Ronald Radosh: Glamorizing History At City Museum

Roundup: Talking About History

The romanticizing of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and the role of the Abraham Lincoln "Brigade," the American contingent of the Comintern army sent to fight on the side of the Spanish Republic against Franco, is hardly a new phenomenon. Now, a year after the Brigade's 70th anniversary, a new book, "Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War" edited by Peter Carroll and James Fernandez (New York University Press, 203 pages, $27.95), has been published as a glossy paperback. The book also serves as the catalog for the exhibition that will open Friday at the Museum of the City of New York. At the unit's 50th anniversary in 1986, a gala celebration was held at Lincoln Center. Two years before, a hagiographical film about the vets, "The Good Fight," received wide distribution and attention. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade's annual reunions regularly enjoy the participation and support of celebrities. Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Harry Belafonte, and Michael Moore have all appeared at their events or given them support.

By continually referring to the volunteers as a "brigade," the authors show that from the start they have decided to echo the Comintern's phony propaganda. Cecil Eby's new book, "Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War" (Pennsylvania State University Press, 440 pages, $39.95), provides all the information one needs to know the truth about what the soldiers did, whose interests they served, and how important they were. "So entrenched is the folk belief that once upon a time an Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought in Spain," Mr. Eby writes, "that it borders on political sacrilege to report the sad truth that no such military unit ever existed — in Spain or anywhere else." A brigade is composed of four to six battalions. The Lincolns were part of the XV Brigade — comprised of several international battalions that were part of the Comintern army sent to fight in the Civil War. "The reason why the Lincoln Battalion was magnified into a whole brigade owed nothing to the men themselves," Mr. Eby writes, "but to publicists in the CPUSA back in New York, who decided … that the American commitment to the ‘War Against Fascism' would be magically quadrupled in size by altering a single word."

Given the amount of attention already paid to the Lincoln Battalion, one wonders why New York City's own museum would agree to be a co-sponsor, along with the left-wing Puffin Foundation and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, an exhibit whose evident purpose is further glamorizing and distorting the record with a biased account of the issues that sent a few thousand left-wing New Yorkers to volunteer to fight on the side of the Republic.

The exhibit is anything but balanced. Perry Rosenstein, president of the Puffin Foundation, makes the bias clear in his short introduction. Incorrectly calling the Battalion's activities "a long buried chapter of history" (evidently Mr. Rosenstein is unfamiliar with the scores of books and articles written about them) he calls them "an inspiration to all" who "represented the best of our country and the best of our conscience." The exhibit is thus presented as a "tribute to their courage and sacrifice." Susan Henshaw Jones, president of the museum, shows that she uncritically accepts the old pro-communist analysis of the war, that the men and women who went to fight did so "to defend the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic against a rebellion led by General Francisco Franco and militarily backed by Hitler and Mussolini." She prefers to see the events of the 1930s as a simple morality play of good guys versus bad guys, in which "ordinary people" showed a great "level of commitment, idealism, and sacrifice."...
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James Daniel Fernandez - 3/29/2007

‘Glamorizing History At City Museum'

It is disappointing that Ronald Radosh did not actually visit "Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War" before reviewing it in Thursday's Sun [Arts&Letters, "Glamorizing History At City Museum," March 22, 2007]. His review predates the opening of the exhibition.

Had he seen the exhibition, he might have better understood what it is about: the political turmoil that gripped New York City in the 1930s and the citizens who fought in Spain for what they believed was a noble cause. The exhibition certainly is not "glamorizing and distorting the record with a biased account of the issues." Rather, it tells the story of a highly conflicted time in our city's history. I invite all New Yorkers to come and see the show for themselves.

President and director
Museum of the City of New York
New York, N.Y.

James Daniel Fernandez - 3/28/2007

“Facing Fascism” With Your Eyes Closed

In “Glamorizing History” (New York Sun, March 22, 2007), Ronald Radosh trots out some of the same provocative arguments he has been making for many years now about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades. Professor Radosh’s research and his polemical stances vis-à-vis the Spanish Civil War have done a lot to shake up a somewhat complacent field, which has often adopted a simplistic and romantic view of the war in Spain, rife with myths and platitudes.

But some of the claims of “Glamorizing History” are downright comical: eg: that any use of the commonly accepted shorthand expression “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” is an attempt to deceive people about the size of the American contingent of the International Brigades. (This charge is all the more ironic because Professor Radosh himself uses the shorthand term “brigade” –or is it CP phony propaganda?—a couple of paragraphs later in his own article.) Other claims are grotesque distortions: eg: “The kind of republic the volunteers [in the International Brigades] sought [all of them? In 1936-37?] was a prototype of what the Soviet Union created at the end of World War II, when it built ‘people’s democracies’ in Central and Eastern Europe.” Still others of his claims are contradictory and self-cancelling; eg, that these same sinister volunteers who went to Spain to install a soviet-style people’s republic –avant la letttre-- were “innocents” who were duped by Stalin and the Comintern.. Finally, some of Radosh’s claims are demonstrably false: eg, that the International Brigades did not function as part of the Republic’s official army.

The republication of these claims in the pages of The Sun is not, in itself, surprising or objectionable. What is surprising –and terribly disappointing—is the fact that Radosh and The Sun have repackaged these soundbytes as if they were a reaction to an exhibition he could not have seen (“Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War” didn’t open at the Museum of the City of New York until March 23) and a “review” of a book of the same title which he seems not to have read with any kind of serious attention.

The book and the exhibition are attempts to reconstruct the extraordinarily complex social, cultural and ideological milieux of New York in the late 1930s. By studying the diverse reactions to the outbreak and the conduct of the Spanish Civil War in the city, the book and exhibition shed new light on the history of New York: at the same time, the catalog and the show have turned up important new information and perspectives about the international dimensions of the war in Spain. In both cases, the emphasis is clearly on complexity, diversity and strife within the city which mirrored the crisis experienced throughout the world.

This is why Professor Radosh’s attack on this book and exhibition seems unfortunate, unfair, and misplaced. These projects aim precisely to reaffirm complexity and to challenge received ideas, to abandon simplistic paradigms. There is no question that professor Radosh’s oft-repeated question --“How can we reconcile the alleged ‘antifascism’ of the Lincoln volunteers with the fact that many of them toed the Party line when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact”—is indeed a crucial one. But surely the curators and editors are not obliged to try to answer such a vexed question, especially in a catalog and exhibition focused primarily on the mobilization of tens of thousands of New Yorkers in the late 1930s,. In the end, all we can ask –of readers, museum-goers, citizens and even reviewers—is that you read the book, and visit the museum, preferably before you come to your own conclusions.

--Submitted to the New York Sun

James D. Fernández, is Chair of Spanish and Portuguese, NYU, and Director of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center. He coedited (with Peter Carroll) the book “Facing Fasicsm: New York and the Spanish Civil War” (NYU Press/Museum of the City of New York, 2007) and served as an adviser to the museum on the exhibition “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War” at the Museum of the City of New York, March-August, 2007.