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International Brigade

The Flag of the International Brigades was the Spanish Republican flag with the three-pointed star in the centerFlag of the International Brigade

Franco’s rebellion in 1936 infuriated the political left. In simple terms they saw a legally & democratically elected ‘popular front’ government being threatened by a right wing coup d’état. Franco had the army, church, landed classes and most European governments behind him (in spirit if not in deed) and hence the upper hand. Furthermore it was clear Hitler and Mussolini were openly supporting Franco. It was going to be a fight between right and left, rich against poor.

Worldwide, reactions were pretty immediate – thousands of volunteers rushed to Spain to defend the Republican government. Many just felt a sense of injustice and left for Spain without any idea of what it might entail – like Esmond Romily. Others were itching for a fight after suffering persecution in their own countries such as Nazi Germany, Austria or Italy. Others were so convinced ‘socialism’ was the answer they flooded in from the Balkans, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and the east (including some from China). By far the most came from France – a country suffering from its own problems with its own weak ‘Popular Front’ socialist government struggling to control an aggressive and increasingly pro Nazi right.

P1010010.JPGThe bulk of the volunteers were ordinary working men, many suffering the unemployment of the 1930’s – such as dockers, building, factory & farm labourers, ship workers, some ex-military - all keen to see Spanish workers maintain their new found equality. However, significant numbers were ‘intellectuals’ drawn to Spain by idealism – teachers, journalists, poets, writers – all with a common goal to stop fascism. If nothing else Spain represented a country & electorate that had taken a political path and these volunteers were not going to let Franco, Hitler & Mussolini bully the new government into submission.

Initially the Spanish Government wasn’t sure how to deal with the volunteers, some of whom responded to the call to arms by joining individual militia units – like George Orwell in Barcelona. With time however the foreigners tended to gravitate to Albacete (inland from Alicante) where the International Brigade was based. This was a confusing time – the Republican Government had enough trouble coping with the suspect loyalty of the remaining regular army & Guardia Civil units without dealing with thousands of enthusiastic but untrained foreigners. Nevertheless they were moulded into military formations around national & language lines - badly equipped, barely armed and trained but with a strong sense of motivation (something many on Franco’s side did not have).

The siege of Madrid saw the first serious fighting with the German Thälmann Battalion being virtually wiped out. The IB made an important contribution and sacrifice but it was the ordinary Madridilianos who saved the city. With time the IB became more efficient and moved from a disorganised militia to a trained unit with talented senior officers.   
My interest lies with the British and American units. The British Battalion was never huge but very determined – losing 500 dead during the war. The American Washington and Abraham Lincoln brigades had even greater losses. The USA produced two very interesting commanders – Robert Merriman and Oliver Law.

So what went wrong? The IB perfectly illustrates the reasonP1010004.JPGs why the Spanish Republic failed. It lost its initial unity of purpose just as Spanish politics could not maintain a united front against Franco. The Spanish Republic collapsed into open conflict between anarchists, communists, socialists and liberals (read G, Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’). It’s hard to believe that in the midst of the civil war another ‘war’ broke out in Barcelona between the political militias. The IB likewise fell victim to internal politics. In the background Russia created a command structure that followed Soviet policy which was not necessarily what was best for Spain and the Republic. Many of the original idealists were now dead and replaced by some who had their own agenda. Disillusioned, many British officers like Fred Copeman & Jock Cunningham felt undermined and left the IB.
In 1938 the Republic withdrew most of the foreign fighters to try and appease political pressure from abroad i.e. why should the Nazis withdraw their troops if the Republic similarly had German & Italian fighters? Hard to believe the Republic thought this would help.

What was the legacy of the IB? Immediately post war not so good. American citizens had hard times back in the USA where veterans of the Abraham Lincolns suffered from an anti communist backlash especially over the Soviet/Nazi pact. Brits similarly were not viewed as returning heroes but as something suspicious – remember this was the time when many of the Western powers saw Hitler as bravely holding back the Soviet hoards!
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Nowadays I think the International Brigade has regained its merited position. Many hold them up as an example of men and women who gave their service and lives to an ideal – the defence of democracy and the fight against fascism. They were not fighting for a Stalinist state but for ordinary Spaniards (and in a broader sense Europeans) who were trying to achieve a fairer and more balanced society.

I am researching my local town here in Spain – Benissa, Alicante Province. Local historians maintain that the IB had a hospital operating here during the civil war. Rumour says Shapayev (Marshal Tito) was here and that British volunteers are buried in the town. Nobody seems willing to talk about these events – the Guerra civil is a very emotive subject that still stirs up bad feeling. However, does anybody have any information?