Skip to main content

Smithsonian - June 24, 2020

Eluard Luchell McDaniels traveled across the Atlantic in 1937 to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War, where he became known as “El Fantastico” for his prowess with a grenade. As a platoon sergeant with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the International Brigades, the 25-year-old African American from Mississippi commanded white troops and led them into battle against the forces of General Franco, men who saw him as less than human. It might seem strange for a Black man to go to such lengths for the chance to fight in a white man’s war so far from home—wasn’t there enough racism to fight in the United States?—but McDaniels was convinced that anti-fascism and anti-racism were one and the same. “I saw the invaders of Spain [were] the same people I’ve been fighting all my life," Historian Peter Carroll quotes McDaniels as saying. "I’ve seen lynching and starvation, and I know my people’s enemies.”

McDaniels was not alone in seeing anti-fascism and anti-racism as intrinsically connected; the anti-fascists of today are heirs to almost a century of struggle against racism. While the methods of Antifa have become the object of much heated political discourse, the group’s ideologies, particularly its insistance on physical direct action to prevent violent oppression, are much better understood when seen in the framework of a struggle against violent discrimination and persecution began almost a century ago.

Historian Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism—one of the definitive works on the subject—lays out the motivating passions of fascism, which include “the right of the chosen group to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law”. At its heart, fascism is about premising the needs of one group, often defined by race and ethnicity over the rest of humanity; anti-fascists have always opposed this.

Anti-fascism began where fascism began, in Italy. Arditi del Popolo—"The People’s Daring Ones”—was founded in 1921, named after the Italian army’s shock troops from World War I who famously swam across the Piave River with daggers in their teeth. They committed to fight the increasingly violent faction of blackshirts, the forces encouraged by Benito Mussolini, who was soon to become Italy’s fascist dictator. The Arditi del Popolo brought together unionists, anarchists, socialists, communists, republicans and former army officers. From the outset, anti-fascists began to build bridges where traditional political groups saw walls.

Those bridges would quickly extend to the races persecuted by fascists.

Once in government, Mussolini began a policy of "Italianization" that amounted to cultural genocide for the Slovenes and Croats who lived in the northeastern part of the country. Mussolini banned their languages, closed their schools and even made them change their names to sound more Italian. As a result, the Slovenes and Croats were forced to organize outside of the state to protect themselves from Italianization, and allied with anti-fascist forces in 1927. The state responded by forming a secret police, the Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell'Antifascismo, the Organization for vigilance and repression of anti-fascism (OVRA), which surveilled Italian citizens, raided opposition organizations, murdered suspected anti-fascists, and even spied on and blackmailed the Catholic Church. Anti-fascists would face off against the OVRA for 18 years, until an anti-fascist partisan who used the alias Colonnello Valerio shot Mussolini and his mistress with a submachine gun in 1945.

Similar dynamics presented themselves as fascism spread across pre-war Europe.

The leftists of Germany’s Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB) first used the famous clenched-fist salute as the symbol of their fight against intolerance; when, in 1932, they became Antifaschistische Aktion, or “antifa” for short, they fought Nazi anti-Semitism and homophobia under the flags with the red-and-black logo that antifa groups wave today. That fist was first raised by German workers, but would go on to be raised by the Black Panthers, Black American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics and Nelson Mandela, among many others.

In Spain, anti-fascist tactics and solidarity were put to the test in 1936, when a military coup tested the solidarity among working and middle class groups who were organized as a board based popular front against fascism. The anti-fascists stood strong and became an example of the power of the people united against oppression. In the early days of the Spanish Civil War, the Republican popular militia was organized much like modern antifa groups: They voted on important decisions, allowed women to serve alongside men and stood shoulder to shoulder with political adversaries against a common enemy.

Black Americans like McDaniels, still excluded from equal treatment in the U.S. military, served as officers in the brigades of Americans who arrived in Spain ready to fight against the fascists. Overall, 40,000 volunteers from Europe, Africa, the Americas and China stood shoulder to shoulder as antifascist comrades against Franco’s coup in Spain. In 1936 there were no black fighter pilots in the U.S., yet three black pilots—James Peck, Patrick Roosevelt, and Paul Williams—volunteered to fight the fascists in the Spanish skies. At home, segregation had prevented them from achieving their goals of air combat, but in Spain they found equality in the anti-fascist ranks. Canute Frankson, a black American volunteer who served as head mechanic of the International Garage in Albacete where he worked, summed up his reasons for fighting in a letter home:

"We are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here, we’ll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler’s Fascist heels." ...
Read full report at Smithsonian