On March 30, 2008, several hundred people gathered at the waterfront in San Francisco. They had come to witness the unveiling of a monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: 2,800 Americans who joined some 35,000 other volunteers from more than 50 countries to defend the Spanish Republic against fascist forces during Spain’s civil war. The conflict, which raged from 1936 until 1939, led to the deaths of around half a million people, including at least 750 Americans, and ended with the victory of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist faction.
The monument, a 40-foot-long steel structure, contains rows of translucent onyx blocks encased with written texts and photographs. “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” reads one, with the words attributed to the Spanish Communist icon Dolores Ibárruri. At the unveiling, Mayor Gavin Newsom addressed the crowd. “The spirit of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” he declared, is “a legacy that we have inherited.” The microphone was later passed to one of the 11 surviving American veterans of the war in attendance. At the age of 21, Abe Osheroff had traveled from his home in Brooklyn to fight in Spain. In his speech, the 92-year-old left no doubt that his view of the world hadn’t changed. “The bastards will never cease their evil,” he growled from his wheelchair in a heavy New York accent, “and the decent human beings will never stop their struggle.”
Not long after San Francisco put up its monument, the Spanish port city of Santander took one down: an equestrian statue of Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist from the end of the war until his death in 1975. That his likeness had remained standing for more than three decades after his demise suggested that not everyone in Spain shared Osheroff’s ideas about good and evil. Indeed, to this day, many Spaniards continue to look back on the Franco era—and on the dictator himself—with some fondness. In 2006, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that, according poll it had conducted, a third of the Spanish public believed that Franco was right to overthrow the republic. No surprise, then, that not everyone in Santander was happy to see the statue of Franco torn down: as workers readied their torches and drills, a group of protesters laid flowers in memory of their beloved caudillo. Even the city’s government was less than thrilled; it had decided to remove the statue only after prodding from Spain’s parliament.
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