Issue 84 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1999 Copyright © International Socialism

Freedom fighters or Comintern army? The International Brigades in Spain

ANDY DURGAN

By 1936, in a world ravaged by economic crisis and mass unemployment, after the victories of Mussolini and Hitler and the emergence of similar movements elsewhere, fascism seemed unstoppable. But the 1930s also saw the rise of huge working class resistance, of mass strikes, militant anti-fascism and political radicalisation. When the Spanish Civil War began it immediately became a rallying point for millions who saw that there was, at last, a chance to stop the fascist beast in its tracks. Only in this context can we understand why nearly 30,000 men from 53 different countries were prepared to go and fight and, in many cases, die in Spain in one of the most dramatic examples of internationalism in working class history. The impact of the Spanish war has been such that it has generated more literature than any other war--over 40,000 titles according to one estimate1--as well as having inspired a generation of poets, writers and artists. As volunteer Walter Gregory recalled many years later no 'other international or domestic political issue [had] such an explosive impact upon the British working class'.2

When the International Brigades were given an emotional and multitudinous farewell in Barcelona on 28 October 1938, the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, 'La Pasionaria', declared, 'You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend...the heroic example of democracy's solidarity and universality.' Like all legends, that of the International Brigades wavers between myth and reality. The opening of the former Soviet archives means that we can now get an even clearer view of the nature and role of the Brigades. Thousands of working class militants showed with their heroism and sacrifice what proletarian internationalism could really mean. But their participation was also part of a wider policy engineered by Stalin both to win an alliance with the Western democracies and to maintain his influence in the international labour movement. The International Brigades, like the rest of the Communist movement, were subordinated to this aim.

From the start the war in Spain became the centre of international attention. There was much at stake: the balance of power between the democracies and the emerging authoritarian regimes, the danger of the war spreading beyond Spain's frontiers, and the spectre of revolution. It was the fascist powers which reacted first, seeing in Franco a valuable ally and in Spain a theatre of operations to try out new weapons and strategies. The majority of foreigners who took part in the civil war did so on the fascist side. The Italians sent at least 70,000 men during the nearly three years that the war lasted, the Germans 14,000, mainly advisers, artillery and airmen, the Portuguese dictatorship 20,000, and there were 34,000 Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops. This manpower was accompanied by abundant supplies of arms, ammunition and aircraft. There were few genuine fascist volunteers, nearly all being regular army personnel. The largest volunteer force was the 600 raised by the Irish fascist leader Eoin O'Duffy, whose only contribution of note was to open fire on their own side.

The bourgeois democracies, led by Britain, France and the USA, balked at being drawn into a war that could undermine their attempts to maintain peace in Europe. The revolution taking place in much of the Republican zone in 1936 made them even more reluctant to back a government that seemed to have little control over the situation and, when it did manage to exert control, was under the increasing dominance of the Communist Party. The desperate attempts by the Communists and their allies to present the civil war as a simple defence of democracy was never going to convince the Western governments, or at least these countries' ruling classes, whose natural sympathies lay with Franco. Although the French Popular Front government was initially prepared to send military supplies to its Spanish counterparts, it was soon persuaded by the British Tory administration that helping the Republic would damage imperial interests in the Mediterranean. Hence these powers' backing for the cynical policy of non-intervention. Germany and Italy also adhered to the Non-Intervention Committee, and then systematically ignored its decisions. The effect of non-intervention, which was only ever seriously pursued by the democracies, was to deny the Republic desperately needed military aid and facilitate the fascist victory.

The organisation of the International Brigades

Prior to the establishment of the International Brigades there were already hundreds of foreign volunteers fighting in the workers' militias. These included political refugees already living in Spain and individuals who made their way into Spain once the war started. Most of these foreigners joined up in Barcelona where up to 1,500 international volunteers attached themselves, sometimes quite arbitrarily, to the anarchist, Communist and POUM militias in the first weeks of the war.3 They included over 200 athletes who had come to the Catalan capital to take part in the People's Olympiad, which was to have been the left's answer to the Nazi organised official games in Germany.

