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In August 1936, Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, arranged for Tom Wintringham to go to Spain to represent the CPGB during the Civil War. Wintringham, along with Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, went out to Spain with the first ambulance unit paid for by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, a Popular Front organisation supported by the Labour Party. According to the Daily Worker, it left Victoria Station to the cheers of 3,000 supporters who had marched from Hyde Park to see them off led by the Labour mayors from East London boroughs. (1)
While in Barcelona he developed the idea of a volunteer international legion to fight on the side of the Republican Army. He commented: "I believed in the idea of an international legion. Militias can do a lot. But a larger-scale example of military knowledge and discipline, and larger-scale results, are needed too. You have to treat the building of an army as a political problem, a question of propaganda, of ideas soaking in. You need things big enough to be worth putting in the newspapers." (2)
In September 1936, Tom Wintringham wrote to Harry Pollitt that he had arranged for Nat Cohen, a Jewish clothing worker from Stepney, to establish "a Tom Mann centuria which will include 10 or 12 English and can accommodate as many likely lads as you can send out... I propose to join it, provided I can still write for the Daily Worker. I believe that full political value can only be got from it (and that's a lot) if its English contingent becomes stronger. 50 is not too many." (3)
Maurice Thorez, the French Communist Party leader, also had the idea of an international force of volunteers to fight for the Republic. At a meeting of Comintern, in an impassioned speech by Georgi Dimitrov, it was suggested the Communist parties in all countries should establish volunteer battalions. Joseph Stalin agreed and the Comintern began organising the formation of International Brigades. An international recruiting centre was set up in Paris and a training base at Albacete in Spain. (4)
Joseph Stalin played an important role in the formation of the International Brigades. As Gary Kern has pointed out in A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004): "To start the ball rolling, he (Stalin) ordered that 500-600 foreign Communists living as refugees in the USSR, personae non grata in their own countries, be rounded up and sent to fight in Spain. This action not only rid him of a long-term irritant, but also laid the foundation for the International Brigades. The Comintern, which officially promulgated the policy of non-intervention, was enlisted to process young men in foreign countries wishing to join the Brigades. The word went out that the various Communist parties would facilitate their transport to Spain; in each CP a Comintern representative directed the program." (5)
Franklin D. Roosevelt was very sympathetic to the Republican cause. So was his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and several members of his government, including Henry Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury, Henry A. Wallace, secretary for agriculture, Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior and Summer Welles, the assistant secretary of state. However, during the election campaign, Roosevelt made a commitment that he would not allow America to become involved in European conflicts. Cordell Hull, secretary of state, insisted that Roosevelt kept to this policy. (6)
Some people in America felt so strongly about this that they were willing to go to Spain to fight to protect democracy. As a result, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion was formed. An estimated 3,000 men fought in the battalion. Of these, over 1,000 were industrial workers (miners, steel workers, longshoremen). Another 500 were students or teachers. Around 30 per cent were Jewish and 70 per cent were between 21 and 28 years of age. The majority were members of the American Communist Party, whereas others came from the Socialist Party of America and Socialist Labor Party. The first volunteers sailed from New York City on 25th December, 1936. (7)
Bill Bailey wrote to his mother explaining his decision to join the Abraham Lincoln Battalion: "You see Mom, there are things that one must do in this life that are a little more than just living. In Spain there are thousands of mothers like yourself who never had a fair shake in life. They got together and elected a government that really gave meaning to their life. But a bunch of bullies decided to crush this wonderful thing. That's why I went to Spain, Mom, to help these poor people win this battle, then one day it would be easier for you and the mothers of the future. Don't let anyone mislead you by telling you that all this had something to do with Communism. The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing Spanish people who don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. And it's not to set up some Communist government either. The only thing the Communists did here was show the people how to fight and try to win what is rightfully theirs." (8)
A large number of African-Americans joined the battalion. Canute Frankson explained his decision in a letter written to his parents: "I'm sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and Jim-Crowed us; why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today? Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we'll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler's Fascist heels." (9)
Americans were forbidden to travel to Spain to fight for the Republicans. The Manchester Guardian reported in April 1937: "Twenty-nine Americans who are alleged to have tried to cross the French frontier into Spain to enlist with the Spanish Government forces were detained last night at Muret between Toulouse and the Spanish frontier. The Americans had landed at Havre maintaining, it is stated, that they were genuine tourists. They have been brought to Toulouse for questioning." (10)
Efforts by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to enlist support for Franco's Spain was unsuccessful. Despite the anti-clericism of the Republicans, that resulted in the killing of priests and the burning of churches during the first months of the war, a public opinion poll revealed that forty-eight per cent of Roman Catholics in the United States supported the Popular Front government. The American Committee for Spanish Nationalist Relief, sponsored by the Church, folded before it had collected 30,000 dollars - all of which had to be used for administrative expenses. Roosevelt later admitted that America's non-intervention policy "had been a grave mistake" because it "contravened old American principles and invalidated established international law." (11)
Socialists and Communists all over Europe formed International Brigades and went to Spain to protect the Popular Front government. Men who fought with the Republican Army included George Orwell, André Marty, Christopher Caudwell, Jack Jones, Len Crome, Oliver Law, Tom Winteringham, Joe Garber, Lou Kenton, Bill Alexander, David Marshall, Alfred Sherman, William Aalto, Hans Amlie, Bill Bailey, Robert Merriman, Steve Nelson, Walter Grant, Alvah Bessie, Joe Dallet, David Doran, John Gates, Harry Haywood, Oliver Law, Edwin Rolfe, Milton Wolff, Hans Beimler, Frank Ryan, Emilo Kléber, Ludwig Renn, Gustav Regler, Ralph Fox, Sam Wild and John Cornford.
A total of 59,380 volunteers from fifty-five countries served with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. This included the following: French (10,000), German (5,000), Polish (5,000), Italian (3,350), American (2,800), British (2,000), Yugoslavian (1,500), Czech (1,500), Canadian (1,000), Hungarian (1,000) and Scandinavian (1,000). Battalions established included the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, British Battalion, Connolly Column, Dajakovich Battalion, Dimitrov Battalion, Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, George Washington Battalion, Mickiewicz Battalion and Thaelmann Battalion. (12)
Women were active supporters of the International Brigades. A large number of women volunteered to serve in Medical Units in Spain during the war. This included Annie Murray, Thora Silverthorne, Salaria Kea, Mildred Rackley, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mary Valentine Ackland, Lillian Urmston and Penny Phelps.
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February, 1937. General José Miaja sent the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. According to one source they were told by the political commissar: "We are prepared to sacrifice our lives, because this sacrifice is not only for the peace and freedom of the Spanish people, but also for the peace and freedom of the French people, the Germans, the English, the Italians, the Czechs, the Croats, and for all the peoples of the world." (13)
The following day, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. This included the deaths of Walter Grant, Christopher Caudwell, Clem Beckett and William Briskey. Later that day Tom Wintringham sent Jason Gurney to find out what was happening: "I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery. One little Jewish kid of about eighteen lay on his back with his bowels exposed from his navel to his genitals and his intestines lying in a ghastly pinkish brown heap, twitching slightly as the flies searched over them. He was perfectly conscious. Another man had nine bullet holes across his chest. I held his hand until it went limp and he was dead. I went from one to the other but was absolutely powerless. Nobody cried out or screamed except they all called for water and I had none to give. I was filled with such horror at their suffering and my inability to help them that I felt I had suffered some permanent injury to my spirit." (14)
Led by Robert Merriman, the 373 members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion moved into the trenches on 23rd February. When the were ordered over the top they were backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. On the first day 20 men were killed and nearly 60 were wounded. Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merriman was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. One soldier remarked afterwards: "The battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated." (15)
The Battle of Jarma resulted in a stalemate. The Republicans had lost land to the depth of ten miles along a front of some fifteen miles, but had retained the road to Valencia. Both sides claimed a victory but both had really suffered defeats. The International Brigades had 8,000 casualties (1,000 dead and 7,000 wounded) and the Nationalists about 6,000. The volunteers now realised that there would be no quick victory and with the rebels receiving so much help from Italy and Germany, in the long-term, they faced the possibility of defeat. (16)
Volunteers came from a variety of left-wing groups but the brigades were always led by Communists. This created problems with other Republican groups such as the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and the Anarchists. One of the NKVD agents in Spain, Walter Krivitsky, claimed: "Stalin's intervention in Spain had one primary aim - and this was common knowledge among us who served him - namely, to include Spain in the sphere of the Kremlin's influence... The world believed that Stalin's actions were in some way connected with world revolution. But this is not true. The problem of world revolution had long before that ceased to be real to Stalin... He was also moved however, by the need of some answer to the foreign friends of the Soviet Union who would be disaffected by the great purge. His failure to defend the Spanish Republic, combined with the shock of the great purge, might have lost him their support." (17)
Joseph Stalin appointed Alexander Orlov as the Soviet Politburo adviser to the Popular Front government. Orlov and his NKVD agents had the unofficial task of eliminating the supporters of Leon Trotsky fighting for the Republican Army and the International Brigades. This included the arrest and execution of leaders of POUM, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." (18)
According to the authors of Deadly Illusions (1993) in March 1937 General Yan Berzin had sent a confidential report to War Commissar Kliment Voroshilov "reporting resentment and protests he had received about the NKVD's repressive operations from high Republican officials. It stated that the NKVD agents were compromising Soviet authority by their excessive interference and espionage in Government quarters. They were treating Spain like a colony. The ranking Red Army General concluded his report with a demand that Orlov be recalled from Spain at once." Abram Slutsky, the head of the Foreign Department of NKVD, told Krivitsky. "Berzin is absolutely right our men were behaving in Spain as if they were in a colony, treating even Spanish leaders as colonists handle natives". (19)
Krivitsky admitted: "Already in December 1936, the terror was sweeping Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. The OGPU had its own special prisons. Its units carried out assassinations and kidnappings. It filled hidden dungeons and made flying raids. It functioned, of course, independent of the Loyalist government. The Ministry of Justice had no authority over the OGPU, which was an empire within an empire. It was a power before which even some of the highest officers in the Caballero government trembled. The Soviet Union seemed to have a grip on Loyalist Spain, as if it were already a Soviet possession." (20)
Antony Beevor, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1982), has argued: "The persistent trouble in the Brigades also stemmed from the fact that the volunteers, to whom no length of service had ever been mentioned, assumed that they were free to leave after a certain time. Their passports had been taken away on enlistment. Krivitsky claimed that these were sent to Moscow by diplomatic bag for use by NKVD agents abroad. Brigade leaders who became so alarmed by the stories of unrest filtering home imposed increasingly stringent measures of discipline. Letters were censored and anyone who criticized the competence of the Party leadership faced prison camps, or even firing squads. Leave was often cancelled, and some volunteers who, without authorization, took a few of the days owing to them, were shot for desertion when they returned to their unit. The feeling of being trapped by an organization with which they had lost sympathy made a few volunteers even cross the lines to the Nationalists. Others tried such unoriginal devices as putting a bullet through their own foot when cleaning a rifle (10 volunteers were executed for self-inflicted wounds)." (21)
Walter Krivitsky, confirmed the story about the use of passports: "Several times while I was in Moscow in the spring of 1937, I saw this mail in the offices of the Foreign Division of the OGPU. One day a batch of about a hundred passports arrived, half of them American. They belonged to dead soldiers. That was a great haul, a cause for celebration. The passports of the dead, after some weeks of inquiry into the family histories of their original owners, are easily adapted to their new bearers, the OGPU agents." (22)
As George Orwell had been fighting with Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) he was identified as an anti-Stalinist and the NKVD attempted to arrest him. Orwell was now in danger of being murdered by communists in the Republican Army. With the help of the British Consul in Barcelona, Orwell, John McNair and Stafford Cottman were able to escape to France on 23rd June. (23)
Many of Orwell's fellow comrades were not so lucky and were captured and executed. When he arrived back in England he was determined to expose the crimes of Stalin in Spain. However, his left-wing friends in the media, rejected his articles, as they argued it would split and therefore weaken the resistance to fascism in Europe. He was particularly upset by his old friend, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the country's leading socialist journal, The New Statesman, for refusing to publish details of the killing of the anarchists and socialists by the communists in Spain. Left-wing and liberal newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian, News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, as well as the right-wing Daily Mail and The Times, joined in the cover-up. (24)
Orwell did managed to persuade the New English Weekly to publish an article on the reporting of the Spanish Civil War. "I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle." (25)
In another article in the magazine he explained how in "Spain... and to some extent in England, anyone professing revolutionary Socialism (i.e. professing the things the Communist Party professed until a few years ago) is under suspicion of being a Trotskyist in the pay of Franco or Hitler... in England, in spite of the intense interest the Spanish war has aroused, there are very few people who have heard of the enormous struggle that is going on behind the Government lines. Of course, this is no accident. There has been a quite deliberate conspiracy to prevent the Spanish situation from being understood." (26)
