Watt Prize Draws Record Number of Submissions

December 29, 2018
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Republican poster warning against the Fifth Column by Manuel Gallur Latorre.

Republican poster warning against the Fifth Column by Manuel Gallur Latorre.

This year’s George Watt Essay contest for the best student writing on the Spanish Civil War is receiving well-deserved attention from around the world as a record number of students submitted their essays and poetry, nearly doubling the previous number of submissions last year.

Carlos Píriz-González of the University of Salamanca wrote the winning entry in the graduate student category for “Propaganda de exterminio: la Quinta Columna como psicosis colectiva” (Propaganda of Extermination: The Fifth Column as Collective Psychosis), a chapter of his dissertation on the idea of the Fifth Column in the Spanish Civil War. Píriz-González analyzes the origins of the myth of the Fifth Column and how it was used in propaganda and politics to mobilize the people. Based on deep archival research and using diverse sources, including cartoons and posters, this dissertation illuminates an important overlooked theme that permeated the Spanish Civil War and continues to the present day.

ALBA also awarded three prizes in the undergraduate category. Eric Ryan-Inkson of the University of Leeds prepared a well-researched essay “A Historical Repositioning of the Duchess of Atholl as an Influential Humanitarian During the Spanish Civil War” that uncovers the important work of Duchess Katherine Stewart-Murray in saving refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Drawing on archives in Scotland and England, Ryan-Inkson weaves together British politics, ideas of non-intervention, and humanitarianism. Christian Culton of the University of California, Santa Cruz received a prize for his essay, “Nationalist Propaganda During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): Appeals for International Support and the Western Fear of Communism.” The prize jury was especially impressed by how Culton discussed the overlooked topic of Nationalist propaganda and his wide range of sources. The collaborative essay by Eva Ackerman, Dana Gold, and Amanda Wessel of Bryn Mawr College, “Internacionalismo judío en contextos geográficos: Investigando los motivos complejos para la participación judía de los Estados Unidos, Argentina y Palestina en la Guerra Civil Española” (Jewish Internationalism in Geographical Context: An Investigation of the Complex Motives of Jewish Participation in the Spanish Civil War from the United State, Argentina and Palestine) is a very well-documented essay examining why Jews in three different nations chose to fight in the Spanish Civil War.


The pre-collegiate category received over 40 submissions this year, many from students of teachers who have attended ALBA’s teaching institutes.


The pre-collegiate category received over 40 submissions this year, many from students of teachers who have attended ALBA’s teaching institutes. The jury awarded two prizes, one in fiction and another in non-fiction. Joselinne Piedras-Sarabia, of GPISD CTE Early College High School in Houston, Texas has written a beautifully constructed, harrowing story about child abduction during the Spanish Civil War in “Madre, ella todavía está aquí.” The co-authored essay by Lily Jensen and Emma Easton, “From Guernica to Aleppo: The Price of Civilian Bombing in the Spanish Civil War” examines how modern bombing of civilian targets began in the Spanish Civil War, continued through World War II and is still being used today. Well-written and well-argued, the paper demonstrates how bombing of civilian targets actually builds solidarity rather than breaking morale. Jensen and Easton are students of ALBA teaching institute alum George Snook at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn.

The jury for the Watt award was comprised of Angela Giral (Columbia University), Josh Goode (Claremont Graduate University), Gina Herrmann (University of Oregon), Jo Labanyi (New York University) and Aaron Retish (Wayne State University).  The George Watt Memorial Essay award honors the memory of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran George Watt (1914-1994), a social worker, writer, and lifelong activist central to the creation of ALBA.

Graduate Award

Carlos Píriz González

Since the concept of the Fifth Column was publicized for the first time at the beginning of October 1936, workers’ and revolutionary organizations and the different governments of the Republic used the idea to urge the persecution and extermination of such enemies. A propaganda campaign in the Republican rearguard mobilized society to target the supposed spies, saboteurs and defeatists who worked for the rebels. In addition to rallies and various political acts, the fifth column spawned a visual language in war posters and cartoons. The propaganda campaign was most powerful in the press, as newspapers regularly published news on the Fifth Column. All this made visible something that seemed invisible.

