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"Old Soldiers"


Tony Hendra

In Spain, the International Brigades join ranks one last time

The images of young men that were everywhere in Madrid early last November-erected in respectful displays, handed out with somber programs--bore that inimitable look ordinary young men had in the 1930s: the stark, black-and-white boniness against backgrounds of flat sunlight. Young, hopeful, often happy figures, never on tanks or armored vehicles or with any kind of advanced weaponry--one sees that clearly now--always on foot, clutching ancient rifles, in the dirt outside a dusty pueblo or against a shell-pocked wall, soccer-team style, one row standing, one row kneeling, as if the game were already won, victory theirs; they and what they fought for, seen in simple black-and-white.

The hundreds of old men that some of those young men lived to be were scattered throughout the huge lobby of the Hotel Convencion in midtown Madrid, and as I moved among them I felt an immediate and startling kinship, though I'd never met any of them. Most spoke languages I don't know, and many subscribed to political beliefs I long ago ceased to share. Yet they were dear to me. I applauded their faint air of victory. I was deeply, incomprehensibly, happy for them.

Throughout the wet, mournful afternoon the reason for this almost familial feeling eluded me. Then, talking to the British contingent--their gnarled, working-class faces like bas-relief pilgrims on a late-Gothic cathedral--I understood: these men were the comrades of my dead father. There wasn't one among these 370 old soldiers with whom he wouldn't have felt utter solidarity. He would have known exactly why they did what they did, on a level so profound it could never be adequately expressed--these men and what they fought for, in simple black-and-white.

They found out soon enough that there was nothing simple about the Spanish Civil War --not in their retreat, not in their defeat not in their homecoming. For the rest of their lives, the mad, Byronic, utterly decent decision they made to die, if necessary, to stop fascism would be held against them. They were hounded into prisons and concentration camps, blacklisted, ostracized, driven to poverty, suicide, and oblivion--often in the name of the very principles they'd tried to defend. The only ones for whom things turned out to be simple are still lying beneath the tawny dust of Spain.

My father didn't fight in the Spanish Civil War, but it was the defining war of his life. He referred to it all the time, and with a passion he never evinced for the Battle of Britain and the grim, crepuscular triumph to which it eventually led. A fierce and lifelong pacifist, he put aside his convictions when World War 11 broke out. He signed up for the RAF with little emotion; that war was so vast and complex, he said, the motivations of even the good guys so compromised, that he never had much feeling for it. "We needed a fascist to beat the fascists," he once told me. "Churchill was our Hitler." Of the danger and privation of being constantly under bombardment, he said with a shrug, "It was like going to work in a factory."

But three years earlier his pacifism had prevented him from fighting for the Republican cause in Spain. That was a clear moral quandary that haunted him all his life. When, in the early Sixties, I became infatuated with the country, he regarded my enthusiasm as a betrayal. Spain was then still firmly in the fist of Francisco Franco, El Caudillo, and my father was appalled that I could travel there so blithely while he, because of "principles" that perhaps masked his shame or anger at himself, could never go.

A few miles southeast of Madrid, several hundred people, eighteen buses, and two ambulances are gathered along one overgrown bank of the Jarama River, by the remains of the Arganda Bridge. The narrow, iron span --which wouldn't look out of place crossing some backwoods creek in rural Pennsylvania--seems too insubstantial to have been a vital link in the survival of anything. Two modern trucks couldn't pass on it at once. The adjacent cobbled road that once sustained the Madrilenos' ferocious defense of their city has been obliterated by an autovia. All that remains are two stubby spurs a few yards long at each end of the span, forlorn beside the wide sweep of the superhighway, truncated, irrelevant, leading nowhere.

Milton Wolff climbs a reviewing stand overlooking the Jarama. He is eighty, six foot two, with a voice you can imagine emerging from an old-time Brooklyn cabbie at a Dodgers game. It is November 5, 1996, the second day of tributes and festivities for the surviving members of the International Brigades, the 40,000 volunteers from more than fifty countries who came to Spain in 1936 and 1937 to make the first stand against fascism. "Let me say to the men and women who fought here," he bellows, "it is not Spain that owes us a vote of gratitude. It is we who honor and express our gratitude to the Spanish people for the opportunity to resist fascism." Old hands leave walkers, wheelchairs, the arms of friends and lovers, to make trembling fists in the crisp fall air.

