Internationalism during the Spanish Civil War

October 26, 2021
Brigadistas during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
International brigades during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Photo: RV1864/Flickr

The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War
by Giles Tremlett
London, Bloomsbury Publishing,
2020, 720pp

“We shall not forget you,” promised the famous Spanish communist known as La Pasionaria, addressing the surviving International Brigades as they departed Barcelona in October 1938, the last of 35,000 volunteers that had fought in defence of the Spanish republic against the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco since its uprising against the Centre-Left Popular front government in July 1936.

In the International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, Spanish based journalist and historian Giles Tremlett provides the most comprehensive history of the International Brigades, formed from men and women who came from all the world to fight against the Nazi and Fascist Italian backed Francoist forces in what was seen as a prelude to the Second World War.

Right from the start, the forces of the Spanish Republic were hindered by the fact that the major western powers such as Britain, France and the United States were unwilling to aid and set up a non-intervention committee. However Nazi Germany and the Fascists blatantly ignored any non-intervention agreement and provided troops, weapons and economic aid to Franco’s forces in order to ensure their victory.

The only two countries who sent any aid to the Spanish Republic were Mexico and the Soviet Union, but it was the Stalinist led Communist International (CI) that were crucial in setting up the International Brigades with the French Communist Party (PCF) playing a crucial role in facilitating the arrival of the International brigades to Spain.

From the Battle of Madrid in November 1936 to the July–November 1938 Battle of the Ebro, the International Brigades were often sent into battle with very basic training and poor equipment against numerically superior Nationalist forces backed to the hilt by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, battles in which the Brigadiers fought bravely but endured appalling losses.

An example of these problems was the experience of the English-speaking battalions of the XV Brigades on February 12, 1937, during the Battle of the Jarama Valley when 630 British and Irish volunteers were given little training and thrown into battle against a numerically superior force. At the end of three days only 80 men survived, however the International Brigades were able to overcome these difficulties to score a republican victory.

Among those that fought and supported the Spanish republic were authors such as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell as well as many photographers, artists and politicians as well as working-class men from all over the world (65 countries in total) with half of them being Communists fighting alongside Socialist, Anarchists, Liberals, Democrats, people of all faiths and none, even a few conservatives and politically agnostic adventurers all united under the Anti-Fascist banner.

Many of the Brigadiers were already refugees having fled persecution, poverty, unemployment and degradation with thousands of them being French, Poles, Germans and Italians. The Italian Garibaldi Battalion played a crucial role in defeating Mussolini’s Fascist forces at the battle of Guadalajara in March 1937.

Tremlett does not shy away from showing the difficulties faced by the International Brigades and the Spanish republic thanks to internal divisions such as the role Stalin’s NKVD and Stalinist Communist parties played in crushing other rivals on the left with a whole chapter being dedicated to the repression of the Anarchist left and surveillance of George Orwell in May 1937.

We get the story of soldiers such as Oliver Law, the first black soldier to command white troops in American history, killed at Brunete in July 1937, and three Jewish tailors from Stepney who had “arrived by bicycle”. The behaviour of the volunteers ranges from heroic and self-sacrificing to cowardly, brutal and sadistic.

Through 1937–38 the International Brigades fought in battles at Brunete, Belchite, Teruel and Ebro often making initial gains at great cost but unable to hold those gains against Nationalist forces backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany while the Western powers allowed Republican Spain to be crushed.

By October 1938 the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in the hopes that the Nationalist’s German and Italian Allies would withdraw their troops and Western Democracies such as France, Britain and the US would end their arms embargo on the Republic. However, at the same time, France and Britain signed the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany showing their commitment to the policy of Appeasement.

By April 1, 1939, Franco’s Nationalist forces had won the war and set up a repressive regime which remained in power until the death of Franco in 1975, outlasting the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy by 30 years with supporters of the republic suffering imprisonment, torture and executions with an estimated 250,000 deaths.

For the International Brigadiers, who suffered an estimated 5,000 deaths during the war, their fates were varied with those who returned to Britain and the US often facing suspicion for having fought in the International Brigades often being denied promotion during World War II and being labelled as “Premature Anti-Fascists” during the 1940s and ‘50s.The fate of Brigadiers from authoritarian countries was often worse with many dying in Nazi concentration camps but continuing their fight against fascism.

In 1996 the Spanish Government finally fulfilled its promise to the surviving international brigadiers by granting citizenship to the surviving 600 fighters and in 2020 approved the “democratic memory” law, which would offer citizenship to the descendants of those same volunteers. “It is about time we said to these heroes and heroines of democracy: thank you for coming,” Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias stated.

Tremlett’s The International Brigades pays tribute to the flawed but heroic men and women who struggled against Fascism, often at the cost of their lives and ridicules the idea that anyone can be a “Premature Anti-Fascist”, especially when in the wake of COVID-19 and climate crisis the far right is on the rise again and needs to be confronted.

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