George Orwell wrote about his experiences of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia. The book was rejected by Victor Gollancz because of its attacks on Joseph Stalin. During this period Gollancz was accused of being under the control of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He later admitted that he had come under pressure from the CPGB not to publish certain books in the Left Book Club: "When I got letter after letter to this effect, I had to sit down and deny that I had withdrawn the book because I had been asked to do so by the CP - I had to concoct a cock and bull story... I hated and loathed doing this: I am made in such a way that this kind of falsehood destroys something inside me." (27)
The book was eventually published by Frederick Warburg, who was known to be both anti-fascist and anti-communist, which put him at loggerheads with many intellectuals of the time. The book was attacked by both the left and right-wing press. Although one of the best books ever written about war, it sold only 1,500 copies during the next twelve years. As Bernard Crick has pointed out: "Its literary merits were hardly noticed... Some now think of it as Orwell's finest achievement, and nearly all critics see it as his great stylistic breakthrough: he became the serious writer with the terse, easy, vivid colloquial style." (28)
Francisco Largo Caballero came under increasing pressure from the Communist Party (PCE) to promote its members to senior posts in the government. He also refused their demands to suppress the Worker's Party (POUM). In May 1937, the Communists withdrew from the government. In an attempt to maintain a coalition government, President Manuel Azaña sacked Largo Caballero and asked Juan Negrin to form a new cabinet. The socialist, Luis Araquistain, described Negrin's government as the "most cynical and despotic in Spanish history." Negrin now began appointing members of the PCE to important military and civilian posts. This included Marcelino Fernandez, a communist, to head the Carabineros. Communists were also given control of propaganda, finance and foreign affairs. (29)
Negrin's government set out to limit the revolution and abolish the collectives. It argued that any revolution must be postponed until the war had been won. Revolution was seen as a distraction from the main business of winning the war. "It also threatened to alienate the middle class and peasants. Given the performance of the collectives, the Communists and their supporters had a number of points on their side. But the major reason why they took an anti-revolutionary line was to follow Soviet foreign policy strategy. The USSR wished to forge an alliance with Britain and France in a front against which would alarm and antagonise the western democracies and increase their hostility to the Soviet Union as well as setting them irrevocably against the Republic. The Communists therefore wanted to present the republic as a law-abiding democratic regime which deserved the approval of the western powers." (30)
On 16th June, 1937, Negrin ruled that the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) was an illegal organisation. Established by Andres Nin and Joaquin Mauri in 1935, POUM was an revolutionary anti-Stalinist Communist party was strongly influenced by the political ideas of Leon Trotsky. The group supported the collectivization of the means of production and agreed with Trotsky's concept of permanent revolution. POUM was very strong in Catalonia. In most areas of Spain it made little impact and in 1935 the organisation was estimated to have only around 8,000 members. (31)
After the Popular Front gained victory POUM supported the government but their radical policies such as nationalization without compensation, were not introduced. During the Spanish Civil War the Workers Party of Marxist Unification grew rapidly and by the end of 1936 it was 30,000 strong with 10,000 in its own militia. Luis Companys attempted to maintain the unity of the coalition of parties in Barcelona. POUM was disliked by the Spanish Communist Party. As Patricia Knight has pointed out: "It did not subscribe to all of Trotsky's views and its best described as a Marxist party which was critical of the Soviet system and particularly of Spain's policies. It was therefore very unpopular with the Communists." (32)
However, after the Soviet consul, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, threatened the suspension of Russian aid, Negrin agreed to sack Andres Nin as minister of justice in December 1936. Nin's followers were also removed from the government. However, as Hugh Thomas has made clear: "The POUM were not Trotskyists, Nin having broken with Trotsky on entering the Catalan government and Trotsky having spoken critically of the POUM. No, what upset the communists was the fact that the POUM were a serious group of revolutionary Spanish Marxists, well-led, and independent of Moscow." (33)
Joseph Stalin appointed Alexander Orlov as the Soviet Politburo adviser to the Popular Front government. On 16th June, Andres Nin and the leaders of POUM were arrested. Also taken into custody were officials of those organisations considered to be under the influence of Trotsky, the National Confederation of Trabajo and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica. (34)
Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." Orlov later claimed that "the decision to perform an execution abroad, a rather risky affair, was up to Stalin personally. If he ordered it, a so-called mobile brigade was dispatched to carry it out. It was too dangerous to operate through local agents who might deviate later and start to talk." (35)
Orlov ordered the arrest of Nin. George Orwell explained what happened to Nin in his book, Homage to Catalonia (1938): "On 15 June the police had suddenly arrested Andres Nin in his office, and the same evening had raided the Hotel Falcon and arrested all the people in it, mostly militiamen on leave. The place was converted immediately into a prison, and in a very little while it was filled to the brim with prisoners of all kinds. Next day the P.O.U.M. was declared an illegal organization and all its offices, book-stalls, sanatoria, Red Aid centres and so forth were seized. Meanwhile the police were arresting everyone they could lay hands on who was known to have any connection with the P.O.U.M." (36)
Nin who was tortured for several days. Jesus Hernández, a member of the Communist Party, and Minister of Education in the Popular Front government, later admitted: "Nin was not giving in. He was resisting until he fainted. His inquisitors were getting impatient. They decided to abandon the dry method. Then the blood flowed, the skin peeled off, muscles torn, physical suffering pushed to the limits of human endurance. Nin resisted the cruel pain of the most refined tortures. In a few days his face was a shapeless mass of flesh." Nin was executed on 20th June 1937. (37)
Cecil D. Eby claims that Nin was murdered by "a German hit squad from the International Brigades". The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of the United States, reported that "individuals and cells of the enemy had been eliminated like infestations of termites." Eby goes on to argue that the "nearly maniacal purge of putative Trotskyists in the late spring of 1937" displaced the "war against Fascism". (38)
It is believed that Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov originally intended a trial in Spain on the model of the Moscow trials, based on the confessions of people like Nin. This idea was abandoned and instead several anti-Stalinists in Spain died in mysterious circumstances. This included Robert Smillie, the English journalist who was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Erwin Wolf, ex-secretary of Trotsky, the Austrian socialist Kurt Landau, the journalist, Marc Rhein, the son of Rafael Abramovich, a former leader of the Mensheviks, and José Robles, a Spanish academic who held independent socialist views. (39)
On 1st May, 1938, Juan Negrin proposed a thirteen-point peace plan. When this was rejected he ordered an attack across the fast-flowing River Ebro in an attempt to relieve pressure on Valencia. General Juan Modesto, a member of the Communist Party (PCE), was placed in charge of the offensive. Over 80,000 Republican troops, including the 15th International Brigade and the British Battalion, began crossing the river in boats on 25th July. (40)
Tom Murray, from Scotland, was one of the men who took part in the battle. "The crossing of the Ebro at night was a remarkable performance. The pontoons consisted of narrow buoyant sections tied together and men would sit straddled across the junctions of these sections to hold them firm, because the Ebro was a very fast-flowing river. And then others went across in boats. The mules were swum across. We went across the pontoons carrying our weapons, our machine guns. We had light machine guns as well as the heavy ones. We had five machine gun groups in our Company. No two people had to be on one section at the same time. We got across all right, lined up and marched up to the top of the hill." (41)
The men then moved forward towards Corbera and Gandesa. On 26th July the Republican Army attempted to capture Hill 481, a key position at Gandesa. Hill 481 was well protected with barbed wire, trenches and bunkers. The Republicans suffered heavy casualties and after six days was forced to retreat to Hill 666 on the Sierra Pandols. It successfully defended the hill from a Nationalist offensive on 23rd September but once again large numbers were killed, many as a result of air attacks. Bill Feeley later recalled: "I used to watch them (fascist aircraft) bomb, and you could see the bombs come out. They used to drop bombs when they were very high up. We didn't have any real anti-aircraft equipment, only machine guns mostly, because of this Non-Intervention Agreement." (42)
Over a period of 113 days, nearly 250,000 men took part in the battle at Ebro. It is estimated that a total of 13,250 soldiers were killed: Republicans (7,150) and Nationalists (6,100). About another 110,000 suffered wounds or mutilation. These were the worst casualties of the war and it finally destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force. "Effectively, the Republic was defeated, yet it simply refused to accept the fact. Madrid and Barcelona were swelled with refugees and their populations on the verge of starvation. Negrin again began to search for a possible formula to allow a compromise peace." (43)
On 21st September 1938, Juan Negrin announced at the United Nations the unconditional withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain. This was not a great sacrifice as there were fewer than 10,000 foreigners left fighting for the Popular Front government. The International Brigades had suffered heavy casualties - 15 per cent killed and a total casualty rate of 40 per cent. At this time there were about 40,000 Italian troops in Spain. Benito Mussolini refused to follow Negrin's example and in reply promised to send Franco additional aircraft and artillery. (44)
The International Brigades left Barcelona on 29th October 1938. Dolores Ibárruri, made a farewell speech. "Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy. We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic's victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland." (45)
John Gates later wrote: "For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. Despite the danger of air raids, the entire city turned out. Whatever airforce belonged to the Loyalists, was used to protect Barcelona that day. Happily, the fascists did not show up. It was our day. We paraded ankle-deep in flowers. Women rushed into our lines to kiss us. Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. The people of the city poured out their hearts. Our blood had been shed with theirs. Our dead slept with their dead. We had proved again that all men are brothers." (46)
It is estimated that about 5,300 foreign soldiers died while fighting for the Nationalists (4,000 Italians, 300 Germans, 1,000 others). The International Brigades also suffered heavy losses during the war. Approximately 4,900 soldiers died fighting for the Republicans (2,000 Germans, 1,000 French, 900 Americans, 500 British and 500 others). Around 10,000 Spanish people were killed in bombing raids. The vast majority of these were victims of the German Condor Legion. (47)
The focal point for the mobilization of the International Brigades was in Paris; understandably so, because underground activities against Fascism had been concentrated there for some years. I led a group of volunteers to the headquarters there, proceeding with the greatest caution because of the laws against recruitment in foreign armies and the non-intervention policies of both Britain and France. From London onwards it was a clandestine operation until we arrived on Spanish soil.
While in Paris we were housed in workers' homes in one of the poorest quarters of the city. But it wasn't long before we were on our way, by train, to a town near the Pyrenees. From there we travelled by coach to a rambling old farmhouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees. After a rough country meal in a barn we met our guide who led us through the mountain passes into Spain.
In the light of the morning we could see Spanish territory. After five hours or so, stumbling down the mountainside (I found it almost as hard going down as climbing up), we came to an outpost and from there were taken by truck to a fortress at Figueras. This was a reception centre for the volunteers. The atmosphere of old Spain was very apparent in the ancient castle. For the first day or so we felt exhausted after the long climb. The food was pretty awful. We ate it because we were hungry but without relish.
For some the first lessons about the use of a rifle were given before we moved off to the base. I at least could dismantle and assemble a rifle bolt and knew something about firing and the care of a weapon. But my first shock came when I was told of the shortage of weapons and the fact that the rifles (let alone other weapons) were in many cases antiquated and inaccurate.
Training at the base was quick, elementary but effective. For me life was hectic, meeting good companions and experiencing a genuine international atmosphere. There were no conscripts or paid mercenaries. I got to know a German Jew who had escaped the clutches of Hitler's hordes and was then a captain in the XII Brigade. He had hopes of going on ultimately to Palestine and striving for a free state of Israel. He was not only a good soldier but a brave one too. That was also true of a smart young Mexican whom I met. He had been an officer in the Mexican Army and was a member of the National Revolutionary Party of his country.
We received a royal welcome. Men began to arrive that night. Stories of escaping from fascist Germany by swimming rivers, climbing mountains, hiking for hundreds of miles. From all parts of the world they came. Always coming. Anti-fascists. The International Brigades.
Most of the guys were like me, just city slickers. We were dressed in fancy shoes, in fancy clothes, and looked like anything but a mountain-climbing expedition. It was very, very grueling, going up and up, and always thinking we were reaching the top and never getting there. When we arrived, weary as we were we cheered and yelled at the top of our lungs."
From the main streets you could already hear quite clearly the machine-gun and rifle fire at the front.
Already shells began to drop within the city itself. Already you could see that Madrid was after all going to be the first of the dozen or so big European capitals to learn that "the menace of Fascism and war" is not a phrase or a far-off threat, but a peril so near that you turn the corner of your own street and see the gaping bodies of a dozen innocent women lying among scattered milk cans and bits of Fascist bombs, turning the familiar pavement red with their gushing blood.
There were others besides the defenders of Madrid who realised that, too.
Men in Warsaw, in London, in Brussels, Belgrade, Berne, Paris, Lyons, Budapest, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Copenhagen. All over Europe men who understood that "the house next door is already on fire" were already on the way to put their experience of war, their enthusiasm and their understandings at the disposal of the Spanish people who themselves in the months and years before the Fascist attack had so often thrown all their energies into the cause of international solidarity on behalf of the oppressed and the prisoners of the Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
It was no mere "gesture of solidarity" that these men - the future members of the International Brigade - were being called upon to carry out.
The position of the armies on the Madrid fronts was such that it was obvious that the hopes of victory must to a large extent depend first on the amount of material that could be got to the front before the German and Italian war machines smashed their way through, and secondly, on the speed with which the defending force of the People's Army could be raised to the level of a modern infantry force, capable of fighting in the modern manner.
