The Iron Curtain collapsed more than a quarter century ago. But time can’t kill the Old Gray Lady’s infatuation with her fallen love.
The New York Times on Wednesday eulogized the last veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Delmer Berg, who died earlier this week at 100. Describing Berg’s enlistment to fight for Stalinist forces (after buying his way out of the National Guard stateside) in Spain as “quixotic,” Sam Roberts with unintentional irony quotes a friend: “He was always attached to just causes.”
Walter Duranty would be proud.
“Unlike a number of other starry-eyed recruits to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” Roberts writes, “Mr. Berg never outgrew his devotion to underdogs.” By “underdogs” he means Berg remained in fealty to Joseph Stalin, a name that both makes for a strange underdog and strangely never appears in an obituary of one of his last votaries. Even approaching the century mark, Berg, according to the Times, lived his life as an “unreconstructed Communist.”
During the Spanish Civil War, the Communists failed against Francisco Franco’s forces in part because of their preoccupations with purging their own ranks of deviationists. George Orwell, wounded in Spain, wrote of what he witnessed in Homage to Catalonia and Herb Romerstein documented the liquidation of leftists in Heroic Victims: Stalin’s Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War. In The Secret World of American Communism, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov published material from the Soviet archives further validating the derided claims of Orwell, Romerstein, and others that the Soviets used the Spanish Civil War to summarily execute rivals, real and imagined, on the Left.
The 1995 book presents evidence that Albert Wallach, an American fighting against Franco, fell by firing squad to the Communists, who bizarrely accused him acting as an “agent of the U.S. espionage service.” Overwhelming evidence exists of other “starry-eyed recruits” murdered in such fascistic fashion.
Further proof undermining the characterization of the International Brigade as a phalanx against fascism emerged from the Soviet archives. About four of every five Americans fighting belonged, like Delmer Berg, to the American Communist Party or Young Communist League. They went abroad to do the bidding of their masters in Moscow, not because of idealistic notions about fighting fascism, the data suggests. During the Nazi-Soviet pact, the leader of the veterans organization representing the Americans in the International Brigade strangely accused proponents of aid to nations fighting Hitler as “stabbing Spain in the back.” When Stalin aligned with Hitler, Delmer Berg did not divorce himself from Stalin. He remained, as the Times explains, an “unreconstructed Communist.”
The Communists who behaved fascistically while feigning a fight against fascism in Spain succeeded in portraying theirs as a just cause everywhere else. The popularity of the phrase “premature antifascist,” falsely attributed to ignoramuses employed by the American government, strikes as a case in point. The words convey the idea that the American government came late to opposing Nazism and harbored suspicions of those who correctly stood against Hitler at an earlier date. It cast those who trekked to Spain in a noble light (ignoring their subsequent mental gymnastics during the Hitler-Stalin pact). “We examined thousands of pages and did not see the term ‘premature antifascist’ once,” John Early Haynes and Harvey Klehr write about contemporaneous government reports in their book In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage. They add: “Our curiosity aroused, we checked the various books that claimed a malevolent government origin for the term but found not a single citation to a specific FBI, U.S. Army or government document.”
No evidence, at least in the Times obit, exists regarding Delmer Berg engaging in the murderous conduct in which some of his fellow Americans partook against their countrymen in Spain. But a throwaway line about Berg perversely using a “monastery” as a fortification indicates he fought not on the side of the angels. One fellow veteran of the fight in Spain came clean on the religious cleansing efforts of the Stalinist forces:
Some of the foreign anti-Fascist papers even descended to the pitiful lie of pretending that churches were only attacked when they were used as Fascist fortresses. Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course, because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket. In six months in Spain I only saw two undamaged churches, and until about July 1937 no churches were allowed to reopen and hold services, except for one or two Protestant churches, in Madrid.
George Orwell wrote those words in Homage to Catalonia, which strongly indicates that a campaign advertised as a fight against fascism engaged in the very practices it decried in its enemies.
Franco’s Spain may not have been a place where you would have enjoyed living. But unlike Cambodia or North Korea or a dozen other places, you would have lived. Despite Hitler’s hopes and his enemies’ fears, Franco never intervened on behalf of the Axis powers. He stayed neutral. Rather than obliterate the counterfactual, this reality somehow fails to convince that 1930s-era comparisons of Franco to Hitler grossly overstated matters. Rather than reevaluate the overheated rhetoric used to compel such idealists as Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Bertram Wolfe to travel to the fight against Franco, sympathizers behave as though Franco’s reign played out as just his critics, Delmer Berg among them, imagined it would.
There are worse fates than seeing the losers write history. Their winning in the first place strikes as one of the more terrible possibilities.