Watt Award Draws Record Number of Submissions

November 18, 2023

The prize committee met with the recipients of the undergraduate and graduate awards. The four scholars captivated the committee with presentations of their work and conversations about the larger implications of their scholarship and what they planned to do next.

The Watt Essay Prize committee was excited to receive close to sixty submissions this year, surpassing the numbers from the pre-COVID pandemic. Never before did so many undergraduate and graduate students from across the United States and Western Europe submit their work.

We awarded prizes to four exceptional pre-collegiate students. In a wonderfully thought-out essay, Monica Nitu examines the long philosophical underpinnings of the Spanish Civil War, including the influence of Hegel on nationalist thought, the justification for totalitarianism, and Marx’s importance to the Left. Kikyo Makino-Siller and Sohan Sahy provide detailed portraits of important individuals of the Spanish Civil War using primary sources. While Makino-Siller drew deeply on the Comintern archive to produce a rich account of the volunteer nurse Mabel Speigel, Sahay looked at the politics of the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Finally, the Watt Committee recognized Iago Macknik-Conde for his play about the Lincoln Brigade as the first desegregated American force. Iago has already been featured in The Volunteer for his performance of his play, based in part on his family’s experience. He garnered a first-place finish at the New York State History Day competition and an Outstanding Entry award at the National History Day Competition.

Two undergraduate papers stood out for their research and keen analysis. Sam Bisno of Princeton University mined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives for his paper “Olive Trees and Peasant Comrades,” which looks at the volunteers’ relationship to Spaniards as well as the Spanish environment and culture. Carolyn Ellison of Open University in Wales, UK offers a focused study of three members of the Welsh International Brigade Volunteers as part of her undergraduate thesis. Incorporating material from the National Archives, Ellison shows how the Welsh volunteers were driven by class solidarity and ideas of justice to join the fight in Spain.

Several of the graduate essays advanced our understanding of the Spanish Civil War and two made significant contributions to the scholarship. Mattew Kovac of University of California, Berkeley looks at the 1936 conjuncture, seeing the connection between the revolt in Palestine and the Spanish Civil War. His paper “Defending Jerusalem in Cordoba: The Palestinian Revolt, the Spanish Civil War, and Anticolonial Antifascism, 1936-1939” places the Spanish Civil War in the global anticolonial movement, showing how anticolonialism and antifascism were inseparable. The second recipient, Alfie Norris, is a repeat winner, having just received the award for his undergraduate thesis. This is only the second time that a student has won the award in two categories, showing how the Watt award helps young scholars continue to explore the Spanish Civil War in their studies. Norris, now a graduate student at Oxford, wrote a wonderful thesis, “From the Back-to-Back to the Battlefield: West Riding of Yorkshire International Brigade Volunteers’ Motivation, Experience, and Legacy.” Recipients of the Watt award are changing the history of the volunteers from the United Kingdom, showing that those who volunteered did so with a complex understanding of international politics and social justice. For the full text of the winning submissions, visit our the ALBA website here.

The jury for the 2023 George Watt Memorial Essay was comprised of Angela Giral (Columbia University), Joshua Goode (Claremont Graduate University), Jo Labanyi (New York University), Aaron Retish (Wayne State University), Josephine Yurek (New York City Public Schools), and Nancy Wallach (New York City Public Schools). The Watt 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. The personal correspondence between George and Ruth Watt during the Spanish Civil War was made into a play. The script and performance by actors Vero Maynez and Nathan Payne can be found on the ALBA website.

Aaron Retish, ALBA’s Treasurer, is a Professor of History at Wayne State University.

Pre-collegiate essays

Monica Nitu, “The Nexus of Philosophical Changes, Nationalism, and Totalitarianism: Exploring the Road to Fascism in Europe”

Demonstration in Salamanca, Spain, to celebrate the occupation of Gijón by Francoist troops, 1937. Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa.

