The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – A Review

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War

Peter Carroll, 440 pg.

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is the definitive account of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, not only during the war, but the before and after. The book is also a labor of love and it some times colors the otherwise solid writing in the book. Carroll clearly loves his subject and it shows in the lengths he goes to show the veterans as committed anti-fascists. Yet as a true believer he is blinded to a few contradictions that should have been addressed in his book.

The book is roughly divided into three parts: before the war; in combat; and after the war. In part one Carroll shows that most of the veterans were already radicalized workers, many who were already communists or labor activists. Many had spent time in jail during labor unrest and were politically aware of what was going on in Europe. There were some college graduates, but most were workers. As the call for volunteers went out, the Communist Party organized the recruitment and because of fears of spies primarily communists were sent to Spain. Others such as socialists were excluded for lack of commitment. What is clear is that most volunteers believed in the party.

Once in Spain the Brigade was not well trained and suffered high losses from initial lack of leadership, training, and bad strategic decisions. Never equipped adequately, the Brigade did their best but suffered high losses. Carroll notes that several times the men expressed discontent with the war and there were some desertions, but in general the men continued to believe in the war and follow the leadership. Carroll goes at great length to show that the men were brave and good soldiers. It often seems that he is determined to show that despite any myths people have heard, they were brave men. He also wants to show that the men were committed and few wanted to desert. While from his numbers that seems to be true, he repeats this several times and one gets the impression this was more than a fact but a detail personally dear to him.

Once the war ends the veterans return to the US where they try to support the defeated republic, a commitment that would follow them throughout their lives. The biggest controversy in this period is when the veterans follow the party line after the Soviet-German non aggression pact and say that it is no longer their business to be anti-fascist. It is here that Carroll doesn’t really examine the case particularlly well. If they were anti-fascist they should have continued with that line, but instead they changed, and Carroll suggests that it was natural, that it wasn’t their fight any more. It is not exactly an apology, but it is a soft peddle that underscores the weaknesses of the book: the soldiers were brave and fought the good fight, therefore, criticism should be kept to a minimum. For Carroll the important thing is to restore the honor of the Brigade, not to find the mistakes they made.

His coverage of the McCarthy era is solid and shows some of the excess of the period quite well. Yet he would have done well to have explained a little better how some veterans were not a threat, while in one case one was a spy for the Soviet Union. He is a little quick on passing over that veteran. And while the McCarthy era was excessive, he needed to better explain what the veterans were and were not. Just because the supreme court found that the enemy agent laws were illegal and suppressed free speech, doesn’t explain the history of the veterans.

Overall, the book is an important resource for the era, but has some weaknesses. I find it hard to imagine that many of the veterans he wrote about in the book would have ever agreed with Antony Beevor that the battles on the Elbro were mostly pointless political theater, and not of strategic value. Nor would Carroll, I suspect.