In the middle distance across the busy autovia, crumbly bluffs rise several hundred feet from the plain, a long rifle-shot from the bridge. On these heights fewer than sixty years ago, Franco's troops were massed, poised to cut the only road connecting Republican Madrid to Valencia and the rest of Republican Spain. "No pasaran!" ("They shall not pass") had already become the great battle cry of the civil war in the defense of Madrid; Franco's Nationalist troops, spearheaded by Moorish regulars and the Nazi air force's Condor Legion, didn't pass at Jarama either--in large part because of the extraordinary tenacity of the International Brigades. The 600-man British Battalion bore the brunt of the initial assault, losing two thirds of its men and almost all its officers. A week or so into the battle, the 450 men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion--many of them students, all with only the most rudimentary training--were brought up for the first time. Within days, 127 of the very young, very green Americans lay dead beside this river.

The old men walk out along the bridge. It bears a none-too-recent coat of bilious paint. A little knot of Irish folk centered around a patriarchal brigadista named Michael O'Riordan make their way across, a lone fiddler at their head. They sing as they go. O'Riordan's eight-year-old grandson marches solemnly in front of his grandpa. He knows the lyrics.

But this is as martial as things get. Mostly the old men amble forward in twos and threes, quiet, contemplative. A few yards from the reviewing stand, a tiny, eighty-five-year-old Parisian named Emmanuel Mink has stripped naked to the waist. He is babbling in French, shivering so hard in the sharp breeze that he hardly makes sense. He points at the ground and then to a deep cleft, a scar, in the loose old skin of his back. "Here on this very spot"--he grins--"I was shot sixty years ago." He's smiling and nodding, as happy as a clam. He turns his forearm up to show me the faint blue numerals of the tattoo he got for his pains, in Auschwitz.

The 127 American kids who died to hold this place had been in Spain for only a few weeks. They had no more familiarity with the country, its terrain, or its people than the average tourist. "Armed tourists," in fact, is what Winston Churchill called them. Inspired by the dynamic politics of the Depression, inflamed by the atrocities of the pious Franco's troops (killing the wounded in their hospital beds, castrating the dead, raping and mutilating women), they had defied their country's laws, jumped on board transatlantic ships, been smuggled across the Pyrenees, given out-of-date weapons, and ordered to fight the most hardened troops in Spain. All too soon they were heaps of meat in the winter rain. What made them do it?

"I was a progressive--an antifascist," says Nick Pappas, a genial old rogue from Los Angeles, who sounds uncannily like Anthony Quinn. "So I was never liked by the Communists. I had opinions of my own. I didn't follow the bible--The Daily Worker. `The Daily Jerker,' I called it." Pappas is something of a standout among the old warriors: he sports a wide brimmed leather hat, moves of his own volition, and is exuberantly irreverent about the proceedings. The cascade of speechifying about the lofty motives of the brigadistas, much of it Marxist, doesn't do a whole lot for Pappas. "Hey, it was a period in the United States when one in three workers was out of work. The thinking of a young man like me was, `There's no future in this world.' So a lot of people said, `I'll go to Spain and fight against fascism, and we'll defeat them and stay there and make it our home.'" As for the youthful idealism that is being sentimentalized on all sides, Pappas says, "The only real, sincere idealism comes from the very ignorant, from the `willing slaves.' A person of intelligence may think they feel idealism but only until it's put to the test." Pappas earned the right to talk this way-in every major engagement the Internationals fought, right up to the bitter defeat at the Battle of the Ebro in the summer of 1938. But Jarama holds particularly dark memories. One of the 127 ghosts who haunt the narrow bridge was his kid brother, Philip, "twenty years old, killed in the first week." When he tells me this, the jovial old guy suddenly goes dumb with grief. His big Hellenic head slumps forward as if he'd been shot in the heart.

