History makers: The International Brigades

As too many pundits liken the situation in Syria to that in 1930s Spain, we pay tribute to those Europeans and Americans who 75 years ago, in the spirit of solidarity and internationalism, fought on the side of the Spanish Republic.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been no shortage of intervention-happy politicians and pundits willing to draw self-justifying parallels between a particular overseas conflict and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The troubled region changes, but the point of the historically amnesiac allusion to 1930s Spain remains constant: we in the West must do something or else evil will triumph.

Syria has been no exception to the ‘it’s just like the 1930s’ rule of intervening thumb. Indeed, since it began its descent into civil war nearly three years ago, the idea that ‘the Syrian civil war is the Spanish Civil War of our time’, as one Middle East expert put it in 2012, is common currency. And now with the trickle of wannabe jihadists from the West, including 400 people from Britain, heading over to Syria to fight on the side of the faction-ridden, al-Qaeda-infused Free Syrian Army, a further parallel has revealed itself: Syria has its equivalent of the International Brigades, that is, the groups of foreign volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic against General Franco’s military dictatorship. As one columnist put it: ‘Just like the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the Syrian conflict has all the makings of an international cause célèbre, with well-intentioned volunteers willing to risk their lives fighting to defeat a dictator.’

These parallels may serve a pro-interventionist function, but they do those who volunteered for the Communist-run International Brigades, not to mention those who joined up with the socialist or anarchist sections of the Republican force, a huge disservice. For a start, unlike today’s pro-interventionist camp, those men and women from across Europe and America who signed up for the Republican cause did not want nation states to intervene in Spain. They were not the laptop bombardiers of today, urging their national leaders to send in the troops. Indeed, as men of the socialist and Communist left, they were often actively opposed to their nation states. No, by and large, those who volunteered to fight in Spain were idealists who believed so much in the cause, be it that of democracy and freedom, or indeed, of proletarian revolution, that they were willing to die for it. And one in six did.

Almost from the moment the Spanish army’s generals attempted their coup d’état in mid-July 1936, volunteers began making their way. This they did often in spite of their nation’s attempts to stop them and threaten them with imprisonment – in Britain, this was done under the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870. By September 1936, such was the foreign influx, the Comintern decided it was time to organise (and monitor) the Republican recruitment drive, and set up the International Brigades. These were nominally of a piece with the Popular Front against fascism, and apparently tolerant of non-Communist outlooks. But, given they were established under the auspices of the Communist Party, and infiltrated by both German and Russian Communist agents on the lookout for troublemakers and ‘Trotskyites’, they served a distinctly Stalinist purpose – this remember was the same era as the Moscow show trials. Indeed, as George Orwell’s magnificent Homage to Catalonia provides sometimes tragic testament, the Spanish Civil War was not just a war fought between socialists and fascists, or democrats and autocrats, it was also being fought between a Stalinist Communist Party, and its numerous opponents. 

Still, that didn’t deter the volunteers (not least because many were largely ignorant of the internecine, spy-ridden reality of the Republican side until they arrived in Spain). Estimates as to how many volunteers there were vary between 30,000 and 60,000. Either way, the majority came from France and Germany, but it is thought there were about 3,000 volunteers from America and 2,500 from Britain, too.

Given that the Republican army consisted of about half a million, the international contingent was, numerically speaking, relatively insignificant. But their role was far more significant. In fact, the Brigaders, undertrained, ill-equipped but highly motivated, were often deployed on the frontline as shock troops – which is why their casualty levels were so high. As one historian put it, ‘it would be excessive to say that the presence [of the International Brigades] was decisive… [but] they fought with so much faith, the psychological effect was considerable in a conflict in which symbolic values played a great role’.

There were several important battles in which the brigades played small, but pivotal roles. At Jarama in February 1937, they filled the breach as the Popular Army lost soldiers in its successful defence of the front line. It came at a considerable cost though: the British Battalion lost half its men in the first day of fighting at Jarama. A month later, the brigades outdid themselves during the battle of Guadalajara. For the Fascist side, this was meant to be an easy victory. Indeed, Italy’s preening president Benito Mussolini was so convinced of victory that he sent in Italian troops to begin the anticipated rout. But the rout never happened. Instead, the brigades, with Italian anti-fascists to the fore, erected huge loudspeakers to broadcast revolutionary songs and appeals to the Italian soldiers to cross the lines and join their ‘working-class brothers’. This many hundreds did, as the Republican side scored one its only significant victories in this most unevenly matched of civil wars.

What always stands out in the accounts of the ordinary men and women who fought on the Republican side is their idealism and commitment. It made for a heroic combination. Up against a far greater military force in the shape of General Franco’s army, backed by the military might of Germany, Italy and others, the Republican army and its brigading supporters certainly put up a fight – a fight made doubly difficult by the machinations of the Stalinists intent on weeding out, torturing and ‘disappearing’ the wrong sort of communist. (In that latter regard, it’s always worth remembering that the paranoid, surveillance-heavy dystopia of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was informed by his experiences in Spain as part of the anti-Stalinist POUM group.)

With defeat looking unavoidable by the autumn of 1938 (General Franco was to emerge victorious in February 1939), the International Brigades were in the process of being disbanded. Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri gave the surviving volunteers a fitting send-off: ‘You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend… the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality.’

The legend does need to be tempered somewhat however. As heroic as the individuals were, as committed as they proved to be, their very presence in Spain was a mark of the wider defeat of the left at a time when Europe was in the grip of Fascism and Stalinism. For many of those who were fighting so valiantly alongside their Spanish brothers, they were doing so having given up on the political struggles alongside their brothers back home. As one International Brigades veteran put it: ‘There was a lot of anger on the left [about Fascism] but it wasn’t anger that spread throughout the population because, quite frankly, the population weren’t interested - they were ignorant at that time. If you were English, you didn’t think about the outside world - but some of us did.’ That sense of disappointment at one’s countrymen, one’s potential comrades, is palpable throughout Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, too, but especially in that final elegiac paragraph, where he recalls his return to England in 1938:

It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from seasickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolution in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen - all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

As Mick Hume put it in his review of Orwell’s paean to the Spanish Civil War: ‘Those who could see no prospect of socialism at home grabbed at the chance to make a stand in Spain.’ It’s just that there, too, the dead hand of Stalinism was busily snuffing out any revolutionary impetus. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from the Spanish Civil War, and examples of courage and bravery to be inspired by. But one thing it definitely is not is a call through history for the Great Powers to pursue their political agendas on foreign soil.

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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