1976 Lincoln Brigade Documentary Now Online

August 18, 2022

The Last Cause is an outstanding documentary in three parts on the Lincoln Brigade and International Brigades. Directed in 1976 by Stephen K. Franklin and Alex Cramer and shown briefly on CBC TV, it has now been made publicly available by Harvard University.

The Last Cause, part I

Part I, of The Last Cause, opens with a song celebrating the sacrifices of the American volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade during the battle of Jarama outside of Madrid. With the beginning of Spain’s civil war in July of 1936, thousands of Americans made their way to Madrid to join the fight against fascism. Those that survived would later be designated “premature anti-fascists” by the American government due to their leftist sympathies and the fact that they had decided to participate in a war in which the U.S. government had taken a non-interventionist stance. These American volunteers along with the British, Canadian, German and Italian volunteers that made up the International Brigades believed that the fascist forces led by Franco, Mussolini and Hitler had to be stopped in Spain, or fascism would engulf all of Europe. Spain’s civil war began with the democratic election of a Republican government that immediately began to take Spain’s public educational system out of the hands of the Catholic church, building 7,000 new public schools during the first year of their reforms. The same government instituted land reform, redistributing lands held by wealthy landowners to poor farmers. These changes along with the legalization of abortion and other liberal reforms created a powerful backlash from Spain’s aristocracy, the Catholic church and the military. Most of Spain’s officer class joined the rebellion against the Republic, some of them adopting the slogan “Death to intelligence, long live death.” The Catholic church provided money to the rebels and Hitler and Mussolini sent tanks, planes and battalions of Italian soldiers to Spain. One million Spaniards would die during the ensuing conflict. This documentary tells the story of the Spanish Civil War through the voices of the Canadian, American and British veterans who returned home after the defeat of the Spanish Republic by General Franco’s troops and their German and Italian allies. (Link.)

The Last Cause, part II

Part II, of The Last Cause, begins as the battle for Madrid intensifies. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936, thousands of American volunteers had made their way to Madrid to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the defense of Madrid. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the first racially integrated brigade of American soldiers in U.S. history and was made up of both Afro-American and white volunteers from throughout the U.S. The volunteers were led by Colonel Oliver Law, an Afro-American veteran who had served in the U.S. Army before joining the fight in Spain. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought in multiple engagements around Madrid. Casualty rates were high, and American volunteers arriving at the front expected to die within a month. A British brigade of volunteers fighting alongside the Americans entered one engagement with 2500 men and had lost 1900 men by the end of the battle. As the siege of Madrid becomes more desperate, Generalissimo Franco’s Italian allies decide that Italian divisions will have to take Madrid. The Italian general Rabata leads four Black Shirt divisions along with 250 tanks against the international volunteer positions in the Guadalajara valley. They are stopped by the poorly equipped Garibaldi Brigade. The engagement becomes a battle between Mussolini’s fascist forces and the Italian anti-fascist volunteers of the Garibaldi Brigade who had left Italy in order to support the Spanish Republic. After days of fighting, the Garibaldi Brigade prevails, capturing thousands of Mussolini’s Italian troops and bringing the Italian advance to a halt. (Link.)

The Last Cause, part III

In Part III, of The Last Cause, Spain’s Republican forces along with the International Brigades capture one thousand miles of territory from Franco’s troops during a new offensive. The town of Teruel is taken, but soon destroyed by German bombers. By the end of the battle for Teruel half of the 40,000 international volunteers are dead. The remaining survivors although short of food and suffering from malnutrition, mount a counter attack across the Ebro River. The offensive is stalled by Franco’s Italian and German allies. In an effort to garner support from the international community, Spain’s Republican leaders decide to send the International Brigades home. Their desperate hope is that Hitler and Mussolini will then remove their troops from Spain. Instead Hitler’s and Mussolini’s forces attack Barcelona. Before the city falls the Catalan citizens give the International Brigade volunteers a magnificent farewell. As the surviving volunteers march through the streets on their way to France, they are surrounded by thousands of grateful Spaniards. A month later the city falls and the fascist reprisals begin. Hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and anarchists are placed in concentration camps throughout Spain during the “limpieza”. This documentary tells the story of the Spanish Civil War through the voices of the American, Canadian and British volunteers who survived the war and returned home after the defeat of the Spanish Republic by General Franco’s troops and their German and Italian allies. The sacrifices of the International Brigades and Spain’s Republican forces may have prevented Franco from entering World War II on the side of the Nazis. Although pressured by Mussolini and Hitler to join the fight, Franco ultimately decided that his country was so decimated and divided, that it had to remain on the sidelines during World War II. (Link.)

Ronald Kent is the Editor of International Labor History Association in Madison, WI.