The arrival of large numbers of foreign volunteers in the Republican zone would not start until after the Comintern's decision to form the Brigades. Neither the anarchists nor the independent Marxist groups had the strength outside Spain to organise a force of any significance and the Socialist and Labour parties lacked the political willpower to do so. At first the Soviet government opposed even sending money and medical aid because it feared this would be used by Germany and Italy to justify helping the fascist side. Instead it had immediately started to organise non-military aid both through the Comintern and the Soviet trade unions. On 23 August, Stalin's government accepted the French proposal for the setting up of a Non-Intervention Committee, 'on condition that the USSR was not responsible for Comintern actions, that Germany and Italy must cease aid to Franco and that Portugal must accept non-intervention'.4

The Soviet Union decided to support the Republic militarily once it became clear that the scale of fascist intervention could tip the balance of forces decisively in favour of Franco. Soviet military aid did not come, however, without conditions. The whole Spanish gold reserve was shipped to the USSR for 'safekeeping' before any arms arrived on Spanish soil and subsequently the Republic was grossly overcharged for the arms sent.5 During the following two years the USSR sent some 2,000 military advisers and airmen along with military aid that would prove crucial in holding up Franco's advance. However, along with this aid came the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and Stalin's demand for an end to the revolution. Underlining these conditions was Stalin's aim to keep the civil war going until an alliance was formed with the democracies to face the inevitable war in Europe.

The decision to form the International Brigades was taken at the Comintern Executive Committee meeting of 18 September 1936, only nine days after the first meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee, and should be seen within the context of the Soviet commitment to send military aid to the Republic.6 The setting up of such a force had several advantages for the USSR. It would be a very clear indication throughout the world of Soviet internationalism and anti-fascism and thus reinforce Communist influence. In particular, the organising of the Brigades on a non-sectarian basis, where not just Communists but socialists, independents and even liberals would be recruited, fitted perfectly with the politics of the Popular Front. The creation of the Brigades would also solve the problem of what to do with Communist émigrés living in the USSR and proved a very convenient way of introducing NKVD agents into Spain.

The actual organising of the International Brigades was to be carried out by the Communist parties, each being given a quota of volunteers to recruit. A key role was reserved for the French Communist Party (PCF) in getting the volunteers into Spain, and various Comintern leaders went to France to help with this operation. In Spain itself Albacete was chosen as the Intertnational Brigades' base and the first volunteers arrived there on 13 October, two days before the first Soviet arms ship docked in Cartagena. They were soon joined by other foreigners already fighting in Spain. On 22 October the Republican government officially recognised the International Brigades as part of the Republican Army, albeit with their own commanders and infrastructure.

The composition of the Brigades

Despite the official Communist position that the International Brigades would be a military extension of the Popular Front, the reality was that they were heavily dependent on the Communists. Between 80 and 90 percent of the Germans, up to 85 percent of the Latin Americans, 75 percent of the Poles and volunteers from the Balkans, around 70 percent of the US volunteers and 60 percent of the French volunteers were members of the Communist Party.7

More important in terms of Communist control of the International Brigades was the role played by military cadres sent from the Soviet Union by the Comintern. These included many Soviet citizens of foreign origin, who had ended up in Russia during the revolution, usually as prisoners of war, had joined the Communist Party and had become officers in the Red Army. One such case was that of General 'Emilio Kleber', the first commander of the International Brigades, who had been a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and had previously been sent by the Red Army as a military adviser to the Chinese Communists. Kleber had arrived in Spain on 15 September, that is three days before the Comintern's decision to organise the Brigades. Like other foreign Communists with military experience, he fought as an officer in the Communist led 5th Regiment. In late October, Kleber was proposed by the Spanish Communist Party to prime minister Largo Caballero as commander of the International Brigades. Other Communist exiles sent by the Comintern to Spain, particularly those of German and Central European origin, had gone to the USSR for military training. Among these, for example, were several former leaders of the short lived Soviet Republic of Hungary of 1919. In all, about 500 to 600 International Brigaders had previously been in the Soviet Union.8

In addition to those who came directly from the USSR, Communist and other anti-fascist exiles, often resident in France, also volunteered to fight. The war in Spain gave them the perfect opportunity to fight back against fascism and to escape the indignities of exile life. As one German International Brigade commander, put it, 'The only way we can get back to Germany is through Madrid'.9 The legal Communist parties also played an important role in recruiting volunteers. With the depression and the growing threat of fascism, followed by the turn to the Popular Front, most parties had grown spectacularly. PCF membership, for instance, had risen from 28,825 in 1933 to 254,000 by September 1936.10 There appears to have been no shortage of volunteers at first and most parties turned men away. Like the anti-fascist exiles, many of those who went to Spain had fought in street battles against the fascists. Many US volunteers had experience of fighting the police 'anti-red' squads and bosses' thugs, or in the dangerous drives to organise black farm workers in the south. A few International Brigaders had played a leading role in military mutinies. For instance, the future commander in chief of the Brigades, André Marty, had been a leader of the famous Black Sea mutiny in the French navy in 1919.

