Spanish Civil War Posters - Image Gallery Essay | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Spanish Civil War Posters - Image Gallery Essay

Spanish Civil War Posters - Image Gallery Essay | Wisconsin Historical Society
Five Wisconsin men who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade

Five Wisconsin men who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. From left to right standing are: Fred Palmer, Harry Lichter, and Ray Disch; and sitting are: John Cockson and Clarence Kailin. View the original source document: WHI 3985

Spanish Civil War in Summary

The Spanish Civil War was the prologue to World War II in Europe. Although the war started for domestic reasons in July 1936, it quickly erupted into an international conflict between fascists and anti-fascists. Nearly 2,800 American volunteers known as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion arrived in Spain in January 1937 to fight fascism. Most of these volunteers were part of the International Brigades—a force whose numbers ranged between 30,000 and 40,000 fighters from 52 countries. Organized by Moscow and the communist parties of various nations, the International Brigades traveled to Spain to fight for the Republic against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist armies.

Although Republicans and Nationalists framed the Civil War as an international struggle, Spain’s tormented recent history demarcated the two camps. Spanish society had been bitterly divided along political, class, national, and religious lines since Spain lost the last colonies of its once global empire in the Spanish-American War (1898). The Spanish lefts—comprised of republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists—competed among themselves and with monarchists, rightwing Catholics, and fascists for popular support. Large landowners and industrialists exploited peasants and workers who, in turn, organized unions to improve working conditions. Catalan and Basque separatists resisted Spanish nationalists. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church pushed back against anti-clericalists’ efforts to secularize Spain and its institutions. These tensions exploded in the summer of 1936. A handful of generals backed by rightwing political parties, the wealthy, and conservative Catholics launched a coup d’état against the Republic following the electoral victory of the Popular Front, a leftist coalition of republicans and socialists. The generals failed to overthrow the government, triggering a three-year Civil War and popular revolution. The Nationalists claimed they were saving Spain from Bolshevism while the Republic’s defenders asserted they were fighting the spread of fascism, demonstrating the conflict’s international resonances.

Use of Spanish Civil War Posters

EnlargeIllustration of a soldier with a weapon moving in front of an enlarged arm holding an open-ended wreath of laurel leaves, framing the text "S.R.I."

S.R.I. Grandioso

Illustration of a soldier with a weapon moving in front of an enlarged arm holding an open-ended wreath of laurel leaves, framing the text "S.R.I." View the original source document: WHI 148389

The Civil War-era posters in the Wisconsin Historical Society illustrate how the Popular Front portrayed the conflict as a global anti-fascist struggle. Republican propaganda offices depicted a socially-progressive Spain as being invaded by the barbarous fascist powers. There was considerable truth to this. Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini supported Franco by sending thousands of troops and large stockpiles of war materiel. Throughout the conflict, the Nationalists organized a campaign of terror as they conquered Republican territory. German pilots infamously annihilated the Basque town of Guernica, whose suffering Pablo Picasso immortalized. Meanwhile, the democratic powers—Great Britain, France, and the United States—remained neutral and refused to intervene militarily. By contrast, Joseph Stalin, anxious to score points with the democratic powers against an increasingly aggressive Hitler, sent Soviet planes, tanks, guns, and military advisors to Spain. Moreover, it was through the Soviets’ connections with communist parties in other countries that Stalin’s government encouraged the organization of foreign volunteers.

Republican propagandists produced posters to bolster the morale of civilians as well as Spanish and international troops. They also aimed to legitimize the Republic to an international audience. Plastered across buildings, these posters reproduced motivational quotes from the speeches of President Manuel Azaña in which he told soldiers that they were fighting to rid the world of fascism. Government propagandists tried to foment unity within a historically divided left by incorporating Buenaventura Durruti, a famous anarchist and militia leader who died defending Madrid, into a broader discourse of popular struggle. They also celebrated the International Brigades’ contributions. The prints highlighted scenes of fascist atrocities and Republican victories, and they exhorted Spaniards and foreigners alike to donate resources to those closest to military fronts. Some posters connected the anti-fascist struggle with previous worker uprisings against rightwing Spanish governments such as the failed 1934 October Revolution. Others championed the Republic’s progressive reforms in areas such as education.

EnlargeEl 50 Regimiento se incorpora al Ejercito Popular.

El 50 Regimiento

El 50 Regimiento se incorpora al Ejercito Popular. View the original source document: WHI 148440

Such messaging resonated with American volunteers. They saw the Civil War as part of a broader struggle for social justice that was equally global and American. The idea of working people joining together to defend a country advancing toward social progress, but beleaguered by a reactionary fascist invasion, was not simply propaganda for the Americans who went to Spain. Many of them grew up in the labor, unemployed, and racial-justice movements back home led by the American communist and socialist parties and the Industrial Workers of the World. They connected those fights with many Spaniards’ struggle for a progressive democratic republic.

But who were the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion? Although most of them were communists, they were motivated by internationalism, not Soviet geopolitics. Internationalism, or the commitment to act in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world, was a lived value for the volunteers. Moreover, most of them had had cosmopolitan upbringings as immigrants to the United States or first-generation Americans whose parents migrated from across Europe. One-third of the volunteers were Jewish and the desire to fight Hitler motivated many. For some volunteers, including over eighty African Americans who enlisted, the Spanish conflict paralleled the American Civil War. In both wars, a democratic republic struggled to quell an illegal insurrection whose architects believed in a racial hierarchy. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion opposed segregation and, for the first time, white Americans followed Black officers such as Oliver Law into battle a decade before the U.S. army desegregated. Native, Latin, and Asian Americans were also present among the volunteers’ ranks. Moreover, a majority of volunteers were working-class. They were artists, laborers, teachers, students, and unemployed.

John Cookson and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

In addition to posters, the Wisconsin Historical Society houses photos and correspondence from Wisconsinites who voyaged to Spain. John Cookson’s letters home illustrate that anti-fascism was not only about beating Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini. For volunteers like Cookson, a graduate student at UW-Madison, anti-fascism also meant transforming society. Using a convention of the American Federation of Teachers in Madison as a pretext, he wrote an article for Madison’s newspapers extolling the Republic’s "revolution against illiteracy". Prior to the establishment of the Republic in 1931, education had belonged to the Church and the upper classes. Yet Spanish intellectuals, republicans, socialists, and anarchists boasted a long history of organizing popular education centers to instruct and politicize workers and peasants. The anarchist Francisco Ferrer i Guàrdia acquired worldwide renown because of his Modern Schools, which were accessible to the poor. Cookson wrote about ongoing efforts under the Republic to found new schools and educate women and peasants through people’s universities, where marginalized populations had access to the humanities, sciences, and mathematics.

Researchers interested in the history of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, the Second Republic, global anti-fascism, or the American left will find the Wisconsin Historical Society’s documents to be invaluable. To this day, the Spanish Civil War remains a central part of anti-fascist politics. From the three-pointed red star of the International Brigades to the slogan "¡No pasarán!" ("They shall not pass!"), the conflict continues to inform leftwing, labor, and anti-racist struggles. The materials gathered by the Society will help any investigator reconstruct how a civil war became a global affair that took on personal meanings to regular people—then as now.

Article Author: Robert Christl

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