restricted access 6. The Fight Against Fascism: The Spanish Republicans Find Their Support in New York City
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163 In the early evening hours of July 17, 1936, a military coup d’état against the Second Spanish Republic began, which, confronted by leftist opposition , led to a three-year civil war often remembered as the opening salvo of World War II. The coup and the civil war that followed were the result of longstanding tensions in Spanish political culture and society exacerbated by the transformation from feudal monarchical rule into capitalist democracy that polarized Spaniards into regionalists and centralists, anti-clericals and Catholics, landless laborers and latifundistas, workers and industrialists.1 In the end, the industrial bourgeoisie, argues historian Paul Preston, abandoned its political aspirations to create a viable democratic republic and, instead, allied with the landed oligarchy out of fear of the lower classes.This assessment echoed the conclusions drawn by many contemporary young American leftists.2 Further concurring with young American leftists’ assessment during the Depression, Preston attested seventy years later that ultimate responsibility for turning a floundering coup into a prolonged civil war rests with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, who began supplying Francisco Franco’s forces by the end of July, thus making Spain “the bulwark against the horrors of Hitlerism” for those who sided with the Republicans .3 Neither Preston nor fellow historian Hugh Thomas ever mentions American popular front youth organizations’ positions and policies on Spain; nevertheless, they represent young American activists’ view in their discussion of the communists’ role in the conflict. Because very few were privy to the true impetus behind and ramifications of Josef Stalin’s The Fight Against Fascism The Spanish Republicans Find Their Support in New York City 6 164 Implementing a Vision domestic policies, his policy to aid the Spanish Republicans cast the Communist-organized brigades in particular, as well as the Soviet Union in general, in a beneficent light wherein the communists were defending democratic rights and trade union freedoms against fascist tyranny.4 As American youth leader James Wechsler noted, “the democracies were letting the Spanish Republic bleed to death. The Russians were pictured as the only true friends of the embattled loyalists.”5 Further,“The struggle against fascism,” Preston maintains, “was seen as merely the first step to building a new egalitarian world out of the Depression.”6 Like Preston, young American leftists saw the civil war in Spain as a democratic litmus test. While they raised money and held demonstrations for beleaguered Ethiopians7 and called for an official American response to the atrocities committed in China,8 it was the conflict in Spain that captured young activists’ attention most completely because, as had happened with the Reed Harris case of a few years before, they could imagine themselves in the Spanish Republicans’ shoes because they, too, were fighting for freedom and democracy. Moreover, in fighting to maintain a republican government that represented the people, Spanish Loyalists championed the very thing young activists wished to preserve and enlarge in America. They did not just sympathize with such Spaniards, then—young activists identified with them. In the hopes of shoring up democracy in Spain, young activists in America revealed the fragility of the Republic at the very beginning of what has become known as the bienio negro (black years of 1934–1936)9 when Spanish politics polarized into rightist groups10 intent on protecting the newly elected center-right government and overturning the farreaching reforms instituted from 1931 to 1933, on the one hand, and leftist groups intent on protecting those democratic reforms on the other. While adult policymakers were preoccupied with institutionalizing the New Deal and many Americans supported an isolationist foreign policy,11 young activists were intensely interested in events in Spain. The situation there seemed to be simply a magnification of the issues they faced at home. The fight for democracy in Spain was, for many, their own fight because for peace and freedom to exist, democracy had to be protected. In light of the Nazis’ electoral triumph in Germany, young leftists were extremely wary of any rightist manipulation of democratic processes, and thus they saw in the new Spanish government not a sign that democracy was functioning effectively by including all groups, but a harbinger of the danger to come. As they were coming together to form their own popular front or- The Fight Against Fascism 165 ganizations to promote equality, individual rights, and democracy to actualize the promise of the American dream and stave off fascism, which James Wechsler identified as the most imminent and menacing danger in 1935,12...


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