Milt Wolff didn't need to come to Spain. "I was working in the garment district, doing very well financially. But how could you say no?" He was also a pacifist who "wasn't going to kill anybody." He volunteered to be a medic, but a combination of inspiration--a black machine gun commander named Walter Garland--and distaste--"there was an American doctor who lectured the troops on `venereal disease as a weapon of fascism'"--made him switch to a machine-gun company. He fought first at Brunete, west of Madrid, the next major battle after Jarama and a bloody defeat for the Republicans. He quickly discovered one advantage of being a machine gunner: "It made me so deaf I couldn't hear all the big political speeches [the Communists] made." Like Pappas, he stuck it out through every horror Franco and Republican army incompetence threw at him to become one of the fiercest and most admired fighters in the line. Poet Edwin Rolfe said of him: "He was intelligent, egalitarian, blunt and
fearless." The Spanish troops called him El Lobo--The Wolf. Within a year the ax-pacifist had become commander of the Lincoln Battalion. His friend Hemingway thought him the best it ever had. He was twenty-two years old.

Hanging over all the reverent celebration is the inescapable historical fact that these old men fought on the losing side. This is not to say that they fought on the wrong side or that they were defeated by the winning side. If anything--certainly in the case of the British and American combatants--they were defeated as much by their own governments back home as by Franco. Britain, France, and other European democracies scrupulously observed a policy of nonintervention toward Republican Spain but blatantly ignored the intervention of the fascist powers on behalf of Franco. The practical result was that the democracies refused to sell or transport arms to the Republican government, while Germany, Italy, and Portugal flooded the Nationalists with state-of-the-art weaponry. Furthermore, as New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews pointed out in his book on the conflict, "business and financial interests everywhere saw their cause best served by a Franco victory. Powerful lobbies in Paris, London, and Washington operated against [the Republicans]. Credits extended to the Franco regime were as helpful as soldiers. American oil shipments [to it] were invaluable." 

The Spanish Civil War was a war of many firsts. It was the first time a real stand had been taken against that peculiarly twentieth-century form of nationalism that married atavistic ethnic passions to the impersonal efficiency of technology. It was the first time many techniques of modem warfare were employed on human targets. Italy and especially Germany were quite open about using Spain and its people as a proving ground for new weapons and their fledgling air forces--notably in Guernica in 1937, the first time in history that civilians were subjected to saturation bombing from the air. And it was the first time the Western powers demonstrated that they could tolerate dictators--provided they didn't become too ambitious--in the larger cause of combating Communism.

For the men and women on the ground who became the victims of this larger cause, the basic issues were obvious. The unthinkable atrocities committed in the name of Communism must be separated from the profound appeal of its core message: people have a right to be free of oppressive power; people come before property. However corruptible in practice, the yearning for social justice can fire the blood as no other political emotion. That's why young men and women, Communist or not, flocked to the cause. That's why the Spanish Civil War was etched so deeply into the consciousness of those--like my father--who felt they couldn't go. For the first time--perhaps in history but certainly for this generation-the battle lines between the power of people and the power of property were crystal clear. Which in turn is why everyone, Spaniard or foreigner, who believed in the power of people was doomed.

Franco was the kind of general who liked to command his troops from a safe distance. Once his enemies had laid down their arms, he got much braver. Mass executions, or limpieza ("cleansing"), of prisoners and political foes were routine during the war; mass executions of rojos ("Reds") multiplied afterward. So brutal was his suppression of Madrid that Mussolini's foreign minister was actually shocked by it. Franco continued to wage war on his own people for four more years, imprisoning a million of them, according to Gerald Brenan's book Spanish Labyrinth, and executing thousands more. Only in 1943, when it became clear that the Axis was losing the war, did Franco let up, no doubt concerned that he might one day be held accountable. He never was. With the Axis crushed, the United States and NATO turned their attention to the larger cause of containing Soviet Communism, and by 1953 the little butcher was back in business, with five American air bases and a vast American naval base on the Atlantic coast.

The fate of the Internationals mirrored that of the Republicans. Disbanded in 1938 in a vain attempt to "de-internationalize" the war, some brigadistas found their way home, and a few had successful careers (e.g., Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia). Many fought fascism in World War II but were distrusted by their commanders. Major Milton Wolff, despite his rank and long combat experience, was not allowed to complete officer candidate school. But many Internationals had a more summary fate. Fleeing Spain, they were trapped in France, where they were herded into concentration camps. During the Nazi occupation, they were used as slave labor or simply sent to the gas chambers.

