The 3,000 Americans Who Fought Fascism Before World War II

Today, the men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade are seldom mentioned, even though they fought and died to defeat fascism before the U.S. ever entered World War II.

A group of Americans known as  the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, returning from fighting fascists in Spain, pose with the flag and their mascot on the deck of the S.S. President Harding, Feb. 4, 1939. (AP Photo/Fred H. Mann)
A group of Americans known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, returning from fighting fascists in Spain, pose with the flag and their mascot on the deck of the S.S. President Harding, Feb. 4, 1939. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1936, young Americans began heading over to Spain to confront the rise of fascism in Europe. They became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In all, an estimated nearly 3,000 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War. Spain was viewed as an early front line in the battle against fascism in Europe and these young Americans joined volunteers from across the globe who came to Spain to fight against fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco. Franco was a murderous thug and an ally of Mussolini and Hitler. And eventually, he became a great ally of the United States government.

While the story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is not often told or recalled in the modern era, it should be. It is a story of young Americans, many of them immigrants, laborers, and workers, who saw the dangers of fascism years before the U.S. government got militarily involved in the war against Hitler and his allies and the point where the mythical history of the fight against fascism in Europe taught in many U.S. schools begins. The Lincoln Brigade deployed to fight fascism before it spread while powerful American businesses and government officials supported Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco or feigned neutrality that actually amounted to aiding fascism.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump held a joint press conference with the Spanish prime minister. The timing was interesting, given that the Spanish government is at this moment forcefully seeking to stop a referendum on independence in Catalonia. Donald Trump seemed confused about the difference between Spain’s prime minister and its president, but he nonetheless made clear where he stands on this issue. “I speak as the president of the United States, as somebody that has great respect for your president, and also has really great respect for your country,” Trump said, standing next to the Spanish prime minister. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain.  I think it would be foolish not to.  Because you’re talking about staying with a truly great, beautiful, and very historic country.”

It’s interesting that while Trump uses his generic filler for countries he doesn’t know much about — great, historic, beautiful — the U.S. relationship with Spain for many decades was one of normalizing the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Franco. It is unlikely Trump knows much, if anything, about Franco, but he would have loved the dictator who ruled until his death in 1975. Franco’s whole agenda was framed around Making Spain Great Again: shield it from foreign influence; preserve its conservative brand of Catholicism; fascism masquerading as proud nationalism.

There is a lot of debate and discussion today over the tactics of the groups and people generally referred to as Antifa. And it has become a regular talking point of Democrats and some liberal pundits to equate Antifa with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists being more and more empowered by this administration. This both-sides-are-wrong mentality has been used throughout history to forgive the crimes of right-wing fascist movements.

The veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were celebrated as heroes and visionaries who saw the threat early and tried to stop it. But as U.S. interests shifted, they soon became targets of anti-communist witch hunts. And today, they are seldom mentioned, even though they fought and died to defeat fascism before the U.S. ever entered World War II. This story is vital for all of us to study, particularly in this moment in history.

On the Intercepted podcast this week, we dug deep into this history with NYU professor James Fernandez. He is on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. What follows is the entire transcript of that interview, an excerpt of which was broadcast on Intercepted.


Jeremy Scahill: Jim, welcome to Intercepted.

James Fernandez: Thank you.

JS: So, let’s start at the beginning. Give the political context of what was happening in Europe in the mid-1930s that ultimately spurred so many young people to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

JF: Well, like I tell my students, in the case of Spain, 1931, Spain tries this experiment in democracy, which is really its first real experiment in modern democracy. It’s called the second Republic because it was the first one that lived very briefly in the 19th century.

And the country chooses the worst possible moment, because democracy and capitalism are being called into question all over the world. So, we’re in the throes of the Great Depression, it looks like liberal democracy has maybe reached the end of its course, these alternative ideologies are getting strength all across the ideological spectrum, and, in that context, fascism rises in Italy and Germany, and eventually with the coup that Franco and his generals unleashed on July 18, 1936, it raises its head in Spain.

