Politics & Policy

The Man Who Punctured Communism’s Lies about the Spanish Civil War

William Herrick (via New Directions Books)
A veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade speaks out.

In 1986, the liberal weekly The Village Voice had its offices picketed by aged left-wing protesters. What occasioned this protest was an interview columnist Paul Berman conducted with William Herrick, who had served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. According to Berman, Herrick, during the interview, “decided to tell me things that he had never told anyone, not even his wife, about his time in Spain.”

Asserting that the Brigade “answered to the Communist chain of command, which included the GPU,” Herrick recounted how he was indirectly warned after he mildly criticized the Party. As he was recovering from a throat wound, he was taken from his hospital bed and “ordered to accompany a GPU execution squad, and to stand among them, unarmed, as the squad coolly put to death three Spanish leftists.” But that was not his only startling revelation. The other involved the way Brigade Commander Oliver Law died in 1937.

Law was billed by the Communists as the first African-American soldier to command an integrated unit, and they peddled the story for years that he died heroically leading his men in a charge against fascist lines. Herrick said otherwise. He asserted that Law’s own men killed him for incompetence and cowardice. Herrick heard this story second-hand from his “best friends in Spain,” Brigade soldiers Doug Roach (who was also black) and Joe Gordon, both of whom claimed to have taken part in the murder.

This assertion prodded the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — who for years had maintained that they were heroic defenders of democracy, and not tools of Stalin — into a wheezy protest. For Berman, it was a time-capsule moment. As they “thrust their faces into mine and shouted and shook their fists,” Berman could imagine what they had been like when they were “disciplined liars” and haters for Stalin in their heyday, the Thirties and Forties.

For Herrick, though, it was “old home week,” a continuation of their attacks on him ever since he very publicly left the Party over the Hitler–Stalin non-aggression pact in 1939. Thereafter, he earned their wrath with his attacks on the Brigade as willing accomplices of the Communist secret police, who were killing off anyone who criticized the Party.

By virtue of the sheer venom directed at Herrick, Berman designated him “an American Orwell.” This was apt. Herrick, like Orwell, became a fervent anti-Communist after witnessing the heresy hunts in Spain. Neither man ever stopped telling what really happened in Spain. Neither ever stopped reminding readers that Stalinism was another form of fascism.

While other children wanted to grow up to be president or a sports star, Herrick wanted to be a Communist executioner.

But Herrick came from a much more revolutionary background than the middle-class, public school–educated Orwell, and this would situate him closer to what was really happening in Spain. Born 100 years ago in Trenton, N.J., Herrick, in his memoir, Jumping the Line (1988), recounted his political journey from “red-diaper baby” to fervent anti-Stalinist. His parents, Jews who had fled Czarist Russia, were members of the American Communist Party. Above his crib hung portraits of Lenin. While other children wanted to grow up to be president or a sports star, Herrick wanted to be a Communist executioner, killing off opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution. By the age of 13, he was active in the Young Pioneers. As an adult, he was a dutiful Communist, fighting Jim Crow in the South and engaging in picket lines. His duties sometimes took a thuggish turn, as when he joined in smashing up Trotskyist and Socialist meetings.

In 1936, civil war broke out in Spain, when a mutinous army led by the Hitler-backed Francisco Franco fought against the legally elected leftist government of President Manuel Azaña. Along with his comrades, Herrick enlisted for the government in the Party-controlled International Brigades. Like Orwell, he began to notice that his comrades were disappearing under mysterious circumstances. One of these was Marvin Stern, who had a good combat record but made the error of criticizing the leadership capabilities of the American commanders in the Brigades. He was almost immediately removed from the lines, and his comrades were told not to ask questions about his fate. When Herrick nonetheless did ask a high-ranking Party official where Stern was, he was warned, “In Party matters friendship doesn’t count. The Party comes first.”

But Herrick didn’t heed the advice and even dared to criticize Communist policy. While he was recuperating from the throat wound, he made the mistake of expressing these sentiments to his then girlfriend, a nurse. She promptly reported him; that’s when he was taken from his bed to watch the execution that haunted him for the rest of his life.

Invalided home, Herrick experienced repression from American Communists. Because he dared to attend a speech by the Socialist but anti-Communist Norman Thomas, he was fired from the Communist-controlled furriers’ union. Still, Herrick thought of himself as a Communist, albeit one with doubts. These doubts became certainties when Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. Disgusted with the way the Party defended this action, Herrick resigned and never looked back. He immediately took to the streets, picketing outside the furriers’ union office and waving a placard that proclaimed himself the “the first victim of the Pact.”

