The story of the International Brigades’ fight against fascism in Spain is newly told in Tremlett’s valuable account, finds Chris Bambery

Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury 2020), 720pp.

When I first became politically active in Edinburgh, back in the 1970s, it was a regular occurrence to see veterans of the International Brigades, volunteers who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, on May Day and other marches. One, Donald Renton, who had been captured by the fascists and jailed before being repatriated, was by then a Labour councillor. When one of our comrades, Kevin Gately, was killed by police, who were defending a National Front rally in London, Renton came and spoke at the memorial meeting.

These were ordinary working-class men, and some women who served in the medical units, who had freely gone to fight fascism, putting their lives on the line. However, there was something else about them. Most were hardline Stalinists who defended the Russian dictator’s action to the last and looked at us ‘Trots’ with evident dislike (Renton, as I recall, had left the Communist Party in 1956 over the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution).

Further, the International Brigades were conceived by the Stalinist Communist International, and the recruitment in each country, or in exile for many, was run by the respective Communist Parties. Although many non-Communists joined, the military control of the Brigades was firmly in the hands of loyal Communists, some who had fought in the Red Army or operated on behalf of the Russian secret service. Only Stalin gave military aid to the Spanish Republican government, and sent some 10,000 advisers and training officers, after some hesitation. He was concerned not to provoke Hitler, or to annoy the two Western democracies, Britain and France, who he was desperately courting in the vain hope of an anti-Nazi alliance.

Revolution betrayed

The problem was that when Spain’s generals rose in July 1936 to overthrow the centre-left Republican government, in much of Spain, particularly the great cities, the coup failed. This led not just to a prolonged civil war but to the working-class rising up and taking control. That was particularly the case in the industrial centre of Barcelona, as George Orwell described in Homage to Catalonia.

Stalin was clear, and this was the line of the Spanish Communist Party, that any socialist revolution would scare Britain and France, together with the Spanish middle classes, into the arms of fascism. In reality, the rulers of Britain and France were not going to aid Republican Spain because they feared communism more than fascism and were slavishly trying to appease Hitler. From the outset the Communists together with Socialist Party and the liberal Republican parties who now made up the government of the Republic, sought to rebuild the old state. This was despite the fact it had effectively collapsed, particularly in respect of the security forces and the conventional regular army. Even more, the government was determined to end the takeover by workers of factories, land, and much else, particularly in Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon where the anarcho-syndicalists were strong.

The International Brigades were used as a model of what this new army should be, with officers issuing orders, strict discipline, punishments including executions and no democratic discussion. The argument was simple: the priority over everything else was winning the war and that required a conventional army which could match that of General Franco’s. The problem, as Giles Tremlett makes clear in this excellent book, was that they never could.

Firstly, virtually all the officer corps and many NCOs (sergeants and corporals) had joined Franco and those who couldn’t by virtue of geography, being based in towns and cities where the fascist rebellion was quashed, had no interest in achieving victory. They sabotaged what they could and crossed the line when an opportunity came. The Republic had to create a new officer corps, but it could not match that of Franco’s.

Secondly, Franco was receiving lavish supplies of war material from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, including 90,000 Italian ‘volunteers’ and 10,000 German trainers. Germany also supplied the Condor Legion, the air unit which destroyed Guernica. There was also sufficient oil from American and British companies. The Republic received weapons from Russia only (they were paid for by the shipping of Spain’s gold reserves to Moscow) and Mexico. The International Brigades numbered 32,000 or so and even with Russian advisers could never match the number of foreigners fighting for Franco.

Military defeats and successes

The capture of the Basque Country, Santander and Asturias by Franco in the course of 1937 allowed him to build up his own weapons industry, relying on Basque iron ore and Asturian gold. These additions meant the Nationalists held areas now containing the greater percent of the population, leaving the Republicans lacking fresh manpower.

In a series of battles involving the Brigades – Brunete, Belchite, Teruel and the final one, the Battle of the Ebro – a pattern emerged. Republican assaults were initially successful but then Franco sent in reinforcements along with artillery and planes. The Republicans could not match the firepower and numbers the fascists deployed and were driven back. After an initial success at Teruel, that battle became a rout with Franco driving to the Mediterranean cutting Republican territory in two. The assault over the River Ebro was brilliantly successful at first, but when Franco inevitably counter-attacked in greater strength, the Republicans began a retreat which took them to the French border, lacking the material and men to stop Franco.

What Tremlett does here is provide an excellent military history of the role of the Brigades, none better in fact. That started with the defence of Madrid in November 1936, when the city was expected to fall to Franco and the Republican government had fled. At the darkest moment the first two International Brigades appeared and took up positions. Tremlett is clear they did not save Madrid, the vast majority of its defenders were Spanish, but they were vital in boosting morale in those dangerous days.

The biggest success the Republican side had in the Civil War, aside from the very early anarcho-syndicalist one from Catalonia, which liberated much of Aragon, was at Guadalajara. Here mainly Italian troops on the fascist side attacked, aiming to take Madrid in one week. The International Brigades, particularly the Italian Garibaldi Brigade, were important in halting the assault and forcing the Italians to retreat. Appeals over loudspeakers and via leaflets meant many Italians, having little enthusiasm for Mussolini, surrendered in large numbers. For the Duce this was a humiliation.

Members of the brigades

Tremlett introduces us to some interesting figures, some familiar like Ernest Hemingway and the photographer Robert Capa, who turns out to have been a name adopted by the Hungarian Endre Ernő Friedmann and Gerda Taro, the first great female war photographer, killed at Brunete. Both were Jewish exiles, as were so many of the International Brigaders. At a time when the American army was segregated, and would be until 1947, Captain Oliver Law became the first Afro-American to command white troops, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, also being killed at Brunete.

As always it is the voices of the rank and file Brigaders which are so moving. Many were veterans already of the fight against fascism, of hunger matches, strikes and much else. Many went on to play key roles in the anti-fascist resistance in Occupied Europe, alongside Spanish, Basque and Catalan fighters. Giovanni Pesce was an Italian exile whose family had moved to the southern French coal mining town of Ales. He came across the Pyrenees to fight as a teenager. After returning to France he was interned, but eventually got away and returned to Turin. There he spearheaded armed resistance with the partisans before being transferred to Milan to ginger up the resistance there. In April 1945 he drove in the car carrying the partisan command after the resistance liberated the city. He was at the end of a long life when I met him, but still a proud Communist. Truly someone who did kill fascists.

However, others would also play key roles in building the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe after 1945, including setting up the East German Stasi, the secret police.

Tremlett ends with the recognition democratic Spain has given to the Brigaders, including awarding the remaining few automatic Spanish citizenship. Unfortunately, the transition to parliamentary democracy following the ogre’s death in 1975, was premised on both a pact of silence about Franco’s crimes (an amnesty was extended to his torturers), and many of the institutions of the dictatorship remaining intact with existing personnel in place. That has contaminated today’s Spain and is something undealt with. But that’s another story.

If you want to learn about the International Brigades this book is the starting place.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.