A review of: Miguel Ferguson, !Brigadistas! An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War, ed. Paul Buhle and Fraser Ottanelli, art by Anne Timmons (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2022).
Brigadistas: An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War is a page-turner of a graphic novel, dramatically illuminating the courage and commitment of young Americans willing to put their lives on the line against fascism rising in Spain.
Written crisply by Miguel Ferguson and illustrated memorably by Anne Timmons, Brigadistas movingly relates how the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought to defend democratic Spain against fascism when it faced insuperable odds. Adding to the novel’s sharpness is the editing of historians Paul Buhle and Fraser Ottanelli.
The story of U.S. fighters is viewed through the eyes of one American, Abe Rubenoff, a composite fictional character drawn extensively from the real and remarkable Abe Osheroff. (Osheroff went on to become a legendary figure, fighting fascism his entire life: in Spain, Normandy, Mississippi in the 1960s, and Central America in the 1980s.)
Brigadistas is compellingly fast paced as it traces the route followed by Rubenoff, who combines combative street smarts and an urgent sense of solidarity with fellow Jews suffering under the iron heel of fascism across the ocean in Germany and Italy. Rubenoff and his gang of street kids first showed their youthful fighting spirit by setting aflame the Nazi flag flying over the SS Bremen steamship that landed in the New York harbor to be celebrated by Manhattan’s fawning elite.
But Rubenoff and his comrades in and around the Young Communist League hungered for more than splashy symbolic actions like the Bremen caper. Each atrocity in Spain, like the horrific bombing of civilians in Guernica conducted by the Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Legion, drew these young men closer to the fight.
The battlelines in Spain were drawn between the democratic, leftist Republican government and the fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco in alliance with business elites and the Catholic Church. Inevitably, men like Rubenoff found themselves drawn to the battlelines where Spanish democracy struggled against a heavily armed fascist force, backed fully by the murderous tyrannies of Germany and Italy. The two major fascist powers provided their Spanish compatriots with a limitless flow of the latest aircraft weapons, ammunition, and newly developed strategies. Italy even contributed 80,000 troops to the fascist side.
Brigadistas deftly integrates the personal dilemmas faced by those fully dedicated to Spanish democracy. After throwing themselves into the Spanish democrats’ cause, getting to Spain required sidestepping their parents’ and lovers’ deeply felt resistance. Rubenoff found it difficult to break the news to his girlfriend Caroline, even though her Catholic Worker background made her sympathetic to his beliefs. But the separation filled the couple with anguish.
Deep personal bonds were not the only major barrier. It also meant breaking the U.S. neutrality law against U.S. citizens taking part in the Spanish conflict, and finding a surreptitious route to Spain. Moreover, reaching Spain meant incredible dangers for men like Rubenoff and his fellow volunteers, as when their ship to Spain was sunk by Italian fighter planes and submarines.
Once finally assembled in Spain, Rubenoff and his comrades—drawn from various parts of the U.S. Left—set up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to directly fight on the side of the Republicans. Roughly 2,800 Americans took part, with a large contingent comprised of Jews, like Rubenoff, from the New York area. They were led by Oliver Law, a Black veteran of the First World War. Even for the leftist Brigadistas, it was an extraordinary moment to see a Black man being the comandante of whites.
Law supplied indispensable leadership for the Lincoln Brigadistas, who sorely lacked basic expertise with weapons, much less engagement in actual armed conflict. But Law forged the ragtag Lincoln Brigade into a genuine military force capable of important missions for the Republic.
The civil war experience included serious privations, with the Brigadistas exhausted from constant action, enduring illness, and going hungry at times. Further, they were perpetually outgunned by the fascist forces, who counted on a steady, limitless flow of weapons and ammunition from Germany and Italy.
Brigadistas also captures the ongoing absence of the U.S. fighters’ loved ones. In one letter, Rubenoff writes to Caroline in New York to frankly share the problems faced by the Brigade and the pain of being cut off from each other. Movingly, he writes: “We all know that will happen if Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini aren’t stopped, and we’re ready to give our lives to the cause.” But the novel also includes some amusing moments, such as when Rubenoff finds himself drawn into a barroom brawl with Ernest Hemingway, who at the time was a war correspondent sympathetic to the Republican cause.
Caroline, raised in the Catholic Worker tradition and with leftist impulses of her own, joins Abe in Spain as part of a medical corps of Americans. While joyful about being reunited, the skies over Spain are growingly increasingly dark.
If there is any flaw in Brigadistas, the decisive and devastating role of the Neutrality Act is not stressed sufficiently. Perversely, the law effectively shut off the flow of desperately needed weapons to Spanish democrats, while U.S. corporations easily circumvented the Act. Most notorious was Texaco and its pro-Hitler CEO Torkild Rieber, who kept Franco’s military force supplied with ample oil and other critical petroleum products, all provided on credit. Texaco also gave key bits of timely intelligence, as detailed in Adam Hochschild’s excellent Spain Is in Our Hearts. Several U.S. automakers, including Ford, provided 12,000 trucks to Franco’s forces. Despite the increasing concern about fascism growing among U.S. citizens, Texaco and other corporations were throwing their full weight behind the fascists.
After three years of brutal conflict, the Spanish Republic and the Brigadistas finally found themselves unable to turn back the tide so heavily driven by Germany, Italy, and U.S.-based corporate allies. The Republicans, recognizing looming defeat in early 1939, sent the Brigadistas back to the United States with deeply felt gratitude. “You can go proudly. You are history, you are legend,” one Spaniard tells the Brigade.
Franco would follow up his fascist victory with thirty-six years of bloody-handed dictatorship, ending only with his death in 1975. Franco’s close alliance in the U.S. fight against leftist opponents in Europe and fascist Spain’s role in the Cold War was deeply valued by U.S. policymakers. Former president Richard Nixon, for example, declared, “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States.”
The Brigadistas, who would eventually be seen as “premature antifascists” who took the fast-emerging fascist threat seriously enough to risk their lives, returned to a United States that was belatedly but fully mobilizing against the fascist threat in Europe, which had grown more dangerous as the Spanish Civil War raged.
Many Brigadistas, like the real-life Abe Osheroff, would continue in their antifascist beliefs by joining with the U.S. armed forces in fighting some of the most perilous battles of the Second World War. But the Brigadistas didn’t halt their activism after the Second World War; a substantial number played leading roles in the fight for Black civil rights and against U.S. imperial ventures abroad. The Brigadistas left behind a profound legacy of courage and international solidarity for the U.S. left that still resonates today.
A bonus to Brigadistas readers is historian Paul Buhle’s lively and insightful afterword on “The Comic and the Spanish Civil War.” Buhle has penned over a dozen comic books and has been the godfather of the growing stream of graphic novels coming from the left. Buhle’s essay not only covers the Civil War, but also gives a brilliant overview of the politics of comic books after the Second World War.