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DVD REVIEW: "The Good Fight"

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DVD REVIEW: The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (Kino) 1984/2008

If you go to the website Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (www.alba-valb.org), type in “Oklahoma” in the site’s search engine and you will see a list of all the recorded American volunteers, with Oklahoma ties, who traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) to fight the forces of fascism.

One of them – Nathaniel Dickson – was an African-American from Okemah, Oklahoma. Born on August 14, 1905 (we share a birthday), Dickson (born in Woody Guthrie’s hometown), was, by the time the International Brigades began coming to Spain to help fight the military uprising against the Spanish Republic, a high-school educated postal clerk living in Chicago.

From what little we know of Nathaniel Dickson, he was both a member of the anti-racist, anti-fascist Young Communist League and the Communist Party. He arrived in Spain in October 1937 and was wounded in action in Feuntes del Ebro, preventing him from returning to the front. Dickson would return to the U.S. in October 1938 aboard the Ile de France and died sometime between 1989 and 1991.

Imagine the stories Nathaniel Dickson (or any of the other Oklahoma natives who went to Spain) could tell, were he (they) still with us. But many of those idealistic, globally-minded Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, alongside the defenders of the legally-elected Spanish Republic, are long gone, and many of their stories are gone as well.

Fortunately, back in the early 1980’s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel narrated a terrific documentary, The Good Fight, about the-then surviving members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, who volunteered when their own country – under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt – failed to help the Spanish people fight the forces of evil and fascism, led by Hitler and Mussolini.

The stories shared in The Good Fight are riveting and stirring. What makes their stories so compelling is how these American volunteers had enough foresight to see that fascism and Nazism was on the march during the 1930’s and that General Francisco Franco in Spain was one of a growing number of sinister leaders who wanted an authoritarian society established not only in Spain, but around the world.

“Five years before the United States entered World War II, 3,200 Americans fought fascism in Spain,” narrates Terkel. “At the time, they were celebrated for their heroism, yet today they are virtually unknown in their own country.” This included men and women, black and white – all were equal.

Bill Bailey was one of the American volunteers who went to Spain as America suffered during the Great Depression. He explained that he and other political people – many of them affiliated with liberal Democrats and the Socialist or Communist parties – saw that his brothers and sisters around the world needed his and his fellow comrades’ help.

“Fascism in America was a small but growing movement,” Terkel explains. This was an alarming development for many Americans like Bailey, Bill McCarthy, Evelyn Hutchins and Dave Thompson, some of those featured in The Good Fight, who saw the rise of the German-American Bund, the anti-Semitic Silver Shirts, Father Coughlin’s Christian Front, and the Ku Klux Klan, saw these ominous developments for what they were – an evil threat. And when it was clearly happening in Spain and the Roosevelt administration did nothing to stop it – many Americans wanted to do something.

“It was up to you. Either put up or shut up. Put your money where your mouth is,” said magazine writer Dave Thompson, who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “So a lot of guys went over there, from all walks of life.” They and thousands of others from around the globe.

But with the horrors of World War I still fresh on the minds of many Americans, an isolationist mood had taken over and FDR knew not to rock the boat at that time, even if Franco, Mussolini and Hitler grew in power in Europe.

Fortunately, anti-fascists like then-unemployed African-American Tom Page, who served in Spain, knew too much was at stake.

“Any demonstration against war or fascism, I would be there,” said Page.

And when the Nazi ship the Bremen faced a protest in New York Harbor, ALB volunteer Bill Bailey recalls ripping the Nazi flag down, off the ship, and angering the German visitors.

“The Germans went stark mad, they went stark mad,” recalled Bailey, with a gleam in his eye. In fact, due to Bailey’s “insult” to the unofficial German flag, Hitler responded to the incident by adopting the swastika as the official flag of the Third Reich.

And when the King of Spain abdicated in 1931 and the Republic was established, the poverty, illiteracy and the domination of the Roman Catholic Church was reined in as schools were built, land reform was established and a separation of church and state was installed. It was a positive time for many of the struggling masses in Spain.

The aristocratic and right-wing Catholic elite, however, were livid and Franco and the Falangists found the election of the Popular Front government as the last straw. The military revolted against the government in 1936 and sought to conquer Spain in short time. They did not, however, expect armed workers and peasants – with the help of the International Brigades – to fight to defend the Republic.

But with 100,000 extra troops, 1,000 tanks and countless armaments and bombers, the battles were hard-fought but the Francoists would overcome the Republic and the International Brigades.

Tom Page, one of many African-Americans who served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, tells Terkel that when he was there, serving, it was “the first time I was treated with dignity, treated as a human being, as a man … I hated to leave that country.”

Equality was embraced in the American and International brigades.

Added Milt Wolff (who met Ernest Hemingway who was a reporter covering the war and would write For Whom The Bell Tolls, a fictional account based on events during the war) : “It was only later, thinking about it, that we came to understand that we were the first American military unit who saw action that was fully integrated without question, up and down the line from the commanding officers down to the rank-and-file.”

When World War II broke out and able-bodied American veterans of the Spanish Civil War were able to fight fascism a second time, they did so.

Notes Terkel, as he narrated The Good Fight: “However, many Lincolns found their anti-fascism distrusted by the United States Army. The veterans were harassed, spied-upon and initially prevented from seeing combat because of their political convictions. They were labeled ‘premature anti-fascists.’”

Hard to believe! But that was the political reality many Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans faced, and it only worsened during the McCarthy/Red Scare era of the 1950's. And today we see fascism on the rise in places like Ukraine, where the U.S. government backs the fascist forces, as they did over seven decades earlier. Indeed, nationalism and fascism is on the rise around the globe, as we have recently reported.

A lot of idealism was at play on the part of the International Brigades and among the Americans. They risked a lot (loss of American citizenship, hardships of getting to Spain, lack of adequate food and supplies) but knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves.

The DVD of The Good Fight not only has the 98 minute, original documentary, it also includes a 1988 interview with the filmmakers, outtakes from the original documentary, an homage from folk singer Pete Seeger and a commemoration of those who served. Kino has done a fabulous job in preserving this now-30 year-old documentary.

This is an outstanding and important documentary and The Good Fight should be an addition in every Americans’ documentary film library. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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