A historical milestone was passed on Sunday, with the death of Delmer Berg at the age of 100. Berg, who lived in Columbia, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, was the last known survivor of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as the several units of American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War came to be called.
World War II has largely pushed that conflict out of our collective memory, but it was momentous for the people of Spain, and for the 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries, 2,800 of them American, who fought in it. Eighty years ago this July, a large group of right-wing army officers staged a coup against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. They called themselves Nationalists and were soon led by Francisco Franco, a tough-talking young general who quickly outmaneuvered all of his rivals. The Nationalists hoped to seize power swiftly, but their efforts stalled and the war dragged on for nearly three years of brutal fighting and political massacres that left well more than 400,000 people dead.
Foreign volunteers eager to help the Republic began arriving in late 1936. In January 1937 an American battalion was formed and hastily thrown into combat the next month. Americans fought in most of the major battles that followed. About 750 of them died and a majority of the remainder were wounded, including Delmer Berg, who carried shrapnel in his liver for the rest of his life.
Who were they? They came from 46 states and every conceivable walk of life: the grandchildren of slaves (about 90 volunteers were African American), coal miners, a vaudeville acrobat, a rabbi, longshoremen, factory workers, college instructors, the son of a former governor of Ohio. The first American casualty — he arrived before the American battalion was organized and fought beside British volunteers — was Joseph Selligman Jr., a Swarthmore College student fatally wounded in the battle for Madrid. One of the last, killed a year and a half later, was James Lardner, a 24-year-old from a famous literary family, who traveled to Spain as a New York Herald Tribune correspondent and then decided to fight.
Britain, France and the United States all wanted to keep the Spanish conflict at arm's length. The only major nation willing to sell weapons to the beleaguered Spanish Republic was not another democracy — it was Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. It was also Stalin who asked the world's Communist parties to support the Spanish Republic by recruiting volunteer soldiers.
Roughly three-quarters of the American volunteers were members of the Communist Party or its affiliated groups. In their illusions about the Soviet Union they were of course profoundly naive. But they were not fighting for the Soviet Union, they were fighting for Spain. And almost all of these men and women (about 75 American women went to Spain, mostly as nurses) felt that the conflict might be the opening battle of another world war. And in this they were right: Four years before the U.S. entered World War II, Americans were bombed by Nazi pilots in Spain.
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had immediately come to the aid of their ideological ally, Franco, sending aircraft, tanks, artillery, pilots, technicians and military advisors. Mussolini sent 80,000 ground troops as well. Hitler used the Spanish war to test out in combat the new weapons for the larger war he was planning: the Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, the Stuka dive bomber, the 88-millimeter artillery piece and more.
The Spanish Civil War was bewilderingly complicated. Within the republic were tensions between the Communists and the mainstream parties on one hand and, on the other, the Spanish anarchists and their allies, who largely controlled the northeastern corner of the country. George Orwell wrote about that conflict in his memoir, "Homage to Catalonia." American volunteers were there too. One of them, Harry Milton of New York, fought in the same militia unit as Orwell, and was standing next to him in the trenches when the novelist received a bullet through his neck. Lois Orr, a remarkably observant 19-year-old from Louisville, Ky. (also Selligman's hometown), left the most extensive eyewitness account by any foreigner of daily life in anarchist Barcelona.
The Spain of the 1930s was hobbled by vast disparities of wealth, and no one can say exactly how the republic might have evolved had it won the civil war. But one thing is certain: The country would have been spared the 36 years of Franco's harsh dictatorship. His was a regime that packed huge numbers of people into crowded prisons and labor camps, branded the Nationalist symbol on the breasts of dissident women, practiced torture for decades and in World War II provided Nazi Germany with important submarine bases, crucial minerals for weapons manufacturing and 45,000 volunteer soldiers.
The Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War are not usually considered part of the "greatest generation," but they were. As Ernest Hemingway, who covered the war as a correspondent and later wrote about it in his novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," put it: "No men ever entered the earth more honorably than those who died in Spain."
Adam Hochschild is the author of the forthcoming book "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939."