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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001 (Page 13)

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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001
THE VOLUNTEER, December 2001 13
By Peter Carroll
The 65th anniversary of the out-
break of the Spanish Civil War this
summer has prompted a flurry of
media commentary on the History
Channel and book review pages and
in slick magazines about the relative
goodness of "the good fight" waged
by the 3,000 U.S. volunteers who
formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
to save the embattled Spanish
Republic from fascist-backed military
rebels. Mostly a rehash of worn argu-
ments about the evils of communism
in Spain, these pieces pay homage, not
to George Orwell's Catalonia, but to
supposedly new and startling evi-
dence culled from recently opened
archives in the former Soviet Union.
Treated as sacred texts, these bits of
de-contextualized history now serve
as paltry evidence that the Lincoln
Brigade fought, in the immortal
words of Ronald Reagan, "on the
wrong side."
The honorable legend of the
Lincoln Brigade is thus replaced by
the myths of the Moscow archives. For
decades after 1939, the keepers of the
flame in the old Soviet Union denied
the existence of such archives, fanning
inflated claims about murky agents
and mysterious events that may or
may not have actually occurred in
Spain. The opening of hitherto
"secret" papers during the 1990s
promised to put to rest several con-
tentious historical issues and finally
end debates about communism, the
Lincoln Brigade, and the Spanish
Civil War.
We now have much more evi-
dence to play with than ever before,
though the answers to even such ele-
mental questions as who actually
fought in the Lincoln Brigade remain
elusive. And, alas, the archives do not
speak for themselves. Only people
speak. And people who use the
archives in Moscow (or anywhere
else) do not ordinarily go empty head-
ed into a room full of historical
materials and emerge full of wisdom.
What happens instead is that they
approach the historical archives with
their own ideas, beliefs, notions, preju-
dices, biases, and points of view that
limit what they actually notice when
they read the historical records in
front of their eyeballs. The result is
that even though they do not start out
empty headed, their "research" often
appears just so. They neither learn nor
do they forget.
History done this way becomes
what media pundits call spin or
squirt. Spin meisters turn things
around so that the viewer sees only
the one side the Spinners want to be
seen; Squirts emit statements as if they
were the result of logic rather than
ideology. Spinners leave you dizzy;
Squirts leave you depressed about the
capacity of the human mind to remain
shut. For examples of Spin, look at
Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the
Spanish Civil War
, edited by Ronald
Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory
Sevostianov (Yale University Press,
2001); for Squirt, visit Sam Tanenhaus,
"Innocents Abroad," Vanity Fair
(September 2001).
Spinners and Squirts assume that
the Moscow archives are the final
truth because their existence proves
that back in the 1930s someone wrote
certain words on paper and these
papers were filed and saved, waiting
for self-revelation. After all, a docu-
ment is real and its words may be
quoted. But a historian should also
ask about the origin of the sources
themselves. Although Spinners and
Squirts talk about the "Russian" docu-
ments, the adjective properly refers to
where these documents may be found
today, not where they were created.
Nor, with few exceptions, are these
"official" documents in the sense that
they contain government or legal
authority. Reports sent to the Kremlin
by Soviet generals can hardly be taken
at face value or treated as statements
of policy without considering that
reporters serving under Stalin would,
to put it mildly, attempt to place
themselves in the best light.
The so-called Russian archives are
the effluvia of war. The largest collec-
tion in Moscow relating to the Spanish
Civil War, at least as far as we now
know, consists of documents that orig-
inated in the International Brigades in
Spain. These were military records
that included the personnel files of
individual volunteers. Most of the
documents were written by members
of the brigades in their native lan-
guages; very few were written in
Russian. During the course of the war,
many records were lost or destroyed;
some undoubtedly wound up in
enemy hands and will emerge some
day from the former fascist archives.
In 1939, as the Spanish Republic was
collapsing before the advancing
armies of General Francisco Franco,
record keepers within the
International Brigades, including New
Jersey volunteer John Tisa, trucked
tens of thousands of documents across
the French border. Tisa helped to
organize some of these records before
he returned home in the spring of
1939. A handful of items were added
to the files as late as 1940. And some
time around then, probably just before
or after the German invasion of
France, the archives were shipped to
the Soviet Union.
As a military archive, a surprising-
ly large amount of material consists of
lists of names--the members of a com-
pany, battalion, hospital ward,
nationality group, etc. Spinners and
Squirts make much of the lists of
deserters and "bad elements." What
did such lists mean? Some volunteers
were called "Defeatist," "Agitator,"
"Suspicious Trotskyist," which, accord-
ing to one Squirt, "were loaded epithets
and potential death sentences." But the
operative word in that sentence is not
"death" but "potential."
What does it mean when a per-
son's name, as Squirt says ominously,
"disappears from the records"?
Consider the case of a volunteer
named Edward Carter. When his fam-
ily contacted the Abraham Lincoln
The Myth of the Moscow Archives
Continued on page 14

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