The evening after the ceremony at the bridge, I'm standing at the bar of an eatery next to the Hotel Convencion called El Parador de Jamon (The Ham Inn), which serves every cured-pork product known to the peninsula. Two brigadistas speaking a Slavic language hobble in on canes for a nightcap and occupy one end of the bar. At the other end is a sixtyish, barrel-bellied beer drinker with a white mustache and a neat dark suit. The young bartender leans over and asks him if he feels solidaridad with the two old geezers. Barrel-belly launches into a virulent tirade about the week's tribute: Why would anyone honor this foreign scum? Why didn't they stay home and kill their own people? The organizers are traitors who ought to have their throats cut like pigs. The brigadistas sip their drinks, oblivious. The bartender and the other patrons find all this pretty amusing. Not so the patriot. He's purple with rage. He's leaving his drink, swaying down the bar toward his adversaries. The bartender gets nervous. He starts shushing the guy. He doesn't shush. "If I had a machine gun," he yells at the brigadistas, "I'd go over the hotel right now and mow you cocksuckers down--cut your fucking nuts off. That's the way we do it in Spain, assholes, cut your fucking nuts off and throw you in a ditch . . ." The two old guys finish their drinks and start working their way to the door. Either they're really cool or they're really hard of hearing. They pass the boozed-up bozo without a glance and disappear. He turns back to his drink. For one long, embarrassed moment, The Ham Inn is utterly silent.

The official Spanish line on the civil war is that its wounds have healed, that it has passed into passion-free history. The conflict is taught in Spanish schools in the blandest fashion, as if it had been little more than a somewhat disorderly transfer of power. The consensus seems to be that it would be best if future generations never again subscribed to what Gerald Brenan identified as the conflict's prime cause: "the [Spanish] belief, shared by almost every element in the country, in violent remedies."

One outcome of the official line was a resolution passed in 1995 by the Congress of Deputies (the lower chamber of the Spanish Parliament) that surviving members of the International Brigades be offered Spanish citizenship. The Republican government had made this pledge to the brigades when they were disbanded in 1938--a uniquely Spanish gesture that combined arrogance (Spanish citizenship is preferable to any other), practicality (many brigadistas, for example, Germans, Italians, Eastern European Jews, were exiles without a country), and poetry (what more heartfelt gift could the Spanish offer than roots in the very soil these men and women had crossed oceans to defend?). At a farewell parade in November 1938, Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, issued her own invitation: "When the olive tree of peace blooms again," she cried to the departing brigades, "come back."

Because it is high above sea level and dry, Madrid is often bathed with a light of preternatural brilliance. The day after the ceremony at the bridge is one of those days. The ancient faces sparkle as they converge on the Palacio del Congreso. This morning is to be the literal enactment of the weeklong Homenaje a Los Voluntarios de la Libertad ("Homage to the Volunteers of Freedom"), a ceremony in which the government will honor them and accept them as Spanish. This is what drew them here. For most it will probably be their last reunion, their last breath of bright Spanish air, their last chance to tread the ground they fought on. The political nit-picking and bureaucratic hand-wringing are irrelevant now. Finally, after more than half a century of rejection and recrimination, someone is thanking them.

Actually, the organizers and their allies in the government have not really resolved the questions surrounding the offer of citizenship. (What, for example, will happen to those from countries, such as the United States, that do not recognize dual citizenship?) The answer is a classic instance of si-pero-no ("yes-but-no"). The brigadistas are to receive a kind of honorary citizenship--a certificate that entitles them to future citizenship should they choose to exercise the option. "A peculiar document," says one Homenaje organizer, a distinguished Spanish gentleman with long experience in the vagaries of government. "At least they'll get a bit of paper with colors." Another problem is that former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's Socialists--who passed the original resolution--lost the last election to the conservative Partido Popular, which, not surprisingly, stresses its future as the party of corporate growth while playing down its visceral links to the fascist past.

