Even before Generalísimo Francisco Franco
declared victory in the Spanish Civil War, the politics of the
conflict had provoked at least as much interest as had its military
aspects. Although military operations certainly caught the attention
of the war's many foreign observers, including such noteworthy
analysts as J.F.C. Fuller and F.O. Miksche, to this day a large
portion of the thousands of books on the war devote more space to
bolstering or discrediting political arguments than to what actually
happened on the battlefields of Spain.
Cecil D. Eby's new book on the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (ALB) is
also a "political" work, both in subject and in argumentation, yet
it never lets politics overshadow the soldiers themselves or the
battles they fought. Indeed, this very engaging work brings the
reader as close as any historian probably could to the chaos and
horrors of the battalion's often disastrous participation in the
battles of the Jarama Valley, Teruel, and elsewhere. At the same
time, Eby paints a depressingly convincing portrait of the communist
leadership and organization of the ALB and its sister North American
units, the Washington and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalions. Building
upon his study of nearly forty years ago, Between the Bullet and
the Lie: American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War,
the book stands in strong contrast to the party-line version of the
battalion's history that persists to this day, most recently in the
summer 2007 exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, "Facing
Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War."
Eby, a retired professor of English at the
University of Michigan, is not a popular figure among the ALB's
loudest veterans and spokesmen today, who—like their counterparts in
most veterans' organizations—prefer to stress the heroism and
sacrifice embodied by their unit's history rather than its less
appealing aspects. Accordingly, many veterans and supporters have
downplayed the battalion's communist roots and organization and the
function of its umbrella association, the International Brigades, in
Stalinist foreign policy, instead stressing the volunteers' role in
the fight against European fascism.
Of course, the latter emphasis has much merit, and one cannot help
but be impressed by the lengths to which battalion volunteers went
in the service of their ideals, regardless of whether they carried
Communist Party membership cards (many did—a hardly surprising fact
in the context of the Great Depression). About 750 of the some 2,800
Americans in the Lincoln battalion lost their lives in the war.
Unlike George Orwell, who recounts his experiences with the
"Trotskyist" POUM militia in his famous Homage to Catalonia,
the protagonists in Eby's book saw ample large-scale combat, and
they suffered enormous losses.
The narrative follows the story of the battalion
from its inception as part of the Comintern's International Brigades
to the volunteers' journeys to Spain, their largely inadequate
military training, and their baptism of fire in the Battle of
Jarama. Eby's harrowing description of their costly, futile, and
strategically meaningless assault across no man's land vividly
illustrates the deadly consequences of the poor planning,
coordination, and leadership that persisted throughout the
International Brigades' presence in Spain. These problems recur with
depressing regularity in the book, which takes the reader up to the
battalion's return to the U.S. and thereafter. Eby does not intend
or claim to offer a full military history of the war; his focus
remains firmly fixed on the experience of the Lincoln Battalion's
soldiers. Thus he writes little about broader military
considerations, and the relatively few words he devotes to strategy
serve above all to reinforce the already overwhelming sense of
futility that permeates the book.
The chapter on the Battle of the Ebro, for
example, includes not only a very good tactical-level account of the
battalion's small role in this very large-scale operation, but also
a one-sentence condemnation of the strategic decision and lack of
operational realism that left the American volunteers in their fatal
predicament. "The underlying fallacy of the offensive," Eby writes,
became clear as the campaign unfolded: "soldiers could be
transported across wide rivers more readily than the heavy equipment
necessary to supply and support them" (396). Of course, the Battle
of the Ebro and its outcome were not quite that simple, and readers
wishing to learn more about the strategic and operational aspects of
the campaign should consult some of the recent studies treating it,
none of which are in Eby's bibliography.
Yet at the most basic level he nonetheless captures the essential
truth behind most of the battalion's offensives: their futility.
Even when the volunteers took part in a successful operation, as at
Belchite, their tactical victory made scant difference to the war or
even the campaign. In Eby's book the war and the battalion's role in
it appear more tragic than anything else.
Yet as tragic as the war ultimately proved for
the foreign volunteers fighting against Franco's forces, for the
Spaniards enlisted in the ALB the situation was even more dismal.
Given the Francoists' reputation for shooting all captured
International Brigades members on the spot, the Spaniards forced to
serve in the battalion and its sister units were understandably
unhappy about their situation. To make matters worse, they found
themselves at the bottom of unit hierarchy. According to Eby, the
Americans sometimes treated them poorly, and their rations and
privileges fell below that of the foreigners fighting in Spain.
Eby's account of the Spanish members of the ALB draws heavily from
the unpublished memoirs of Fausto Esteban Villar, a Valencian
draftee who served in the battalion. Eby writes that he first
learned of these papers when Villar wrote him after reading the
Spanish translation of his first book on the battalion. Thanks
largely to Villar's day-by-day account, the book offers a
fascinating glimpse of the battalion's history from a Spanish
perspective, telling the story of draftees like Villar and casting
new light upon the attitude and behavior of many of the Americans
toward their Spanish comrades. Although they eventually outnumbered
their counterparts from the United States, the battalion's Spaniards
remain largely absent from standard accounts of the ALB.
While the book includes examples of good
leadership and brave feats at the tactical level, it also reveals
considerable operational incompetence, thanks in no small part to
figures such as division commander General Janos Gal (Galicz) and
brigade commander Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Copic. Eby's account
relates the poor leadership of Gal and Copic in part to communist
party politics. These men owed their positions to the party, and
they never forgot the constant party scrutiny under which they
operated. But this scrutiny alone does not explain their
incompetence—on occasion the help of more engaged Soviet advisors
might have saved them from deadly errors. As Eby describes, the
fundamental problem lay in the role political considerations had
played in their appointments. Even at the lower level of the officer
corps and among NCOs, ideological suspicions hindered the promotion
of competent men.
