REVIEW – The International Brigades: fascism, freedom, and the Spanish Civil War

6 mins read
Giles Tremlett
Bloomsbury, £30 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1408853986
Giles Tremlett
Bloomsbury, £30 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1408853986

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.

Stalinist counter-revolution

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.

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