ALBA Awards 21st Annual Watt Prizes

December 15, 2019

Students from around the world once again applied to ALBA’s Watt Essay contest, which recognizes academic projects and essays about the Spanish Civil War. This year, five prizes were awarded.

This year’s Watt Award Jury applauded the wide diversity of submissions that included poetry, fiction, long-form essays, and, for the first time, digital humanities projects. The jury awarded two prizes at the collegiate level, recognizing the wonderful quality of the deep pool of submissions. Elissa Sutherland received one award for “My Grandfather was Also a Disappeared,” a chapter of her New York University Senior thesis. Analyzing and drawing inspiration from the famous article by Emilio Silva (the recipient of the 2015 ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism) who wrote of his grandfather as one of the disappeared, Sutherland examines the significance of labeling victims of the Franco regime in a way that linked them to victims of brutal regimes in Latin America (full essay). The jury was very impressed by Sutherland’s complex balance of literary theory and close textual analysis. Breanna van Loenen, also of New York University, received the other award. She unravels how the perception of Franco and Fascism was “redesigned” at the beginning of the Cold War in her essay “Friend or Foe? Defining the Enemy in Franco’s Spain from 1936 until 1959” (full essay). According to van Loenen, in the US press, Franco went from a dictator to a benevolent leader fighting against Communism. In the process, the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade went from popularly admired heroes to officially suspect Communist sympathizers. Wonderfully researched and filled with insights, the author draws heavily on letters found in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive at the Tamiment Library. van Loenen will celebrate her award from South Africa where she has just started as a volunteer for the Peace Corps.

The jury also presented awards to three projects at a pre-collegiate level. Jason Huang of Phillips Exeter Academy was recognized for his sophisticated analysis of African American volunteers of the International Brigades in his essay “Abraham Lincoln Brigade: African American Internationalism Manifested” (full essay). Kate Harty and Alice Tecoztky’s carefully researched and complex essay “For the Love of God: The Intersection of Politics and Religion in the Spanish Civil War” looks at how religious institutions in the US and Spain portrayed the Civil War and how religion shaped the worldview of volunteers to the Lincoln Brigade (full essay). Harty and Tecozkty are students of George Snook at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, an ALBA teaching institute alum and mentor to a number of Watt award recipients. Briann Siener of Rosary Hight School in Illinois received our third award for his piece of fiction (full essay). Briann wrote a sparse and effective story of how a young girl of a peasant family whose family protected her from the hardships of the Civil War until the bombing of Guernica that killed her father and the world that she knew.

The jury for the Watt award was comprised of Angela Giral (Columbia University), Josh Goode (Claremont Graduate University), Gina Herrmann (University of Oregon), Jo Labanyi (New York University) and Aaron Retish (Wayne State University). The George Watt Memorial Essay award honors the memory of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran George Watt (1914-1994), a social worker, writer, and lifelong activist central to the creation of ALBA.

Collegiate Award

Elissa Sutherland

This essay analyzes the victims of Francoist reprisals from the perspective of language and law. Beginning with the 1936 coup, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalist rebels used ritual violence to instill terror and destabilize the Second Spanish Republic. The coup was used as justification of a culture war and populations suspected of aligning with the Republic were killed. Extrajudicial killings molded into a successful institution of violence centering on public and private denunciations, paybacks, and arbitrary killings. This identification became the basis for the “otherization” of the Republicans that facilitated their mass execution. However, a significant shift occurred in September 2000 when Emilio Silva published the article “My grandfather was also a disappeared” in the La Crónica de León. By using the term “disappeared,” Silva demanded a reorientation in society’s view of the dead by directly implicating them as victims of international crime.


Protests in Argentina and Spain

This chapter analyzes “My grandfather was also a disappeared” as a performative utterance and the resulting implications for social and legal progress. In contrast to Latin America, where the term disappeared originated, the relationship between the disappeared in Spain and the judicial system is virtually non-existent. The analysis of “My grandfather was also a disappeared” as a performative reflects a legal reorientation in the social conscience of Spain that has taken place in the last decade as a result of an “Argentinization” of civil society strategies. This performative served as a catalyst in the Historical Memory Movement and was an essential contributor to the reinterpretation of the victim’s identity in Spain. Despite Silva’s intention of placing victims of Francoist reprisals in an international legal scenario, Spain’s distinct political context has blocked the recourse of justice for victims of political violence that has taken place in Argentina with the trials and imprisonment of perpetrators.

