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UC Berkeley and the 80th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War began 80 years ago this July. UC Berkeley marks the important anniversary with a series of cultural events, including poetry readings, films, exhibits, performances, book talks, and public discussions.


Historian Robert Cantwell has called the Spanish Civil War "an appallingly literal cause." When General Francisco Franco staged his coup against the democratically elected Spanish government in July 1936, a series of forces converged to produce a dynamic reaction that, although it was in many ways inevitable, was still unexpected. It surprised no one more than Franco himself. How could he fail, he must have thought, with the Army of Africa he commanded, troops in Spain ready to join him, the support and collusion of powerful Spanish generals, and the assistance of Mussolini and Hitler? But Franco did not realize what passions his coup would unleash, nor did he anticipate the “appallingly literal cause” defending the Republic would become for thousands of Spaniards and the international community.


Approximately 30,000 volunteers from 52 countries traveled to Spain between 1936-1939 to support the Spanish Republic in its struggle against Franco and his fascist allies, and many thousands more supported the Spanish cause from their home countries. 2,700 volunteers were from the US. One of the first, and most celebrated, was a Berkeley PhD student in Economics, Robert Hale Merriman. He became the first commander of the US volunteers in Spain, who were collectively known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Since 1936, and after Merriman’s widow, Marion Merriman Wachtel, helped found the Bay Area Post of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (whose papers now reside in the Bancroft Library’s collection), this campus—and the larger Bay area—have played a significant role in this history and its commemoration.


Since the surviving volunteers returned to the US from Spain (approximately one-third lost their lives), they have gathered each year to remember this crucial event in the 20th century’s social, political, and cultural history: when tens of thousands of politically minded people put their lives on their line to defend the Spanish Republic. One of the largest populations of returning US volunteers settled in the Bay Area. The Bay Area Post of the VALB has been one of the most active in the country, and the Bancroft Library’s collection of papers, letters, photographs, posters, pamphlets and artifacts from the Spanish Civil War—much of it donated by members of the Bay Area Post—is one of the most significant archives of its kind.


To remember this vital story, to help recognize the remarkable achievements of the volunteers during and after the war, and to make tangible UC Berkeley’s connection to this progressive, activist, and internationalist tradition, we have scheduled a series of events on campus this fall, that include theater performances, exhibits, poetry readings, film screenings, book talks and public discussions. When I put out a call last year to solicit the participation of potentially interested parties in this commemorative process, in hopes that the 80th anniversary year would not pass unmarked, the response was widespread, immediate and enthusiastic. This is a testament to the enduring importance, and relevance, of the Spanish Civil War here in the US.


The people who dedicated time and energy into organizing these events are all educators, librarians, and curators, and in that spirit, we hope you will take advantage of the many different cultural events that will take place on campus this fall. We have also included many links to outside sources on this website, to help you learn more about the Spanish Civil War, and its legacy. The US volunteers spoke passionately about the Spanish cause, and hoped, more than anything, that it would never be forgotten.


Peter Glazer

Associate Professor

Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.

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