So, in the States, there were thousands and thousands of folks that were following very closely what was happening in Europe and in Spain, this is something I emphasize a lot to my students. The horrors of World War II have totally eclipsed our memory of Spain. But in 1936, ’37, ’38, Spain was Syria, Spain was the place on the map where it looked like the future of the planet was being played out. And all thinking people were talking and thinking and worrying about Spain, in their literature and newsreels and radio broadcasts

And there were vast communities of intensely mobilized folks that started mainly as pacifists, they were, “Against War and Fascism” was the organization and slogan of a lot of these folks up until ’36, let’s say. But once things evolved some more, they realized that the only way to put down fascism was to, in this case, to kind of put brackets around being against war, and actually taking the war to the fascists in Spain.

So they were, the volunteers that went is almost 3,000, we think 2,800 is our best guess now. And like I said, they came mostly from intensely mobilized communities all over the United States. A lot of them were immigrants or children of immigrants, most of them were from large cities, they were trade unionists, a lot of them were members of the Communist Party, the socialists, anarchists, but generally leftist folks who saw the menace of fascism and took the incredible step of trying to do something about it.

JS: Now, what was the posture of the United States government at the time toward these fascist elements that were starting to quite rapidly rise in Europe, with Spain being the first major front?

JF: The stance was pretty much wait and see. Again, this is something that kind of blows away my students, right? The story that we tell ourselves about the history of the United States is that we are this anti-fascist force, this force that put down fascism in the world, in World War II.

And, I ask my students, “When did the US get serious about putting down fascism” And they usually say Pearl Harbor, which is pretty much right. December of ’41.

Well, we have guys who in December of ’36, December 26, 1936, a bunch of guys walked to Chelsea Piers and got on a ship to France and eventually crossed into Spain to put down fascism, a full five years before Pearl Harbor.

And, you know, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives we have the letters that they were writing back to their families. The clarity is unbelievable. Their clairvoyance of why they were going and what was there, and what it was that they were fighting is really amazing.

So it’s not, it’s not like — the cool thing about working with archival documents, its that I can show that it’s not hindsight, I’m not attributing to these people, “Oh yeah, they didn’t really know what they were gonna fight against, and it just turned out to be fascism.” They knew exactly what they were going to fight against.

JS: Trying to fathom this now in our current climate, with Donald Trump as President, and a lot of debate about the tactics that are being employed by people calling themselves Antifa, or the idea that in confronting these neo-Nazi elements that people are fighting against a brewing tide of fascism in this country.

Take us back to that time. Why would young Americans decide to actually leave the United States and go to Spain? Like, what was so important to them about what was happening in Spain that they would risk their lives to go and fight and potentially die there?

JF: Yeah. It’s such a big question, right? And it’s one that I try to talk with the students about a lot. It’s, it’s as if we’re adrift. Most of us live adrift in history, and we’re not sure when we’ve crossed certain lines. And the question is, when do you realize maybe that you’ve crossed a line, and it’s time to put your engine on or throw your anchor down, or do something. The cool thing about teaching the Spanish Civil War and the Lincoln Brigade is that it’s a really clear example of this. Right? There’s all kind of currents going on. But these are guys who, many of whom, like I said before, went from being pacifists to taking the step, to, to volunteering for a war.

Their reasons are diverse. And it’s interesting to see how a lot of them project on to Spain their own anxieties. So for a lot of the Jewish volunteers, Spain was a shot at Hitler, directly. They might not have known anything about Spain, they supported the republic because it was the thing to do. But really Spain was a place for certain Jewish volunteers to defend their people and their lives.

JS: Well, and at this point, Hitler had not yet invaded Poland but had risen to power, in part on this rhetoric that Jews across the world were plotting against Aryan people, and that they controlled financial institutions, and they were really at the heart of the problems facing the good, hardworking, whites of Europe.

JF: Exactly. So, some of them saw what was going on in Spain through the prism of their own family history. African-Americans, it’s an amazing story, about 90 African-Americans volunteered to fight in Spain, and they, for the most part, saw fascism as an extension of Jim Crow, as an extension of institutional racism and white supremacy. And they say this very clearly in their letters and so, their motivations for going, there’s a famous short story written by, I think he was an African-American volunteer, called “It Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do.” And it’s referring to the fact that a lot of these black volunteers would’ve gone to vote Mussolini in Ethiopia had they had the opportunity, but I guess that war ended too quickly and they didn’t, so they’re going to Spain to fight Ethiopia and to fight racism in the States.