This paper analyzes how this process encouraged an alarmist sensibility, constituting what sociologists and anthropologists have defined as a collective psychosis, focusing on the fear of a (supposed) clandestine army. Republican institutions and workers’ organizations, along with their respective organs of propaganda, generated such a collective psychosis by using the concept of the Fifth Column as a scapegoat. This influenced the civilian population in the rearguard, especially in the large urban areas. Particularly, the notion of the Fifth Column favored social mobilization, fomenting violence and the elimination of any possible fifth columnist, generating and reviving what in the Francoist imaginary came to be called the Red Terror. This in turn increased the ranks of the fifth-column movement, further enhancing its myth. All this together contributed to the weakening and ultimate defeat of the Republic. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

Undergraduate Award

The Duchess of Atholl (right) with a Mexican diplomat and his wife on board the
refugee ship, the SS Sinaia, 1939. Marx Memorial Library, London.

The Duchess of Atholl (right) with a Mexican diplomat and his wife on board the
refugee ship, the SS Sinaia, 1939. Marx Memorial Library, London.

Eric Ryan-Inkson

This research provides an in-depth analysis of the life, work and politics of Katharine Stewart-Murray, otherwise known as the Duchess of Atholl, and examines the influence of her humanitarian work during the Spanish Civil War. As the head of the National Joint
Committee for Spanish Relief (NJC)—the largest aid organization in Britain at the time— and the Basque Children’s Committee (BCC), the organization that was responsible for bringing 3,879 Basque Children to the United Kingdom in a groundbreaking evacuation, the Duchess was at the center of the British humanitarian operation in Spain between 1936 and 1939. As Atholl was a Member of Parliament (MP), and an established member of the aristocracy, the Duchess used political, aristocratic and diplomatic channels to achieve humanitarian objectives. Her efforts saved the lives of many civilians, prisoners of war and refugees alike. Atholl petitioned Spanish and international bodies to adhere to the laws of the Geneva convention and sought to protect the victims of war by publicly condemning attacks on women, children and aid workers. The organizations she headed have been attributed with achieving major humanitarian successes during the conflict.

Yet Atholl’s work has long been neglected and forgotten. Few scholars have studied Atholl in any detail, and have paid even less attention to her work during the Spanish Civil War. This is due to the exceptional character and politics of the Duchess. Atholl lost her seat as MP due to her pro-Republican, anti-fascist politics in 1938. Her sympathetic relationship with the Spanish working-class angered many from her Aristocratic background—and her position on feminism placed her at odds with other prominent humanitarians working in Spain. As a result, the Duchess has never received the recognition for the humanitarian work that she deserves, albeit posthumously. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

Christian Culton

As Nationalists and Republican soldiers fought in the battlefields of Spain’s rich valleys during the Spanish Civil War, American and British pro-Nationalist propagandists waged a war of their own. In the streets of British and American cities, they distributed pamphlets aimed to delegitimize the Second Spanish Republic by portraying the Republican forces as communists, atheists, and as a threat to Western civilization. To support Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, they aimed to make the case that it was in the interest of the British and American populace to support the fraught “Non-intervention Agreement” (1936). Propagandists, using sophisticated and targeted arguments, appealed to the values of British and American society, arguing that Franco’s Nationalist movement fought for Western principles and that the Republic sought collectivist totalitarianism, anarchy, and a repudiation of the Western legal system. These propagandists, which included Catholic British and American ecclesiastical members, argued that communists and Bolsheviks were to blame for the civilizational decay of Spanish society. By adopting this narrative, the pamphlets employed a skillful twist of circumstance and an effective distortion of reality. Indeed, British and American intervention on the side of the Republic would have likely proved to be disastrous for the Nationalists. And the most effective way to prevent such a situation, it seemed, was to sound the alarm of looming threats to the West: barbarism, totalitarianism, and above all, communism. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

