” From all Peoples, from all races, you came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain; and in the hardest days of the war, when the capital of the Spanish republic was threatened, it was you gallant comrades of the International Brigades, who helped save the city with your fighting enthusiasm, your heroism and your spirit of sacrifice …” (Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, Barcelona, November 1, 1938)
These are the words that Dolores ‘The Passionflower’ Ibarruri gave to a section of the 35,000 workers and citizens of 53 different nations who answered the call to join the Spanish Republic in the fight against the fascist nationalist armies in 1938. They were to be known as the International Brigade and their contributions and sacrifices can be considered a notable example of proletarian internationalism.
This speech was made at the height of the Spanish Civil War which lasted from July 1936 to April 1939 when Franco’s armies had already begun to bear down on the progressive Spanish Republic, with aircraft, bombs and troops from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy bolstering Franco’s army of conservatives, fascists and colonial shock troops.
While the Soviet Union supplied arms, aircraft, pilots and foodstuffs in this fight against fascism, imperialist Britain and France maintained the position of ‘non-intervention’ despite the intervention on Franco’s side of the German and Italian fascists. Non-intervention left the Spanish Republic struggling to acquire the means to fight the fascist elements.
The civil war had emerged rapidly out of a significant shift in Spanish society as the ancient feudal system had crumbled in the early 30’s with the end of the rule of the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. All those who relied or believed in the unequal pillars of the feudal society found themselves at odds with the new paradigms of the progressive Republic as well as the growing confidence of workers and peasants.
The Republic had stripped the members of the nobility of their special legal status and privileges, had cut away at the omnipotent status of the Catholic church, women were given the right to vote, regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country were given the right to choose to self govern, and the Constitution of the Republic also provided the legal basis for nationalisation of the banks, land and railways.
The Nationalists, whose title was coined by Joseph Goebbels, came to represent a Spanish version of fascism namely Falangism. The Nationalists were a coalition of groups from the right who rallied behind various ideas: a return of a dominant place in the state for the Catholic church, the imposition of a Spanish central super state over all of Spain and the regions, and a viciously consistent trend of anti-Marxist, anti-worker and anti-pacifist perspective.
Italy had already invaded Abyssinia in Eastern Africa, Germany had already annexed Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Japan was knee deep in Manchuria, China. The invasion of Poland was to happen only 6 months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. However Britain and France refused to consider a collective defence agreement with the Soviet Union, and still aimed to conduct some form of tragic balancing act in the blind hope of maintaining the “peace” that existed between them and the fascist states undoubtedly hoping that the eyes of the fascist war machines would turn to the Soviet Union alone.
Sections of the British ruling class had no love of the Spanish Republic. Winston Churchill said happily at the time when Madrid was suffering heavy aerial bombardment from German and Italian planes “This nonsense will soon be over and Franco will soon be in Madrid“. Moreover, the British state accepted Franco’s government as the legitimate representative of Spain as soon as it had captured the capital even though the democratically elected Republican government was still fighting on. Think about that when you look at the new plastic £5 note bearing Winston Churchill’s seemingly benign image.
The Republic was eventually to fold under the weight of the fascists and its internal and external enemies. The first usage of the term the fifth column was coined by fascist general Emilio Mola as he explained how hidden enemies within the Republic would emerge as the Nationalists advanced on Madrid (to supplement the four columns of the fascist army).
Indeed there are many lessons to learn for workers regarding the counter-revolutionary function of the Trotskyist POUM and various Anarchist sections during the fight against the fascists.
The POUM was one of the multiple socialist and broader left organisations on the Republican side, the one that George Orwell also fought alongside. At a crucial stage in the conflict, when Franco’s forces were making advances, it decided to embark on a collectivisation initiative and called for dual government deep inside the Republic. In functional terms this diverted large sections of fighting men from the front and sowed disunity and discontent within the Republican coalition as sections of the petty bourgeoisie, farmers and land owners, who had joined in the struggle against Franco now found themselves questioning their future if this kind of Republic was to come.
The Anarchist sections, while offering military forces and gathering wide support, particularly in the areas near Barcelona, began to find their ‘non-authoritarian’ military structure struggling to hold or to take back ground from Franco’s professional army. All major and even some minor tactical decisions of the anarchist militias were made subject to a vote or ad-hoc congress of all members of the militia while essentially on the field of battle! This is obviously not effective in wartime which requires armies to respond promptly to orders given by experienced military staff who hold the trust of the troops.
The earlier demise of the Republic was arguably avoided thanks to those of the International Brigade who answered the call of the Third Communist International. Many of those who came to the International Brigades were militarily and politically organised communist revo-lutionaries. A special mention was given to Internationalists from Germany who, after years of operating underground within Hitler’s fascist state, had developed a hardcore professionalism and organisational culture that the Spanish learnt and benefitted from massively. This military organisation and structuring led to a far more concerted and effective fight against Franco than had been previously seen from the anarchist People’s Militias.
The German Internationalists are not the only notable section: There were Italians, Soviets, French, Americans, Canadians and even 2,500 Britons, 500 of whom died. Members of the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, on their return to the USA were barred from promotion in the US military when later called for compulsory service during the Second World War, forced to sit before Congressional Hearings during the Red Scare and were even threatened with the stripping of their US citizenship.
Oliver Law from the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ was to be the first African American ever to lead a mixed military unit of Americans. He was to do so as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil war, not as a member of the military of the country which was still comfortable with Jim Crow laws.
Long Live The International Brigades, Long Live Proletarian Internationalism!