JS: And in fact, Langston Hughes, who, at the time, was writing for The Baltimore Afro-American, one of the great black newspapers from American history, he wrote, “Give Franco a hood and he’d be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

JF: That’s awesome. I hadn’t heard that.

JS: I mean obviously, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a largely white population, as you point out, there were around 100 or so members that were African Americans. And it was the first actually integrated militarized unit in United States history.

JF: That’s right. And that’s a real point of pride. It was, at the time, among them. And you can see it in the accounts and even in the photographs, you can see there was an official photographic unit charged with documenting the history of the Brigade as it was happening, and you can see in the choices that the photographer made, that the integration, the racial integration was a point of pride.

JS: Why did they choose the name Abraham Lincoln Brigade?

JF: We don’t know. We don’t know. There’s a standard explanation, which doesn’t satisfy me, which is basically that he was the president who presided over a nation that was in the midst of a Civil War. Other people say that along the lines of the Popular Front Strategy, the tendency was to try to name heroes — after national heroes. There was this attempt to claim that there’s nothing incompatible between, say, communism and Americanism. Right? There was in the ’30s, this was in the air. So why not claim Abraham Lincoln?

Some people on the right say that it was a ruse, they were trying to trick people that these were dirty communists who just used this name to pass as something else. But that’s definitely not true. The reason I have doubts about it is because we recently found a photograph with volunteers with a banner with the name on it, which is earlier than any of the accounts that we know about, and it’s being held by a bunch of Cuban volunteers who had been in New York. So we’re trying to figure that out.

JS: Now in, to get to the particulars of what exactly happened, in Spain, as you say, there was this attempt to democratize the country. And then you had a coup d’état led by General Franco. Explain who Franco was and the ideas that he was advocating when he essentially attempted to just put a complete halt to any kind of a democratic process in Spain.

JF: That’s a really tough question, but an important one. Because Franco was astute and shape changing and he was around for a long time and he rewrote himself many times. And so, people think about him in a lot of different ways. But again, if you go back to the archive and to the documents, he was a general who had been seasoned in Spain’s colonial wars in North Africa, putting down the Moroccan plea for independence from Spain. That accounts, in part, for his incredible brutality. And a lot of historians talk about how his army inflicted on Spaniards the kinds of torture and warfare that in the past had never been used in Europe, only on colonial peoples quote-unquote. And he basically carried out a campaign of annihilation.

He wasn’t interested really at any point in truce and negotiation. He realized, especially once he had Hitler and Mussolini’s support, he realized that he could go for the whole enchilada and try to basically annihilate the people that were in Spain that were contaminated with this anti-Spanish zeal for democracy, is basically the way that he saw it.

So the Republic was trying to take measures to bring Spain into modernity. Before the Republic, education was in the hands of the Church, land was largely in the hands of a small number of families, there was of course no divorce, the Church was, as I was saying, running the educational show. And so the Republic was trying to modernize the country in those regards.

And it was also trying to, there’s a great book about this by Helen Graham, “The Short Introduction to the Spanish Civil War” and she’s really strong on this to show how the Republic had the incredible task of not only trying to institute democratic institutions in the hostile climate of 1931-36, it also basically had to create Spanish citizens. Because there were no modern citizens in Spain in the 1930s, there were subjects of a monarchy. There were people who didn’t see themselves as stakeholders in any kind of common Republican process.

And so the Republic is trying to build schools, do land reform, eventually put down a coup that later gets help from Hitler and Mussolini, and create a sense of belonging and stake holding among the Spanish citizens. That’s a tall order.

JS: And the US posture toward Franco at the time? Specifically toward Franco, not fascism in general?

JF: The official posture was one of nonintervention, and, in fact, an embargo on the sale of arms to either side in Spain was approved by Congress, which, of course, only favored the fascist side.

I’ve heard it said that is the first and only time in American history where the United States has refused to sell arms to a legally elected democratic government with which it had diplomatic relations. I mean the Republic had the US ambassador. But, no they decided, Roosevelt decided and Congress, to declare neutrality and nonintervention, and, on top of that, to impose an embargo.

