February 6 marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the “Battle of Jarama” during the Spanish Civil War, as left-wing and democratic forces fought to stop the fascist forces of General Franco taking power.
Alongside the Battle of Madrid, the Battle of Jarama is commonly associated with the participation of the International Brigades — volunteers, often organised by communist parties, who travelled from around the world to Spain to join the anti-fascist fight.
After Franco’s failure to take Madrid in 1936, the fascist forces tried a military offensive in early 1937 on the western flank of the Spanish Republic forces, alongside the river Jarama. The offensive failed, and the counter-offensives by the Republican forces effectively turned the battle into a stalemate.
Holding the frontline at Jarama were thousands of volunteers from Britain, Ireland, United States, Italy, France, Belgium and many others who came from around the world to defend Spanish democracy.
Among a handful of surviving International Brigaders remaining today is José Almudever Mateu.
Born in France of parents from Spain’s Valencia region, Almudever is a 97-year-old veteran of the civil war and the International Brigades in defence of the 1931-39 Spanish Republic. He has also been a harsh critic of the 1936 non-intervention Pact signed by all major Western European powers with the express goal of preventing military support reaching the contending sides in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
From the start, the pact was cynically ignored by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose military assistance was crucial to the victory of Franco’s forces. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico provided any significant support to the republic.
As a 17-year old youth, Almudever joined a militia group formed by the Spanish Socialist Youth (JSU) in his family’s home town of Alcasser after Franco’s July 18, 1936 coup against the republic.
In May 1938, owing to his foreign birth and knowledge of French, Almudever joined the 129th division of the International Brigades. At the end of the war in 1939, he was captured and sent to several concentration camps and prisons, enduring starvation and abuse from the Francoist authorities.
Finally released in 1942, like many former Republican fighters, he was forced into exile. He only returned to Spain in 1965.
Now living in rural France, Almudever remains passionate about the fight against fascism and the example of the International Brigades. Despite his advanced age, he takes part in events, forums and presentations to preserve the historic memory of the Spanish Civil War.
Most recently, he was an honoured guest at the 80th anniversary commemorations of the International Brigades in Madrid, where he unveiled the “Garden of the International Brigades” — one of the first public spaces in Madrid to formally honour the foreign volunteers.
Almudever is one of the last three known surviving members of the International Brigades. Green Left Weekly spoke to Almudever about his experiences.
You were only 12 when the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. What do you remember from the atmosphere of those days?
Being only 12, I did not fully know or understand all the events, but I witnessed great changes in my home town of Alcasser. The majority were peasants, illiteracy there was more than 60% and a single landowner controlled more than 10% of the land. The capitalists believed that they could constantly win elections because of the people’s ignorance.
April 14 was an event of incredible happiness. I remember the first euphoric week and the explosion of freedom on the streets. People of all the political groups marched together, holding pictures of revolutionary martyrs and leaders.
We had to ask ourselves: had we really achieved the workers’ republic we hoped would be entrenched in the constitution, or did the republic serve more the interests of the capitalists?
The republic did bring some important advances. For the first time, secular schools were created. It was the first government to give equality to women. Women could be educated, vote and be elected.
At the same time, it was a capitalist republic. The capitalists maintained power.
Neither repression nor the threat of the military coup ever really went away. The workers could not understand how with the republican Manuel Azana and the socialists in government, the left could suffer so much repression.
In November 1933, with the republican government worn out, the conservative bourgeoisie won the elections.
How did it feel for you to fight alongside your family against the Francoist forces?
After Franco’s coup in July 1936, apart from the regular army, every political party formed its own volunteer force. At first, I tried to enlist with the Republican Left, but was sent away because I was only 17. My father and I then tried to go to the Communist Party, but they said they had no weapons or instructors to train new volunteers.
Finally, they sent me off to join a socialist column, which had its headquarters in a monastery. I enlisted and we headed off to the front line.
There were 200 of us. The people of Valencia applauded us greatly as we made our way to Teruel (then held by Franco’s forces). We finally received our orders to attack Teruel to support the defence of Madrid.
Our battalion had more than 500 men at that time. I spent several weeks in the trenches alongside other militias until February 4 1937.
How did you become involved in the International Brigades?
On February 19, I returned to the frontline with my comrades in Valencia. In Utiel, we met with the 13th International Brigade and I heard some of them speaking French. I asked them if I could come with them and join the brigades. But while I was waiting for confirmation, the 13th Brigade had to march off.
On June 26, the republic’s defence minister issued an order forbidding 17-year-old French-born youth like me from being in the Republican Army, so I had to leave the militia and return to Alcasser. They forbade me from serving in the army as a foreigner, so I returned to the front line as a volunteer.
It was in May 1938 that I finally presented myself to the Italian Rosselli Column in Alcasser. I presented my birth certificate, showing that I had been born in Marseilles, and ended up joining them, under the command of the 129th International Brigade.
What do you remember of the men and women who came from all over the world to fight for the Republic?
In the Rosselli Column, I got to know combatants from all across the world. We had a Canadian, three Cubans, our chief mechanic was an American, one was Dutch, another was German, another Swiss and another Chinese. For most of us, we did not get to know each other by name, but by nationality.
Despite our coming from different places the camaraderie among all of us was stupendous. We had passionate talks about everything, especially the war and the republic, but never any personal conflicts.
I remained with the Rosselli Column until November 1938, when it was divided into different language-speaking columns and sent off to the front while I remained in Alcasser. In December 1938, the Non-Intervention Committee that was directed by Britain and France arrived in Spain, and in January 1939 the International Brigades were expelled under its pressure.
Do you think it was the non-intervention by Britain and France the destroyed the republic in the end?
Of course. The Republican government of Azaña decided to expel the International Brigades in the hope that Franco had a similar attitude and would do the same with the foreign armies supporting him. He did not.
The brigadistas were fewer in number than the foreign troops on the other side, who comprised more than 80,000 and had far better weapons. And we also endured the anti-Communist propaganda of the democratic capitalist countries.
The republic was cruelly abandoned to the hands of Nazism because the British and French leaders believed that Hitler only wished to exterminate Communism. Britain and France refused to sell any weapons or help the republic, while the United States continued to trade with Franco.
More than 80,000 foreigners supported Franco’s army. How can you call that a “civil war”?
I remember hearing the news of Spaniards crossing into France after the Francoists began their invasion of Catalonia. There were concentration camps for them. Many died of malnutrition. Only the French-speaking and the foreigners who resided in France were taken care of.
Talking about our world situation today, we see a familiar picture — a civil war in Syria, the rise of far-right forces in the West and high inequality. What can you say about this?
All evil in this world comes from capitalism. Fascism comes directly out of the decay of capitalism.
Here in France with Marine Le Pen, I would not be surprised if she becomes the next president and the French ruling class backs her afterwards. In our next elections, there will be five left-wing candidates standing for the president. What kind of socialists are they? Why wouldn’t the left put its forces together, instead of fighting among themselves?
The only one who could possibly fix all of this in France is [the Left Party’s] Jean Luc-Mélenchon. All the others would be happy to serve the government of Le Pen. Unfortunately, the game is stacked against Melenchon.
However, new [Spanish] leftist forces give me a lot of hope. You can expect things to go better with Podemos, like what we are seeing with the mayor of Madrid [Podemos’s Manuela Carmena].