The recruitment process in Britain was probably representative of what happened in most democracies. Recruitment was carried out discreetly, potential volunteers often being approached by local CP organisers, before being interviewed and warned of the dangers involved. Non-party volunteers were checked up on by trusted local party members. Both the US and British parties tried to avoid sending too many leading members. Upon leaving their countries volunteers were often harassed or even arrested by the police. This was the case both in the US and Britain where it was illegal to enlist in a foreign army and where the authorities were most determined to impose non-intervention. Given restrictions on the issuing of passports, British volunteers usually travelled on special weekend returns to France, for which passports were not necessary. Movement across France and into Spain was less complicated, due to the slightly more benevolent attitude of the French authorities and the influence of the PCF.

Of the estimated 53 nations from which volunteers came, the largest contingent was the French, about 9,000. There were also up to 5,000 Germans and Austrians, 3,000 Poles, 3,000 Italians, 2,800 Americans, 1,800 British, 1,600 Belgians, 1,660 Yugoslavs and 1,500 Czechoslovakians.11 Even inside the different contingents there was often a wide range of nationalities. The US contingent was made up of volunteers from 35 different national groups. Of 1,448 Canadians who went to Spain there were at least 14 different ethnic groups represented and 498 were of Eastern European origin. Jews were particularly prominent in the International Brigades, making up between 30 to 40 percent of US volunteers and between 3,000 and 7,000 of the International Brigaders as a whole. There were 81 Afro-Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, nearly all of them Communists, and for the first time in US military history a black officer, Oliver Law, led white troops into battle.12

Because various well known intellectual figures participated in the Spanish Civil War as prominent supporters of the Republican cause, Stephen Spender's claim that it was a 'poet's war' has been given too much credibility. In fact, over 80 percent of the volunteers were from a manual working class background. Many were unemployed and most were young--the average age of US volunteers was 26.13

The revolutionary left and international volunteers

The sending of foreign volunteers was part of the massive solidarity campaigns that the left, especially the Communists, were organising throughout the world. For those who defended the revolutionary nature of the Spanish war--anarchists and revolutionary socialists--the most important act of solidarity was to fight for the revolution in their country of origin. However, there were volunteers from all revolutionary tendencies present in Spain, although their level of organisation could never match that of the Communists.

The powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain, the CNT, had an ambiguous attitude towards the question of foreign volunteers. In September 1936 the anarchist leader, Diego Abad de Santillán, publicly stated that the revolution needed arms, not foreign fighters, and gave orders to CNT militia guarding the frontier to stop any more international volunteers entering the country. Likewise, Durruti argued that solidarity work in France was more important than coming to Spain to fight. However, Abad de Santillán's orders seem to have had little effect and later the CNT press would praise the heroism of the International Brigades during the battle of Belchite. Despite the apparent lack of interest in getting foreign volunteers for its militias, some 2,000 foreign anarchists fought with the CNT, including about 500 Italians, 250 French and 230 Germans. In contrast to the Comintern, the anarchist international had no centralised recruitment campaign. Apart from refugees already living in Spain, the small French anarchist movement organised the sending of volunteers. Problems arose when in early 1937 the militias were militarised and integrated into the Popular Army which would not accept the existence of separate foreign units outside the International Brigades. As a result some of these anarchist volunteers left the country, others joined CNT led units in the new army and a few joined the International Brigades.14