Although he spent the rest of his life fighting the myth promulgated by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) that they were liberals defending democracy in Spain (he even went so far as to reluctantly testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in the McCarthy days), Herrick didn’t document what he knew until years later, with the publication of the novel Hermanos! (1969). In many ways, this is the fictional counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, the latter an autobiographical account of the British writer’s time as a soldier in Spain. Herrick also criticizes the Communists, through the voices of two characters, Jake Starr and Joe Garms. Through Starr, a hard-line Communist sanctioned by Moscow to execute heretics, Herrick shows the reader the terror tactics of Stalin. Through Garms, we are witness to the military incompetence of Communist-appointed commanders, who are well versed in the dialectic but know nothing of military strategy; this choosing of commanders on the basis of politics causes dissension and criticism in the ranks (commissars are nicknamed “comic stars”). But those who openly criticized them were assured a bullet in the back of the head.

Not only does Hermanos! recall Homage, but by thinking himself into the mindset of a secret policeman, Herrick is also emulating Orwell’s feat in the creation of O’Brien. The major difference between the two is that O’Brien flourishes with each murder, retaining his “prizefighter’s physique.” However, Starr’s “necessary murders” are destroying him. In the beginning, he finds comfort in Communist orthodoxy, in which morality and truth must be put on hold until the revolution is achieved. Even his awareness that his victims have been framed doesn’t faze him at first: Riffling through the case files, he doesn’t find “one tittle of fascist propaganda or one Trotskyite or even anarchist.” He is able, however, to counter these facts with an Orwellian bit of double-think when focusing on an anti-Communist leftist: “Even if he’s telling the truth, he’s lying, because he doesn’t understand the concrete truth of the Party. He’s an objective fascist and must be silenced.”

But this helps only so much. Each succeeding execution eats into him: “[H]e couldn’t help thinking that when human life is purchased cheaply, the purchaser begins to find his own life cheap, and with a lowering of value comes a brutalization of feeling.”

After getting his hands dirty by murdering an innocent socialist who denounced the Party for betraying the Spanish working class (the socialist tells Starr that “socialism withers” when the Communists come near it), Starr mentally and physically starts to crumble. He begins to itch uncontrollably, can’t eat or sleep, and has to summon his true love to get him through the night. Communist rationalizations are no longer effective, as the corpses pile up. By the end of the book, when he has secured his death sentence by getting four dissidents out of Spain, he amends La Pasionaria’s famous statement, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” to read, “It is better to die for liberty than live in the sewer.”

Like Orwell, Herrick captures perfectly the Bizarro World atmosphere of these heresy hunts. When two Americans asked the trigger-happy commissar André Marty (who once boasted that he had executed 500 men) for a poncho to bind a comrade’s head wound, Marty called them “fascists accustomed to luxury and wealth and threw them into prison.” (In Moscow at about the same time, a young woman was sent to the Gulag for dancing with a visiting jazz band.)

Starr is not alone in being eaten by the treachery of the Party. One soldier is ordered to dig a grave for a mysterious corpse; aware that this is probably an innocent but questioning soldier, he still says nothing, the reason being that he is “too near a grave.”

Starr also lambastes the Party for appointing military commanders on the basis of their political reliability rather than any military skill. At one point five machine-gunners are sent out when only one weapon actually works, and the soldiers are so poorly trained they don’t know not to “bunch up” when going over the top. Starr complains to a Russian general that they are “fighting the stupid war of Verdun.” To his shock, the general reveals the real reason the Soviets are in Spain: “This Spain is only a game. What do we care what happens here? What are important are the lessons we learn to take home to the Red Army.”

By the story’s end, Starr has changed so much that he can no longer continue his work. In a reversal of Winston Smith, he now loves a woman more than the Party. Getting her and four American soldiers out of Spain and thus out of range of the NKVD, Starr retains his anti-fascism and seeks a more honorable way of expressing it by fighting at the front. But this only forestalls the inevitable; his name now on a death warrant, he is executed when he tries to leave Spain.

It is apparent why the VALB hated Herrick so. Like Orwell, he was an unwelcome truth-teller. His revolutionary background made it difficult to portray him as a Quisling. His anti-Communism was problematic for them; unlike many, he did not leap to the right. Nor was he a McCarthyite; early on, he denounced the senator as a “prick” who was destroying the anti-Communist cause. While in an audience mourning the dead senator, Herrick was the only one who refused to stand and observe a moment of silence.

Still, his old comrades tried. Even today, years after his own death, his version of Oliver Law’s death is still being attacked. This time around the attacker is Professor Grover Furr, who is perhaps, apart from Vladimir Putin, the foremost current defender of Josef Stalin.

Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.



The Latest