By Jefferson Flanders

Milton Wolff, the last commander of what is popularly (and inaccurately) known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—those American volunteers who fought against the forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War—died Jan. 14th at the age of 92. Three major American newspapers—the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle—reported Wolff’s death with lengthy, and admiring, by-lined obituaries. Unfortunately these obits were flawed: they offered scant historical context, ignored the scholarship of the past few decades illuminating Communist control over the Lincolns (as the volunteers were known), and, most curiously, chose to remain silent about Wolff’s Stalinist past.

Instead, all three obituaries presented Wolff in a romantic, if not heroic, light. Peter Fimrite of the Chronicle quoted extensively from Peter N. Carroll, author of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, Wolff’s friend and hagiographer:

“He was famous for his personal courage. He was famous for his leadership and morality,” said Carroll. “Women fell in love with him and men really respected him.”

In Fimrite’s story Wolff was “a legendary figure,” whose friends described him as “a worldly, chivalrous man” with “a gritty charm.” Wolff, it is suggested, had a “special charisma, a spark in the eye, that comes with dodging mortar rounds and machine gun bullets.”

In her summation of Wolff’s life and times, Jocelyn Y. Stewart of the Los Angeles Times noted Ernest Hemingway’s 1938 comparison of Wolff with Abraham Lincoln, quoted Carroll as describing Wolff as “a man of action,” and informed readers that Wolff “spent much of his life engaged in the struggles of the world.” Stewart also quoted Wolff on his motives for joining the International Brigades: “I went to Spain sincerely believing that in fighting for Spanish democracy I was helping preserve American democracy.”

While Douglas Martin of the New York Times offered the most restrained of the obituaries, he did characterize Wolff as an “Anti-Franco leader” who “never stopped defying authority,” “battl[ing] fiercely for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.” Martin closed his piece with this flattering anecdote about Wolff:

One of his battles after the civil war was leading his veterans to urge the Brooklyn Dodgers to integrate. “The guys were all Dodgers fans,” he said. “It was a way to carry on the struggle.”

All three journalists more or less adopted the narrative publicly advanced by Carroll, the academic “keeper of the flame” for the Lincolns. That’s troubling, because Carroll’s sanitized version of history perpetuates Old Left myths about American involvement in Spain.

Interviewing other historians of the period, such as Ron Radosh (the lead editor of Spain Betrayed) or NYU’s Tony Judt, or consulting, for example, Cecil D. Eby’s recently published Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, would have given readers a more informed and balanced historical perspective. The Times‘ Martin could have turned to his own newspaper and Edward Rothstein’s discerning March 2007 piece on the exhibition “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War”, a review which captured some of the historical ambiguities surrounding the Lincolns and the war in Spain.

Consulting a broader range of historians would have improved accuracy, as well. Stewart of the Los Angeles Times wouldn’t have referred to the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” —for no such military unit ever existed (as Eby explains in the first few pages of his 2007 book); Communist Party propagandists in the U.S. created the name to refer to the Lincoln and Washington Battalions in the XVth International Brigade, in an effort to inflate the extent of American involvement in Spain. She might also have learned that Wolff’s story of being labeled a “premature anti-fascist” by the U.S. military during World War II had been sharply questioned by scholars Harvey Klehr and John E. Haynes. Further digging might have made Fimrite more wary of Carroll’s description of the Civil Rights Congress (for which Wolff worked) as simply “a left-wing organization that defended African Americans dubiously accused of capital crimes,” when in fact it had been declared a Communist front and was often in conflict with civil rights and civil liberties groups like the NAACP and ACLU.

This incomplete picture of Wolff (and consequently of American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War), is typical of recent mainstream media coverage of Cold War historical controversies. Case in the point: the inadequate reporting of attempts to rewrite the history of Alger Hiss’ involvement with Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 1940s. This shallow coverage may very well be the result of historical ignorance on the part of time-pressed reporters and editors; the result is that slanted and inadequate stories become part of the public record and end up residing on the Internet and in library databases. While the Weekly Standard published Stephen Schwartz’ critical view of Wolff (“Wolff in Wolf’s Clothing“), a Google news search for “Milton Wolff” doesn’t turn up this article.