Unlike the CNT, the POUM openly favoured the sending of foreign volunteers while at the same time defending the need to spread the revolution. As soon as the war started, the POUM appealed for international working class solidarity with the revolution, including the sending of aid and fighters. This call was taken up by the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity which grouped together various left socialist and dissident communist organisations. Like the anarchists, the various small parties that made up the International Bureau were not in a position to send forces comparable to the International Brigades. Of the 9,000 to 10,000 militia organised by the POUM prior to its suppression in June 1937, up to 700 were foreign volunteers, from at least 25 different countries. Most of these fighters were political refugees, some already resident in Spain. About half were German and there were also significant groups of French and Italians. The British Independent Labour Party had a contingent of 30 on the Huesca front with the POUM forces after January 1937, including George Orwell. Among the foreign volunteers were some of the few militiamen with any previous military experience so they played an important role in the POUM's Lenin Division, both as officers and commissars. Two thirds of the division's crack Shock Battalion were foreigners, mostly Germans. Politically the international volunteers in the POUM militia were fairly heterogeneous, reflecting in many ways the party's own political confusion, and ranging from the centrist SAP and ILP through to a few Trotskyists and other revolutionaries. When the Lenin (29th) Division was dissolved in June 1937, many of the POUM's foreign volunteers had to flee the country to avoid arrest. Some were imprisoned but at least a few of the Germans were allowed into the International Brigades.15

Neither did the Trotskyists oppose sending volunteers to fight in Spain, although their aim was quite clearly to intervene politically in the revolution. In early August 1936 an agreement was reached between Jean Rous, the Trotskyist International Secretariat representative in Barcelona, and the POUM for foreign Trotskyists to join the party's militia. This led to the formation of the first exclusively international unit in the Republican zone, the International Lenin Column. The majority of its 50 fighters were Trotskyists or members of the Italian ultra-leftist Bordigist faction. But in late October the column dissolved itself after the Bordigists refused to return to the front because the POUM had published the government's militarisation decree in its press. The Trotskyists did not follow the Bordigists in abandoning the country altogether. They mostly left the POUM militia to work in the rearguard or joined CNT units where they felt more useful political work could be carried out. The disbanding of the International Lenin Column coincided with the breakdown in relations between the POUM and various foreign Trotskyists working with it once the latter began to attack the POUM over its decision to participate in the Catalan government.

The military role of the International Brigades

The significance of the International Brigades' intervention in the civil war becomes clearer when the relatively small number of troops involved, their lack of military experience or sufficient training, the specific logistical problems involved in organising such a multinational force and the failings of their commanders are all taken into account. Their role as shock troops, thrown into the most vulnerable parts of the front line, meant their losses were much higher than most other units'. Their reliability in combat had as much to do with their political commitment as with military efficiency. Until the spring of 1937 at least, the International Brigades were a key element of the Republican forces, superior to the first Popular Army units.16 As one historian put it, although 'it would be excessive to say that the presence [of the International Brigades] was decisive...they fought with so much faith, the psychological effect was considerable in a conflict in which symbolic values played a great role'.17 Even after the Popular Army had become more effective, the International Brigades still played an active part in nearly all the remaining battles of the war.

Numerically, the International Brigades were fairly insignificant compared with the overall size of the Republican Army which consisted of 450,000 men by early 1938. Most histories speak of there having been 40,000 or more International Brigaders, but more recent research shows that this figure was much more likely to have been less than 30,000, of which only 18,000 were ever present at any one time, and this includes several hundred men and women who served in the Brigades' medical services and as drivers. Moreover, only a minority of the International Brigades were ready for combat and even less were at the front. André Marty reported to the Comintern in March 1937 that the International Brigade had 18,000 men, of which only half were ready for combat. By July 1937 22,000 men had passed through the Brigades' ranks, of which 7,000 had been casualties, 4,500 of those fatal, and there were less than 8,000 at the front. The arrival of new recruits over the summer of 1937 brought the total present since October 1936 to 24,464.18 Levels of recruitment subsequently declined and never compensated for the constant stream of losses.

The majority of volunteers had no military experience. This lack of combat experience, which was hardly surprising given that it was nearly 20 years since the First World War, was only compensated for by the volunteers' participation in street fighting and, above all, by their political commitment. Of the British contingent around 30 percent claimed to be ex-servicemen, although one combatant, Jason Gurney, reckoned that 'more than 80 percent had never held a loaded weapon in their hands before'. The importance of their political commitment becomes apparent when one considers that, at least initially, the training given to the International Brigaders was very inadequate. At first the British volunteers were only shown how to advance over open country, not how to fortify a position and hold it or how to beat an organised retreat-with disastrous consequences on their first day in action. Likewise, the first US volunteers had 'no more than a few days training' before being sent to fight. In fact they had no firing practice at all until, on their way to the front, they were allowed to get out of their lorries and fire a few rounds into the surrounding hills before continuing on to their bloody initiation into the horrors of war.19