Around 2,400 volunteered from the British Isles and the then British Empire. There can be no exact figure because the Conservative Government, in its support for the Nonintervention Agreement, threatened to use the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1875 which they declared made volunteering illegal. Keeping records and lists of names was dangerous and difficult. However, no-passport weekend trips to Paris provided a way round for all who left these shores en route for Spain. In France active support from French people opened the paths over the Pyrenees.
The British volunteers came from all walks of life, all parts of the British Isles and the then British Empire. The great majority were from the industrial areas, especially those of heavy industry They were accustomed to the discipline associated with working in factories and pits. They learnt from the organization, democracy and solidarity of trade unionism.
Intellectuals, academics, writers and poets were an important force in the early groups of volunteers. They had the means to get to Spain and were accustomed to travelling, whereas very few workers had left British shores. They went because of their growing alienation from a society that had failed miserably to meet the needs of so many people and because of their deep repugnance at the burning of books in Nazi Germany, the persecution of individuals, the glorification of war and the whole philosophy of fascism.
The International Brigades and the British volunteers were, numerically, only a small part of the Republican forces, but nearly all had accepted the need for organization and order in civilian life. Many already knew how to lead in the trade unions, demonstrations and people's organizations, the need to set an example and lead from the front if necessary They were united in their aims and prepared to fight for them. The International Brigades provided a shock force while the Republic trained and organized an army from an assemblage of individuals. The Spanish people knew they were not fighting alone.
I was very interested in the Spanish situation even before the Civil War, and I volunteered in 1936 through the British Medical Aid Association to go out to Spain to help the Spanish people. I went to Spain because I believed in the cause of the Spanish Republican Government. I didn't believe in Fascism and I had heard many stories of what happened to people who were under Fascist rule.
The British Medical Aid Committee was composed mostly of London doctors or British doctors, and Labour MPs, left wing MPs mostly, people like that. It had been set up specially for Spanish war aid.
I arrived at a small Spanish hospital at Huete, more or less on the Barcelona front. Huete was a little village north-east of Barcelona. From the hospital in Barcelona we used to go out in the hospital trains all round the area, behind offensives, and when there was more work to do outside of the hospital than inside. In the hospital train it was pretty gruelling, you know. On one occasion we went under a bridge to operate when bombs were falling.
Hours of duty at the hospital depended on the work, because we had many casualties at one time and not so many at other times. We just worked when we had to even if you had to get out of bed in the middle of the night, you know.
We had a lot of casualties even in the little hospital at Huete, very serious ones, terribly serious ones. Young, young men calling for their mothers. It was very sad, terrifically sad. Many of the wounds were very serious - open holes, stomachs opened up, legs off, arms off, oh, terrible, terrible. I never saw anybody shell-shocked. It was a different kind of war from the First World War. We didn't have any cases of shell-shock in the hospital. We had lots of cases of frozen feet, and that was a terrible thing because when their feet were coming round to get their blood flowing again it was a terrible painful thing. We had an awful job with that, and of course we hadn't really got the equipment to treat that sort of thing very easily. So there was a terrible lot of suffering from frozen feet. It was terribly cold in the winter, very cold up in the hills in the winter where we were, extremely cold.
Most of the casualties in our hospital of course were our own. At least eighty per cent I should think were Spaniards, the remaining were Internationals from all the countries. I met masses of Internationals. Lots of Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians and, oh, every country you could think about that sent volunteers - French, Yugoslavs. I think every country almost you could mention there were volunteers from to the anti-Fascist side.
I was ordered to report to Cancela. I found him talking with some legionaries who had brought in a deserter from the International Brigades - an Irishman from Belfast; he had given himself up to one of our patrols down by the river. Cancela wanted me to interrogate him. The man explained that he had been a seaman on a British ship trading to Valencia, where he had got very drunk one night, missed his ship and been picked up by the police. The next thing he knew, he was in Albacete, impressed into the International Brigades. He knew that if he tried to escape in Republican Spain he would certainly be retaken and shot; and so he had bided his time until he reached the front, when he had taken the first opportunity to desert. He had been wandering around for two days before he found our patrol.
I was not absolutely sure that he was telling the truth; but I knew that if I seemed to doubt his story he would be shot, and I was resolved to do everything in my power to save his life. Translating his account to Cancela, I urged that this was indeed a special case; the man was a deserter, not a prisoner, and we should be unwise as well as unjust to shoot him. Moved either by my arguments, or by consideration for my feelings. Cancela agreed to spare him, subject to de Mora's consent; I had better go and see de Mora at once while Cancela would see that the deserter had something to eat.
De Mora was sympathetic. "You seem to have a good case," he said. "Unfortunately my orders from Colonel Penaredonda are to shoot all foreigners. If you can get his consent I'll be delighted to let the man off. You'll find the Colonel over there, on the highest of those hills. Take the prisoner with you, in case there are any questions, and your two runners as escort.'
It was an exhausting walk of nearly a mile with the midday sun blazing on our backs. "Does it get any hotter in this country?" the deserter asked as we panted up the steep sides of a ravine, the sweat pouring down our faces and backs.
"You haven't seen the half of it yet. Wait another three months," I answered, wondering grimly whether I should be able to win him even another three hours of life.
I found Colonel Penaredonda sitting cross-legged with a plate of fried eggs on his knee. He greeted me amiably enough as I stepped forward and saluted; I had taken care to leave the prisoner well out of earshot. I repeated his story, adding my own plea at the end, as I had with Cancela and de Mora. "I have the fellow here, sir," I concluded, "in case you wish to ask him any questions." The Colonel did not look up from his plate: "No, Peter," he said casually, his mouth full of egg, "I don't want to ask him anything. Just take him away and shoot him.'
I was so astonished that my mouth dropped open; my heart seemed to stop beating. Penaredonda looked up, his eyes full of hatred:
"Get out!" he snarled. "You heard what I said." As I withdrew he shouted after me: "I warn you, I intend to see that this order is carried out."
Motioning the prisoner and escort to follow, I started down the hill; I would not walk with them, for I knew that he would question me and I could not bring myself to speak. I decided not to tell him until the last possible moment, so that at least he might be spared the agony of waiting. I even thought of telling him to try to make a break for it while I distracted the escorts' attention; then I remembered Penaredonda's parting words and, looking back, saw a pair of legionaries following us at a distance. I was so numb with misery and anger that I didn't notice where I was going until I found myself in front of de Mora once more. When I told him the news he bit his lip:
"Then I'm afraid there's nothing we can do," he said gently. "You had better carry out the execution yourself. Someone has got to do it, and it will be easier for him to have a fellow-countryman around. After all, he knows that you have tried to save him. Try to get it over quickly."
It was almost more than I could bear to face the prisoner, where he stood between my two runners. As I approached they dropped back a few paces, leaving us alone; they were good men and understood what I was feeling. I forced myself to look at him. I am sure he knew what I was going to say.
"I've got to shoot you." A barely audible "Oh my God!" escaped him.
Briefly I told him how I had tried to save him. I asked him if he wanted a priest, or a few minutes by himself, and if there were any messages he wanted me to deliver.
"Nothing," he whispered, "please make it quick."
"That I can promise you. Turn round and start walking straight ahead."
He held out his hand and looked me in the eyes, saying only "Thank you."
"God bless you!" I murmured.
As he turned his back and walked away I said to my two runners:
"I beg you to aim true. He must not feel anything." They nodded, and raised their rifles. I looked away. The two shots exploded simultaneously.
"On our honour, sir," the senior of the two said to me, "he could not have felt a thing."
It must be explained, in order to make intelligible the attitude of the communist police, that Trotskyism is an obsession with the communists in Spain. As to real Trotskyism, as embodied in one section of the POUM, it definitely does not deserve the attention it gets, being quite a minor element of Spanish political life. Were it only for the real forces of the Trotskyists, the best thing for the communists to do would certainly be not to talk about them, as nobody else would pay any attention to this small and congenitally sectarian group. But the communists have to take account not only of the Spanish situation but of what is the official view about Trotskyism in Russia. Still, this is only one of the aspects of Trotskyism in Spain which has been artificially worked up by the communists. The peculiar atmosphere which today exists about Trotskyism in Spain is created, not by the importance of the Trotskyists themselves, nor even by the reflex of Russian events upon Spain; it derives from the fact that the communists have got into the habit of denouncing as a Trotskyist everybody who disagrees with them about anything. For in communist mentality, every disagreement in political matters is a major crime, and every political criminal is a Trotskyist. A Trotskyist, in communist vocabulary, is synonymous with a man who deserves to be killed. But as usually happens in such cases, people get caught themselves by their own demagogic propaganda. The communists, in Spain at least, are getting into the habit of believing that people whom they decided to call Trotskyists, for the sake of insulting them, are Trotskyists in the sense of co-operating with the Trotskyist political party. In this respect the Spanish communists do not differ in any way from the German Nazis. The Nazis call everybody who dislikes their political regime a 'communist' and finish by actually believing that all their adversaries are communists; the same happens with the communist propaganda against the Trotskyists. It is an atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation, whose unpleasantness it is difficult to convey to those who have not lived through it. Thus, in my case, I have no doubt that all the communists who took care to make things unpleasant for me in Spain were genuinely convinced that I actually was a Trotskyist.
To read the newspapers in England, one gets the mental picture of uniformed soldiers, the rattle of machine gun fire, the hum of aeroplanes and the crash of bombs. Such is a very incomplete picture. The real picture is seen more in the drab scenes, in the less inspiring and less terrifying aspects. To see twenty or thirty little children in a small peaceful railway station, fatherless and motherless, awaiting transportation to a centre where they can be better cared for, is to get a picture of misery. To see middle aged and old women with their worldly belongings tied within the four corners of a blanket, seeking refuge from a town or village that has been bombed, is to get a picture of the havoc and desolation. To see long queues of women and children outside the shops patiently waiting to get perhaps a half a bar of soap or a bit of butter, is to get a picture of the privation and suffering entailed.
Yet, even this is not complete, because despite this, and as a result of it, you see the quiet courage and determination of the people as a whole. It is a common sight to see the peasant farmer working in the olive grove, or the plough field within the range of rifle or machine gun fire; to see gangs of men right behind the lines who are tirelessly working to build new roads, etc.; to see men and women who remain in villages under Fascist artillery fire in order to care for the wounded. Everywhere you see a people who by courage, self sacrifice and ceaseless labour, are welded together by the common aim of maintaining their freedom and liberty from Fascist barbarism.
Havoc and ruin caused by Franco and the combined Fascist powers, but over and above it, the unconquerable loyalty and devotion of the Spanish people to the cause of democracy. This is crystallized vividly in the events in Spain today. There is a section who would promote disloyalty and disunity, but they are substantially uninfluential and futile. The vast support for the new Government is proof of this. This section will be crushed, not merely in the forma] sense by the Government, but by the invincible loyalty of the whole people.
It is when you see all this that you realise what the war is, and what it is all about. It is here that you can feel the terrible menace to France and the people of Britain if the Fascists are not crushed at this point. It is here that you really feel that the people of all countries have an obligation in rendering the maximum of assistance to the Spanish people. It is here that you really feel that the International Brigade is a necessary part of that assistance. It is here that you realise that a battle is in progress not merely to defend a people from a savage aggressor, but to destroy something that, if allowed to advance, will eventually crush the people of all democratic countries.
In other words your own senses compel you to realise that for the anti-Fascist everywhere this is a fight of self preservation. More so, it is a fight of self preservation for all those in democratic countries who would continue the small rights and liberties they are at present afforded. For those who would have the greater freedom and life under Socialism it is certainly their battleground and testing place. Because if defeat is recorded in this partial fight, then the prospects of victory for the whole is indeed pushed further into the background of abandoned hopes.
This I suppose has all been said or written before, but here it is symbolised in the most commonplace event and in the most ordinary place. It is for that reason that it becomes outstanding in one's consciousness and has to be repeated.
From it all emerges one thing at least, and that is that the International Brigade, and the British Battalion as part of it, is not some noble and gallant band of crusaders come to succour an helpless people from an injustice, it is just the logical expression of the conscious urge of democratic peoples for self preservation. No one will deny but that the Brigade has had a tremendous and inspiring effect upon the morale and fighting capacity of the Spanish people. Yet no one would claim that it was done out of pity, or as a chivalrous gesture of an advanced democratic peoples. The Brigades is the historic answer of the democratic peoples of the world to protect their democracy, and the urgency of the need for that protection would warrant an even greater response. The people who have organised and built the Brigade are those who have clearly seen the need, and who strive to direct the progress of history to the advantage of the common people.
The people of Britain should be proud of the British Battalion. It is their weapon of self preservation. Those who donate their pennies and pounds, those who give their gifts of food, those who have given their sons, brothers and husbands, to build and maintain the Battalion, are the real defenders of democracy and progress. Their sacrifice and devotion is only surpassed by that of the men who make up the Battalion and by those who have already spilled their blood.
