Student Milton Zerman checks out the historical plaque installed on a Virginia Street apartment building to honor 1930s UC Berkeley Ph.D. student and Spanish Civil War hero Robert Merriman. The marker was Zerman’s idea, and he hopes the campus will similarly recognize all the Berkeley students who volunteered for that war. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

UC Berkeley undergraduate Milton Zerman never met Robert Merriman, a Ph.D. student on campus more than 85 years ago. But after learning about him in “The History of Fascism,” a class Zerman took last summer, the senior couldn’t forget him — and took action to make sure no one else in Berkeley will, either.

Merriman was one of at least 10 Berkeley students from diverse academic fields and racial backgrounds — and some 2,800 U.S. citizens — who voluntarily fought in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War to defend the Spanish government against rebels backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. At the time, American public sentiment favored maintaining strict neutrality in European conflicts.

One of Ernest Hemingway’s inspirations for the character of Robert Jordan, an American anti-fascist hero in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Merriman was killed in April 1938, at age 28, while serving as one of the highest-ranking American volunteers who fought in Spain.

“He was a young, idealistic Californian who believed in American and democratic values and in freedom and equality — and he put his life on the line for them,” said Zerman, a history major.

A plaque newly installed on a Berkeley apartment building at 2517 Virginia Street, where Merriman once lived with his wife Marion, will help passersby learn more about the man. The plaque — installed with the help of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project — was put up after Zerman raised $1,420 for it in a GoFundMe campaign.

“Some donors were classmates, some were friends,” he said, “and some were simply people who had heard about the project online.”

Zerman’s summer course instructor, Alexis Herr, said one of the books she required her students to read, “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939,” by Adam Hochschild, sparked Zerman’s interest in Merriman. For his 2016 non-fiction book, Hochschild, a lecturer at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, profiled Merriman and several other American Spanish Civil War volunteers who joined the multinational International Brigades.

Hochschild said he’s delighted the class read his book and explored fascism, as “it’s something we need to be concerned about today, when, all over the world, there is a resurgence of the kind of strongman, authoritarian, nationalist politics that were so toxic in the 1930s.”

At the end of 1934, after completing his coursework at Berkeley, Merriman traveled to Russia to do research for his doctoral thesis on Soviet agriculture. Then, the war broke out in Spain, with Gen. Francisco Franco leading an assault to take over the country’s democratically-elected government, which unsuccessfully begged the United States, Britain and France to sell it arms.

More than 40,000 men from 53 countries volunteered to help, and Merriman, with his ROTC training in Nevada and as a reserve lieutenant in the U.S. Army, quickly was appointed combat commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a group of U.S. soldiers, technicians and medical personnel. He led it into battle in February 1937.

Merriman became badly wounded, but after several months, returned to the war — this time as chief of staff of the XV International Brigade — to lead the fight to capture Belchite, a Spanish town where the tall, strong, amiable and revered commander drew the attention of Hemingway, who covered the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance.

But on April 2, 1938, Merriman went missing in the Ebro Valley during a chaotic retreat from Franco’s troops; his body has never been found. Hochschild, in his book, details varying accounts of Merriman’s death. Some say Merriman was held in a prison camp, others that he was captured and executed. UC President Robert Gordon Sproul and more than 100 UC professors wrote to then-U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull to ask for help determining his fate.

Franco’s forces won the war in 1939. Merriman’s wife visited Spain three times to look in vain for the place where her husband disappeared. Hochschild writes that Marion Merriman received a letter in 1987, 49 years after her husband’s death, from a Spaniard, Fausto Villar, claiming he was in Merriman’s battalion and had seen him “fall dead at my side” as enemy machine-gunners opened fire.

With the installation complete, Zerman now plans to gather information on the other Berkeley students, as well as non-student Berkeley residents, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

“A few of their descendants have already reached out to me,” he said, “One, a Berkeley grad himself, said that tales of his father’s exploits in Spain motivated him to take part in the legendary Free Speech Movement.”

Ultimately, Zerman hopes the campus will create a page on its website about the students who fought in the Spanish Civil War and consider adding a memorial on campus “that students of all political stripes could get excited about, as it will be a symbol of how and when activism can merge with patriotic duty.”

Added Hochschild, “On our campus we honor Cal’s World War II veterans in Memorial Glade and elsewhere. Why shouldn’t we also honor those from Cal who, in Spain, fought what was really the first battle of that war? Where else, in 1937 and 1938, were Americans in uniform being bombed and shot at by the forces of Hitler and Mussolini?”

Zerman’s work on a historical marker for Merriman also led him to help the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project organize and consolidate its information on Berkeley historical sites so that the Bancroft Library can archive and preserve it.

And Merriman’s foreign service, and that of Berkeley students and alumni engaged in many volunteer efforts overseas, have given Zerman another idea: “My long-term goal is to attend law school, but I am seriously considering some form of foreign service or volunteer work abroad beforehand.”

A version of this story was previously published on UC Berkeley News here and here.

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