Like the rest of the Republican forces, the International Brigades initially suffered not only from a shortage of arms but the problems created by using different types of weapons and ammunition. Neither was it just arms that were lacking: when the US volunteers arrived at the Jarama front and were told to dig in, they discovered they had nothing to dig with. However, this would soon change with the steady arrival of new Soviet weapons, and the International Brigades 'despite deficiencies' were the 'best supplied in the Republican Army'. As Walter Gregory remembered, 'our rifles...were Soviet made and were identical to those used by the Red Army. They were brand new and were distributed straight from the packing cases in which they had come...a very good weapon.' The contrast with Orwell's description of the antiquated rifles available to the POUM militia on the Aragon front could not have been starker.20

Another problem faced by such a multinational force was that of communication, especially at the front when orders often had to be given rapidly over the phone. Volunteers were organised by language group in an attempt to overcome this problem, but inevitably this was only a partial solution. There was no attempt to teach the International Brigaders Spanish until early 1937 and few seem to have actually learnt it. The most commonly heard languages were French and German, given the predominance of volunteers who spoke these two languages. Among the general staff, reflecting the Soviet citizenship of many of its components, Russian was common.

The high casualty rate suffered by the International Brigades was mainly due to their role as shock troops. However, military inefficiency, common enough in most armies, and in this case often directly due to political reasons, was also part of the cause.21 An estimated third of all international volunteers were killed and the majority of the rest wounded. According to one estimate, only 7 percent of the International Brigades left Spain unscathed. The death rate among different national groups appears to have differed due either to excessive confidence by the general staff or due to their national origin. Those who were refugees from authoritarian regimes appear to have been considered both more expendable and more reliable. So while the fatal casualty rate of US, British and French combatants was around 30 percent, still extremely high, 40 percent of Germans were killed, along with 48 percent of Yugoslavs and 42 percent of Hungarians. The exception was the Italians, of whom 'only' 18 percent died.22

The first intervention of the International Brigades, in the siege of Madrid on 8 November 1936, would become legendary. The first Brigade to arrive was the XI with 1,700 men, mainly Germans, French, Belgians and Poles, followed by the XII four days later with another 1,550. The CNT press in the capital reported their arrival in the early hours of the morning 'in silent and damp streets: Marching firmly, their footsteps echoing on the cobblestones...singing revolutionary songs in French, German, Italian... The people ran out to cheer them,' convinced these strangely uniformed men had been sent by Russia and 'if their powerful ally Russia...intervened on their side anything was possible...the cry rang out from many a balcony--Long live the Russians !' After two days of combat half the XI were dead. A few days later the XII was thrown into the battle, also sustaining heavy losses in the desperate room by room fighting on the university campus. The International Brigades did not save Madrid, as was subsequently made out by the Communists, for the militia and population had checked the main fascist advance the day before, but their bravery and example proved an important morale booster for the beleaguered Republican forces. A myth of invincibility was now built up around Kleber but, jealous of his popularity, the Communist Party had him removed from Madrid. In the summer of 1937, he was recalled to Moscow where he disappeared.23

In early 1937 the International Brigades were boosted by the arrival of more volunteers, including the first contingents sent from Britain and the US. A few weeks later the International Brigades played a small but important role in the Republic's major offensive at Jarama, plugging gaps in the front lines at key moments and once more showing outstanding courage. It was a baptism of fire for the US volunteers who were thrown straight into battle with very little preparation and suffered heavy losses; of 450 men, 120 were killed and 170 wounded. The British Battalion was also reduced to half its number in the first day's fighting at Jarama.24 The International Brigades' participation at Guadalajara in March would prove even more decisive. This battle was particularly significant, apart from being one of the Republic's few outright victories in the war, because of Mussolini's insistence that the Italian Fascist forces should be allowed to play a leading part in the offensive and thus show their military superiority. According to the Italian Fascist Grand Council their victory would mark the 'end of all Bolshevik plans in the West and the beginning of a new era of power and social justice for the Spanish people'.25 Instead the battle turned into a humiliating defeat for the Italian High Command. At the height of the fighting Italian anti-fascists clashed with Mussolini's troops. The International Brigades brought up huge loudspeakers to broadcast revolutionary songs and appeals in Italian to the Fascist soldiers to lay down their arms. Leaflets, guaranteeing safe conduct to any Italian soldiers who deserted and joined their working class brothers, were dropped from planes and thrown across the lines wrapped around stones. The eventual surrender of hundreds of demoralised Italian Fascist troops was of great emotional and political significance for the Italian anti-fascist exiles.