When we arrived in Albacete, we really got down to business. Outfitted with uniforms (French) and with rifles (Russian) still packed in cosmoline, we were assigned to units. My outfit was an experiment, an international battalion composed of four companies, an English-speaking one, a French-Belgian, a Slav and a German-Austrian. The battalion commander was Italian and the commissar French. This was an independent battalion not assigned to any of the International Brigades.
The International Brigades were five in number, each with its dominant language: French, German, Italian, Slav and English, although numerous nationalities were scattered among them. The International Brigades had their own base but for training purposes only. Actually, the brigades were part of the Spanish Re¬publican Army, subordinate to its command and discipline.
I regret having to write this, but Tom Howell was killed a few days ago (at 2.30 p.m., August 25 to be exact). We were together in an advanced position with the boys on some mountains called Sierra de Pandols, which overlook the town of Gandesa. I was in our company observation post, which was situated only 5 yards from where Tom was posted.
Every night Tom and I would have a little chat about home and other things, and that morning I had given him an Aberdare Leader the one in which Pen Davies' pilgrimage to the Aberdare Cemetery was reported, and he was very happy to receive it.
From early morning things had been very quiet on our sector. Then suddenly the enemy sent over some trench mortars; one of the shells made a direct hit on a machine gun post, nearly killing three men, a Spaniard and two Englishmen. I shouted to Tommy "All right there Tom?" and he shouted back, "O.K. Edwin."
Then this trench mortar landed near us. I called out again and receiving no answer, crawled to Tom's post, where I found him very badly wounded about the neck, chest and head. He was already unconscious and was passing away. I ran for the first aid man and we were there in two minutes, but Tom was, from the moment he was hit, beyond human aid and all we could do was raise him up a little and in two or three minutes, with his head resting on my knee, Tom passed away without regaining consciousness.
You can imagine how I felt because Tom and I had been very close to one another here. But I could do nothing.
That night Alun Williams of Rhondda, son of Huw Menai, and Lance Rogers of Merthyr, one of Tom's pals, carried his corpse to the little valley below, where he was to rest forever.
And there on that great mountain range, in a little grove of almond trees, we laid Tom Howell to rest. I said a few words of farewell but Tom is not alone there, all around him lie the graves of many Spanish and English boys.
Tom always made me promise to write you if anything like this happened. You will have already heard about Tom a week or two before you receive this letter.
His thoughts were to the last and always of his mother and the people at home. He lived and died a good fellow. If fifty years pass I shall not forget.
The ivory tower is no place for writers who have in democracy a cause to fight for. If you live, your writing will be better for the experience gained in battle. If you die, you will make more living documents than anything you could write in ivory towers.
The hospital beds were soon filled with soldiers of every degree of injury and ailment, of almost every known race and tongue and from every corner of the earth. Czechs from Prague, and from Bohemian villages, Hungarians, French, Finns. Peoples from democratic countries who recognized Italy and Germany's invasion in Spain as a threat to the peace and security of all small countries. Germans and Italians, exiled or escaped from concentration camps and fighting for their freedom here on Spain's battle line. Ethiopians from Djibouti, seeking to recoup Ethiopia's freedom by strangling Mussolini's forces here in Spain. Cubans, Mexicans, Russians, Japanese, unsympathetic with Japan's invasion of China and the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis. There were poor whites and Negroes from the Southern States of the United States. These divisions of race and creed and religion and nationality lost significance when they met in Spain in a united effort to make Spain the tomb of fascism. The outcome of the struggle in Spain implies the death or the realization of the hopes of the minorities of the world.
Salaria saw that her fate, the fate of the Negro Race, was inseparably tied up with their fate; that the Negro's efforts must be allied with those of other minorities as the only insurance against an uncertain future. And in Spain she worked with freedom. Her services were recognized. For the first time she worked free of racial discrimination or limitations.
There were not too many skilled hands to make the wounded comfortable. Everybody's services were conscripted. Nurses taught carpenters to make hospital supplies - shock blocks, back rests, Balkan frames for fractured arms, Fire and fuel they needed desperately.
The International Brigade, I would say, had no tanks. We had nothing in the way of motorised equipment worth speaking about. Nearly everything was carried - boxes of ammunition and so forth were carried on our backs. For example, light machine guns had to be carried. We dismantled the heavy machine guns, and one person would carry a wheel, another would carry the carriage part of it. And up these mountains we had to climb carrying these bits and pieces and ammunition. Of course it was heavy ammunition, too, great boxes of ammunition, and so on.
Wednesday 26th January 1938: Back at Albacete in our so-called Grand Hotel. Off to Tarazona, the training camp for the International Brigade. Arrived about twelve, had a good lunch with the men.
Saw lots of Negro comrades, Andrew Mitchell of Oklahoma, Oliver Ross of Baltimore, Frank Warfield ofSt Louis. All were thrilled to see us and talked at length with Paul. All the white Americans, Canadians and English troops were also thrilled to see Paul.
A Major Johnson - a West Pointer - had charge of training. The officers arranged a meeting in the church and all the Brigade gathered there at 2:30 sharp, simply packing the church. But before they filed in, they passed in review in the square for us, saluting us with Salud! as they passed.
Major Johnson told the men that they are to go up to the front line tomorrow. The men applauded uproariously at that news.
Then Paul sang, the men shouting for the songs they wanted: 'Water Boy', 'Old Man River', 'Lonesome Road', 'Fatherland'. They stomped and applauded each song and continued to shout requests. It was altogether a huge success. Paul loved doing it. Afterwards we had twenty minutes with the men and took messages for their families.
Monday 31st January: We had a good talk over lunch and afterwards over coffee in the lounge, and then we went off to the border. Fernando, in civilian dress, accompanied us, and Lt. K., armed in full uniform, was our official escort.
As we drove along, Lt. K. got talking and told us the story of Oliver Law. It seems he was a Negro - about 33 - who was a former army man from Chicago. He had risen to be a corporal in the US Army. Quiet, dark brown, dignified, strongly built. All the men liked him. He began here as a corporal, soon rose to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and finally was commander of the Battalion - the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. said warmly that many officers and men here in Spain considered him the best battalion commander in Spain. The men all liked him, trusted him, respected him and served him with confidence and willingly.
Lt. tells of an incident when the battalion was visited by an old Colonel, Southern, of the US Army. He said to Law - 'Er, I see you are in a Captain's uniform?' Law replied with dignity, 'Yes, I am, because I am a Captain. In America, in your army, I could only rise as high as corporal, but here people feel differently about race and I can rise according to my worth, not according to my color!' Whereupon the Colonel hemmed and hawed and finally came out with: 'I'm sure your people must be proud of you, my boy.' 'Yes,' said Law. 'I'm sure they are!'
Lt. says that Law rose from rank to rank on sheer merit. He kept up the morale of his men. He always had a big smile when they won their objectives and an encouraging smile when they lost. He never said very much.
Law led his men in charge after charge at Brunete, and was finally wounded seriously by a sniper. Lt. brought him in from the field and loaded him onto a stretcher when he found how seriously wounded he was. and another soldier were carrying him up the hill to the first aid camp.
On the way up the hill another sniper shot Law, on the stretcher; the sniper's bullet landed in his groin and he began to lose blood rapidly. They did what they could to stop the blood, hurriedly putting down the stretcher. But in a few minutes the loss of blood was so great that Law died.
The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight. Snow blows through the olive groves, sifting against the tree roots. Snow drifts over the mounds with small headboards. For our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die. Each winter it will seem to die and each spring it will come alive again. Our dead will live with it forever.
Over 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries flocked to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to take part in the historic struggle between democracy and fascism known as the Spanish Civil War.
Five brigades of international volunteers fought on behalf of the democratically elected Republican (or Loyalist) government. Most of the North American volunteers served in the unit known as the 15th brigade, which included the Abraham Lincoln battalion, the George Washington battalion and the (largely Canadian) Mackenzie-Papineau battalion. All told, about 2,800 Americans, 1,250 Canadians and 800 Cubans served in the International Brigades. Over 80 of the U.S. volunteers were African-American. In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was headed by Oliver Law, an African-American from Chicago, until he died in battle.
Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic's victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.
Most of Barcelona's population were gathered around the big street Diagonal. I think there were a million people there. The city had been bombed every single hour for months. But this time the Republican airplanes were up in the air, patrolling. There was a troop-parade. There were "carabineros" in their green uniforms, Guardia Nacional and different fractions from the army, tank-troops… while the Air Force was roaring by above. Then the International troops came, straight from the front, in their shabby army-pants and shirts, not at all as well groomed as the others from the frontline. But then the crowd went wild. People were cheering and shouting. The women brought their children and handed them over to the soldiers in the International Brigade. They wanted to give them the best thing they had. It was a fantastic sight.
It took two more months to leave Spain. Transportation had to be arranged for the long voyage back; we had to be outfitted with civilian clothes; the League of Nations had to count us; it was almost more difficult to leave Spain than it had been to get in. Meanwhile, the Spanish people wanted to give us a proper farewell. Fetes and banquets were held everywhere as people showed their gratitude to the 25,000 men from all over the world who had come to help Spain in her hour of need.
The main farewell took place in Barcelona on Oct. 29. For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. We had proved again that all men are brothers. Matthews wrote about this final day, remarking that we did not march with much precision. "They learned to fight before they had time to learn to march."
Finally, on a day in December 1938, we boarded a train near the French frontier and left Spanish soil. The French government sealed our train and we were not permitted to get off until we reached Le Havre and the ship that was waiting to take us home. The Italian and German members of the Brigades were interned in French concentration camps; there they led a miserable existence until World War II freed them and they were able to use the experience of their Spanish days in the various Allied armies which they joined.
Three months after we crossed the Spanish border, and two years and eight months after Franco had begun his revolt, the Republic of Spain fell to the fascists. It was a bleak day for mankind.
(1) The Daily Worker (25th August, 1936)
(2) Tom Wintringham, English Captain (1939) pages 26-27
(3) Tom Wintringham, letter to Harry Pollitt (10th September, 1936)
(4) Hugh Purcell, Tom Wintringham: The Last English Revolutionary (2004) pages 115-116
(5) Gary Kern, A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004) page 59
(6) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 349
(7) Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) pages 13-15
(8) Bill Bailey, letter to his mother (December, 1936)
(9) Canute Frankson, letter to his parents (6th July, 1937)
(10) Manchester Guardian (5th April 1937)
(11) Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) page 138
(12) Harry Browne, Spain's Civil War (1983) pages 60-65
(13) Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) page 75
(14) Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain (1974) page 113
(15) Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) pages 71-78
(16) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 578
(17) Walter Krivitsky, I Was Stalin's Agent (1939) page 88
(18) Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin (1996) page 392
(19) John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (1993) page 267
(20) Walter Krivitsky, I Was Stalin's Agent (1939) page 113
(21) Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War (1982) page 213
(22) Walter Krivitsky, I Was Stalin's Agent (1939) page page 106
(23) Fenner Brockway, Outside the Right (1963) page 25
(24) Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1991) page 305
(25) George Orwell, New English Weekly (29th July, 1937)
(26) George Orwell, New English Weekly (2nd September, 1937)
(27) Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987) page 246
(28) Bernard Crick, George Orwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(29) Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War (1986) page 258
(30) Patricia Knight, The Spanish Civil War (1998) page 52
(31) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 289
(32) Patricia Knight, The Spanish Civil War (1998) page 45
(33) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) page 507
(34) Edward P. Gazur, Alexander Orlov: The FBI's KGB General (2001) pages 330-330
(35) Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin (1996) page 392
(36) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938) page 159
(37) Jesus Hernandez, The Country of the Big Lie (1973)
(38) Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) page 168
(39) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (2003) pages 684-685
(40) Harry Browne, Spain's Civil War (1983) page 59
(41) Tom Murray, Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)
(42) Peter Darman, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009) page 172
(43) Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War (1986) page 292
(44) Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War (1982) pages 241-242
(45) Dolores Ibárruri, speech in Barcelona (29th October 1938)
(46) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959) page 66
(47) Michael W. Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (1995) page 106
During the Civil War thousands of people from other countries volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against the insurgents led by General Franco. Most of these joined the International Brigades. Volunteers were usually recruited through the communist parties of their own countries and travelled to Spain by crossing the French frontier, often illegally, or by ship from Marseilles. There were about 35,000 volunteers, though fewer than half of these were involved at any one time. Recruits came from many countries, with the largest contingents from France, Poland, Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Although a small minority were writers, artists and intellectuals, most came from working-class backgrounds. Most had little military training or experience, and, on arrival in Spain, they were sent to Albacete for training. They fought in most of the major battles of the Civil War. On 8 February 1939, as Catalonia was occupied by Franco’s forces, the last Brigade units crossed the Spanish frontier into France. To mark this anniversary, we are publishing a review of a recent book on the International Brigades, which was published in English and Spanish last October.
Apart from the memoirs of former brigaders, there have been many histories of the International Brigades. Most have focussed on volunteers from particular countries – or, in some cases, on those from individual cities. What distinguishes this volume by Giles Tremlett, the former Madrid correspondent of The Guardian, is that it attempts to cover all of the brigaders, regardless of countries of origin. In this sense it is “international” but, unlike earlier accounts of this sort, it has benefited from the opening of the Russian State Archives, which the author has used extensively along with archives elsewhere including Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the USA.
