Spain: 80 years on, Madrid remembers the International Brigades

Painting from 1939 by British artist Clive Branson showing campaigning in London in solidarity with Spanish Revolution. Branson fought in the International Brigades.

The end of October brought an end to the deadlock within Spanish congress with the re-election of Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP) as prime minister with the support of the neoliberal Citizens and the abstention of the traditional social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

But while the political and economic elites breathed a temporary sigh of relief in Madrid and Brussels, almost 100,000 opponents of the new right-wing government gathered to protest in Puerta del Sol, in the heart of the capital.

At the same time as the formation of this new government, another significant event was taking place elsewhere in Madrid.

On October 28 and 29, the Association of Friends of the International Brigades (AABI) commemorated the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the first groups of International Brigades to the Spanish capital, who joined the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

Set up by the Communist International, up to 35,000 international volunteers took part in the brigades as part of the struggle against Franco’s fascist forces between 1936-38.

At the anniversary events, about 150 participants from 14 different countries attended, representing groups such as the Friends and Family of Abraham Lincoln Brigade (USA), Kampfer und Freunde der Spanichen Republik (Germany), L’ACER (France), AICVAS (Italy) and others.

Almudena Cros, the president of AABI, led the proceedings through Madrid following a number of successful events commemorating the International Brigades in Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha.

On October 28, the delegations arrived at the Fuencarnal Cemetery, in the northern part of Madrid, where the remains of 451 International Brigaders were buried.

A new plaque, commemorating 80 years since their arrival was placed alongside the flags of the “Compania Naftali Botwin” of the Palafox Battalion of the Polish volunteers. Participants sang “Die Moorsoldaten”, a popular song among German brigades at that time.

The delegations later arrived at Ciudad Universitaria, a site of one of the most important battles of the initial stages of the Civil War. In November 1936, the Francoist military suffered one of their first serious defeats at the hands of the combined military forces of the Second Spanish Republic, the newly-arrived International Brigades and the anarchists of the Durruti Column.

A monument to commemorate the defence of Ciudad Universitaria by the Brigades was erected in October 2011 on the university grounds, although it has come under attack and vandalism by a number of neo-fascist groups.

On October 29, the international delegations gathered for one of the most important acts of commemoration in Vicalvaro, south-eastern Madrid. The public green space in front of the University of Juan Carlos III was renamed as the “Garden of the International Brigades” at the official ceremony, following the proclamations of each of the 14 international delegations.

The Italian delegation, headed by Marco Puppini, explained how 5000 Italian volunteers came to fight with the International Brigades and alongside the Republican militias. They arrived to fight for democracy and social justice — and to demonstrate that apart from the Italy of fascism and Mussolini, there existed an anti-fascist Italy, the ideals of which the International Brigaders embodied. Nearly one in four of the volunteers lost their lives on the various battlefields across Spain.

Zuzanna Ziolkowska, a granddaughter of a member of the Polish Dabrowski battalion, spoke on behalf of the Polish delegation: “In Poland, many came to Spain … to fight the military coup of General Franco. As the Dabrowskis wrote in their manifesto, ‘When Madrid falls, Warsaw will fall too.’

“In the current geo-political situation, it is important to not only bring back and retain the memory of them, but also defend the ideas which they fought for.”

Nadia Incu from Romania recalled the memory of her father, a young leftist medic who left for Spain in April 1937, to help the Spanish people in their fight to regain their freedom, and to counter the rapid rise of fascist groups within his home country, actively supported by the government at that time.

Alexander Bogdanovsky, grandson of a Soviet volunteer and member of the Russian Association of the Memory of Volunteers in Spain, recalled that more than 3000 Soviet citizens came to fight for freedom in Spain, 198 of whom did not return.

The Swedish delegation was headed by prominent Swedish folk singer Jan Hammarlund. A Swedish participant said: “Six-hundred Swedes volunteered for Spain. They knew that the cause of Spain was also their cause.

“In these times, when big business and political demagogues want you to blame your immigrant neighbour or look the other way, let us remember how the brigaders acted.”

Also attending the event was the Cuban ambassador to Spain, Eugenio Martinez Enriquez, who recognised the effort of 400 Cuban volunteers who went to fight fascism in Spain. He noted that internationalism has been at the heart of the Cuban nation, which also sent more than 300,000 volunteers to fight for the liberation of Angola and Mozambique during the 1980s.

Jose Almudever Mateu, one of the last surviving members of the International Brigades, who fought alongside the Italian brigades and the Republican Army, unveiled the new street sign of “Gardin de las Brigadas Internacionales”.

Speaking of his experience nearly 80 years ago, he recalled the war was a deliberate attempt by the world imperialist powers to crush the Second Spanish Republic, with French and British “non-intervention” effectively being a betrayal of democracy in the country.

“Spain was the first battle of World War II, and one in which Franco only triumphed thanks to the foreign invasion by Hitler’s and Mussolini’s armies.”

That night, with nearly 100,000 anti-austerity protesters converging on Puerta del Sol, the flags of the Spanish Republic that was crushed by Franco were flown in every corner of the crowd.

Chants of “Madrid sera la tumba del fascismo” (Madrid will be the tomb of fascism) filled the air as the heirs of Franco’s dictatorship, the Popular Party, took reins of political power on the crutches of their allies in PSOE and Citizens.