JS: Often through the course of US History, when the United States says, “Both sides need to show restraint,” or “we’re not going to get involved,” it usually is because they are, by default, they’re supporting whoever the most right-wing, well-armed faction is in a particular situation. When the volunteers from the United States started to go to Spain, talk about that. How did they get there, who did they liaise with, who were the first groups of people to go, and how many went initially?

JF: So the war starts in July of ’36. And Franco and his generals really thought that in a couple of weeks they could impose martial law, kind of reset the government, roll back some of the reforms, and just, they thought they were going to hit the reset button. Which was kind of a political tradition in Spain. Throughout the 19th century, there were these military pronunciamentos, they were called, these uprisings, where it was basically this parliamentary system was operating and things got a little bit scary for the military, so they just took over and replace everybody. So they really thought they were going to be finished in a couple of weeks.

But it didn’t turn out that way. There was incredible popular resistance, especially in the major cities, to the fascist uprising. There were large swaths of Spain where there was never any fighting, they just accepted the coup, and went to the Franco side.

JS: So you have this, the coup takes, place, Franco thinks that it’s going to be kind of calmed. When did the first people from the United States start arriving in Spain?

JF: Yeah, so the thought that this might escalate into an international conflagration, I don’t think was on anybody’s mind in July, August, September. But by October of ’36, the battle for Madrid is, they’re there, it looks like it’s going to be a longer war than anyone thought, Hitler and Mussolini were already helping Franco. So it was in the call of ’36 that [the Common Turn] for volunteers to form international brigades, and I think it was in October of ’36 that the first contingent arrived to Madrid. They weren’t Americans.

The first Americans boarded a ship right after Christmas, December 26, ’36, and got there about a week later. And the typical route from here was to take a ship to Paris, a train to southern France, and then, because the border was closed for most of the duration of the Spanish Civil War, most of the guys hiked across the Pyrenees at night, led by smugglers, Catalano or Basque smugglers who knew their way around the Pyrenees, led into Spain.

JS: Did the Americans, the North Americans that went, did any of them have military experience or fighting experience?

JF: Very few. Some did — we’re what, 17 years after the end of World War I. Most of them, no, there’s very little military experience. These guys were workers, factory workers, you know, union organizers, things like that that. Not much military training.

JS: You, at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive, there’s a growing collection of letters that these individuals that joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade wrote during their time or as they were going or while they were there. Share some of the kinds of reasons that these people joined the Brigade and went to Spain.

JF: That’s a great topic. And the reasons are all over the place, because there were so many people —

JS: I mean, you talked about Jewish Americans and their, their view that this was sort of a frontline of what was an intensifying war of, based on anti-Semitism.

JF: Well, I’m thinking of now, what for me is one of the richest documents in all of the archive, which is a letter that James Lardner wrote to his mother. James Lardner was Harvard-educated correspondent for the International Tribune in Paris. His father was Ring Lardner, a well-known short story writer and radio personality. And this guy had a good job in Paris and went to write a story about Spain, and fell in love with the cause. And against everyone’s advice, including his friends Hemingway and everybody else, very well-connected family, he enlisted.

And we have the letter that he wrote to his mom, I think she was in Darien, Connecticut, or something. And she received this letter from her son that she thinks is in an office in Paris typing out stories, and he says, “Mom I’ve decided to go to Spain, and for my own edification I’ve made a list, in no particular order.”

And then the list is like 22 or 24 items. And it’s a gem because he’ll say things like, “Well my French is pretty good, but I need to improve my Spanish.” Or he says, “There’s a girl in Paris who needs to realize that she can live without me.”

But then he says, “Because I feel that in modern times, war is one of the things, unfortunately that all of us need to prepare for. And I intend to do that. And that fascism needs to be put down.” And he says, “I don’t know what’s going to replace it, maybe it’s communism, I’m not sure, but the first order of fascism is to put down fascism.” And then he says, “I’m tired of wearing a tie.” It’s a beautiful text because it shows the complex motivations of a single person.

But he was a blue blood, and there were some like him, but the vast majority, like I said before, were working class ethnics who were going to put down what they saw as a planetary menace.