The book is organised chronologically in a series of time-specific episodes, but many of these episodes are used to explore broader themes and issues. Although the Brigades were formally established in the autumn of 1936, Tremlett begins before that by including earlier volunteers. Most of these were in Barcelona at the time of the military coup in July 1936, when the city was preparing to celebrate the opening of the “Popular Olympics” (organised in protest at the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin). Some of the athletes were among the foreigners who joined the militias which fought to resist the army. Tremlett ends his account, following the military defeat of the Republic in early 1939, with a discussion of the post-war experiences of volunteers.
Tremlett’s research in the Soviet archives reveal that volunteers came from more countries than has previously been established – from sixty-five of the sovereign independent states then in existence.
As he explains in the introduction, most volunteers came from two overlapping categories of people, which he calls “the devout” and “the displaced”. The devout were often, but not always, members of the Communist party. Party leaders attempted to vet volunteers on the basis of motivation, military experience, political views and physical fitness and over half of all volunteers were party members.
However, in the 1930s Europe housed large numbers of political refugees from repressive regimes. Although the most recent of these were from Germany and Austria, there were also refugees escaping political repression and anti-semitism in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Longer established refugee communities included those who had fled the anti-semitic pogroms in the Czarist Empire and people displaced by the Russian Revolution and by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires at the end of the First World War. To these should be added economic migrants, especially following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression.
The importance of such refugee communities for recruitment is clear from Tremlett’s account, particularly in the case of Polish volunteers. There were large Polish communities outside Poland, especially in France and Belgium. Only around twenty per cent of Polish brigaders were recruited directly from Poland, the remainder coming from as far away as Argentina. Some 350 Polish volunteers came from Belgium, of whom 131 were Jewish. Of the 1,900 volunteers from Belgium, 800 were, in fact, recent immigrants to that country. Jews accounted for about ten per cent of all volunteers, including 200 of those from Belgium. Volunteers from outside Europe also frequently came from migrant communities: the majority of Ukrainian volunteers, for instance, came from Canada.
How important was the contribution of the Brigades towards the overall Republican war effort? Tremlett rightly avoids exaggerating their role. They played a crucial part in preventing Franco’s forces from taking Madrid in the winter of 1936-37. In the battles of Jarama in February 1937 and Guadalajara a few weeks later, they helped stop rebel attempts to surround the capital. They were used as shock troops throughout the war and deployed in most of the key battles. Foreign medical staff, often women, attached to the Brigades, played a crucial role in establishing and training the Republican forces’ medical services. The Brigades were, however, always deployed as part of the Republican army and their contribution was limited. They did not fight on the Northern Front, where the Basque Provinces, Santander and Asturias were isolated from the rest of Republican territory. As the war progressed and the Republic trained a new army, the relative importance of the Brigades declined. The five Brigades became decreasingly “international” as their ranks were augmented by Spanish troops and as some of the surviving brigaders were deployed in the rearguard, in some cases training Spanish recruits.
The Franco Regime and some historians outside Spain have portrayed the Brigades as a Communist army, under the control of Moscow. The importance of party members, especially among the officers and political commissars, is well known. But different units had different political characters :Tremlett portrays the German-speaking Thälmann Battalion as more thoroughly under Communist party leadership than the Garibaldi Battalion, whose leadership reflected the more diverse nature of Italian anti-Fascism. While figures such as the Frenchman André Marty and the Italian Luigi Longo played key roles at the Brigades’ base in Albacete, Soviet “advisors” occupied many of the leading military posts. The most important of these were not Russians but Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians, who operated under assumed names. These included the Hungarian Paul Lukacs, the Ukrainian Emilio Kléber and the Polish General Walter, all of whom had served in the Red Army.
The Brigades suffered very high casualty rates – about a quarter of volunteers from the United Kingdom, France and Canada were killed and Tremlett estimates overall deaths at about twenty per cent, with a high proportion of the survivors wounded. The reasons for this are clear from Tremlett’s account. Their use Brigades as shock-troops, especially in the early months when the Republic was struggling to train an army to replace the improvised militias who had resisted the military coup, meant that the brigaders were often thrown into battle with minimal training and with antiquated weaponry. Until their withdrawal in September 1938 they continued to be involved in much of the heaviest fighting, with resulting heavy casualties. Capture by Franco’s armies, especially during the Republican retreat in Aragon in early 1938, often resulted in immediate execution, though hundreds survived to be used in prisoner exchanges after being subjected to brutal treatment at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos.
San Pedro de Cardeña (Burgos). 22 September 1938. International prisoners. Ministerio del Interior / Sección técnica. Biblioteca Nacional de España. Images licenced CC-BY.
The Brigades were withdrawn in September 1938 and given a formal farewell in a grand parade in Barcelona the following month, where famously they were addressed by “La Pasionaria” (Dolores Ibarruri). Their subsequent fates differed starkly, as Tremlett outlines in one of the most interesting chapters. Some brigaders, such as the British, US, French and Canadians made their way home, often to be treated with suspicion – in the 1950s they were accused of “premature anti-Fascism” in the USA. Their former comrades from Germany, Italy and other European dictatorships were often less fortunate. In January 1939, some 3,200 volunteers, mainly Germans, Italians, Poles and other east Europeans, were still in Spain because returning to their own countries would mean imprisonment or death. As Franco’s forces advanced on Barcelona they were called upon to return to the battlefield in a vain attempt to help avert military defeat.
By March 1939, following the fall of Catalonia, over 5,700 brigaders were detained in camps in France. Some would play important roles in the French Resistance, others would be deported to Nazi camps where few survived. Some of the Polish volunteers made the journey via North Africa to the USSR where Stalin recruited a Polish army against Germany. Former volunteers would also make important contributions elsewhere, notably in partisan forces operating in Italy and Yugoslavia, where all four of Tito’s partisan armies were led by former brigaders. Some of the Eastern Europeans survived to play important political roles after 1945, notably in the German Democratic Republic, where six former brigaders would become government ministers while others played key roles in the army and security forces.
Over eighty years later how are we to view those who volunteered and risked their lives in the International Brigades? In the past many writers have seen them as heroic figures who left their homelands and risked death to stop the spread of Fascism. To the Franco Regime – and to Cold War warriors in the West – they were mere adventurers or an invading army of Marxists under the control of Moscow. Tremlett manages to avoid either characterisation, pointing out that they were not uniformly good people and that, as in any large group of people, they included cowards and psychopaths as well as those who were prepared to risk their lives in the pursuit of a noble cause. This recognition of the variety of the brigaders as well as the breadth of the sources used make this a genuinely international history of the Brigades which should be read by anyone interested in the Civil War or interwar Europe.
The most comprehensive database on membership of the International Brigades is SIDBRINT of the Universitat de Barcelona, which includes a database of over 30,000 volunteers.
Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2020).
ABOUT THE SAN PEDRO DE CARDEÑA PHOTO [Note added on 3 March 2021]: Our photo shows prisoners of war from the International Brigades giving the straight-armed Fascist salute. This was required of all prisoners – Spanish and non-Spanish – in San Pedro and in other prison camps. According to the American volunteer, Carl Geiser, who was imprisoned in San Pedro between April 1938 and February 1939 the imprisoned Brigaders – mainly British and American – agreed among themselves to give the Fascist salute to avoid the beatings which were given to prisoners who refused. He adds “the sergeants ignored sloppy salutes as long as the fist was not closed” (Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986, p. 129). The obligation to give the Fascist salute, which was accompanied by the shout of the Dictator’s name, along with the beatings administered to prisoners, were among numerous contraventions by the military rebels of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
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MAIN PHOTO: Members of the XV International Brigade, possibly the English Battalion, being farewelled during the Battle of the Ebro in the football field of Marçà (Tarragona), October 1938. Author: Concern Illustrated Daily Courier – Illustration Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Castells, Andreu. Las brigadas internacionales de la guerra de España. Barcelona, 1974.
Ranzato, Gabriele. "Brigate internazionali." In Dizionario del fascismo, edited by Victoria De Grazia and Sergio Luzzatto, vol. 1, 198–199. Turin, Italy, 2002.
Skoutelsky, Rémi. L'espoir guidait leurs pas: Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936–1939. Paris, 1998.
Zaagsma, Gerben. "'Red Devils': The Botwin Company in the Spanish Civil War." East European Jewish Affairs 33, no. 1 (2003): 83–99.
‘Last international brigader’, survivor of Spanish civil war, dies aged 101
The man believed to be the last surviving member of the 35,000 International Brigades volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco’s fascist rebellion has died in France at the age of 101.
Josep Eduardo Almudéver Mateu, who was born on 30 July 1919 in Marseille to Spanish parents, was 16 and living in the Valencian town of Alcàsser when Franco’s coup triggered the Spanish civil war.
After lying about his age to enlist in the republican army, Almudéver was wounded and sent home when his true age emerged. Undeterred, he used his French nationality to join the International Brigades so he could carry on fighting.
When the brigades were disbanded in 1938 and many of their fighters sent home to the 80 countries from which they had come, Almudéver chose to return to Spain.
Following Franco’s victory in April 1939, Almudéver was arrested and was among those sent to the dictator’s concentration camps. At one, the Albatera camp in Valencia, he and others were forced to watch their comrades being shot and wonder when their turn would come.
Josep Almudéver with an International Brigades flag with his name on it. Photograph: Oscar Rodriguez/Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AAIB)
“It was a criminal place,” he told elDiario.es in a 2016 interview. “People there died of hunger, of stomach problems, of everything.”
In an interview with El País, he said the sound of gunshots and the cries of the dying had never left him.
“I don’t know why, but they always made me watch when they shot people who had tried to escape from the camp,” said Almudéver. “Never, in all my life, will I forget the screams of the people who were shot.”
When the camps were closed down, he spent three years in various prisons before being released and joining the guerrilla fight against Franco. He fled into exile in France in 1947 and did not return to Spain until 1965. His death, in France on 23 May, was announced on Tuesday.
The regional government of Valencia, which honoured Almudéver two years ago for his part in fighting for democracy and freedom, paid its own tribute to him on Tuesday.
The regional president, Ximo Puig, described Almudéver as “a Valencian who fought for the democratic convictions of all his people”, adding: “The last international brigader has said goodbye to us at the age of 101. Alcàsser, Europe and democracy will always remember you, Josep Almudéver Mateu.”
The Spanish communist party noted that the “last international brigader” had been tireless in his efforts and had “fought fascism and for democracy until the end of his days”.
Speaking at the ceremony where he was honoured by his native region, Almudéver remained keen to dispel the notion that the 1936-39 conflict had been a domestic war. Pointing to the military involvement of both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – not to mention his comrades in the International Brigades – he said: “The biggest lie is that it was a civil war.”
Almudena Cros, the president of the Association of the Friends of the International Brigades, described Almudéver as a “bloody-minded, incredible person” whose death marked the end of a chapter in living Spanish history.
Cros told the Guardian Almudéver was delighted to have lived long enough to see Franco finally exhumed from his mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen two years ago.
“I called him and he was so happy. He was laughing and saying ‘We’ve finally done it! Some small justice had been done.”
Cros said she hoped the testimonies of Almudéver and his fellow brigaders would live on after their deaths.
“We have them on tape, but being able to see him and hug him and shake his hand and to hear him sing the songs he sang on the front – all that’s gone,” she said.
“He was the last man standing who had seen it with his own eyes and you could see that in him. But we have to pick up where he left over and continue his battles. It’s our duty to them. They never really saw justice.”
Almudéver is survived by, among others, his 104-year-old brother Vicente, who also fought in the republican army.
The International Brigade(s)
Volunteers from countries foreign to Spain rushed from around the world to aid the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1938). Contrary to popular literature’s view, the Brigades were not packed full of European and American playwrights, intellectuals and novelists. Most volunteers came from the working classes. Ernest Hemingway came, but as a war correspondent. Stephen Spender and George Orwell came, but were kept as far away from the front as possible, because the propaganda value of their possible capture to the Nationalist forces would have been great. Poets W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood watched from a safe distance, as indeed they did again, this time from California, during the Second World War.
The Brigades were organised by the Comintern in Russia, though they included volunteers of many different political persuasions. It became very dangerous indeed to belong to the Brigades, because Franco’s soldiers understood why foreigners should want to come to Spain to die a violent death, and assisted the volunteers in this wish whenever they caught one.
No less than fifty-three countries supplied around 60,000 volunteers, mostly civilians who hardly knew one end of a rifle from the other, though they were eager to learn. The entirely Communist control of the Brigades made them seem suspicious to many serving in them. They thought that they were aiding a legally elected republican government to fight off a right-wing threat. Perhaps they did not know that Spain had stood a very good chance of joining the Soviet Socialist Republics during her own 2 nd Republic. By no means all volunteers were communist or even socialist in outlook.
