Review by Alvah Bessie: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade by Arthur Landis

by Rebeca on June 4, 2009

[Editor’s Note: Since the publication of Landis’ book, another definitive history of the Lincolns was chronicled in 1994 by Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. In this book Carroll presents (with differences) an honest picture of the volunteers and their role in the war.]
At Last – The Definitive History of the Lincoln Brigade in Spain

THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN BRIGADE, by Arthur H. Landis.
New York, The Citadel Press.

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie in
The Worker, Sunday, July 31, 1966

“Since so many anti-human victories have been won in the name of a puerile anti-communism,” writes Arthur Landis, “this work will not seek to advance itself by either adopting that tactic, or its opposite . . . It should, in fact, be sufficient to honest inquiry that judgement be made on that which was, factually, and that which was done, literally. For all men in truth, should answer only to how they have lived within their milieu, and how they have shaped up to the social crises of their times.”

The men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade “shaped up” to the social crises of their time in so integral and so passionate a manner that the time is not far off when their contribution to the preservation of American (and world) democracy will be honestly appraised.

*

This book by one of the veterans of that volunteer outfit in the Spanish war will not be published until September, but it is – on this 30th anniversary of the day Francisco Franco and his supporters rebelled against the democratic Spanish Republic – the definitive history of the Brigade, and the measure of Landis’ achievement lies in the patent fact that the job will never have to be done again.

For Landis has not only spent many years in research and study in preparation for this history, but he has so thoroughly examined, understood, digested and projected the very mood and temper of the times, and precisely what “was done literally,” that there is not one aspect of American participation in Spain that he has missed; not one facet of that crucial struggle that he has failed to evaluate – and evaluate on sound, historical grounds.

*

There had been one previous history of the Abraham Lincoln battalion, but it was written in 1939 in the months immediately following the “end” of the war, and Edwin Rolfe, its poet-author, and himself a veteran of Spain, accomplished a near-miracle that was of major assistance to the author of the present history.

Landis has corrected many of the errors Rolfe inadvertently made, just as he corrects the deliberate misinterpretations and scandalous distortions of history perpetrated by both honest – and frankly fascist -“interpreters” of the role the Americans played in the Spanish war.

He has done far more than this; he has examined the background of the volunteers and their subsequent history. He has re-created the temper of the 1930s (in America and the world), to explain why they volunteered to fight and die in a cause that “was not their own.” He has traced the open and the secret history of the diplomatic intrigue that spelled the death of the Spanish Republic -and he has laid the guilt where it belongs.

He has not missed a single action in which the American participated – from that hideous (and actually criminal) baptism of fire on the slopes of Pingarron Hill in the Jarama Vally of February 23 and 27, 1937, to the final holocaust that ended the great Ebro offensive in the Sierra Pandols and the Sierra Caballs of Catalonia in September, 1938.

Each of these actions is placed in perspective in the overall strategy and tactics of the war. Eye-witness accounts that recreate the very personalities of the men involved alternate with logistical studies made decades after the events they describe. Landis has plumbed the work of such fascist “historians” as Manuel Aznar, and such honest reporters as Herbert Matthews, Vincent Sheean and Ernest Hemingway, as well as endless books and newspaper accounts, in many languages, in order to present a balanced picture of the truth and the lie, the misinterpretation and the facts.

*

Veterans of the Brigade will cherish this book as the total expression of what they believed – and suffered – so many years ago. The generation that has grown up since 1939 will find in it what they will not find in any of their history books today – the true story of the Spanish conflict. The casual reader will not remain casual for he will find himself under the screaming shells and the white-hot sun, the freezing rain, the machine-gun, rifle and mortar fire that tortured the American volunteers in all those places whose names will live forever in the annals of man’s struggle against oppression and degradation: Jarama, Villaneuva del Pardillo, Quinto and Belcite, Brunete, Fuentes de Ebro, Teruel and that town called Atlas de Celedas that the Americans called “The North Pole,” Seguro de los Banos, Caspe, Alcaniz, Batea and Gandesa, Corbera and Villalba de los Arcos – all are here, all live again and rise to memory or are created for those who knew them only as newspaper headlines or never heard about them till today.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a monumental contribution to American history, for what the Lincolns did in Spain was American (as well as world) history, and the book will be mined for decades by historians, scholars and ordinary readers who want to know “that which was, factually, and that which was done, literally.”

This is the true and indispensable role of honest history, which to Napoleon may have been “a fable agreed upon.” Emerson was closer to the truth when he said, “There is properly no history, only biography.” In Landis’ hands, however, history is the unadulterated truth about how a specific body of men lived in their milieu and shaped up to the social crisis of their times.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele June 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I saw this book recently and wondered if I would like it…after reading your review, I know I would! I’ll buy it next time I see it…thanks for the review!

Rebeca June 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Michele, I have Peter Carroll’s biik, but I’m going to get the Arthur Landis one too.

RS.

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