On the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the International Brigades

What’s the difference between the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?
Most U.S. volunteers in the Spanish Civil War were initially assigned to the Fifteenth International Brigade, which eventually consisted of four battalions. In February 1937, the volunteers voted to call themselves the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Volunteers who arrived later joined the George Washington Battalion or the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalions (which were also part of the Fifteenth Brigade).  Still others served in the transport group (Regiment de Tren), the medical corps (American Medical Bureau to Save Spanish Democracy), the John Brown Artillery Corps, or other units.  Collectively, all the U.S. volunteers called themselves Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when they returned from Spain.

How do I find information on a family member who fought in the Spanish Civil War?
The best first step is to consult ALBA’s online database of volunteers who left from the United States. You can also consult one of the several finding aids of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives at NYU’s Tamiment library (under the “Resources” tab). Finally, you can submit a query to ALBA’s listserv.

How many volunteers went to Spain from the United States?
The precise number is difficult to establish, in part because not all volunteers were U.S. citizens and some did not have legal residency. The most reliable estimates indicate that around 2,800 volunteers left from the United States.

What was the social and professional background of the U.S. volunteers?
The volunteers came from all classes, walks of life, and states in the Union (with the exception of Delaware and Wyoming). Relatively well-represented were longshoremen and sailors, school teachers, and students, as well as immigrants, city dwellers (almost 20 percent came from the New York metropolitan area), and people in their twenties.

How many of the U.S. volunteers were women?
Around sixty women from the United States volunteered to go to Spain.

How many volunteers were killed?
It is estimated that around 800 of the volunteers who left from the United States were killed in Spain.

What was the role of the Communist International in the recruitment of volunteers?
The International Brigades were recruited and organized by the Communist International (the Comintern), which was quick to respond to the influx of foreign volunteers for the Republic. For Stalin, who was concerned at the extent of German and Italian help for the rebels and its potential to weaken France strategically, the International Brigades offered an opportunity to support the Spanish Republican Army without intervening directly, and thus reducing the risk of further alienating Britain and France who had established an international non-intervention agreement to limit foreign involvement in the war.

The recruitment of the International Brigades was coordinated by the Communist Party in Paris. The usual route for volunteers was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees. From the border they would be taken to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers would be processed and divided up by nationality, into the different battalions comprising the Spanish Republican Army’s International Brigades.

How many people served in the International Brigades altogether?
Volunteers for the International Brigades came from over 50 countries across the world to help the beleaguered Spanish Republic, many of them with bitter experiences of fighting against fascism and with personal scores to settle. Over 35,000 men and women left their homes to volunteer for the Republican forces, the majority of whom served in the International Brigades and international medical services.
The largest single contingents came from France, Germany, Poland and Italy, though many also came from other European countries, including Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia. Other volunteers endured long journeys from as far away as the USA (including a number of African-Americans), Canada, Mexico, Cuba, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Jewish volunteers comprised a significant minority.

Who called the volunteers “premature antifascists,” and why?
Many of the surviving American volunteers continued their fight against fascism as part of the United States Armed Forces during World War II. The military command regarded them with suspicion, however, because of their involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Some volunteers later reported that they saw their files marked with the letters “P.A.,” standing for Premature Antifascist, i.e. having been opposed to fascism before the U.S. was at war with it. The earliest published example of the term was in the newspaper PM in April 1943; the earliest use of the term of by a government official was in January 1945. The phrase was later adopted by the Lincoln veterans and their supporters as a point of pride.

On ALBA and the Archives

What is ALBA?
Founded in 1979 by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), ALBA is a non profit national organization devoted to the preservation and dissemination of the history of the North American role in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and its aftermath. ALBA oversees a major archive at New York University’s Tamiment Library–the most comprehensive historical archive documenting the involvement of North American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War–and supports cultural and educational activities related to the war and its historical, political, artistic, and biographical legacies.
ALBA’s governing board is made up of writers, film makers, university professors, and cultural workers from the United States and Europe.

How can I contribute to ALBA?
There are many ways people contribute to ALBA.  Some donate archival material to the ALBA Collection at the Tamiment Library of New York University, or contribute to the volunteer database. Others make a tax-deductible donation.

I know a Lincoln veteran and have materials to donate. Whom do I contact?
Contact Mark Wallem, ALBA Executive Director, [email protected].

Where are the archives located?
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives are housed at NYU Special Collections with the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, on the 2nd floor of New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, West 4th between LaGuardia and Greene Streets. New York, NY 10012. Phone: 212-998-2630; Fax: 212-995-4225. Click here for a map.

What do the archives contain?
The archives include the complete files of the national office of Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the personal papers and memorabilia of numerous Spanish Civil War volunteers. These now include several hundred Spanish Civil War posters, thousands of letters written home from Spain, hundreds of photographs, and recorded interviews, as well as pamphlets, books, and unpublished works. Donations of documents by veterans and their families and friends continue to this day. Click here for an overview of the ALBA collection. Click here to search all the online finding aids.

Who has access to the archives?
The Tamiment Library is open to the public. Researchers who are unaffiliated with New York University must present a valid photo ID at the Library Privileges window just inside the front door of Bobst Library to receive a day pass to visit Tamiment on the 10th floor of the building. Once in Tamiment, they must register and show a valid photo ID to use the Library’s collections. See Research Visits / Library Services for details on available library services and reading room protocols.

I would like to do research in the Archives. How do I go about that?

Learn more about NYU’s e-resources and online services visit here at the Special Collections & Archives page.

On the Spanish Civil War

What are the best books to begin a study of the Spanish Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?
A great place to start is Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press). For a comprehensive overview of the Lincoln Brigade, see Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford University Press). Or you my use the “Bookstore” link at the bottom of the ALBA website.

I am a teacher and would like to include the Spanish Civil War and the Lincoln Brigade in my classes. Where do I start?
Take a look at ALBA’s online lessons. Another great resource is Teaching Representations of the Spanish Civil War (ed. Noël Valis, Modern Language Association).

What was the official policy of the U.S. government toward the Spanish Civil War?
The United States chose to maintain strict neutrality and passed laws—including several Neutrality Acts—to support this official policy in regard to Spain. U.S. citizens were not allowed to travel to Spain, and U.S. passports were stamped to that effect. The Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in 1935, 1937, and 1939 were designed to preserve U.S. neutrality in foreign wars by avoiding the issues that had drawn the nation into World War I. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later acknowledged that U.S. neutrality in the Spanish Civil War had been a mistake.

What was the Non-Intervention agreement?
Proposed in early August 1936 by the governments of Léon Blum in France and Neville Chamberlain in Great Britain, and eventually signed by almost all countries in Europe, the Non-Intervention agreement was meant to keep personnel and military equipment from both parties in the Spanish Civil War. The Agreement stipulated the formation of a Non-Intervention Committee, which met in London, to ensure its enactment. The Agreement was almost immediately broken by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which supplied the Nationalist side with weapons and military personnel. In September 1936, Stalin’s Soviet Union denounced the violation of the agreement and began delivering equipment to the Republic.