Eva Ackerman, Dana Gold, and Amanda Wessel

According to recent estimates, almost one quarter of the international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War were Jews, representing numbers disproportionately larger than the populations in their home countries. While previous research focuses more on the leftist ideology of these volunteers, our research analyzes the specific sociocultural motivations of international Jewish populations in New York, Argentina, and Palestine in order to discern how cultural and historical differences prompted the decision to aid the Spanish Republic. We found that American and Argentine Jews were motivated by sentiments of solidarity with Jews in Spain and Europe as a whole. Both groups believed that Franco’s fascist Nationalist movement was a direct attack on fellow Jews. For many, family histories of anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe that prompted migration to the Americas formed the backdrop of this solidarity. Americans in particular felt that fighting with the Republicans served as a forceful protest against fascism. For Argentine Jews, the threat of fascism was perhaps even more present, as Nationalist and right-wing groups were already emerging and perpetrating anti-Semitic violence in Argentina. Similar political instability in Spain and Argentina made Argentine Jews significantly concerned about containing the spread of fascism. For these reasons, Americans and Argentines felt that fighting fascism abroad served as self-preservation on the Homefront.

In contrast, many communist Jews living in British Mandate Palestine were pressured to go to Spain by the Yishuv, the Jewish governing body before 1948. Fighting in Spain was an alternative to facing imprisonment by the government for opposing the Zionist project. These cases demonstrate that Jewish populations had diverse motivating factors that can be attributed in part to local sociopolitical contexts at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless, their identities as Jews were central to their participation in Spain, perhaps more so than previously recognized. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

Pre-Collegiate Category

Joselinne Piedras-Sarabia

“Madre, Ella todavía está aquí” follows the gut-wrenching tale of a young girl growing up in the midst of Spain’s civil war. Her sister dies at childbirth, tearing her family apart. Years later, rumors sweep across a bloodstained Madrid- children declared dead were actually sold off in illegal adoptions. The young protagonist must deal with the grisly news and find ways to help seek for the missing family member and eventually learn to move on. The feeling that Ella is still there haunts her. This piece of writing is dedicated to Spain’s estimated 300,000 lost children and those grasping onto hope and seeking. The living dead, as some clamor, were shipped into human trafficking. To this day, millions are still protesting, hoping to meet their parents or their children. Many of the siblings or parents looking reported bearing the same feeling; that their lost one was still alive. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

Lily Jensen and Emma Easton

“From Guernica to Aleppo: The Price of Civilian Bombing in the Spanish Civil War” investigates the unforeseen and far-reaching consequences of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and cities in the Spanish Civil War. As the first major conflict in which technology was sufficiently suited to targeted aerial raids, the Spanish Civil War acted as a testing ground for many of the military tactics utilized in subsequent wars, and it marked the beginning of an effort to weaken the morale of civilians through a deliberate campaign of terror bombing. However, the strategy backfired: the bombing instead incensed victims and strengthened their resolve to fight back. Additionally, the air raids on Republican cities by the Nationalists and their German and Italian allies during the Spanish Civil War aroused public outrage across the world, strengthening popular hostility towards the fascist nations and their ideology prior to World War II.

However, despite its lack of success, during World War II, the Allies themselves resorted to the extensive use of area bombing which culminated in the use of two atomic bombs in 1945. In virtually every subsequent war from Vietnam to Syria, aggressors have regarded the bombing of civilians as acceptable military practice. Nonetheless, history shows that strategic bombing of civilians was unsuccessful on two critical counts: the practice failed to achieve its primary purpose of incapacitating an enemy by destroying its infrastructure and morale, and it backfired by inspiring civilian resistance and provoking global outrage. (Full text of the winning essay in pdf.)

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