Chris Bambery welcomes Brigadistes, a wonderful collection of portraits of international volunteers for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War
This little book is an absolute delight, containing sixty brief portraits of those who came to Spain to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Inevitably, the majority are members of the Communist Party who came to join the International Brigades, because they made up the overwhelming majority of those that rallied to the Republican cause, but others are here too. These include Mika Etchebéhère, who came from Argentina to fight in the militia of the POUM, Partit Obrer d'Unificació Marxista (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). POUM would be suppressed by the Stalinists in May 1937 and their talented leader, the Catalan Andreu Nin, arrested and executed. After her husband, Hipólito, was killed, Etchebéhère was chosen as captain of her unit, the only female captain in the Republican armies.
Some of the names might be familiar, such as Frank Ryan, an IRA leader who volunteered for the International Brigades. He would be captured and later would die in Nazi Germany trying to return to Ireland (it’s a complicated story). Alvah Bessie was a talented writer and scriptwriter, a Jew from New York City who would return to the USA and be blacklisted in the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s.
Annie Murray came from Edinburgh as a nurse, along with her brothers, and would later say the Spanish Civil War was ‘the most important thing in my life’. That was a sentiment obviously shared by many in this book. Jimmy Rutherford, also from Edinburgh, was just twenty when he was executed by the Francoists. He had been captured earlier, exchanged on the promise he would not return to Spain, a promise he could not keep, and when he was captured again, paid the ultimate price.
Fanny Schoonheyt was a Dutch photographer who came to live in Barcelona and was helping prepare the Olimpiada Popular in Barcelona, the anti-fascist alternative to the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Berlin. When the fascist uprising began, she joined the militia and fought, was wounded, and left for Paris to train as a pilot, but could not return before Franco’s victory.
Oliver Law was an Afro-American construction worker from Chicago and a Communist who came to Spain in 1937. He became commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the first Afro-American to command white as well as black troops. He would be killed leading his men in combat.
Two Communist heroes of the French Resistance are here, veterans of the International Brigades. Pierre Georges, or Colonel Fabien, launched the armed resistance in August 1941 when he shot a German officer boarding the Metro at Paris’ Barbès station (prior to the June 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia, the French Communist Party would not have countenanced such a thing because of the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact). He was killed fighting in the French army in Alsace in December 1944. Henri Rol-Tanguy led the August 1944 uprising in Paris which liberated the city prior to Charles De Gaulle’s Free French forces arriving.
The sharp eyed among you might have noted that the book’s title is Brigadistes, not Brigadistas as in Spanish. That’s because the book was written by a Catalan in Catalan. Its English translation was supported by the Institut Ramon Llull, the cultural body of the Catalan government. I make the point in respect for the author, Jordi Martí-Rueda, but also because the Catalan authorities have gone far beyond what Spanish governments have done to commemorate those who fought fascism from 1936 to 1939.
Spain holds the largest number of unmarked graves outside Cambodia, because of those executed by Franco. The Catalan government funds not just their exhumation, as a right-wing Spanish government cut the modest funding available, but is also running a DNA testing programme so that the remains can be returned to their families.
In Barcelona and other towns and cities, you can visit the restored deep air-raid shelters built to save the lives trapped under Francoist, German and Italian bombs. Various sites connected to the 1938 Battle of the Ebro, the last Republican offensive, have been restored, including the cave which was home to a front-line casualty station.
Brigadistes is perhaps not the first book to read to discover the Spanish Civil War and the 1936-1937 revolution in Catalunya, but I would recommend it highly even so. Its short extracts bring these anti-fascist fighters alive. Whatever their political differences, and they were great, these were the cream of humanity. Jordi Martí-Rueda shines a light on them, aided by an excellent translation from Catalan by Mary Ann Newman.
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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.
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