JS: Did they have roots in Europe, those immigrants? Were they largely from Europe?

JF: I would say so, yeah.

JS: And when they arrived, who did they report to? Like how does one just go to a place where there’s the rise of fascism and even know where to go?

JF: The Communist Party took care of the logistics.

JS: Communist Party International.

JF: Yeah, here they helped to get the passports and book the tickets. There’s a lot of funny stories about that, because they were travelling illegally right? Their passports were stamped, “Not Valid for Travel in Spain.” That’s how important Spain was, it was an actual rubber stamp on your passport.

JS: That was the policy of the US Government at the time?

JF: Yeah. They were OK, because they were taking a ship to Paris, right? And then they would figure out how to get into Spain with the help of the, of the Communist Party of France. But it’s a real adventure, they’d tell really funny stories about — this one guy from, I forget which one, but he was told to pretend that he was a geologist, and he was like a stevedore or something like that, with ‘dese, ‘dem and ‘dose Brooklyn accent, and I just imagine him telling some official, “I’m an archaeologist” or something like that, it’s a really funny story. They tried to go incognito.

But we’re learned now, we learn all the time that actually the, like local consuls, the American consul in Paris knew who was on these ships, it seems. We’re learning more about this now. They thought they were incognito, but they really weren’t.

JS: And when they finally make it through France and enter Spain, how does the involvement of the Brigade begin in terms of actual fighting or assisting others in the rebellion against Franco?

JF: Well they’re quickly organized into a battalion, eventually a few battalions, so technically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a, is a misnomer, there was never such a thing. There was an Abraham Lincoln Battalion and a George Washington battalion and then a third battalion that was Mackenzie–Papineau, that was joint, mixed Canadian and American. But we use the brigade term to refer to all of them.

They were organized into battalions, and with very little training, they were thrown into the first battle, was the Battle of Jarama, which is on the outskirts of Madrid and it was a struggle to keep open the road between Madrid and Valencia, which was going to be the supply line for the Republic for most of the war, for the Mediterranean.

JS: What was the fate of some of the people that ended up going to Spain? Like maybe you could just give some examples of kind of the experience.

JF: On the whole, it was pretty terrible, because they were used as shock troops and because they were not as well equipped as they should have been and they certainly didn’t have the experience and training that they should have had.

So, the actual combat experience was pretty harsh and awful. Especially the first battles: they were they were decimated in Jarama, and they had morale problems because of that.

But they stuck it out and we think that of the 2,800, probably a third are in Spanish soil, died there. And then another third came back and go off the radar. We don’t really have much of a beat on them. And then the other third are people who kind of made their experience in Spain a centerpiece of their life in one way or another. And we know an awful lot about those guys. But I do try to spear my students, to think about the other, the ones who didn’t come back and the ones who came back and did other things. Because it’s two-thirds of the story. We have an archive that tells one-third of the story pretty well. But there’s two-thirds that kind of escapes us.

JS: By no means was it just people from the United States coming to join. I mean, you had people from all over the world. And there are some really interesting films that deal with some of this. There’s the Tierra e Libertad, but also for people that don’t want to dive into something that’s pure history there’s the film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is a very interesting portrayal of Spain under Franco, that’s kind of a mystic journey, but maybe you can describe where people came from around the world, and how Spain then became this, it was like flypaper for people who were gravitating to the anti-fascist struggle that was emerging in the world.

JF: That’s right. Yeah. I think the number is 45,000. The International Brigade, I think I have this right, we think was made up of about 45,000 volunteers, so the Americans were a drop in the bucket. The most amazing statistic I’ve heard is that 1000 Cubans were there. I think 3000 Americans, and 1000 Cubans — that tiny country, I don’t know what the population of Cuba was in ’36, but it’s a small country.

I think France probably contributed the most volunteers, Germany, there were a lot of people who were already political exiles, kind of stateless people, that went to Spain because they wanted to fight against fascism and they couldn’t live in Italy or Germany.

JS: And you also had people that would become very serious literary figures. I’m thinking of “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell. And, of course, Hemingway was on the scene. What was the experience of some of those people that ended up becoming very famous or already had something of a reputation versus the working class, rank-and-file labor guys who went over from the United States? What was Orwell’s war like, compared to others?