The Brigades took part in the defence of Madrid in November, 1936. The capital of Spain had naturally declared for the 2 nd Republic, and the Nationalist generals fully understood the importance of securing the capital. In the frightful battles at Guadalajara and Jarama the Internationales played a crucial role. Guadalajara was a fascinating fight for historians, even for those without much sense of humour, because the brunt of the fighting took place between the ‘Garibaldi Battalion’ (Italy) and Mussolini’s Blackshirts (Italy) so an Italian civil war was being fought – in Spain. This was early 1937.
It meant almost certain death to be in the Brigades by June 1937 nearly seventy percent of volunteers in Madrid were either dead or in hospital awaiting death. They suffered enormous losses in the horrible battle at Teruel (1937/38), and in the last big offensive launched by the failing Republic in the Battle of the Ebro in July/ August, 1938. By September of that year the Republic’s last President, Canary Islander Juan Negrín declared that the International Brigades must and would be withdrawn from Spain. General Franco did not take any notice, and neither did his backers Germany and Italy. They failed to reciprocate and kept up the killing. History has rarely seen such an international disaster as the International Brigades.
3 Answers 3
From what I can tell, the International Brigades were mostly effective only for propaganda purposes and to camouflage the presence of Soviet assistance to the Republican government. The 32,000-35,000 men in the brigades were a grab-bag of unemployed workers, middle class non-combatants, veterans from the first world war, etc all motivated by a shared socialist ideology and anti-fascist outlook. Despite their generally noble intentions (a few were certainly adventure seekers), they were mostly unused to combat and lacked military training [2006, Beevor].
This was a problem given that one of the motivations of the International Brigades were to provide an example in military discipline and tactics to the equally unready Republican army. Soviet military advisors tried to provide adequate training to the brigades, but often ran into problems such as political squabbles between soviet and republican leaders, cultural differences, and varying quality of equipment (which was mostly poor). The International Brigades only lasted for about a year during which the battles in which they played a decisive role appear to have been bloody stalemates or in the case of the Battle of Guadalajara, an outcome due more to the incompetence of the Italian allies of the nationalists.
The International Brigades, were driven in their formation and ultimate dissolution by larger regional factors. The Soviet Union was unwilling to provide too much open support for the Republican government for fear of straining relationships with Britain and France, which they felt they needed to maintain as part of an anti-fascist bloc against Italy and Germany. Britain and France were unwilling to involve themselves because the governments of those countries were ambivalent about the fascist countries (in some sectors, most notably the navy and business, there were open supporters of the fascists) and were put off by the left-wing characteristics of the Republican government. America was unwilling to get involved in another major European war, but many of her prominent businessmen (such as Ford) openly supported the fascist rebellion.
The International Brigades were never able to achieve the same level of military effectiveness as the nationalist Army of Africa, and appear to have only made it more difficult for Republican Spain to gain the support of the non-fascist governments. It seems to me that despite the undoubted courage shown by the International Brigades, they faced the same insurmountable problems as the Republic in general it is no wonder that they were not capable of changing what was ultimately a losing battle.
In general you're right that their role was greatly overblown by foreign and Republican media, in order to create the impression of a worldwide popular mobilization standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish Republic, which clearly was not the case.
It's not fair to say that the International Brigades suffered, in an absolute sense, from lack of military training. Its volunteers certainly included young and idealistic men --unemployed or intellectual-- who had missed out on the world war, but also many veterans of the Great War and the many local entanglements that had resulted from it (Great War veterans like Kleber, Tito and Marty Irish volunteers who had experience in the Irish Independence and Civil Wars Austrian and German activists with experience in those countries' political paramilitaries, etc.). That's not a negligible factor, given that neither the Spanish military nor the civilian population had ever experienced anything resembling the total war of 1914-18 (with the possible exception of the October 194 rising), so men who could be trusted to hold the line under the commotion of shellfire was not insignificant.
Rather, the challenge to their effectiveness was one of discipline, of forging an effective force from a heterogeneous base: Volunteers from dozens of different countries, with different expectations, military traditions, languages, political families. So for example, you have the Irish volunteers being assigned to the American after protesting being placed under British officers you have British liberals such as Orwell baulking at the idea of communist discipline you have American troops mutinying over the question of deployment and imposed officers.
As regards their military usefulness. Although the Brigades participated in several engagements between 1936 and their dissolution in 1938, their role was not game-changing. However, nor were they superfluous to the war effort for one major reason: they arrived into Madrid on the fourth day of the capital's siege, providing the city with its sole effective full strength military force. At a moment when the regular army and armed police had been disrupted by defections to the rebels, the lack of dependable defenders had led the Republican government to flee the city. Now again, that's not to say that the Brigades were the only fighters they were three thousand out of forty thousand --but many of the Spanish defenders were untested recruits in political militias, accustomed to street brawls but untrained in modern warfare. So in the very early days of the war, the International Brigades tipped the scales in favour of the defenders of Madrid at a crucial moment when the city was badly in need of trained fighters. By keeping the rebel troops out of the capital (at a horrendous cost in lives), the International Brigades were of both a practical and symbolic importance to the Republic at its moment of greatest confusion and disorganization.
It wouldn't be before the end of 1936 that the ragtag political militias, greater on enthusiasm than expertise, began to be formed into a cohesive Republican army. In the weeks after the Brigades' initial arrival, the Republic rebuilt an army from the ground up, and the International Brigades were increasingly not needed and became a diplomatic liability, withdrawn from combat and eventually sent home. Even where they participated in combat in 1937 and 1938, they were now a regular part of the Republic's Popular Army: by 1937 60% of their members were Spaniards.
In summary: yes their role is exaggerated, both in terms of their numbers and effectiveness. But nor were they superfluous, offering a valuable military and morale-boosting resource in the critical month of October 1936.
REVIEW – The International Brigades: fascism, freedom, and the Spanish Civil War
The precise number is uncertain, but around 35,000 foreign fighters may have served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Of these, perhaps one in five died, becoming, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, ‘part of the earth of Spain’.
Hemingway was one among a legion of journalists and writers who made the Brigades world-famous. Justly so: here was an army of volunteers, from 65 different countries, that became a military elite, the shock-troops of the beleaguered Spanish Republic, the vanguard of the global struggle against fascism.
Not all were heroic. Some failed the test of battle. Some were simply escaping the dole queues and slums at home. Some were more adventurers than anti-fascists. Some transitioned into Stalinist police agents. Some turned out to be rapists and sadists.
Not the least strength of this extraordinary book is the even-handed way in which Tremlett describes the Brigades ‘warts and all’. There are the most moving accounts of personal sacrifice, of devotion to a noble cause, and phenomenal courage and endurance on the battlefield, usually against the odds. On the other hand, we hear of cowardice, betrayal, poor leadership, and the paranoia and brutality of Stalinists like André Marty, who ran the main training facility at Albacete. As Tremlett explains:
Most Brigaders fitted into one of two overlapping categories: the devout and the displaced. The former were highly politicised, the while the latter belonged to the first or second generation migrant diaspora in Europe and the Americas that had suffered the hardship of economic or political exile. These were not uniformly ‘good people’… Desertion was frequent. Prisoners were shot. There were cowards, psychopaths, and rapists in their ranks… Stalinism lurked, and not just in the wings. Homosexuality was punishable. Women were looked down upon or mistreated…
But that was only half the picture. The other was idealism, comradeship, self-sacrifice, commitment to the struggle for a better world in the face of poverty and fascism. Take the annihilation of the Botwin Company of Jewish volunteers at the Battle of the Ebro on 21 September 1938.
The Jews are usually seen as the primary victims of Nazism and the Second World War in Europe. But there is another story: of Jewish resistance to fascism throughout the 1930s, during the war, and even in the ghettos and the camps. There were many examples in Spain, including the last stand of the Botwin Company, who, heavily outnumbered and outgunned, and surrounded on three sides, defended their position to the last moment, until overrun by a unit of Franco’s Moroccan Regulares. The survivors were then shot.
Fascism and appeasement
What is so shocking now is that, while Hitler and Mussolini poured men and hardware into Spain, the British and French ‘appeasement’ governments blocked arms supplies to the Spanish Republic and made it illegal for volunteers to serve in Spain. The Communist Parties of Europe had to create a kind of underground railway to smuggle in the volunteers.
The Brigaders were what one journalist later called ‘premature anti-fascists’. They took up the gun to stop the Nazis when it was illegal to do so, when British Tories and French Republicans were essentially profascist, seeing in Hitler a conservative bulwark against socialist revolution.
Tremlett gives us a sense of that wider political turmoil, tracing back the origins of many of the Brigaders he features, including growing numbers who were effectively stateless, political activists driven into exile by the advance of fascism across the continent.
Not that Stalinism was the alternative that so many Brigaders believed it to be, and Tremlett is judicious in reminding us of the background of purges and gulags in 1930s Russia – purges and gulags which, in due course, consumed a fair proportion of returning Spanish War veterans.
Here, though, in my view, the analysis is weak. Occasionally, indeed, I think Tremlett repeats Stalinist propaganda uncritically – as, for example, when he tells us that arms were being ‘hoarded’ in Catalonia, when he alludes to Anarchist ‘indiscipline’, and when he depicts events in Barcelona in May 1937 as no more than an attempt to create ‘a unified, centrally commanded, and obedient Republican army’.
In fact, it was a counter-revolution, in which the Republican state, increasingly dominated by the Stalinists of the Spanish Communist Party and their Soviet mentors, set out to crush the main centre of the revolution of workers and peasants that had swept the country and blocked the fascist coup in July 1936.
Once the Anarchist and POUM militias had been defeated, the Stalinists set about destroying the militias and the factory and agricultural collectives in Catalonia and Aragon. This ripped the heart out of the Republican movement and turned the war into a conventional struggle between a liberal parliamentary regime (though one increasingly authoritarian and repressive in its behaviour) and a reactionary alliance of Army, Church, and Falange (as the Spanish fascists were known).
Take the role of women. Tremlett makes frequent reference to women Brigaders and to the discrimination, misogyny, and sexual abuse to which they and other women were occasionally subject.
But this requires some contextualisation. Women fought alongside men in the Anarchist militias of 1936 and worked as equals of men in the Anarchist-run collectives. After the May 1937 counter-revolution, the Stalinists removed women from the front-line and dismantled the collectives women were returned to their ‘traditional’ roles. Tremlett describes this, but does not explain the wider political context.
War is politics by other means. It is essential to understand the social forces at work if one is to make complete sense of military events. The whole fate of the Spanish Republic turned on Barcelona’s ‘May Days’ in 1937. And it was the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism in Spain that disillusioned a whole swathe of intellectuals and activists – like George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia is one of the best books written about the Spanish War, and whose Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were literary artefacts of this experience. Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom captures the essence of these critical events.
Moving and disturbing
But this is my only major criticism of the book, and it does not prevent me giving it the strongest endorsement. It fills a huge gap and does so in superlative style.
This, despite the huge amount written about the International Brigades – the voluminous journalism at the time, the numerous memoirs written by survivors, the many books about different battalions and battles – is the first comprehensive narrative history. And it is a superb piece of work, the individual stories of Brigaders woven seamlessly into the wider military and political history, with a perfectly judged selection of cameos and scenes throughout. There is not a dull moment in this fast-paced, multidimensional study.
We move, effortlessly and in an instant, from a bare hillside somewhere in the Spanish interior, where men are digging shelters with their helmets as protection from shell- fire and aerial strafing, to the capital cities of the European powers, where decisions are taken that will determine the fate of the Spanish Republic.
What inspires us, of course, is not the malevolence of the political class, but the basic decency of most ordinary volunteers. The International Brigades were deeply flawed, but at their best they were beacons of light in a world fast descending into darkness. Take the example of Oliver Law.
As commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, he was the first black American in history to lead white Americans into battle. His appointment reflected the American Communist Party’s long-standing defiance of racial segregation. His moment of glory came on 9 July 1937 at the Battle of Brunete. Tremlett quotes his runner:
Once again, Law was up in front urging us on. Then the fascists started running back. They were retreating. Law would not drop for cover… He wanted to keep the fascists on the run and take the high hill. ‘Come on, comrades, they are running,’ he shouted. ‘Let’s keep them running.’ All the time he was under machine-gun fire. Finally he was hit… As he was being carried on a stretcher to the ambulance, he clenched his fist and said, ‘Carry on, boys.’ Then he died.
This book is beautifully written, brilliantly structured, immensely moving, and deeply disturbing. It cannot be recommended strongly enough – especially for those whose main interest is the Second World War, for Spain was the great dress-rehearsal for what was to come between 1939 and 1945.
This was literally true for many Spanish veterans, thousands of whom would play central roles in the world war – leading French Resistance units, training Britain’s Home Guard, commanding Yugoslav Partisan armies, working in the Special Operations Executive, and much more.
This is, as the eminent Spanish Civil War specialist Paul Preston put it, ‘the overall history of the Brigades that has been lacking’.
Review by Neil Faulkner
This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.
The International Brigade
The International Brigade is an umbrella term given to numerous groups that arrived in Spain to help the Republican cause – the overthrow of the Nationalist attempt to take over the country. Members of the International Brigade came from numerous countries – Great Britain, France, the USSR, and the former Yugoslavia for instance. However, while they may have had the same desire, the International Brigade was a collection of mainly men who had no loyalty to other groups within the International Brigade and followed no other leader than their own. Whether as a unified and cohesive force the International Brigade could have made any difference to the final outcome of the Spanish Civil War is open to conjecture.
