In this obituary, the Washington Post celebrates Delmer Berg, the last known living U.S. volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. The Post’s Emily Langer informs us that Berg served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. This unit “was named in honor of the 16th president,” she adds helpfully.
The Communist Party’s appropriation of the Great Emancipator’s name was one of the most cynical public relations stunts ever. Other than Adolph Hitler, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less like Lincoln than Joseph Stalin, the butcher and enslaver the American Communist Party served. It was no honor to our 16th president to have a communist brigade named after him, and I’m pretty sure no honor was intended.
American socialists had more decency. They called their fighting unit the Eugene Debs Brigade.
In Spain, the Communist-run brigades fought against Franco’s nationalists who were, as Langer says, backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But they also fought, with greater success, against anyone who opposed Moscow’s line, especially Trotskyites.
George Orwell recorded this sorry story in Homage to Catalonia. The experience made him an anti-Stalinist until the day he died.
The commitment of Lincoln Brigade members to anti-Fascism is dubious. Not long after they returned to the U.S., Stalin and Hitler made common cause. At that point, many members of the Brigade supported the American Communist Party’s demand that the United States to stay out of World War II. Whether Berg was among them, I do not know.
In her obituary of Berg, Langer describes him as “a communist and lifelong defender of progressive causes, including civil right and organized labor.” But was it possible to have been both a tool of Stalin and a lifelong defender of progressive causes? Is it progressive to murder kulaks, starve peasants, maintain a gulag, and try to spread these practices to the U.S. and the world at-large?
It seems to me that the Post would want to be agnostic at best about the compatibility of communism and progressivism.
It also seems to me that it could have written a fitting, lively obituary to Berg without romanticizing the Lincoln Brigade and American communism.