Breanna van Loenen

When nearly 3000 American men crossed the Atlantic to fight against dictator Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, they were celebrated as heroes in their country, both by the administration of FDR and the public. Fascism was seen in America as the direct antithesis of democracy, so they viewed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade soldiers as true patriots for risking their lives to defeat it in Spain. Yet, during and after World War II, these men quickly fell from grace. Once lauded for their service to America and the world, they were now the subjects of FBI investigations into un-American activities as a result of their past connection to the left-leaning Spanish Republicans. The military apparatus during WWII, rather than embrace these ardent anti-fascists as a strategic advantage, discriminated against them, citing their history fighting in Spain as valid evidence of their subversive political ideology, and preventing them from seeing the front lines.

Isidore Irving Fajans, soldier of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who reported discrimination by the military when trying to enlist during WWII. Source: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

Isidore Irving Fajans, soldier of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who reported discrimination by the military when trying to enlist during WWII. Source: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

The tragic story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade serves as a clear example of the type of revisionism undertaken to rewrite American history and portray the nation more favorably. To support Franco in America during the Spanish Civil War was akin to treason in the eyes of the public and the FBI. By the end of WWII, however, both the state and the public rebranded Franco as a benevolent, paternalistic leader, and campaigned to differentiate his kind of fascism from that of Hitler and Mussolini. Spain became strategically important in the Cold War, so America suddenly had no qualms about sending billions of dollars in aid their way, propping up a brutal and unfree dictator in the middle of the “free world” they purported to be protecting. My essay explores this dramatic shift in state and public opinion of fascism through analysis of the Brigade members, who experienced the changes first-hand.

Pre-collegiate Award

Jason Huang

During the Spanish Civil War, approximately 3,000 Americans served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the International Brigade composed primarily of volunteers from the United States. Of these 3,000 Americans were 90 African Americans from a variety of different backgrounds who heeded the international call for arms and fought for the rights and freedom of people in another country, when their own rights were little more than a promise.

The structure of the International Brigades was unique because of the leftist ideology of the vast majority of volunteers. While most conventional militaries, including that of the reformed post-revolutionary Soviet Red Army, were centralized, the International Brigades were instead democratized. This would lead to African American soldiers being elected by their comrades into leadership positions within the brigade, most notably Oliver Law, who became commander over the entire Abraham Lincoln battalion and thus the first black commander of a mixed-race US military unit. This was a huge difference from the US army that many of them would return to when continuing their fight against the fascists in World War II. In contrast, the US army would remain segregated until 1948

My work on the actions of African American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade explores their backgrounds and reasons for joining such a distant war, as well as how the communist ideals of the brigade helped shatter class and racial borders well before the brief integration of African Americans units during the Battle of the Bulge. Many African American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade would continue to lead the fight against segregation and oppression back in the United States.

Briann Siener

“Beans and Bombs” tells the story of Maria, a young girl growing up in a farming town outside of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The story explores Maria’s growth as she learns about the dire state of her country and the pain of loss.

Kate Harty and Alice Tecoztky

In the years before World War II, another battle against fascists raged in Europe. Across Spain, leftists of many persuasions, from moderate democrats to communists to anarchists, fought against General Franco’s rebels. Thousands of men and women traveled from around the world to fight fascism, and many of these volunteers often left countries that were internally divided themselves. Though the United States was officially neutral in the Spanish Civil War, the country contained both vocal leftist groups and prominent pro-Francoists. This paper discusses the role of religion, in determining or deepening the political persuasions of Americans during the Spanish Civil War. In particular, it examines clashes between the frequently left-wing, communist-affiliated Jewish community, and the anti-interventionist and pro-Franco Irish Catholic enclaves. The religious press contributed to the insular natures of both these communities, and often circulated misinformation and promoted more radical politics. This paper also discusses the occasional leftist dissenters in the Catholic community and the political variability of American Protestants. Ultimately, this paper found that the influence of religious views, as well as ideological sympathies, complicated American attitudes during the Spanish Civil War.