The state of Europe as a whole presented individuals with an incentive to do their bit to help the Republicans. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had made it very clear where their loyalties were while the USSR led by Stalin had done likewise with the Republican movement. To Hitler and Mussolini the attempt by the Republicans to take over Spain was nothing more than an attempt to further expand the spread of communism.
“We must prevent communism from establishing itself in the Mediterranean.” (Mussolini).
“We must save Spain from Bolshevism.” (Hitler)
In August 1936 the British government announced that it believed that no other country should send aid to Spain. Her fear was that such a move would escalate the situation possibly into a full-scale European war. A Non-Intervention Committee met in London with representatives from Germany, Italy, France and the USSR present. The USSR had left the committee in October 1936 while Germany and Italy left the committee in June 1937. It soon became obvious that certain nations were supplying the Republicans or Nationalists with weapons but not manpower. The USSR sent so much aid that Largo Caballero was forced to send £63,256,684 gold reserves to Moscow to pay for the aid.
Stalin had already sent artillery experts to Spain to help and advise the Republicans but had warned them to “stay out of range of artillery fire.” But any help was piecemeal and not enough to help the Republicans.
When it seemed as if Franco was having success, the Republicans put out calls such as:
“Workers and anti-Fascists of all lands. We the workers of pain are poor but we are pursuing a noble ideal. Our fight is your fight. Our victory is the victory of Liberty. Men and women of all lands! Come to our aid. Arms for Spain!”
In the UK a poll showed that out of 105 journalists and writers only five supported Franco whereas 100 wanted the Republicans to win.
The driving force behind British volunteers was support for communism. Nat Cohen and Sam Masters were the first two British volunteers to aid the Republicans and both were communists. The first British national to actually join in the fighting was a student from Cambridge called John Cornford. He too was a communist. The first UK volunteer to die in the conflict was a communist called Felicia Brown who died on August 25 th 1936.
Members of what became known as the International Brigade crossed the French/Spanish border on what was known as the ‘secret railway’. The first unit of the International Brigade was organised by Joseph Broz (later Marshal Tito) from an office in Paris. He sent 500 volunteers to Albacete via the ‘secret railway’ on Train 77. The 500 were commanded by Lazar Stern. Other ways were found to cross into Spain over the Pyrenees that did not involve the use of trains. Members of the International Brigade came primarily from Britain, France, USA and the USSR. Volunteers also arrived in Spain from Italy and Germany to help the Nationalists.
One Republican leader made clear where he felt the International Brigade was failing. Andre Marty, the commander of the Albacete training camp asked the question “Why aren’t the volunteers achieving much?” Marty answered his own question.
“Is it because they have lacked enthusiasm? A thousand times no. Is it because they have lacked courage? I say tem thousand times no. There are three things they have lacked, three things which we must have – political unity, military leaders and discipline.”
A unit from the International Brigade entered Madrid on November 8 th 1936. When they needed to be moved around the city they were moved via double-decker buses.
In October 1936, nine merchant ships from the USSR arrived in Spain carrying equipment. One unloaded 25 tanks and 1500 tons of ammunition. However, the training of the International Brigade had not extended to the use of tanks in warfare. The tanks were first used on October 29 th when they smashed their way through Nationalist positions. However, there was no infantry available to support the tanks and their fought Nationalist cavalry in the streets of Esquivias by themselves and ended up having to retreat.
The support of Stalin worried Hitler who sent to Spain what became known as the Condor Legion.
Units of the International Brigade were used in the Battle for Madrid. In the initial stages of battle for the capital city, the Nationalists had done well. The International Brigade units were used to launch a counter-attack against them around Carabanchel. They charged under the cry of:
“For the Revolution and Liberty – Forward.”
When the fighting had died down 24 hours later, a third of the International Brigade had been killed. Squabbles had taken place between members of the Anarchists in the International Brigade and other units. The Anarchists would not take orders from anyone else other than an Anarchist. With such division the Nationalists found it easier to take part of the city around University City. Such issues came to characterise the International Brigade. While guarding a strategic bridge near the junction of the rivers Jarama and Manzanares, members of the International Brigade placed explosive charges under the bridge to ensure that if there was a danger that they would lose control of it, they could destroy it and ensure that the Nationalists could not use it. When the explosives were detonated the bridge rose a few feet in the air and then came back down on its supports once again. A French unit around the bridge was wiped out by Nationalists who had poured over the bridge.
In total it is thought that as many as 32,000 to 35,000 actually fought in combat for the International Brigade with another 10,000 in a non-combatant role. Over 9,900 were killed and just over 7,500 wounded in action. Volunteers came from all over the world including Mexico and Estonia.
A superb International Brigades history, sadly gift wrapped in anti-communism
IBMT Ireland Secretary Manus O’Riordan reviews ‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’ by Giles Tremlett (October 2020). He takes issue with the portrayal of International Brigaders Frank Ryan and Jack Jones in the book's final chapter. It was originally published in the January 2021 issue of Irish Political Review.
‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’ has also been reviewed by IBMT Chair Jim Jump in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2021, which went out to members in early January. To ensure you receive the latest issue of the magazine on time, join or renew your membership here .
International Brigader Micheál O’Riordan, father of the reviewer, with a portrait of Frank Ryan gifted to him by the Communist Party of Ireland, November 2005.
In 2007 Giles Tremlett, Madrid-based contributing editor of The Guardian , authored 'Ghosts of Spain - Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past', a wonderful portrait and insight into post-Franco Spain. All the more reason, then, to have looked forward to the publication this October of his 700 page history, 'The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War'. The book's cover carries the following endorsement from the doyen of Spanish Civil War historians and biographers, and founding patron of the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), Paul Preston: ‘The bravery and sacrifices of the volunteers from all over the world who fought fascism in Spain keep alive interest in the civil war. Many of the tens of thousands of books about the conflict are about the International Brigades but there has never been one like Giles Tremlett's deeply moving account.’ I quite agree.
Tremlett further received particularly enthusiastic reviews in both the London Times and the Irish Times . Tremlett's own Guardian was, however, too keen to be first out of the box with excessively enthusiastic reviews from a duo with observations sharply at variance with some of the facts in Tremlett's own narrative, which would be obvious to anybody who had read the book with due care. On Saturday 3 October, the Guardian review by Dan Hancox gave the following misleading impression: ‘The Brigades drew an astonishing array of international literary figures – Orwell, Hemingway, Spender, Auden.’ None of these were International Brigaders. Only one of them was at all in combat, but it was with the quasi-Trotskyist POUM that George Orwell had enlisted. In fairness, the Hancox review was well intentioned, and he had the good grace to remove a first line howler that it had initially carried: ‘This article was amended on 3 October 2020 to remove a reference to the Spanish Communist La Pasionaria also being an opera singer.’
I would nonetheless concur with Hancox’s summarising paragraph: ‘Tremlett has created a dazzling mosaic of vignettes and sources, of lives lived and lost, of acts of heroism, solidarity, betrayal and futility, that builds to a grand picture of a conflict that drew idealists from across the world. The war left many of them in despair, injured or dead – but also hardened many more in their determination to defeat fascism. This book is as close to a definitive history as we are likely to get.’
The following day however, on 4 October, in The Guardian’s sister publication, The Observer , the review was a rather different affair, where its ignorance was but one component in a particularly nasty anti-communist diatribe. Paul Mason wrote of the February 1937 Battle of Jarama: ‘For the English Speaking Battalion, so named to assuage the former IRA men who were among its few skilled fighters, the baptism of fire was to be brutal. After a three-day retreat, in which all but 80 were either killed or wounded, a Red Army colonel persuaded the stragglers to march back towards the enemy, singing the Internationale.’ There was no such entity entitled ‘the English Speaking Battalion’. There were indeed several English-speaking (lower case) battalions, respectively named the British Battalion, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (US) and the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion (Canada), with IRA veterans fighting in all three. And the Irish International Brigade leader, Major Frank Ryan , was no Red Army colonel!
Ryan's great rally had been powerfully inspirational as a deed in its own right. But it was no less inspirational in the way that he himself went on to recount it in 1938 in 'The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade'. In fairness to Tremlett on this score, he quoted Ryan's account in detail, but Mason proved incapable of absorbing what was before his eyes.
What was particularly insufferable about Mason’s review was the arrogance of his invincible ignorance. ‘The Mason's Apron’ is a traditional Irish fiddle tune. Well might its name be applied to Guardian newspapers. In the week that followed, IBMT Chair Jim Jump sought to address the overriding distorted character of Mason's review with the following letter to The Observer , which unsurprisingly was denied publication. It can be read here .
Mason's ignorance of history cannot be blamed on Tremlett, but it can be blamed on the prevailing liberal anti-communist ethos of Guardian Newspapers, for which Tremlett himself has also demonstrably signed up. Now, I myself have not been a communist true believer for a good four decades. Yet I am also an ex-communist who is nonetheless very proud of having been one. And I am immensely and immeasurably proud that my communist father was a 20-year-old ‘premature anti-fascist’ who volunteered for the International Brigades and fought in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War.
But what of the ideological prejudices of a proclaimed anti-communist such as Tremlett? In and of themselves, these prejudices do not constitute a barrier to him being a good historian honestly chronicling the roles played by both communist and non-communist International Brigaders during the course of that War. In actual fact, Tremlett has pioneered the extensive use of the Moscow Archives of the International Brigades, and one can ignore his constant pejorative use of the terms 'communist' and 'Stalinist', as long as, in his ‘warts and all’ narrative, he presents all the evidence to be freely weighed up by the reader, who can then, at times, come to different judgements than the author himself. Tremlett unquestionably achieves this in respect of that 1936-39 war, resulting in a superb and gripping narrative. However, very different standards come to the fore in how Tremlett writes up the post-civil war years in the concluding chapter of his book.
In Chapter 25 Giles Tremlett writes of ‘the Great Rally’ at the February 1937 battle of Jarama: ‘Frank Ryan was amongst those who heard a rumour that the entire front line had been ordered to retreat. Ryan shouted “Sing up, ye son o' guns!” It was, he said, the sort of thing he had previously shouted to raise morale before banned Irish Republican demonstrations. Slowly the men began to sing a tune whose English words may not have been intelligible to everyone but whose melody was instantly recognisable. This was 'The Internationale’, the anthem of leftists across the world. For those present, it was one of the most remarkable moments of the war. “Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks”, recalled Ryan.’
Tremlett writes of Ryan as ‘the guiding spirit of the Irish volunteers’, and of how, in March 1938, he became ‘the most senior International Brigade prisoner’, before going on to write of him in Chapter 46:
‘The senior prisoner, along with the Mackenzie-Papineau commissar Carl Geiser, was the charismatic Frank Ryan. When asked (on capture) who was in command, Ryan stepped forward immediately - despite the fact that officers were more likely to be shot. When they were taken to Zaragoza, they were ordered to give the fascist salute. “I call upon all my fellow soldiers to refuse”, said Ryan. Frank Ryan was eventually recognised by all (in San Pedro concentration camp) as the natural leader. After they were visited by foreign journalists, news that he was being held reached Ireland and Prime Minister Éamon de Valera himself tried to arrange his release. Ryan felt free to upbraid the New York Times' William Carney for his pro-Francoist articles. He was eventually removed from San Pedro and subjected to a trial that saw him sentenced to be executed, though this was later commuted to thirty years in jail. Ryan would, in any case, remain in Spanish prisons until after the end of the war.’
I found no problems with Tremlett's ‘warts and all’ narrative in those first 51 chapters. What is written there of heroes and villains, courage and cowardice, is all based on evidence, and it makes for a superb must-read of thoroughgoing historical research of the highest order. Indeed, Tremlett's particularly well rounded and balanced narrative of the May 1937 events in Barcelona serves as a wake up call to readers who have hitherto had their judgements shaped by an uncritical reading of Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia'.
What, however, Tremlett introduces to readers in his final chapter are not just warts. They amount, in fact, to malignant tumours of character assassination, which disregard any sense of obligation to weigh up the evidence, both pro and con, against the accused. Tremlett here ceases to be a serious historian and opts instead to play the game of sensationalist journalism. He now proceeds to write:
‘One of the most curious figures was Frank Ryan, the bold, left-leaning IRA man who had been captured during the retreats. He was eventually freed by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) who organised a mock 'escape' for him in July 1940, and spirited him away to Berlin. There he seems to have worked with other Irish Republicans who thought that the war offered a unique opportunity to bring about a reunification of Ireland – especially if Hitler should invade Britain. There is still bitter debate over whether this meant the avowed anti-fascist who had persuaded XV Brigade to return to the line at Jarama became a Nazi collaborator, placing Irish nationalism above all else and losing the right to be considered a socialist. With his health failing, Ryan tried to return to Ireland, but was refused permission as his country did not wish to jeopardise its position of neutrality. He suffered a stroke, and died in a German sanatorium in June 1944.’
Frank Ryan pictured in Spain, circa 1936.