JF: I know that Hemingway’s a fascinating case, right? Because he comes back and writes what is billed as the great American novel about the Spanish Civil War. And it is a great novel. But it drove the veterans crazy.

JS: Why?

JF: Well, I mean, like we were saying before, the volunteers emerged out of immigrant, working class communities that were deeply mobilized. Hardly any of them was a loner. Hardly any of them was a professor of Spanish, hardly any of them had a name like Robert Jordan. These guys were Fishman, and Pekowski, and Fernandez and things like that.

And so he writes this great American novel about the Spanish Civil War and his hero is this loner WASP from Montana or Wyoming who’s there for unknown reasons, and who speaks Spanish, and who’s just — I think eventually the veterans came to think, well, maybe his heart was in the right place, but he kind of did us a disservice by portraying, you know, the American volunteer in world literature is this guy Robert Jordan who doesn’t really look like most of the volunteers.

JS: How were the battalions covered in the media in the United States at the time?

JF: I guess it depends on the slant of the media, but I think it’s safe to say where subsequent history has kind of tainted the way we think about this. But for the most part, and you can see this in film, Hollywood films, where the Spanish volunteers are a reference, until the Cold War heats up, they were seen as anti-fascist heroes. A lot of people don’t remember, but the scene in Casablanca where they try to convince Rick to do the right thing, the guy says, “I know you, I know you were in Spain.” I mean, the character Rick in Casablanca was involved in the Spanish Civil War. And he kind of gruffly brushes it off as, “Ah, I made a lot of money!” Or something like that. But they use Spain to remind him that he was on the right side. So here’s a Hollywood film from, I guess it’s 1942, where having been in Spain is credentials for knowing how to do the right thing.

And there’s several examples of that, and in the press, too. You see a lot of kind of neutral reporting, there’s a lot of very celebratory reporting, and I guess there’s some, yeah, I’m sure there are people saying, “These Reds, good thing they’ve gone off to die somewhere else.”

JS: That then starts to change, though, as World War II comes to an end and you had volunteers that were targeted by the government, particularly through the lens of the House un-American Activities Committee and anti-communist, kind of, fever that was sparked in the country.

JF: Yeah that’s what’s really amazing. And again the Archive is so valuable because we can see that happen in time. Right, these people go from being seen as anti-fascists, being on the on the right side of history, for that moment, to being subversive communists that need to be surveilled in and persecuted. And it happens in the span of years. And it happens right before your eyes, you know, if you follow the papers.

JS: And why did that happen? I don’t mean that in an oversimplified way. How is it that they go from being the kind of canaries in the coal mine about the rise of fascism, to, as you say, in real time, the subject of investigations or harassment, denial of passports, denial of benefits, the battle of public housing supplements. What was at the heart of that? Was it just a matter of the kind of rise of this Cold War mentality that the communists are working everywhere and they’re infiltrating our society, or was there something else at play?

JF: I think that was mainly it. And Spain was a mark on their passport or not, that would that would put them in that category. Also, you know, from the point of view of Spain, right, I mentioned before how astute and shifty Franco was, but Franco was clearly aligned with the Axis you know for a certainly for during his war until ’39, and then from ’39 on he was kind of hedging his bets, but also clearly pro-Axis.

And when things start to look like they’re going to go the other way, he already starts kind of hedging his bets and reinventing himself and pulling back his rhetoric.

And there’s an amazing story of how Franco wrote the script of an autobiographical movie that kind of tells Spanish history through the key of this person that’s clearly him. And it was called Raza and it was it was released in ’41 I think, and if you watch the original film, it’s a Nazi film, basically. It’s a Spanish Nazi film.

When World War II went the way it did, Franco did everything he could to collect and destroy every print of that film. And in 1941, the Spanish government released a new version of the film which they called the re-synchronization, they said they had been problems with the sound.

And if you see the film that came out ten years later, basically he cut out all of the references to fascism. He cut out the fascist salutes. He cut out a couple of jives at the United States. There’s a little scene about the Spanish-American War and that hits the cutting room floor.