Inside the Palacio del Congreso the narrow halls of power are in chaos. There is an enormous crush of media. After a wait of three hours, a brief ceremony has just been held. Jack Shafran, a youthful brigadista from Westchester, is unimpressed: "We were herded into a large anteroom. It had great murals. The vice-president gave an address in Spanish, and one of the brigadistas replied. Then we went very slowly into the Chamber of Deputies, someone said some unintelligible words, and we were all told to leave. It was a nonevent. There were a bunch of deputies who had their pictures taken. That was the only noteworthy thing."

The speakers, as well as those photographed, are all Socialists. The forward-looking PP has balked: all but two of the 150-odd conservative deputies have found more pressing engagements, notably the president of the Congress, Federico Trillo. (Trillo, a fleshy-faced politico with the judgmental glare of an ambitious cleric, could in a pinch be termed the Iberian Newt Gingrich.) His absence, on the slimmest of pretexts, incenses the Homenaje organizers. The next day, newspapers across the political spectrum will express varying degrees of outrage at the president's discourtesy, ignorance, and lack of style; one will accuse him of being a revanchist. A furious coordinator claims that Trillo, despite his excuses, has said privately that he "would not receive people who had killed his father's friends." When I try to get her name and source for this quote, she refuses and becomes quite terrified, blurting out that she is an anarquista and that her father was killed by Franco.

Through the halls the aimless crush continues. The old men are everywhere, their sparkle gone. Some are trying to sit, exhausted; others--walkers and canes superfluous--are being carried along by the crowd. None appear to be holding bits of paper with colors. In the Chamber of Deputies many are still scattered around its steeply raked concentric circles, tottering along rows of empty seats or leaning breathlessly on the railings. One elderly British woman has lapsed into a coma and is being attended to by two medics. (She will die the next day without regaining consciousness.)

Back outside in the dazzling blue air, Jack Shafran has hooked up with his old pal Milt Wolff. Wolff grins savagely: "Goddamn Republicans!"

"It was a bit insulting," agrees Shafran. "I've always bent over backwards to be nice to them."

The octogenarians crash off in search of lunch, the slight already forgotten. For veterans of a dozen real and political wars, the collective tantrum of Franco's yuppie heirs is very small beer. The brigadistas' sense of honor is too deep to be tarred by such posturing. Long ago they embraced the battles that went with the life changing decision they'd made. The sad absurdity of victorious old soldiers does not cling to these men. Their bearing is not military. Even in the deep twilight of their lives, their fading eyes twinkle with a profound disrespect for authority. A woman from the BBC notices that quite a few have come with considerably younger female companions, few of them wives. These men are of a different temper than what we think of as veterans. They aren't respectable, they aren't pillars of the community; in their act of self-sacrifice they refused to conform, to buckle in the face of the century's true enemy. They chose to go to war and never got a hero's welcome. It seems to have given them an untouchable serenity. Contemplating them is like sitting beneath ancient trees. They are not defeated.

Madrid's Palacio de los Deportes ("Sports Palace") is a short wheelchair run from the Hotel Convencion. A concert has been arranged in honor of the brigadistas--a high point in the week's festivities, and throughout the Palacio, a ubiquitous neo-Soviet poster perfectly typifies the earnestness of the Homenaje organizers: semi-representational, it shows an old man with a heavily lined face in a heroic, combative pose. He is mostly bald. His impossibly muscular right arm ends in a determined fist. His left hand holds aloft his heart, which he has apparently just removed from a heart-shaped hole in his chest. It's an uncomfortable tribute to men in their eighties--an evocation less of passionate commitment than of open-heart surgery.

The concert threatens to be just as well-intentioned. There are some fairly big names on the long bill--the stalwart headliner Paco Ibanez, a fine flamenco singer named Carmen Linares, a very serious folkie named Jose Antonio Labordeta, and Imanol, a Basque singer of whom I've never heard but who could well belong to a Basque branch of the Celtic-moan school. It's not quite as heavy-duty as an Amnesty International benefit, but there's a definite Neil Young-Jackson Browne-Sinead O'Connor potential. If it were being held in L.A., this concert would be called Brig-Aid.

