronts. (Those fighting to preserve the democratically-elected government were called Republicans and Loyalists, the fascist military “rebels” were referred to as Nationalists.) Berg’s unit worked first near Barcelona, then in the defense of Teruel, and at the battle of the Ebro River. “We helped blow up the bridge on the Ebro, because it was an important connection to the Mediterranean Sea for the fascists,” he said smiling.
Next came his fateful assignment to the central coast city of Valencia, where he was largely idle, as lines had already been laid. “We got a liter of wine a day,” he recounted happily, “and I even got to go to the movies a couple of times in Valencia.” But in August of 1938, at 10 pm, fascist Italian Air Force planes came to Valencia dropping their bombs on the dormitory of a monastery where the brigadistas billeted — not on their intended target, the railroad station. “’If you want to be safe,’ we used to say, ‘go to where the fascists want to bomb,’” he said. Del, who was sitting up in bed, was hit in the side by shrapnel — which still rests in his liver today! But several of the internationals from Italy were killed — ironically by the very fascists who had taken over their country. (Just a few years later, Mussolini’s bombers were to be blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the Pope before take off during WWII.) After Franco’s victory in April of 1939, the outskirts of Valencia were to hold the largest mass grave of the ensuing repression — with an estimated 26,000 bodies yet to be exhumed and identified to this day.
Like Jim Benét, Del Berg and all the surviving volunteers left Spain in October of 1938. In a devil’s bargain, an agreement was proposed, but never honored by Franco’s nationalists, for the civil war to be free of ‘outside intervention.’ The International Brigades were to leave, and, likewise, the fascists were to not receive more of their overwhelming armaments, troops, planes and tanks from their allies in Germany and Italy — equipment the Republican forces had never been close to matching. About having to leave the Spanish people to their fate, Del admitted, “I felt bad, because I was not that active in Spain. But you do what you can do.”
In a Spring, 2012, interview in the spacious, stone, hillside home that he built himself in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne County, Del spoke of his return home. He got married, had two sons, and was drafted into the army for World War II for three years, where he was stationed in New Guinea — again for anti-aircraft artillery, but was discharged early due to his disabling shrapnel wound from Spain. He then returned to Modesto, joined the Communist Party USA in 1943, and found work where he could. For 20 years he was a farm laborer, “working primarily with Oakies and Arkies,” for which he was later ineligible for Social Security benefits! He recalled making $400 in one summer bucking hay — the only money he’d been able to earn that entire year. A life-long radical organizer, he eventually founded his own cement and stonemason business with a son.
Del Berg became a nearly full-time activist with: the agricultural workers’ rights movement of the UFW (United Farm Workers); the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) — the only white member; MAPA (the Mexican American Political Association); the anti-Viet Nam War movement; the Central Valley Democratic Clubs; the Congress of California Seniors; numerous peace and justice committees; and many more. He was one of three farm workers chosen to testify in Washington, DC before an open Congressional hearing on farm labor, attended by Eleanor Roosevelt. Asked if he was ever harassed by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) of the McCarthy-era witch hunts of Leftists during the 1950s and ‘60s, Berg proudly produced a 1966 letter asking him to “please contact” their office. “They could never find me to serve a summons,” he grinned.
Of his life-long Communist Party membership, Del explained that for him they were simply doing what he saw needed to be done. While living in Los Angeles in 1937 after his US military stint, he joined the Workers’ School, got a union job in a hotel washing dishes, and helped out in a strike at another hotel. Walking to work one day he saw a billboard for “The Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” — the first he’d heard of American support for Spain. In April of that year came the infamous destruction of the Basque civilian city of Guernica by waves of German Condor Battalion incendiary bombers — practicing their very first “Blitzkrieg.” Cynically, the Spanish fascists initially announced to the county and the world that “the Reds” had leveled the defenseless town. Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting was to be the haunting “Guernica.”
In an eerie and equally cynical move, in January of 2003 before General Colin Powell delivered falsehoods to the United Nations Security Council to justify America’s aerial assault of Bagdad later in March, U.S. officials had the tapestry of “Guernica” that hangs just outside that chamber’s walls covered up with a curtain.
In late 1937 Del Berg volunteered with the North American Medical Bureau of the “Friends of the Brigade,” but since that organization was not sending anyone overseas, he sought out the American Young Communist League, which was helping to send brigadistas. So, with passport — marked “Not Valid for Travel to Spain” — in hand, the 22-year-old and three other comrades scraped together bus fare and headed for New York. One month later they were in Carcassonne, Southern France, 50 miles from the border with Spain when French gendarmes try to stop them, but “the French Communist Party was too strong, so we got through,” he said. They were bussed to the border for the long walk at night in the snow over the Pyrenees Mountains to Figueres, a fort in northern Spain. The Soviet Union had already been sending volunteers, arms and some planes to the Loyalist side in Spain.
Conversely, not only did Americans like Del court danger and death on the battlefield, but they had to defy their own government that shamefully denied aid to the Spanish Republic, hid behind “neutrality” and tried to actively prevent American volunteers from going to the aid of the beleaguered Spanish people. To add insult to injury, many of those Lincolns who survived and returned home faced confiscated passports, employment blacklisting and political persecution — and even barriers to fighting for America in World War II. HUAC even concocted the singularly convoluted label of “premature anti-fascists” to pin on the Lincolns.
An avowed Atheist, Del spoke at length about the sharp division within the Catholic church of Spain, with, as in so many countries and conflicts, the “priests of the people” siding with the majority against the elites. However, historic photos from Spain show the Catholic hierarchy literally standing next to the generals and the oligarchy — all giving the straight-arm fascist salute.