My essay delves into the interplay of philosophical shifts, the rise of nationalism, and the ascent of totalitarianism in 20th-century Europe. It highlights the influence of Hegelianism, a philosophical system emphasizing dialectics and historical development, on political and social thought, and its role in shaping the path to authoritarian regimes. Nationalism, emerging in response to political upheaval and a quest for self-determination, both unified and divided societies. I further discuss how totalitarian regimes manipulated nationalism to consolidate power, emphasizing a cult-like devotion to the nation, and how the Spanish Civil War became a pivotal battleground for these competing ideologies. My essay underscores the lasting impact of the war as a precursor to World War II and a symbol of the struggles against extremism. Lastly, it calls for the preservation of democratic values, inclusivity, and the recognition of the lessons learned from history to guide the future. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Kikyo Makino-Siller, “Sweet Mabel”

Mabel Irene Spiegel (Irene Goldin) and Dorothy Putter. Imperial War Museum.

One of the most dedicated volunteers to serve in the Spanish Civil War, Mabel Irene Spiegel (1920-2004), left her home in Brooklyn at the age of 27 and began working tirelessly as a nurse in various Spanish hospitals. She was described by many patients as a sweet and diligent worker, and her colleagues commended her ability to work for days without rest. Spiegel lamented having to leave Spain upon the fascist victory in 1939, and indeed she was one of the last international volunteers to go. Unable to return home, Spiegel continued her humanitarian efforts in France, where she greatly contributed to anti-Nazi efforts and headed Marseilles’ Refugee Aid Office. It was with the help of many selfless volunteers such as Spiegel that the Republicans were able to fight for so long against tyranny. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Sohan Sahy, “From Painting to Politics The Life of David Alfaro Siqueiros”

David Alfaro Siqueiros in the early 1930s, Casasola Archive, Mexico. CC BY-SA 4.0.

David Alfaro Siqueiros was a Mexican muralist who lived from 1896 to 1974. His life was fraught with turmoil and conflict, but through it all, Siqueiros never deviated from his commitment to his ideals. From the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War, Siqueiros continued to fight (and paint) for leftist and socialist causes. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Iago Macknik-Conde, “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade: The First Desegregated Fighting Force”

Oliver Law with Steve Nelson and water carriers (Tamiment Library, NYU, ALBA Photo 184, Box 1, Folder 34)

My play depicts two Lincoln brigadiers during the Battle of the Ebro—the Second Spanish Republic’s last-ditch effort against Francisco Franco’s rebel army—in which the Abraham Lincoln Brigade suffered devastating losses. Set in a trench, it features one Black and one white soldier, underscoring the historical significance of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as the first desegregated American fighting force. Though my characters are fictional, each of them is a composite of the real Lincoln volunteers who inspired them: especially Oliver Law, Salaria Kea O’Reilly, Delmer Berg, Canute Frankson, Milton Wolff, and James Yates. Through them, the play illuminates the motivations that drove the volunteers to join the fight against fascism in Spain—and then to spearhead the fight for civil rights in America. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Undergraduate Essays

Samuel Bisno , “Olive Trees and Peasant Comrades: Spain as Refuge and Residence for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade”

Image of a Spanish postcard Harry Malofsky sent back home. ALBA Digital Library.

Historians have traditionally emphasized the ideological motivations and military exploits of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. This is understandable considering the profound geopolitical implications of the Spanish Civil War as well as the Lincolns’ deep anti-fascist commitments and remarkable bravery on the battlefield. Somewhat understudied in the foundational scholarship on the Brigade, however, is Spain itself. Without challenging the importance of the anti-fascist ideology the Lincolns brought with them across the Atlantic, this paper asks how the volunteers were shaped by their Spanish surroundings upon arrival, including when they were not actively engaged in armed conflict. To answer this question, I examine three Brigade members’ correspondence, today housed at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. The paper’s first section, titled “Spain as Refuge,” considers letters written by twenty-six-year-old volunteer Paul Wendorf primarily to his wife Leona as well as those written by twenty-one-year-old Harry Malofsky to his friends in New York City, the Sigels. This section contends that the landscape, cuisine, and culture of Spain offered much-needed respite from the harsh realities of war when the Lincolns were stuck in the trenches, on leave in a city, or even racing across the Ebro. The second section, “Spain as Residence,” considers Wendorf’s letters alongside those of Paul Sigel, friend of Malofsky before the two men enlisted. It argues that during the lengthy periods of time in which the Lincolns were in training or furloughed, they formed meaningful relationships with the people of their host towns and came to see Spain as their adoptive country. Ultimately, for the Lincolns, Spain was much more than an empty vessel for the grand global showdown between socialism, democracy, and fascism. Rather, as refuge and residence, Spain provided the volunteers with substantive, localized reasons to keep up the fight. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Carolyn Ellison, “The Welsh International Brigade Volunteers: Extra-parliamentary Anti-Fascist Activism or Humanitarianism; Community Consciousness or Communist Coercion?”

