Barcelona, 1936: Fascist Uprising, People’s Olympics, American Athletes

Bernard Danchik was a natural candidate to represent the United States at the 1936 People’s Olympics, hosted in Barcelona. As a 22-year-old clerk and gymnast from New York City, he had fallen in with the Communist Party’s “Third Period” of extreme sectarianism during the Great Depression.[1] From their point of view, the Party was the ultimate authority on revolution and their socialist rivals were labeled “social-fascists.”[2] When Danchik was younger, he had helped organize the German Labor Lyceum gymnast team as part of the communist-front Labor Sports Union, dedicated to building an American branch of the socialist Workers’ Sport Movement. [3]

However, due to the growing tide of fascist regimes in former leftist hubs, the Labor Sports Union would soon be dissolved by the Communist Party of the USA in favor of building sports programs within the rising Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions. Albeit, at this point in the early days of the Popular Front alliance, the old Third Period organizations still produced socially conscious sport organizers. Furthermore, the Communist-led mutual aid and fraternal organization, the International Workers’ Order (IWO), with a membership of around 100,000, operated an extensive athletic program within its lodges.[4] Activists organized the New York City-based Committee for Fair Play in Sports as an early Popular Front body, with membership including both Communist Party activists of the Labor Sports Union and Socialist Party activists of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which also operated extensive sports programs.[5] The Committee for Fair Play’s main goal was to oppose the 1936 Nazi-hosted Berlin Olympics and, if possible, pressure the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Games to a location that would not superficially legitimate fascism.[6]

Outside of the sporting world, high tensions oozed across the European continent. Fascists battled shaky alliances of socialists and communists for control. Along with a decade of control in Italy, the fascists had smashed large militant labor movements and active left-wing political organizations in Germany and Austria. In France, a socialist alliance had come to power with an explicit anti-fascist program. The Soviet Union was rapidly industrializing (with high human costs) and had active allies in various Communist Parties throughout Europe. While in Spain, after centuries of extremely conservative autocratic rule, the monarchy came to an end in 1931.  After a few years of center-right party rule, an alliance of liberal, socialist, and communist parties was elected along with affiliated labor unions. As a result, there were rumblings of a potential military coup, backed by the church and fascist paramilitaries, which served as a backdrop for the alternative “People’s Olympics.”

By June 1936, as it became obvious that goals of appeasement had failed, the newly elected Popular Front government in Spain offered an alternative; one organized by the Socialist Workers’ Sport International federation.[7] Given the anti-fascist nature of the Spanish Republican government, it seemed eager to support protests against Hitler’s Nazi regime becoming legitimized in the eyes of the international community by hosting the Olympic Games. Quickly, the other newly-elected Popular Front government in France offered 1500 athletes and 500,000 francs, along with an endorsement from socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum, to support the cause and give the Games more legitimacy.[8] The People’s Olympics – the fourth such socialist Olympiad – were thus scheduled from July 19th to 26th in Barcelona. When an invitation from Games organizers for an American delegation of athletes reached the Committee for Fair Play in May 1936, there was initial hesitation about its ability to put together a delegation in such a short period of time.  However, at a meeting on June 25th, the Committee decided to recruit a representative team.[9] As a result, a special Committee for the Barcelona People’s Olympiad was formed and assembled a team of ten athletes. After the conservative American Athletic Union voted, by a slim margin, to field an American team for the Berlin Olympics, it also voted to ban athletes from participating in the People’s Olympics.[10] Therefore, any team assembled for the Barcelona Games risked permanent expulsion from AAU-sanctioned events. To note, there is no evidence that this ever occurred after the athletes returned from Barcelona.[11]

The Delegation:

  • The managers of the team were William Benton Chamberlain,[12] whose affiliation was not clear, and Francis Adams Henson, who was a writer and self-described fellow-traveler of the Communist Party.

Two athletes were invited because of their reputation as elite athletes and leftist sympathizers:

  • Charles “Charlie” Burley was a 19-year-old African American welter-weight boxer from Pittsburgh who refused to participate in Olympic trials in protest of the Nazi Games.[13]
  • Irving Jenkins was a white boxer living in NYC but was well-known as a college heavy-weight boxer and football player at Cornell University, where he was still enrolled.