And it’s amazing because you can see how it’s literal editing, it’s editing of fascist history to make the regime seem more amenable to the United States. And it worked! Because in the early 1950s, the US escorted Spain into the concert of civilized nations, helped them get into the UN, into the common market.

JS: While this fascist, General Franco, is running the country?

JF: Exactly. Yeah. So, he revamped himself and the US helped him sell that revamped message. Luckily one copy of the original film was found maybe 15 years ago in Berlin, and so we can see what kinds, you know, how he wanted to portray himself in 1941, and it’s striking.

So for me, when I’m with my students, it’s such a perfect example of how history gets rewritten from certain points of view, right? And how you can see the editing process go on.

JS: I want to ask your thoughts on the debate over what is generically being called right now antifa in the United States. And, you know, part of it centers around the clashes with neo-Nazi fascist elements that are trying to defend Confederate monuments. And, of course, we have incidents like the murder of Heather Heyer where, you know, this guy runs her over a car. Or the beating of Deandre Harris by these neo-Nazis.

But there is this trend of, you know, responsible progressives, Democrats, that sort of view antifa as just this uncouth group of troublemakers that are going to ruin it for the rest of us that are trying to responsibly confront the realities of a Trump-governed United States. What are your thoughts, though, about this discussion, and the punching of Nazis that’s become a meme, and the way that antifa is sort of equated with neo-Nazis, including by self-identified Democrats.

JF: Well the first thing I think is that that’s kind of the — I work mostly in Spain, Spanish history and culture. And in a lot of ways, it’s funny to see this happening in the States because that’s precisely the image that Franco and his regime eventually promoted of the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War was the result of these two brutal and excessive forces going at it, and it’s best to just do everything we can to make sure that never happens again on both sides. Right?

So Spain has pretty much done this already this kind of cleansing of history so that it looks like it was this moment of collective craziness that led to this bloodletting that we’ve happily now overcome. And that’s what I see at the bottom of the rhetoric here, of equating these two sides and saying, “Oh no, you know, they’re both, they’re equally, they’re good guys on both sides.” Or whatever, however you want to put it. It’s a way of disarming history. Right? And it’s a way of, yeah, it’s a way of disarming history. And you pretty much said it!

JS: Given your scholarship on Spain, I’m wondering if you sense whiffs of Franco in Donald Trump.

JF: I recently showed a different class that I teach, a photograph that was taken at a right-wing rally in Spain. I think it was right after Trump was elected and there was a guy, a Spanish guy in this big rally, holding up a sign in English that says, “Make Spain Great Again.”

JS: Wow.

JF: And I think, that kind of sums it up, the flow and backflow of these nations. Because what is he saying? First of all, why does he have the sign in English? It’s kind of weird for a right-wing Spaniard to carry a sign in Spanish?

I ask my students, “Where is the Spain that he wants to go back to, right?” And the first answer is this, the Spain of a dictatorship, right? And the second answer, a longer take, is Imperial Spain, when, you know, Spain ruled the world.

JS: What was Franco’s argument with the people about why what he was doing was right? Like what was his sort of promise to Spain as he sought to stop any kind of a democratic movement in Spain and take power himself? What was the core argument he was making to average Spaniards?

JF: The core argument was that Spain had been infected with this foreign ideology — part of Spain, the part that sided with the Republic — that there was an anti-Spain living within Spain. That people had been infected with the virus of disorder and communism and all of that, and he promised to return to law and order and to return to this Spanish essence.

JS: Which means what?

JF: Oh, inequality, Catholicism, pride in a kind of invented imperial past, law and order.

JS: It sounds so familiar. And so, now I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it sounds so familiar to me.

JF: Right.

JS: And when Franco was ruling, from the late 1930s all the way through to his death, the position that the United States adopted toward Franco was one of … ultimately embracing him and normalizing his, brutality and, and what was overtly a dictatorship. What happens when Franco dies in 1975 in Spain?