This paper tests the accepted history of the motivating factors for the Welsh volunteers to the International brigades by Hywel Francis against a challenge analysis from Robert Stradling through a close examination of three representative testimonies. Francis concluded that most of the Welsh contingent had origins in the Welsh mining industry with strong union or communist links and had been participants in various acts of local and national social activism, including anti-fascist rallies, before enrolling in the Brigades. The depression of the thirties produced high unemployment in the Welsh valleys, resulting in many seeking solace in self-education and the support network of mining union reading rooms and cinemas where they could be informed of the wider world, such as the rise of fascism and the threat to the young republic in Spain. Stradling challenged the creation of this modern Welsh myth of valiant miners battling fascism and the hypothesis that individuals made free choices to participate, intimating that coercion by the Communist Party was required to fulfil the quotas. He questioned why, if the cause was so honourable and dear to the Welsh, there had been so few published autobiographical accounts from these men.

Thus, the two hypotheses were examined against recently published autobiographical accounts from three modest Welsh volunteers, Alun Menai Wiliams, Edwin Greening, and Bob Peters. The testimonies of their political coming of age through endemic socio-economic conditions demonstrate the independent psychological journey to become a volunteer. They had debated with others, participated in group events and resistance, but ultimately each chose individually to volunteer for the International Brigades in what proved to be a life-changing event. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Graduate Essays

Matthew Kovac, “Defending Jerusalem in Cordoba: The Palestinian Revolt, the Spanish Civil War, and Anticolonial Antifascism, 1936-1939”

From the Spanish illustrated magazine “Estampa,” featuring North-African militiamen fighting for the Republic.

Despite the contemporaneity of the Spanish Civil War and the Palestinian Revolt (1936-1939), most scholarship on interwar antifascism has focused on the former struggle at the expense of the latter. This essay seeks to remedy this imbalance by demonstrating how Arab revolutionaries both imagined and experienced the revolutions in Spain and Palestine as two fronts in a single war against colonial fascism. Like Black antifascists, who linked the Spanish Civil War with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Arab antifascists drew connections between the breakdown of liberal imperialism in Spanish Morocco and Mandatory Palestine and the fascistization of their respective settler-colonial societies. Arguing that “fascism is the dictatorship of the most brutal colonists,” Arab communists like Najati Sidqi and Khaled Bakdash challenged Eurocentric definitions of fascism by putting empire, not capitalism, at the center of their analyses. Most compellingly, they located fascism’s most pressing threat to the Arab world not in Italy or Germany, but in the settler socialism of the Zionist colonial project. By following their directive to think Palestine and Spain together, we are forced to consider settler colonialism itself as a form of fascism, the bedrock of racialized violence upon which liberal imperialism ultimately rests. (Full text of the winning submission here.)

Alfie Norris, “From the Back-to-Back to the Battlefield: West Riding of Yorkshire International Brigade Volunteers’ Motivation, Experience, and Legacy”

Fred Spencer kneeling front row second from the left (with flat cap and ribbon on his lapel) leading a NUWM hunger march to London in Autumn 1936.

My dissertation is a study of the diverse backgrounds, lives, and experiences of individuals who volunteered to fight with the International Brigades from the West Riding of Yorkshire in northern England. This region was one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and is also the birthplace of the modern British Labour Party. With a strong labour history and tradition, it was unusual that little work had been done to understand how this region, with a strong left-wing political culture, became involved with the global fight against fascism in the 1930s.

The project utilised a variety of fascinating sources, from personal items left by volunteers at Sheffield City Archives, the overlooked memoirs of Communist organisers and International Brigaders, alongside oral history work with the families of Fred Spencer and David Buffman, two Yorkshire International Brigaders who were killed in Spain. It traced a wider story that stretched from the interwar period to the 1980s and beyond, as returning International Brigaders became prominent within the trade union movement and were influenced by Spain until their dying days. (Full text of the winning submission here.)