As the last of the known American Lincolns, Del Berg is even more rare in the world today because the great majority of the other international brigadistas were older when they volunteered — and more experienced militarily — than the American youths who joined up for “The Good Fight.” Thus nearly all of the tens of thousands from Europe, the Soviet Union, South America, and even Africa and Asia, have already passed on. Their remaining numbers are largely unknown. These internationals and their supporters were of all political stripes: from communist to socialist, from anarchist to labor unionist, from quite conservative to the apolitical, and even anti-communist — their unifying bond being belief in justice and democracy, and the courage to put their lives on the line for their ideals.
Del was keenly aware of the Soviet sacrifice during World War II to defeat the Nazis, which cost the USSR upwards of 30 million lives, three quarters of them civilians; thus he joined the party in 1943 upon discharge from the U.S. army. (The perennial joke in the party was that probably 80% of the members were FBI moles.) To this day, Del is a staunch defender of the Soviets, and an arch opponent of “the Trots.” Trotskyists were the followers of Leon Trotsky, who identified as an orthodox Marxist and Bolshevik-Leninist, and whose politics differed sharply from those of Stalinism. Not one to forgive or forget easily, Del recalled being housed outside of Barcelona right after his arrival in Spain with other brigadistas, when “some Trot painted a swastika on our door! If there’s anything that I detest, it’s a Trotskyite. Whenever I confront them, I kick their ass.” Given the deeply-held political principles of the Spaniards and internationals, factionalism played a divisive and weakening part in their defeat, but paled in comparison to the overwhelming force of the combined Axis powers, the active embargoes of support by the West, and the ruthlessness of the fascists.
Ever passionate and informed of world politics, Del is very aware that the civil war is still unfolding, and being — literally — unearthed today. Crusading Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón is now in a battle for his professional life as he attempts to “recover lost memory” of the tens of thousands of “desaparecidos” — ‘the disappeared’ of repression, mass executions and prison death camps. Garzón was initially lauded worldwide and in Spain for his use of Universal Jurisdiction laws in 1998 to famously indict Chile’s ex-dictator Pinochet, and to later bring authorization of torture charges against six Bush-presidency officials in 2006. However, in October of 2008 he then turned his legal scrutiny onto his own country to investigate the crimes of the Franco regime, calling for the exhumation of at least 19 mass graves — much to the outrage of those who still have a lot to hide and to lose. Wikileaks cables clearly showed both the Bush and Obama administrations in active collusion with reactionary Spanish authorities over human rights violations on both sides of the Atlantic. Garzón was disbarred from the Spanish judicial system in 2010 after Spain's supreme court found that he had “ignored the 1977 amnesty law” — put in place two years after Franco’s death to protect the guilty.
Huge monuments to Franco’s nationalists blight the country, but a fight to preserve a new monument to the Brigades at the University of Madrid — site of a bloody battle — now rages in 2013. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which is active in many countries, notably Argentina, sent a commission this September to Madrid to examine whether the Spanish government is complying with international obligations to investigate the disappearances. Representatives from the Spanish Commission for Truth Platform and the Social and Democratic Memory Association presented the UN Working Group with a dossier containing 130,000 cases of people who disappeared. "The state must assume a leadership role and engage more actively to respond to the demands of thousands of families searching for the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the civil war and the dictatorship," concluded the Working Group. A report on their findings will be presented to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council next year. "There is no ongoing effective criminal investigation nor any person convicted," the experts said. They regretted that Spain's amnesty law remains in force, and also complained of difficulties in accessing archives. The Spanish group wants the government to agree to open the 2,800 common graves scattered around the country that have never been excavated. Doubtless, some of these graves contain International Brigaders, and Lincolns as well. In addition, the children of an estimated 10,000 families were taken away at the end of the war, to be placed in fascist homes — their parents often killed or disappeared. As in Argentina, many of these now-adult victims want to know the truth about their origins. The Spanish people’s and the world’s endurance of 36 years of this cruel regime is far from over.
Del Berg returned to Spain three times after Franco’s death, to attend joyous reunions of the International Brigades in that slowly democratizing country. In the 1980s he even went to Namibia, Africa to serve as an election monitor there! It must also be said that Del’s life of commitment had been lauded and honored by many organizations in his local area over the years. Until very recently, he cared full-time for his ailing wife, June; but with a brief hospitalization in early October for Del for an ulcer, they both now receive more in-home care.
His proudest moments since Spain? “When I was elected vice president of the local NAACP,” Berg says, “and when one of my grandsons was valedictorian at his Oregon high school graduation and said in a newspaper interview, ‘My grandfather is my inspiration. He’s a Communist!’”
A quote from American journalist, Martha Gellhorn, who was in Spain during the war: “The men who fought and those who died for the [Spanish] Republic, whatever their nationality and whether they were communists, anarchists, socialists, poets, plumbers, middle class professional men, or the one Abyssinian prince, were brave and disinterested, as there were no rewards in Spain. They were fighting for us all, against the combined forces of European fascism. The deserved our thanks and our respect and got neither.”
Delmer Berg at his home in 2014. Credit Phil Schermeister
Sign the Petition to Save the Monument to the Brigades in Madrid at: www.alba-valb.org
See YouTube: International Brigades: Threat to Madrid Memorial, 2013 www.international-brigades.org.uk
http://stillcause.blogspot.com/ — also from Britain
The Volunteer, ALBA’s quarterly magazine can be found on line at: www.albavolunteer.org
FFALB — Friends & Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, also in New York City. Tel: 212 989 8624 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Books: Many great books have been written about Spain’s fight, especially recommended are ones by Lincolns and other Brigade members. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’
Films: “The Good Fight” from 1984 is still the definitive documentary on the Lincolns — www.thegoodfight.org. The award-winning 2012 HBO film, “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, contains actual footage of the Spanish Civil War.