The Palacio holds 12,000 people. Tonight there will be about 370 brigadistas and perhaps half again as many friends and relatives. So far, the week's events seem to have drawn as little public interest as the American presidential election, which, coincidentally, will be decided tonight. So it's a surprise to round the corner and find an angry, milling crowd of about a thousand people in the mini-plaza outside the Palacio, held back from its glass doors by barricades. Young men are jumping the barricades and hammering furiously on the doors. Inside, the ticket takers glare at them with that expression of murderous contempt Spanish petty officials love to assume. The theme of the evening already seems to be "No pasaran."

The press is still allowed to pass. The concert has already started and the main body of the stadium is full. As I climb the concrete steps to the galleries, I can hear the soaring flamenco lament of Carmen Linares. Against all expectations, my skin begins to prickle with emotion. As I push through the packed gallery, this sensation balloons. The concert can't have been going for more than ten minutes, but the place is on fire. The passion is palpable, a heavy intoxicating aroma you practically taste as you inhale. Linares is singing a song with only marginal relevance to the proceedings (it's about the Pope and two lovers and whether a kiss is a sin), but the audience is ole-ing every jagged, drawn-out phrase she rips from her soul, as if it were another stake to drive through El Caudillo's heart. Here the anniversarial aspect of the event has even greater immediacy than at the old bridge. Exactly sixty years ago, Fran co's Nazi bombers were hammering the streets and parks and buildings outside--his own capital, which he had vowed to destroy rather than leave to the rojos. On the radio, a Republican deputy named Fernando Valera was drawing the battle lines: "Here in Madrid," he said, "two incompatible civilizations undertake their great struggle: love against hate, peace against war, the fraternity of Christ against the tyranny of the church. . . . Madrid is fighting for Spain, for humanity, for justice, and with the mantle of its blood it shelters all human beings! Madrid! Madrid!" The Nationalist forces were already massed on the sprawling campus of University City a few kilometers to the northwest. On November 9, 1936, many of the bald and gray-haired old foreigners down in the front six rows fought Franco's soldiers hand-to-hand in Madrid's streets and labs and lecture halls. The day before, in Herbert Matthews's words, "[they paraded] with revolutionary songs on their lips through the capital to the front lines, where most of them died in the next ten days." But dead and living held the line.

Passion and fire are quotidian commodities in Spain, routine in the bullring as well as the bar, or for that matter at the tollbooth, but the emotion swirling through this stadium is of a special intensity. It doesn't spring entirely from the past. What's burning the joint up isn't nostalgia or regret. The brooding, faintly celebratory mood at the bridge has given way to something far more inchoate and of the moment: unfinished business, a call to future battle. It's too dark to characterize the several thousand people down on the floor, but the occupants of the galleries, many thousand more, are overwhelmingly young--men and women who look to be in their twenties. They're not here just to listen to the music, for they applaud thunderously every reference to a sixty-year-old war. When Labordeta--a dour, unmoving little figure--starts into his "Cancion de la Libertad" ("Song of Freedom"), they go nuts. They sing along, bounc ing the roof of the stadium on its struts. Beside me a tall, skinny kid barely out of his teens has pushed his way to the rail to sing. He has a shock of curly, black hair and a mouthful of strong, white teeth. It occurs to me that Milton Wolff must have looked a lot like him sixty years ago. Suddenly he starts bellowing: "Espana! Manana! Sera Republicana!" ("Tomorrow Spain Will Be Republican!") The cry is picked up across the galleries, then down on the floor. The stadium rocks with its message of menace and yearning. Thousands of young fists pump the air. Everywhere people are weeping. Down in front, the sedate rows of old warriors are literally moved-white handkerchiefs dabbing under spectacles, old shoulders shaking, faces buried in wrinkled hands. I'm having trouble not weeping myself, though for what I'm not quite sure-perhaps because political passion like this seems irretrievably lost in my life. But here it's impossible not to be swept away, as these old men must once have been, by the justness of this cause and the inevitability of its triumph. If there were something to volunteer for tonight, I'd volunteer for it.

Copyright 1997 by Harpers Magazine. Online Source


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