But what about the International Brigade volunteers?

Post date: 09/07/2023

Address by Nancy Wallach, of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, at the IBMT’s annual commemoration at the International Brigade memorial in London’s Jubilee Gardens on 1 July…

It is a great honour to join you today, and to bring you greetings from ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Now, more than ever, in these times, the work that we do as sister organisations is needed, the important task of recovering and disseminating the neglected history of the International Brigades, so that new generations can use their example and their lessons to continue to struggle and resist.

When people learn of these international volunteers, thanks to our work, and through events such as this very one today, they are invariably inspired by their legacy of anti-fascist unity and unprecedented working-class solidarity.  

ALBA board member Nancy Wallach in London on 1 July. She is the daughter of Lincoln Battalion volunteer Hy Wallach.

I’d like to share with you the effect they had on one member of the next generation, the film maker John Sayles. Many of you may know his films, such as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Innish, Lone Star, The Brother From Another Planet and The Return of the Seacaucus Seven

Sayles was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, during the Reagan/Thatcher era, an era when greed and self-interest were extolled as top virtues and the catchphrase ‘Greed is Good’ prevailed.

His address was entitled ‘But What About the Guys in the Lincoln Brigade?’, but it applies equally to the British Battalion, the Connolly Column, the Garibaldis, the Thaelmann Battallion, the Edgar André Battalion and each and every one of the battalions in the International Brigades.  

This is what Sayles said:

One of the major obstacles in the way of human progress, of human understanding, is cynicism. The cynicism that states that people only act in their own self-interest or what they believe to be their self interest, that says within every seemingly altruistic act there lurks a dark core of greed or hatred or fear.  

To make people behave, the cynics say, to make society work, you have to know how to exploit and manipulate that dark core. That’s life, the cynics say, that’s just the way people are. And you can listen to this for awhile, and maybe agree up to a point, but then you say: ‘What about the guys in the Lincoln Brigade?’.

John Sayles in 2011.

Then the cynics will go to work and talk about raw youth and misplaced idealism and what this faction did to that faction. But they won’t go away, those guys who shipped out for Spain to fight for other people’s freedom. They stand up in history like the one tree on a battlefield not levelled by the bombing, stand up and make you ask: ‘How did that happen?’. They won’t go away. If you talk to them or read their accounts what you hear again and again is that they went to Spain because of a belief in what people could be, in how people could live together, and they put their lives on the line for that belief and a lot of them died.  

‘But they lost,’ say the cynics, not knowing that it is more important that they fought – fought when they didn’t have to fight, fought when it brought no public glory in their home towns, fought to put a lie to the cynicism that keeps people in darkness.  

They won’t go away… and in a world run by cynics, in a time when caring about someone you’ve never met is seen as weakness or treachery, how much strength have we taken from the thought of them, how much pride and comfort to be able to say: ‘But what about the guys in the International Brigades?’.

Let us resolve to continue our work, so that there may be many more generations of people like John Sayles out there, taking heart and inspiration from the example of the International Brigades. La lucha continúa!

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