The author's own thoroughly cynical appraisal of
Communist Party intentions and actions is clear from the onset of
the book. Probably because he feels he must overcome the strong
force of well-established, politically correct mythology, he writes
with a bitter sarcasm and irony that sometimes threatens to
overwhelm the reader. Paradoxically, this writing style also helps
make the book very readable and engaging, especially for those with
a dry sense of humor, even if on a few occasions the "war story"
prose comes dangerously close to cliché: "For a ‘crummy bunch' they
had done pretty well. There was plenty of grit left" (404). Of
course, communist rhetoric makes an easy target; publications like
the Daily Worker practically invite ridicule, revealing none
of the irony that literary scholars like Paul Fussell perceive
elsewhere in Western post-Great War writings.
But Eby goes further, showing the Communist Party's elaborate
attempts to pervert history and manufacture memory in the service of
the cause both during and after the war.
Regrettably, the source references in the book,
in the form of asterisks and endnotes, are inconsistent and somewhat
difficult to follow at first. Although the publisher probably chose
to use asterisks instead of numbered reference marks in order to
make the book more appealing to a general readership, from a
scholarly perspective this and the incompleteness of the referencing
are unfortunate, especially in light of Eby's explicit revisionism.
He attributes, for example, the transformation of the battalion into
a "brigade" to the American Communist Party's Central Committee in
New York. The committee wanted, he writes, "to aggrandize the
American participation at the expense of the other battalions of the
XVth Brigade" (29 n. 2). But he provides no clear and direct
documentary source for this assertion. Admittedly, it is not
difficult to believe Eby's basic argument that the literature about
the "brigade" resulted from a conscious effort by party officials to
mislead, and he does not lack circumstantial evidence.
He shows elsewhere, for instance, how the ALB's members voted to
call themselves a battalion, although their will clearly had little
effect on how their unit was presented to American audiences (40).
Still, in this and other instances more plentiful, direct, and clear
references would have been most welcome. More thorough editing might
also have removed some of the book's redundancies.
In spite of Eby's constant attacks on the
party-line version of the battalion's history, his overall portrayal
of its members is positive. He reveals considerable sympathy for the
communist and non-communist soldiers he describes, at times
referring to their pre-war struggles against blacklegs and other
enemies of organized labor in almost heroic terms. His portrayal of
Franco and his "Nationalist" cause, on the other hand, is extremely
critical, although the book as a whole devotes little space to the
Above all, the book paints a thoroughly bleak
picture of the battalion's grave problems of morale, poor
leadership, and desertion. It describes, for example, how
International Brigades officials posted observers outside the U.S.
consulate in Barcelona to catch deserters trying to find a way home
there, many of whom then faced imprisonment or even the
firing squad. Although Eby sometimes verges on portraying
rank-and-file ALB soldiers primarily as victims, in general the
actors in his book retain their agency. Indeed, many reveal a strong
spirit of both independence and working class solidarity—even if
this means going against party officials—that persists through their
return journey to the U.S. through France. What remains most deeply
etched in the mind of the reader, however, are the vivid and
all-too-convincing depictions of combat and confusion on the
battlefield, along with a strong feeling of awe for what the
soldiers endured in their ultimately failed struggle.
Virginia Military Institute
 Fuller wrote articles on the Spanish Civil War
for Army Ordnance and other military journals during the
conflict. Miksche's observations and analysis on the war are in
his Blitzkrieg (London: Faber & Faber, 1941) = Attack:
A Study of Blitzkrieg Tactics (NY: Random House, 1942).
 NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1969.
 See Edward Rothstein, "The Spanish Civil War:
Black and White in a Murky, Ambiguous World," NY Times
(24 Mar 2007) <link>.
 Taking advantage of recent archival
declassifications, Daniel Kowalsky has shed additional light on
the origins of the International Brigades and their place in
Soviet Foreign Policy: "The Soviet Union and the International
Brigades, 1936-1939," Journal of Slavic Military Studies
19 (2006) 681-704. Unlike most authors citing newly available
material from Soviet archives, including Eby, Kowalsky consulted
original Russian-language sources rather than relying on
published, translated documents. An oft-cited collection of such
documents, which Eby draws from as well, is Ronald Radosh, Mary
Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, eds., Spain Betrayed: The
Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale U
 London: Secker & Warburg, 1938.
 E.g., Miguel Alonso Baquer, El Ebro: la
batalla de los cien días (Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros,
2003); Jorge M. Reverte, La Batalla del Ebro (Madrid:
Crítica, 2003); and José Andrés Rojo, Vicente Rojo: retrato
de un general republicano (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2006).
 The Great War and Modern Memory (NY:
Oxford U Pr, 1975).
 Although it is difficult for the reader to be
certain in the absence of clear and complete references for
Eby's oft-repeated explanation for the "brigade" misnomer, he
probably comes closest to providing direct documentary support
in a note mentioning Frederika Martin, the chief nurse of the
American medical unit in Spain, who "was ‘embarrassed and
ashamed' by this grandiose lie to magnify the military role of
the CPUSA. In her words, it was ‘purely propaganda.' " (29 n.
2). Unfortunately, we do not learn when or in what context she
penned these words. Eby cites only the "Martin archive, box 19,
B[randeis] U[niversity]." (This collection is now at New York
University, which acquired the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives
from Brandeis in late 2000 and early 2001. I am grateful to
Andrew H. Lee of New York University for providing me with this
information and for commenting on an early draft of this