The rest of the delegation was assembled from NYC-based leftist labor unions, after elimination trials or were recommended by the Committee for Fair Play[14]:

  • The aforementioned Bernie Danchik, whose scrapbook of the trip was saved and has proven useful for this essay.
  • Alfred “Chick” Chakin was a trainer and wrestler for the squad and the wrestling coach at City College (NYC) in his early 30s. He was a member of the IWO, as well as the Teachers’ Union, and often served as the coach of the delegation.
  • Frank Payton was a 24-year-old African American sprinter from the Bronx. He had served as a captain of IWO baseball and track teams from 1935 to 1936. As such, he was active in the Labor Sports Union Members’ Activities Committee.
  • Eddie Krauss, a white jumper, was to participate in the long jump, pole vault, and the running long jump. From Brooklyn, he was a member of ILGWU Local 155.
  • Harry Engel was a white sprinter from the Bronx. He had been active in the ILGWU’s Local 10 baseball and basketball teams.
  • Julian Raoul was a cyclist living in Manhattan. He had come in second in the New York State Olympic tryouts but decided to join the delegation instead. As a French immigrant who had lived in the United States for a decade, he was active in the French Sports Club. There is no evidence that he was politically active.
  • Myron Dickes was a 21-year-old, white, middle-distance runner. He was the Labor Sports Union track champion and captain of an IWO basketball team. He had been active on the Labor Sports Union Members’ Activities Committee as well.
  • Dorothy “Dot” Tucker was an African American sprinter from Harlem, and the only woman on the squad. She was the captain of the ILGWU’s Local 22 track and basketball teams.[15]

The Trip

It was quite impressive that the team was able to assemble with such short notice, within a week of their July 3rd departure. With good luck messages from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and other dignitaries, the team boarded the SS Transylvania, which spent eight days crossing the Atlantic before arriving in Dublin on July 12th. During the voyage, the team spent their time working out at, what Danchik remarked as, an “ungodly time,” followed by meetings about the history of labor sports and anti-Nazism.[16]

Unfortunately, the multiracial composition of the team caused some friction with other passengers. During meals, for example, the ship waiters had the team’s tables moved on several occasions because high-class passengers did not want to sit next to the black members of the team. In another example, team members played in a ship-organized ping pong tournament, but when black team members were amongst the finalists, the tournament was called off rather than risking whites losing to blacks. The delegation wanted to do more, however decided against pursuing the issue of their black teammates’ mistreatment by fellow passengers, a common response in the 1930s to balancing fighting for justice while discouraging reprisals from racists.

Barcelona: The Calm and the Storm

By their descriptions, Danchik and his teammates were absolutely astonished in their impressions of Barcelona. The city had so recently undergone a massive political shift, with the election of the Popular Front alliance, made possible by the anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) union’s participation in the revolutionary environment, which included strikes and the arming of peoples’ militias. In reality, Barcelona was but a few days away from the outbreak of a fascist military uprising and subsequent revolution across Spain. The city was filled with a revolutionary zeal appropriate as a prelude to a politically motivated multi-sport event. Barcelona was abuzz with the influx of fellow-athletes.

Quickly hitting the town, the team visited bars and brothels across the city, and the next few days were spent preparing for the Olympics as well as site-seeing. As they toured the Olympic facilities, they marveled at Montjuieh Stadium; with a capacity of 72,000 it was the largest venue, much grander than the Vienna Peoples’ Olympic stadium of 1931.[17] Myron Dickes summed up the delegation’s thoughts about washing away national divisions during the Games: “We were bound by a common spirit, a belief in workers’ sport.”[18] Clearly, the delegation was feeling apart of the revolutionary atmosphere.

As foreign athletes flooded into the city, mixing with the working-class militias and unions, they noticed some tension in the air, wondering whether opponents of the new government would seek to disrupt the events.[19] However, a resounding display of unity – six to ten thousand participants jammed into the stadium – led to an amazing sensation of fraternal internationalism. The spirit of the event was intended to build understanding and international solidarity against fascism, especially as Hitler would use the Berlin Olympics, later in the summer, as a propaganda tool for his regime.[20] Alas, it was not to be. On the day that the Peoples’ Olympiad was to begin (July 19th), military units stationed in the city joined in revolt against the Popular Front government and began attacking union halls and workers’ militia throughout Barcelona.[21] Though the fascist supporters were eventually suppressed during the first few days of the conflict, by the end of July, as it devolved from a simple coup attempt into a full-blown civil war, the nationalists controlled a third of Spain. In those first few days, the American delegation became eyewitnesses to a revolution. Danchik recalled in his notes:

“Sunday [the 19th]- COMES THE REVOLUTION — We leave the hotel to get provisions for the 100 and some kids we have in the place. Rifle and pistol fire, stuttering machine guns, bombing and shelling. They don’t do anything by halves here. We are locked in our hotel and every time we shove our heads out the windows, we are shot at.” [22]

The athletes were shocked by the suddenness of the uprising. Dot Tucker thought, as she walked towards the rumbles and explosions, that they were celebratory fireworks to mark the beginning of the Games.[23] Team members remembered later that the fighting was between heavily armed military units and working-class militias with simple rifles and hastily constructed barricades.[24] Yet the overwhelming number of workers pushed back the fascist rebels to the safety of churches, as clergy supported the nationalist cause. Over the following month, the right-wing Hearst Press, a sensationalist newspaper, would accuse the American athletes of fighting with the workers against the rebels.[25]  However, only three members were actively involved in the fighting by helping prepare street barricades. Two members, of which Danchik may have been one – though he was tightlipped about who actually went out – aided almost immediately:

“Intent on getting out, they threatened to leave by way of window, if withheld. Finally, the proprietor gave in, but warned them that their venture would be at their own risk. Walking down the street at early dawn, they saw the Spanish civilians, collars open, sleeves rolled up, feverishly uprooting the pavement, hurriedly making barricades. Before they knew it, he continues, the boys found themselves with picks and shovels, and told to dig. Working on a stagger system – that is working until your hands bled and blistered, and your fingers bruised before you handed over your crow-bar over [SIC] to another worker – they quickly piled up cobbles until a fortress was built. Later in the afternoon, when there was a lull in the fighting, they slipped back to the hotel.”[26]

As recounted on a speaking tour later in life, Danchik noted the following:

“On our way two of our boys helped to build a street barricade, he related last night. Behind these barricades, wives fought alongside of husbands, even young girls between the ages of 21 and 24 took part in the fighting. It was a loyal army and a workers’ army without uniforms but ready for the fray. During the first day, Danchik estimated that about 300 were killed and from 500 to 600 injured. The second day’s toll was less, and by the third day the loyal troops had things ‘well in hand.’”[27]

Later, Myron Dickes also helped workers assemble a barricade, though at what point was not clear.[28] The delegation noted that beyond burning churches full of snipers, few criminal acts took place and certainly no looting, despite what had been stated in the Hearst papers. In fact, quite the opposite. In one of the poorest cities in the world at the time, one leftist newspaper noted, workers burned piles of cash.[29] The American athletes were witnessing a break from the old order and the beginning of a truly liberating revolution where the workers’ militias beat back the military revolt in Barcelona during those first few days and began to politically and economically transform much of the city and countryside.

In response to the outbreak of fascist revolt, the People’s Olympics were at first delayed. A “March of Nations” rally by the thousands of athletes was organized in support of the Spanish government’s efforts to beat back the fascists. Danchik remarked that the beautiful city they had arrived in less than a week prior had been largely ruined, with planes filling the sky and machine gun fire all around them. The delegation was largely confined to Hotel Europa. Three thousand had perished in those three days of fighting.[30] After a French gymnastics team was attacked, it was decided that the city was no longer safe for their guests, and so the “Olympipopular,” as the games were referred to in Spain, was cancelled and the athletes asked to flee the country.[31]

The American team left on July 24th without Julien Raoul, who decided not to travel back through France for fear of being drafted for military duty as a French citizen. He was trapped in Barcelona for a few more days until the USS Oklahoma picked up American citizens still stranded in Spain.[32] Frank Peyton later remarked: “We didn’t leave as refugees. We left as visitors who had been splendidly treated by a people engaged in a life and death struggle for its liberty. We left conscious we had witnessed one of the great events in world history.”[33]

