Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hugo Oehler collection


In the 1930s, activists worldwide flocked to Spain to participate in the Spanish Civil War. Many Americans, such as Ernest Hemingway, were drawn to the complex and dramatic crisis and fought for a myriad of causes. Hugo Oehler, an American Communist, was among the many who traveled to Spain to help define and shape the conflict. The Hugo Oehler collection, a gem among the Special Collections at Brandeis University, contains 1 linear foot of Oehler’s documents, including letters, reports, publications, and personal notes. Through this collection, the researcher experiences first-hand the ideas, arguments, and sharp opinions that shaped the pivotal Spanish crisis. The materials in the collection help illuminate one of the many camps in the Spanish Civil War, but also reveal important characteristics of the American Communist movement in the 1930s.





The Spanish Civil War is a complex crisis that involves a complicated web of acronyms; from the POUM to the CNT, FAI, CEDA, and JCI, the conflict is often difficult to understand, label, and define. When Hugo Oehler, an American Communist with success in organizing trade unions in the South and in Colorado, traveled to Spain in 1937, he hoped to steer the convoluted crisis toward his ultimate vision: an international proletarian revolution and the advent of worldwide Communism. Oehler hoped to encourage local radical groups and diagnose the problems of the fractured Spanish Left. In May of 1937, Oehler observed the armed conflict between radical left-wing groups and the Barcelona police. His pamphlet Barricades in Barcelona (which is also available in Special Collections), along with countless letters, reports, and articles, centers around this event, celebrating the passion of the Spanish Left, but urging them to form a unified Marxist party. The collection follows Oehler’s attempts to communicate the developments in Spain to his American comrades, along with the efforts of a group of Americans to define, shape, and direct a crucial moment in Spanish history.
Before diving into the specifics of the progress of the leftist camps in the Spanish Civil War, many documents relay the general upheaval and dire domestic situation in Spain. Oehler’s correspondence with Rosalio Negrete (many sources show that this was probably a pseudonym for fellow RWL member Russell Blackwell) is filled with expressions of frustration that reveal the disorder in Spain. Negrete and Oehler discuss complications with mail, censorship, and border control. In one letter, dated Jan 16, 1937, Negrete writes that Oehler’s letter faced a “delay due to censorship,” and later expresses: “it has been impossible as yet to organize a satisfactory system for mail.” He later warns Oehler of possible complications in entering the country, writing, “You cannot get in here without some political or trade union organization OKing you.” Oehler’s correspondence reveals a war-torn, distressed country. This depiction sets the stage for Oehler’s political involvement that emerges in other documents in the collection.

Many documents in the collection help to illuminate one specific wing in the complicated Spanish Civil War. Oehler and his fellow American Communists focus their observations on the left wing and their efforts to defeat both the Fascist and Republican forces. Many periodicals in the collection relay, first-hand, the ideas and policies of left-wing Spanish groups. For example, the collection contains two major publications of the Worker Party of Marxist Unification (POUM): one in English, The Spanish Revolution, and the other in Spanish, Boletín Interior. The Spanish Revolution brought POUM news to English speakers, describing POUM policies, analyzing the tactics of the Fascists, and weighing international support. Similarly, the Boletín Interior circulated party news and ideas to Spanish-speaking followers.

Although the periodicals in the collection directly relay the voices of the Spanish Left, much of the collection focuses less on Spanish visions of the future and more on an American vision of an international revolution. Oehler observes the developments in Spain through the specific lens of an American Communist. Many of his reports discuss radical developments across the globe and assess the vitality of the international workers’ movement. In countless reports, Oehler’s solution to a fractured Spanish left is a unified Marxist front that will bring about the advent of international Communism. Fourteen folders of Oehler’s recorded observations, sent as reports to his fellow Party members, relay this vision and color the American Communist ideology. While the collection reveals much about the left wing in the Spanish Civil War, it reveals even more about the American Communist movement in the 1930s.

This collection sheds light on a fascinating element of the Spanish Civil War. From descriptions of national instability to reports on armed insurrections and organizations’ treatises, the Hugo Oehler collection illuminates the details of the left wing during the war. The documents also trace Oehler’s efforts to define and shape the vast and complicated crisis. The collection is a valuable find for researchers interested in the details of the Spanish Civil War or in the story of the international efforts of American Communists.


description by Katie Doody, undergraduate history intern in Archives & Special Collections