The Queen's University Belfast site is the sole source provided by Tremlett for his drumhead court martial and ‘conviction’ of Ryan on the ‘Nazi collaborator’ charge, with particular reference to “Frank Ryan: a revolutionary life", the site's 2012 essay authored by Fearghal McGarry, who had first levelled that charge a decade previously in his 2002 biography.
My two reviews of McGarry’s 90 page biography of Frank, reproduced on the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website, refuted, point by point, the charge that Ryan should be regarded as a Nazi collaborator.
Readers interested in an even more detailed examination of Frank Ryan's role and record can freely download a series of three articles I wrote for the March, June and September 2012 issues of Irish Foreign Affairs here . They make clear that the only Irish Republican that Ryan was working for in Berlin was de Valera himself, pledging total wartime allegiance to him, firmly upholding Dev's policy of neutrality, protesting to the Germans for their bombing of Belfast, and bluntly telling them that their war was lost with their invasion of the USSR.
British intelligence files containing the January 1946 interrogation of Madrid Abwehr agent Wolfgang Blaum record: ‘In May 1940 Blaum was instructed to contact Frank Ryan…who had commanded an Irish volunteer brigade with the Loyalist (Republican) forces in the Spanish Civil War until his capture and imprisonment…With the aid of Ryan’s lawyer, Blaum was able to see Ryan in the prison and he persuaded Ryan to go to Germany if he were released. Blaum agreed to Ryan’s stipulation that he go to Germany as a free man, and not as a paid German agent.’ Ryan was then hoping to go from Germany to the USA to campaign in support of Irish wartime neutrality. Frank Ryan in Germany was neither the anti-fascist conspirator and martyr of Socialist Republican iconography nor the collaborator with the Nazis portrayed by McGarry. Even Abwehr officer Kurt Haller's British intelligence interrogator at one point observed of Ryan: ‘Regarding himself as an Irish patriot and not a creature of the Germans, he refused to associate himself in any way with Hartmann's Irish broadcasts’.
‘Patriot’ might well indeed have been the appropriate chapter heading used in respect to the final four years of Ryan's life, rather than the heading of ‘Collaborator’ chosen by McGarry. Patriotism can, of course, also be the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Ryan was no scoundrel. Undoubtedly he fails to pass the Stalinist test of unconditional loyalty to the interests of the Soviet Union, as he also fails to pass the Churchillian test of loyalty to the British Empire. He would have been a prime candidate for a show trial under either regime. But perhaps an admittedly more insular standard of patriotism will allow us to acknowledge the integrity of the role he played.
It is difficult to imagine how Tremlett avoided being aware of my two critical reviews of McGarry's biography, as they are clearly listed on the International Brigade contents page of the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website referenced by Tremlett elsewhere. Two other online sources researched and referenced by Tremlett were the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives blog The Volunteer , and the IBMT Newsletter . In the January 2015 issue of both, I drew attention to my earlier review of McGarry. Moreover, the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of the IBMT Newsletter carried my review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan, a film for which McGarry was the historical consultant, and where I cited my original review refuting McGarry’s thesis.
Most damning of all, however, is the fact that two 300 page biographies, sourced and referenced by Tremlett in respect of Ryan's earlier years, are not even mentioned in his final chapter. In his 1980 biography, 'Frank Ryan – The Search for the Republic', Seán Cronin pioneered the use of Irish National Archives in exonerating Ryan of the ‘collaborator’ charge. And in his 2004 biography, 'In Green and Red – The Lives of Frank Ryan', Adrian Hoar also made extensive use of British Intelligence files in the UK National Archives to arrive at the same conclusion as both Cronin and myself. The least that can be said of Tremlett's character assassination of Ryan is that his ‘research’ here was unconscionable.
From left: daughter of la Pasionaria Amaya Ruiz Ibárruri, IBMT President Jack Jones, ICTU President Patricia McKeown and the reviewer singing ‘The Internationale’ at the IBMT’s AGM in Belfast, October 2007.
But Frank Ryan is not the only International Brigader to have his character smeared by Tremlett in that concluding chapter. He further writes:
‘Jack Jones who survived the Ebro battle, became head of Britain’s mighty Transport and General Workers Union. It has been suggested that he may even have been a Soviet informer, though this was something he vigorously denied. If it were true, however, Jones would have been just one of at least a dozen Brigade veterans in Western Europe who served communist Moscow's spy machine. The most famous, or infamous, of these was Morris Cohen, who recruited a scientist at the Los Alamos testing centre in New Mexico to pass on blueprints of the first American nuclear weapons in 1945.’
So, on balance, Tremlett comes down on the side of the ‘probability’ that MI5 was correct in alleging that Jack Jones had indeed been a paid KGB informant, whom he accordingly consigns to a rogues’ gallery of those he calls servants of ‘communist Moscow's spy machine’. Once again, a refusal on Tremlett's part to go to the bother of investigating any supposed evidence. See for example my booklet on Jack Jones, available here via Athol Books, where I refuted the charges made by MI5 professor Christopher Andrew in his 2009 book ‘Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5’.
In his concluding chapter, Tremlett also proceeds to write:
‘Nowhere were the Brigaders more powerful than in Eastern Germany. as the Soviets struggled to find people they could trust who could help them construct a narrative of historic anti-fascism, cleansed of Hitler's Nazi legacy. The new German state also needed armed forces and police, often to repress its own people. Brigaders took prominent positions . providing seventeen generals, forty colonels and numerous other officers. Considering that there were barely more than a thousand veterans in East Germany, their importance is outstanding. Some German Brigaders became notorious oppressors, with veterans providing more than a dozen senior members of the feared Stasi secret police, while a hundred more joined the ranks of various police forces. The infamous Stasi, indeed, was founded by Wilhelm Zaisser (aka General Gómez in Spain) with the help of Brigader Karl Heinz Hoffmann. The 85,000-strong Stasi 'People's Police' force. was led by Brigade veterans for all but four years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. By that time it had become East Germany's most notorious and hated tool of state repression. At one stage, veterans were in charge of all three branches of the security services – including the army, the interior ministry's police and the Stasi.’
I myself am far from having been an apologist for the GDR. In the March 2020 issue of Irish Foreign Affairs I cited two books published in 1977 that informed my critique of the GDR, ‘Jonathan Steele’s ‘Socialism with a German Face’ and Stefan Heym’s novel ‘Five Days in June’, both set against the background of the East Berlin workers’ revolt of June 1953. In the December 1978 issue of The Communist I quoted Brecht’s ironic lines about the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s attitude to the revolt:
‘Would it not have been simpler
If the Government had dissolved the people
But Tremlett sets no store on the fact that, unlike Hungary and Czechoslovakia, there had been no International Brigade ‘Show Trials’ in the GDR. What Tremlett went on to write on this subject in The Guardian on 22 October was something else again, showing that he wears his anti-communism on his sleeve. The opening lines of the article read:
‘In the 1930s, thousands of men and women around the world enlisted to fight fascism in Spain. Many survivors went on to play a key role in the fight against the Nazis – but, in some cases, later became powerful servants of brutal regimes. Some were noble and brave in their actions, others were cruel, cowardly or callous. Some fought for an ideal, others for adventure. And, for some, those ideals would take them on a journey of oppression that placed them closer, in their behaviour and blind defence of Stalinist communism, to the fascists whom they declared as their enemies than to the democratic Republic that they defended.’
In the concluding chapter of his own book, Tremlett had indeed cited Paul Preston's 2012 book 'The Spanish Holocaust' when writing that Franco's Spain was a place where ‘tens of thousands were placed before firing squads. Some 150,000 people were killed by Franco's own firing squads and associated right-wing death squads alone.’
As Helen Graham had pointed out in her review of 'The Spanish Holocaust' for the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of the IBMT Newsletter :
‘After Franco achieved victory in spring 1939, the mass murdering dimension inherent in war-forged Francoism became fully apparent, as the final section of Preston’s study explores. Of the baseline figure of 150,000 extra- and quasi-judicial killings for which it was responsible in the territory under direct military control between 1936 and the late 1940s, at least 20,000 were committed after the Republican military surrender in late March 1939.’
For Tremlett to compare GDR repression to the Spanish Holocaust, placing International Brigade veterans involved in that repression ‘closer to the fascists’ was an obscenity. As already stated, I have no hesitation in recommending 51 chapters of 'The International Brigades' as a superb history of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. Pity about Tremlett's final chapter and its Guardian newspaper gift wrapping.
I live in Penzance where we have a very active group of writers and artists. One of our regular activities is the Monthly Sunday Speakeasy. We have a theme, and anyone who wants to can contribute short stories, poetry, art, music, history, an oral piece. It’s very good fun and there’s a broad mix of styles and contributors.This month’s theme is justice. And this is my contribution.
I’m eye deep in research about the Spanish Civil War at the moment, so the theme of Justice is very appropriate.
So – a little bit of background:
In July 1936, General Franco led a rebellion against the democratically elected government of Spain. This led to the civil war, a horrifying war which ripped Spain apart. It was a very complex situation, but in essence the elected Government was republican, socialist and atheist, and the rebels were monarchist, fascists and Catholics. That is very simplistic but hopefully gives a flavour of the division in the country.
To set this in a wider context, Hitler was gaining power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and the governments of Britain, America & France were all desperate to avoid another world war, and were attempting to appease Hitler. Although it’s easy to judge that attitude harshly now, many of them had experienced fighting in the Great War as young men, and perhaps this determination to avoid war was informed by that experience. It was as much true of the British Labour Party as the Conservative Government under Stanley Baldwin, and then Neville Chamberlain.
Those major powers – the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy & Russia – all signed a Non-Intervention agreement. They agreed they would keep out of what was apparently a Civil war in Spain Spaniards fighting Spaniards. Nothing to do with anyone else.
Of course, there is a major flaw in signing agreements with fascists, and that is that they are fascists. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini felt bound by that agreement. Britain, the US and France however did – or certainly used it as a wall to hide behind.
Consequently Germany & Italy provided Franco’s rebels with heavy armaments, troops, training, ammunition and support. Britain, France and the US refused to sell any kind of arms or offer any kind of support to the elected government, who were poorly armed, poorly trained, and frankly, poorly fed. The only country offering any support to the Spanish government was the Soviet Union, under Stalin.
The injustice of this stance provoked an astonishing reaction amongst individuals who believed, rightly or wrongly, that for justice to be done they had to volunteer to fight with the Spanish government to protect Spain, and the rest of Europe, from the march of fascism across the continent. The British Government particularly covered itself in glory by making it illegal to volunteer for the International Brigades, choosing in February 1937 to invoke an ancient act that turned these young idealists into criminals.
Between 1936 – 1938 around 35,000 people from around the world, mostly young and mostly men, volunteered, and the International Brigades were formed. My Uncle was one of the 2,300 from Britain. He tried to join up when he was 18, but wasn’t accepted. In theory volunteers had to be 21 but eventually he succeeded on his 20 th birthday, May 3 rd 1938. Franco was winning by then, and the recruiters were turning a blind eye to under-age volunteers.
It’s not easy to understand what made people take this step of leaving their homes and families to go and fight in a foreign war. Many of them kept it secret from their families, and the first the families knew of it was a postcard sent home from Spain telling them where their sons or daughters were. My uncle’s family did know and my grandfather tried, through the British Labour Party, to stop Bruce from going, but he was unsuccessful.
Bruce, my uncle. was a committed and very idealistic communist, as were many of the volunteers – but not all of them. Many of them were anti-fascist rather than pro-communist. Perhaps many of them were driven by a sense of justice, a need to right a wrong. A need to correct the imbalance caused by their own elected governments’ refusal to help another elected government, and a belief that if Franco, backed by Hitler, succeeded, the rest of Europe would soon fall, and that there would be no justice in Europe.
I am fortunate to have copies of letters sent from Bruce to his family and friends. In the last letter he wrote to his mother, dated July 19 th 1938, just a few days before he was killed, he says. ‘Don’t think I’m enjoying myself, far from it, or that I like war. I came out here because I hate war and love life so much – so much that I am willing to die for it.’
Of course, there was no appeasement. Hitler’s practice run for his bombers over Guernica in April 1937 should have been a warning shot, but, encouraged by victory in Spain and the lack of reprisal, fascism gained confidence and swept its way across Europe. Many of the men who broke the law to volunteer in Spain, and survived, went on to fight with the British & American armies, or joined the French resistance.
Ultimately of course the combined forces of Britain and the US and the rest did defeat Hitler. But they didn’t defeat Franco, and Spain lived under his yoke until 1975. It says much for the people of Spain that following his death they adopted a ‘Pact of Forgetting’, and it’s only now, more than 75 years later, that they have started to revisit their own history. In a few months time, I’m going to a re-enactment of the Battle of the Ebro, where my uncle was killed, and I’m visiting the battle fields where his bones probably still lie. He isn’t one of the names remembered from the Spanish Civil War. He was just a working class boy who lived and died by his beliefs, and my attempt now to find out about him, and to tell people about what he did, is perhaps driven by a desire to get justice for him, and for his legacy to be more than just a pile of anonymous bones lying beneath Spanish soil.