Contingent anti-Fascism

None of the mainstream obituaries challenged the notion that Wolff’s “Good Fight” in Spain was to defend democracy against fascism, that (in Fimrite’s words) Wolff was a leftist “who despised fascism.” The truth was quite different: Wolff was an “anti-Fascist” fighter only when that stance matched established Soviet policy. Wolff’s zeal for battling Fascists disappeared when Stalin allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany in August 1939; Wolff gave a shameful speech attacking “Franklin Demagogue Roosevelt” and vowing to “stubbornly oppose every move of Roosevelt and the war-mongers” and “the involvement of our country in an imperialist war.” Only after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union did Wolff once again began “despising fascism.”

Any notion that Wolff was truly interested in preserving liberal democracy in Spain, or elsewhere, is laughable. He spent much of his adult life as an unapologetic Stalinist, leading the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) in support of the Party-approved cause du jour, backing North Korea, Cuba, and North Vietnam against the “American warmongers.” More troubling, Wolff remained silent about the crimes committed in the pursuit of a Marxist utopia—the show trials, purges, executions, slave labor camps, and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe through “people’s democracies.”

This silence calls into question Carroll’s depiction of Wolff as being “famous for his morality”: it is a strange morality that excuses Stalin’s crimes in the name of anti-fascism. And then, more personally, there is the “Orwell question”: did Wolff and other leaders of the Lincolns have any complicity in the deadly purge of the non-Stalinist Left in Spain carried out by elements of the International Brigade? Did they turn a blind eye to the torture and killing by the dreaded Servicio de Investigation Militar (SIM) and Soviet assassins? While we may never know the truth, the question remains. In his research on the Lincoln battalion, Cecil D. Eby found that the VALB leadership stuck to “a rigidly canonical version of Lincoln history.” Eby noted that “[c]ertain subjects were taboo—rumors of wholesale desertions, prison terms for political deviants, jagged relationships with other Internationals, executions of volunteers.” This, of course, conforms to the Stalinist belief that historical “truth” should be shaped to serve political ends.

In contrast to Wolff’s reticence, some Lincolns—like Louis Fischer, William Herrick, and John Gates—confronted the past without evasion. A novelist and self-described radical, Herrick once wrote: “The truth was that the International Brigades were organized, dominated, controlled and massacred by the Comintern, a tool of Stalin.” He added, “over the years there have been Americans who have boasted about their work as apparatchiks in Spain, work which included executions.” Former Lincoln commissar Gates broke with the Communist Party in the late 1950s, denouncing the hijacking of the Republican cause by the Russians, and voiced the heretical notion that “there was more liberty under Franco’s fascism than there is in any communist country.”

A complicated history

Making sense out of the Spanish Civil War isn’t the easiest task: as Tony Judt has pointed out, it is possible to see the Republican cause in the most idealistic terms—and to acknowledge there was a vibrant anti-Stalinist Left in Spain defending the Republic— and yet also recognize that Soviet deception, duplicity and manipulation contributed to Franco’s victory.

It is, in short, a complicated history and it is easy to get lost in the competing claims and the internecine conflicts of the Left in Spain. Yet journalists who write about this past shouldn’t settle for simplistic or comfortable narratives. The best obituary writers confront both the ambiguities of history and the flaws and contradictions of their subjects in a way that informs the reader.

Journalists can report, in a balanced way, the past inconsistencies and contradictions in the lives of those engaged in political controversies. For example, Paul Goldberger’s 2005 New York Times obituary of Philip Johnson unflinchingly explored the American architect’s Fascist past. Michael Taylor’s San Francisco Chronicle obit of former Black Panther and 1960s radical Eldridge Cleaver offered context to the life of a deeply troubled man. And Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times properly noted French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s defense of Paul de Man’s fascist connections in Derrida’s obituary.

Thus, a more complete accounting of Milton Wolff’s life and “Good Fight” would have included his support of the ugly excesses of Stalinism, and would have touched upon the Communist manipulation of the Lincolns. That would have represented better journalism, and better history.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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