Seventy five years ago, as the Second World War loomed, another conflict began that would have wide consequences on history - the Spanish Civil War. On one side was the "Nationalists" - a coalition of military insurgents, royalists, fascists and other conservatives. On the other was the Second Spanish Republic, a coalition of leftists and liberals aided by those security forces that had stayed loyal. In November 1936, the world was transfixed by the Battle of Madrid, where the forces of Francisco Franco were poised to seize the capital and end the war with one stroke. But reinforcements arrived in the nick of time to help Spanish Republicans - the International Brigades.
Seventy five years ago, as the Second World War loomed, another conflict began that would have wide consequences on history - the Spanish Civil War. On one side was the "Nationalists" - a coalition of military insurgents, royalists, fascists and other conservatives. On the other were the "Republicans" - a coalition of leftists and liberals aided by those security forces that had stayed loyal to the Second Spanish Republic. In November 1936, the world was transfixed by the Battle of Madrid, where the forces of Francisco Franco were poised to seize the capital and end the war with one stroke. But reinforcements arrived in the nick of time to help Spanish Republicans - the International Brigades.
The International Brigades were a creation of the Comintern, the world wide organization of Communists. They were created as part of the policy of the Soviet Union, then led by Joseph Stalin, to aid the Spanish Republic, just as its rivals the Nationalists were receiving assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Brigades recruitment headquarters in 1936 was in Paris, but the Brigades drew volunteers from all over the world.
Many of the volunteers were committed Communists, including some Soviet citizens "seconded" from the Red Army. But many were leftists of a wide variety of beliefs and persuasions or simply idealists who felt that someone needed to stand up to Fascism. During the course of the Spanish Civil War, between 32,000 and 35,000 men from 53 different countries served in the International Brigades (see The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor, Penguin Books, 2001). American citizens formed their own units, notably the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Battalions within the XV International Brigade, which saw its first action in 1937 at the Battle of Jarama. The American volunteers included a number of US military veterans, and many of them would go on to serve in WW2 if they survived.
The International Brigades arrival in Madrid in October 1936 assisted greatly in building up the morale of the residents of the capital to resist. The Brigades went on to serve in many key battles of the war, such as the Battle of Brunete and the Battle of the Ebro, taking very heavy casualties. Quite a few well known persons, including some with surprising links, served in the International Brigades:
- Esmond Romilly, British and a nephew of Winston Churchill, who was later killed in WW2 serving with the Canadian air force
- Josip Broz, "Tito", a Croat who later became leader of Yugoslavia
- Milton Wolff, a Jewish American from Brooklyn who would go on to fight with the OSS in WW2, resist the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950's and, at a ripe old age in the 1980's, organize aid to the Sandinista Government of Nicaragua
Eventually, as the war began to wind down in 1938, the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain. Unfortunately, the role of the Soviet Union as the organizer of the effort had malign consequences, as Stalin engaged in a brutal suppression of all those on the left who disagreed with Soviet policies, resulting in the imprisonment of many deemed "Trotskyists." The Stalinist campaign had the effect of disillusioning many International Brigades volunteers. George Orwell, who did not serve in the International Brigades but rather in another leftist militia called the POUM, memorialized this disillusionment in his book "A Homage to Catalonia."
Yet the fact remains that the International Brigades represented a great burst of idealism on the part of many of the volunteers. The Western Democracies themselves had refused to aid the Spanish Republic, in fact dooming them to reliance on the Soviet Union through a "non-intervention policy" that looked the other way as Hitler and Mussolini liberally aided the Nationalists with troops, equipment and funds.
The involvement of American volunteers was poignant considering how American industrial businesses at the time gave tremendous support to Franco. As noted in Beevor at page 138:
"The President of the Texas Oil Company was an admirer of the facists, and on receiving news of the rising he diverted five tankers en route for Spain to the Nationalist port of Tenerife...Standard Oil of New Jersey was another supplier [of Franco]. Later on Ford, Studebaker and General Motors supplied 12,000 trucks to the Nationalists, nearly three times as many as the Axis Powers, and chemical giant Dupont Nemours provided 40,000 bombs..."
Many American veterans of the International Brigades received discrimination, both during WW2 as they were denied advancement, and of course after the war during the Red Scare of the Cold War. They were deemed suspect as "premature anti-Fascists" by J. Edgar Hoover. This was despite the fact that FDR himself, at the time, realized and stated that the American Neutrality Act which had legally prevented aid to the Spanish Republic "had been a grave mistake."
To this day, American conservatives do all in their power to discredit and suppress the true story of the American volunteers to the International Brigades. In the 1990's this included efforts such as working to remove a plaque in Vermont honoring the Abraham Lincoln brigades. Of course, American right wingers do not own up to the historical fact that their ideological forefathers and capitalist tycoons were aligned at the time with Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.
The history of the International Brigades is ultimately a tragic one. The Second Spanish Republic was defeated and destroyed by Francisco Franco and his German and Italian fascist allies in 1939. Spain would not return to the ranks of democratic nations until the late 1970's.
But it is worth taking some time to look back seventy five years ago and remember the idealism of those who not only saw the threat posed by Nazism, but acted to stop that threat by risking their lives. History is written by the victors, they say. And American conservatives have, to some degree, succeeded in distorting the truth by painting all the volunteers as pawns of Stalin's Russia. But it was not so and the memory of these "premature anti-fascists" deserves better.
As Milton Wolff put it when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee to defend VALB (Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) from being banned as a Communist front organization:
"I am Jewish, and knowing that as a Jew we are the first to suffer when fascism does come, I went to Spain to fight against it."
I thought this 75th anniversary should be noted here on DKOS.