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.