Re-grouping: The Mini-Olympiad in Paris

The American team arrived in Paris a few days later, leaving behind a Spain descended into a desperate fight between fascists and communists A few thousand athletes from the cancelled games – representing France, England, Norway, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the USA – met in Paris’ Pershing Stadium and staged a mini Olympiad. They mostly held track events in which Engel placed third in the 100-meter dash, Krauss second in the high jump, Tucker fourth in the 80-meter race and second in the 500-meter. There was also a basketball game, in which the Americans lost to a French team. Two members of the delegation, Tucker and Krauss, broke off at that point to attend another anti-fascist athletic meet in Czechoslovakia that they had been invited to. [34] As the team departed France on August 3rd Danchick remarked on the possibilities of the canceled People’s Olympics: “Goddamn that revolution—the Olimpiada would have been very colorful—but the loyalists can’t help themselves—it is self-defense and the cause is worth it.”[35]

The American team arrived in New York on August 5th, where a large reception was held for them at Hotel Delano by the Committee for the Barcelona People’s Olympiad.[36] Over the next few months, as eyewitnesses to the events in Spain, they organized several speaking events to mobilize support and volunteers for the Spanish Republican military in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigades.[37] While it is uncertain how much the athletes actually influenced enlistment, one member of the delegation, Alfred Chakin, traveled to Spain in 1937 as part of the International Brigades instead of returning to coaching. He was captured in March 1938 and summarily executed by fascist forces.[38] The Spanish Civil War became a flash point of international solidarity and hope for the international Popular Front. The canceled People’s Olympics, on the other hand, were a reminder of the possibilities of an alternative sporting culture, ultimately crushed by the fascist revolution. [39]

 

James W.J. Robinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Northeastern University. His dissertation concerns the history of American sports organizing within left-wing movements in the interwar period.

 

