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50 Years Later, Spanish Civil War Vets Debate Their Role

July 15, 1986 GMT

OLD CHATHAM, N.Y. (AP) _ William Herrick still can feel the bullet biting into his back. He was nudging a machine gun into the red Spanish earth when pain exploded in his spine, sending him sprawling.

Today, Herrick feels the pain of disillusionment, even as his former comrades-in-arms on Thursday commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Spain’s Civil War, a struggle immortalized by Ernest Hemingway and idealized by generations of romantics.

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Herrick, now 71, was one of approximately 3,000 Americans who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight the forces of Gen. Francisco Franco. About 300 are still alive. Many are celebrating their youthful idealism this year with parties in San Francisco and New York and an autumn tour of the old Spanish battlefields.

″It has all the elements of a romantic tale. People don’t talk about the vileness of that war,″ said Herrick.

For two decades, Herrick has written about that ugliness. His four novels about the Spanish Civil War have earned him invitations to academic symposia and radio programs. They have also aroused controversy among Lincoln Brigade veterans and supporters.

Recalling the war from his farmhouse 20 miles south of Albany, Herrick said, ″I’m very proud I fought for the Republic and my ideals,″ but he criticizes the role of the Soviet Union, which helped organize, arm and train the Lincoln Brigade.

″I’m very unhappy I fought under Stalin’s banner,″ he said. ″What if Stalin’s men controlled Spain? Would it have been any better if Stalin’s people won?″

Another veteran, John Gates, agreed.

″The American veterans present an altogether oversimplified, one-sided account of what we did,″ he said. Gates, a New York City resident who served as commissar, the highest rank in the Brigade, said most U.S. volunteers were caught up in the promise of Marxism sweeping America in the twilight of the Depression.

″The fight against fascism was only a step toward a further goal - the complete domination and victory by the communists in Spain″ over Franco’s forces and all other political parties, Gates said.

Sam Gonshak, a New Yorker who is organizing the October trip to Civil War battlefields, blames such views on today’s conservative political climate.

The critics ″advocate the old side, they justify the Franco side,″ said Steve Nelson, of Truro, Mass., commander of the veterans group.

He conceded that ″some terrible things were done with the impulse at that time,″ adding, ″You can’t say everything was perfect. But the side we were on was perfect.″

Historian Stanley Payne, an authority on the Spanish Civil War, disagreed. ″Herrick tells the truth about the battalion,″ he said. ″He’s one of the honest veterans.″

Herrick said his books reflected ″an uncomfortable truth rather than a comfortable lie.″

The novels, including the semi-autobiographical account ″Hermanos,″ or ″Brothers,″ depict a brigade where Communist Party credentials are more important than military prowess, where hard-line communists sometimes kill those who differ with them, no matter what side of the war they fought on.

His soldiers’ struggles are played out in a country divided between Franco’s Nationalists - who drew conservatives, wealthy landowners and supporters of the Roman Catholic church - and the Republicans, whose ranks included anarchists, communists, trade-unionists and peasants.

In addition to the Americans, about 32,000 volunteers from other countries joined the International Brigade on the side of the elected Spanish government.

The Nationalists, who were aided by Mussolini and Hitler, won the war in 1939, establishing Franco as a dictator who would rule until 1975.

″It was the most complex war in modern time,″ Herrick said. ″There were bad guys, good guys, bad guys with the good guys.″

Fifty years ago, things didn’t look that complicated.

″I was going off to help the revolution and turn back what we called fascism,″ explained Herrick, who at age 19 left his home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for Spain. ″Boy, was I idealistic.″

In the beginning came exhilarating moments. In Barcelona, a crush of jubilant supporters surrounded the parading Americans, shouting, ″Hermanos 3/8 Hermanos 3/8 Hermanos 3/8″

In the trenches outside Madrid, where the cold and artillery fire never seemed to end, things were more grim.

In 1937, the bullet pierced Herrick’s back, temporarily paralyzing him.

″My real troubles in Spain began after I was wounded,″ he said. It was then he began hearing about purges in the Republican ranks carried out by hard-line communist leaders, he said.

Herrick’s view of the communist leadership deteriorated further over the years, as historians published accounts of Republican abuses and argued that the Soviet Union was more interested in strategic advantages in Spain than defense of a democracy.

Herrick broke with the Communist Party in 1939, when Stalin signed a non- aggression pact with Hitler and Mussolini.

″It was an entire betrayal of the Spanish Civil War and all our ideals of socialism,″ Herrick said.

Though disillusioned, Herrick said of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: ″It was a terrific thing that so many thousands of young men were ready to give up their families and their jobs and go fight for an ideal.

″But you shouldn’t romanticize it. It was bitter. So many lives were wasted.″