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The pain in Spain…

Nicholas Jacobs finds a chilling account of the Spanish Civil War both painful and inspiring

19 November, 2020 — By Nicholas Jacobs

Oliver Law, the first African-American to command white troops as head of the Lincoln Battalion, wearing his captain’s stripe before Brunete, where he died. Pipe-smoking Steve Nelson has an arm over his shoulder

UNLUCKY the land that needs heroes,” wrote Brecht in his play Galileo, because they are only needed when things have gone wrong.

The gruesome story told in The International Brigades – Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, a magnificent history of the defeat of the Spanish Republic by Franco’s fascist army, supported by arms and up to 90,000 soldiers and airmen from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, is full of heroes.

You only have to read the chilling chapter about the massacre of fleeing civilians at the hands of Franco’s forces along the Malaga to Almeria road in Southern Spain, or follow the battles of Boadilla, Jarama, Guadalajara, and many others, whose very names still resonate with heroism. And this is not to mention the heroism of individual volunteers whose names and exploits are recorded on almost every page of this painful but inspiring book.

To counter those 90,000 professional German and Italian soldiers and airmen fighting for Franco, the International Brigades supporting the Republican army totalled some 35,000 volun­teer soldiers, a few with experience of the First World War, from some 80 different countries, about 2,500 from the UK.

Britain and France pursued a policy of non-intervention, which was in effect a policy of intervention on Franco’s side, because not only did they refuse aid to the legitimate Spanish Republic, but did their best to prevent aid and the volunteers from travelling to Spain. What is more, it was an English plane, chartered by a right-wing English publisher, which flew Franco from the Canary Islands to begin his military rebellion in Spanish Morocco before moving to the mainland.

The Tom Mann Centuria was formed in Barcelona but never fought, and members mostly joined the Inter­national Brigades. From left: Sid Avner, Nat Cohen, his future wife Ramona Garcia Siles, Tom Wintringham (kneeling in white), and Italian Georgio Tioli

It was under the aegis of Soviet Russia that the International Brigades were financed and formed. This brought a major problem because Soviet foreign policy in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began, was that of anti-fascist collective security, envisaging an alliance with Britain and France and others against Nazi Germany. To preserve this plan, Stalin opposed revolution in Spain, on the grounds that a communist Spain might give Britain and France an excuse for not joining Soviet Russia in an alliance against Germany. Stalin would anyway not have wanted a Revolutionary Spain as rival to his Soviet Russia.

However, most International Brigaders were communists or socialists. They went to Spain as revolutionaries as well as soldiers.

Hence, they entered the bitter division between anarchists and the non-communist left, who argued that the war could only be won through simultaneous class struggle, and the communist left who thought the war could only be won if the class struggle were suspended. This division, which became murderous, particularly at the hands of Soviet agents in Spain, eager to denounce “Trotskyists”, contributed to the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

In his book, Giles Tremlett refines this rough outline. For instance, he shows how anarchist and communist units also fought alongside each other.

His detailed accounts of individual battles is sometimes relieved by the description of landscape. Otherwise, battles which, after the initial manoeuvres are mainly improvised, are difficult to follow.

But this is a book about people, about heroes – the military leaders, like Generals Kléber, Lukács and Walter, and George Nathan, Hans Kahle, Ludwig Renn and Oliver Law, the first and only African-American to command the US Lincoln Battalion, and Tom Wintringham (British military expert and leader), photographers like Gerda Taro, administrators like Nan Green, whose husband, a musician and ambulance driver, was killed at the very end of the war, and about the artist Felicia Browne, the first British casualty.

Unhappy the land, indeed, but the heroes and heroines are no less heroic and – thanks to books like this – will not be forgotten.

The International Brigades – Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War. By Giles Tremlett. Bloomsbury, £30

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