[1] The “Third Period” was an ideological direction within the International Communist movement which saw Communist Parties across the world mandated to become hyper sectarian by Joseph Stalin. In adopting this “class against class” position, in which any compromise or reform, short of revolution or working with external groups, meant diluting the revolutionary purity of the movement, the American Communist Party adopted specifically Communist labor unions, publication groups, and fraternal orders. This lasted until about 1935, when the victory of fascism in Germany and Austria led to a reversal of this policy in the Popular Front era.
[2] “Press Release, Committee on Fair Play in Sports”, June 1936; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 1; folder 4; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY, 10012, New York University Libraries.
[3] A labor Lyceum was a common social forum in Jewish radical circles. For more on Worker Sport, see: Krüger, Arnd, and James Riordan. The Story of Worker Sport. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetic, 1996; Deutsch, Julius, and Gabriel Kuhn. Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging A Militant Working-Class Culture. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017. For labor sports unions, see Logan, Gabe (2016) “Playing for the People: Labor Sport Union Athletic Clubs in the Lake Superior/Iron Range 1927-1936,” Upper Country: A Journal of the Lake Superior Region: Vol. 4, Article 3.
[4] Zecker, Robert. “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and The Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2018.
[5] Tyler, Gus. Look for The Union Label: History of The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995; Robinson, James. “Needles and Hoops Sports Programs in The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, The Socialist Party, and Their Communist Rivals”. Process: A Blog for American History, 2018. http://www.processhistory.org/robinson-ilgwu-sports/.
[6] “Committee on Fair Play in Sports Issues Rebuttal to Bingham’s Position “. The Harvard Crimson, 1935. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1935/11/26/committee-on-fair-play-in-sports/.
[7] There were two workers’ sport federations, a 2nd Social Democratic international and a 3rd Communist International associated federation, which were cooperating during the Popular Front after much animosity. Much of the Social Democratic workers’ sport federation was smashed when the Austrofascists and Nazis came to power. See Wheeler, Robert F. “Organized Sport and Organized Labour”. Journal of Contemporary History 13, no. 2 (1978): 191-210.
[8] “The Face of the People’s Olympiad”, June 25, 1936, Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 2
[9] Letter forwarded by the Fair Sports Committee from the Organizing Committee of the Barcelona People’s Olimpiad, May 21st, 1936; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 1; folder 3; Wagner Archives; “Minutes Of Meeting To Discuss Sending A Delegation To The Barcelona Olimpiada Popular”, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers;  Wagner Archives
[10] “U.S. Labor Athletes Miss Berlin”, origin unknown, July 14th, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 2Wagner Archives.
[11] Webb, Clifford. “’Beating the Bans’ Is the Latest Game” August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; Wagner Archives.
[12] “Americans Took Part in Barcelona Fight”, New York Times, July 27th, 1936, Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; Wagner Archives.
[13] “Record of Charles Burley” scrap, June 1936; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 1; folder 2;  Labor.
[14] Telegram from Gibarti Henson, June 1936; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 1; folder 3;  Labor.
[15] “People’s Olympiad Delegates To Tell Their Experiences”, August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; “French Athletes Wounded In Spain”, New York Post, July 1936, Clipping Scrapbook“U.S. Team Sails For New Labor Games in Spain”, June 1936,; Sign-in Sheet of American team and their organization, June 1936,; ALBA.033; box 1; 8; “American Team For Olimpiada Popular” internal memo, June 1936; ALBA.033; box 1; folder 3; Newspaper Clipping, origin unknown, June 1936, ALBA.033; box 2; “U.S.A. Sportsmen Arrive In London”, origin unknown July 1936, Wagner Archives.
[16] Postal Telegraph, F H LaGuardia Mayor, July 2nd, 1936; “Cablegrama via Italcable” telegram from Norman Thomas, July 17th, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; box 1; folder 7;  Wagner Archives.
[17] Webb, Clifford “Breakfast Send-off to Barcelona” origin unknown, July 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook, Wagner Archives.
[18] “Athletes Spike Horror Stories” origin unknown, August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 2; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
[19] Peyton, Frank “I Saw Workers’ Heroism in Barcelona”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner abor Archives.
[20] Contemporary descriptions of the Barcelona People’s Olympics’ total athlete participation to be in the 6,000-10,000 range. “The Face of the People’s Olympiad”, June 25, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[21] “Start of Strife in Spain Is Told by Eyewitness”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[22] “Record of the Trip, cont’d” notes of Danchik, July 15-24, 1936, on Hotel Europa letterhead, Clipping Scrapbook Wagner Archives.
[23] Peyton, Frank “I Saw Workers’ Heroism in Barcelona”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook Wagner Archives.
[24] “Boro Athletes Braved Bullets in Barcelona”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook Wagner Archives.
[25] A reference to William Randolph Heart, who was a newspaper magnate at the time, known for yellow-journalism that helped lead to the Spanish-American War. He was the basis of the main character in Citizen Kane.
[26] O’Hara, Mark. “The Fascists Shot at Us”, Daily Worker, August 16, 1936. Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[27] “Boro Athletes Braved Bullets in Barcelona”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[28] “Athletes Saw Fighting in Spain”, origin unknown, August 1936 est, Clipping Scrapbook; Bernard R. Danchik Papers; ALBA.033; box 2; “Athletes Detail Spanish Revolt” origin unknown, August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[29] The newspaper article may be claiming Barcelona was one of the poorest in Europe as opposed to the world. “Barcelona Fighting Described by Athlete” origin unknown, July-August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook Wagner Archives.
[30] “Thousands Die in Barcelona, Spanish Women Shoot Rebels” origin unknown, July 21st, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[31] O’hara, Mark. “The Fascists Shot at Us”, Daily Worker, August 16, 1936. Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[32] Wagner, Michael. “French Red Devil: Julien Raoul”. Centerline Rule, 2014. http://centerlinerule.blogspot.com/2014/02/french-red-devil-julien-raoul.html; “Start of Strife in Spain Is Told by Eyewitness”, origin unknown, August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[33] Peyton, Frank “I Saw Workers’ Heroism in Barcelona”, origin unknown, August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[34] “Record of the Trip, cont’d” notes of Danchik, July 25-28, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[35] “Record of the Trip, cont’d” notes of Danchik, July 29-August 3, 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[36] “Welcome Home” ticket for reception hosted by the American Committee for Barcelona People’s Olympiada. August 1936, Clipping Scrapbook; Wagner Archives.
[37] The International Brigades were international volunteers who fought for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, suffering high casualties. They were organized primarily as part of the Popular Front strategy of the Communist Parties, in which anyone who opposed fascism was invited to join. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which reflects the “all-americanism” of the Popular Front of the American Communist Party, mustered a few thousand volunteers, whom later faced persecution during the Red Scare as “premature anti-fascists.”
[38] The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War. Directed Noel Buckner, Mary Dore & Sam Sills. New York City. First Run Features, 1984.
[39] Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, And Revenge. London: William Collins, 2007.

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