JF: It’s a complicated process, and it’s often held up as an exemplary democratic transition. People say that there was no violence, that’s not true, there was violence, but it was a relatively peaceful to democracy. But a transition that was carried about, by, as they say in Spanish, passando la página, turning the page, without reading it. In other words, the war and the comportment of the regime and the suffering of the victims of Franco are yet to receive any kind of real, true recognition, from the State. I mean, there’s some symbolic things, but on the whole, there’s a telling statistic. There are 110,000 Spaniards strewn in mass graves around the Iberian Peninsula. Unmarked mass graves, and these are victims, mostly not of combat, because like I said before, large swaths of Spain were never fronts. The authorities followed the coup and the zones became Francoist. 110,000 Spaniards who were often victims of paramilitary or paralegal justice, these summary courts and executions, are still in unmarked mass graves, and it’s still a touchy topic. People think that you’re a troublemaker if you talk about this.

There’s still people who want to find and rebury their loved ones, and they’re portrayed in even mainstream media sometimes as being troublemakers who are trying to stir up this past that we’ve so, you know, that we’ve overcome in such an exemplary and peaceful way?

JS: And what we’re witnessing right now in Spain, that you have this referendum coming up on October 1, I believe it is, where these Catalan people are hoping to have a chance to vote on whether or not they gain independence from Spain. And the Spanish government has vowed to stop that referendum, and also, already, there’s a bit of brutal campaign of repression and suppression of the voice of Catalan people. Maybe you can explain the context of this, and for people to understand, this is happening right now, and we’re days away, potentially, from a vote where Barcelona would be the most famous city that people would identify as being part of the Catalan culture. What does this mean? What’s happening? Why would they want independence and what’s the government of Spain’s response been.

JF: Well it’s funny how this is an echo of things that were going on in the 30s, and of course, much before that right. But when I ticked off the lists of things that Franco promised, I left out “keeping Spain together,” in their expression. Because already in the 30s, and way before, there were strong, regional, kind of subnational cultures that had talked about and yearned for independence. I mean, the Basque country and Catalonia are two, the two examples historically that, you know, accumulated more strength. And so the Republic, again I didn’t, in the list of difficulties that the Republicans were facing, we should add also, “Trying to negotiate with these industry rich-provinces that were thinking about maybe trying to go it on their own.”

So Franco promised to hold Spain together and he was brutal in putting down expressions of Basque and Catalan culture.

JS: And here we are now in the present time.

JF: Here we are in democratic Spain.

JS: And it is very complicated, right, because history doesn’t repeat itself, right? And I’m not an expert in Catalonia, but I can look at it and see that it’s that there are all kinds of motives in the plea for independence and not all of them are as noble as we’d hope. But it at bottom, for me, what’s happening is that Spain is a — the Spanish government has been shown to be deeply corrupt for many years and the party that’s in power has been as corrupt, definitely as corrupt as any party in Spain’s democratic history and yet they keep winning elections.

And, you know, it’s funny, I compare it to my feeling being a New Yorker in Trump’s America. It’s like, you know, independence for New York would be a pretty attractive thing to me now, given what it means to be in this country being run this way. And I think that that’s part of it, too, it’s a kind of exhaustion and impatience with being part of a nation that just keeps electing corrupt politicians. The problem is that Catalonia’s politics are also corrupt in a lot of ways, so that’s where it gets really messy.

JS: As we sort of wrap up, for this generation of young people in the United States, what do you think is the historical lesson to take away from the history of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades?

JF: It’s kind of tough. It can’t be a lesson in what to do when, because people really have to reach that decision on their own. But here’s a historical example — a shining historical example — right, of a world kind of adrift, and some people who realize that some lines have been crossed and actually, OK, it’s time now to abandon pacifism and to do something else. When do you cross that line? That’s the thing. Nobody can be sure it’s time. And that’s the scary thing, that’s the terrifying thing, really, of living in times like these. You know? There’s a tee shirt you see once in awhile that says, “Is It Fascism Yet?” Right? It’s not like fascism is going to arrive on a steed. We’re going to drift into it.

That’s the fear. We could drifted into it. We can drift into it. And who are going to be the people who are going to say, “You know what? We’ve drifted too far. And normal tactics and normal institutions might not be able to get us out of this.”

When does that happen? I mean that’s the question that people have to ask themselves, right? Students would love me to tell them. And I’d love to be able to say, “Now’s the time. Here’s the line. This is too much. But I don’t.”

JS: Professor James Fernandez, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

JF: Thank you. That’s awesome.

Join The Conversation