Guadalajara marked a watershed in the International Brigades' intervention in the Civil War. From now on the Brigades practically ceased to be mentioned in the Republican press at all. Gone were the headlines about the glorious International Brigades which had saved Madrid and stemmed the fascist tide at Jarama. There were several reasons for this change. In part it reflected the desperate attempts of the Popular Front government to win support from the Western democracies by playing down as far as possible foreign involvement on the Republican side, especially after the decision by the Non-Intervention Committee in February 1937 to prohibit all recruitment for Spain. It was also the logical consequence of the Popular Front political argument that increasingly emphasised the 'national' element of the Republic's struggle against the foreign fascist aggressor aided by a small clique of traitorous Spanish generals. By 1938, this patriotic stance had led to the war being described as one for 'national independence' with continued parallels made with the War of Independence against the French at the beginning of the 19th century. In such a war the participation of an internationalist and Communist led force such as the International Brigades had to be played down if not totally hidden. The growing efficiency of the Republic's new Popular Army also meant that the International Brigades' role was less noticeable. Few International Brigaders seem to have been aware of their changing role. The significance of their lack of awareness of how they were perceived officially by the Republican authorities is one of the more glaring examples of their isolation from the political reality of the country; something which would prove very useful in sustaining the Popular Front view of what the war was really about.26

Another serious problem for the International Brigades was the dropping off of recruitment. Between April and September 1937, 6,464 new recruits arrived in Albacete, compared with 18,000 during the first six months of the International Brigades' existence.27 The Non-Intervention Committee's determination to stop all foreign recruitment was central to this drop in the number of fresh volunteers. News of the terrible casualties in the International Brigades' first engagements also deterred would-be volunteers. The outbreak of internecine fighting in the Republican zone in May 1937 and the growing evidence of Stalinist repression contributed to undermining the appeal of the International Brigades to non-Communist volunteers. From now on the International Brigades were increasingly boosted by Spanish conscripts, who eventually made up the majority of the Brigades' troops. A new Comintern campaign for volunteers in September did not stem this downward trend. By July 1938 the integration of Spanish conscripts into the International Brigades was such that, of their 40,149 troops, only 14,175 were foreigners. But, despite growing demoralisation, falling recruitment and political relegation, they participated, with terrible losses, in all the remaining major engagements of the war. The relative importance of the International Brigades to the Republican war effort was well illustrated at Teruel when they were brought into the front line once the fascists began to break through in January 1938, despite the Republican minister of war's declared intention of using only local troops in this latest offensive, in an attempt to prove the patriotic nature of his government's struggle.

Revolution and counter-revolution

Although the International Brigades as such did not intervene directly in the suppression of the revolution, British volunteers arriving in Barcelona in May 1937 were asked whether they would be prepared to participate in the street fighting on the side of government forces if the situation got worse.28 Foreign members of various security services, usually NKVD agents, were active both inside the International Brigades and in the rearguard against the revolutionary left. The German Communist Party, the KPD, had its own secret intelligence agency inside the International Brigades, which collected information on Nazi spies and revolutionaries alike and during the May fighting was involved in arresting German anarchists. Other Comintern cadres, some members of the International Brigades, were involved with the Communist run 'State Information Group' which was used against foreign dissidents, as well as local anarchists and 'Trotskyists'.29

From the International Brigaders' own memoirs it is clear how little they understood what was really happening in Spain. This was due both to the overwhelming influence of the Communists and to the isolation of most of them from the rest of the population, be it as a result of language problems, the length of time spent at the front or a deliberate policy.30 The situation which Walter Gregory found himself in was typical of many others: 'Looking back...it is astonishing how little I knew of Spain. I did not appreciate its form of government at all and was content simply to label it as 'democratic'... [I had] no real knowledge of [the] groups which were engaged in the struggle for power'.31 Few International Brigaders would have had any alternative source of information about divisions inside the world Communist movement or anything approaching the truth about the purges then taking place in the USSR. In the heat of battle, most foreign volunteers readily accepted that any criticism of the Popular Front was playing into the hands of fascism.

The International Brigade press, like its Communist counterpart, slavishly followed the line from Moscow that Trotsky and his followers were fascist agents and that all dissident voices, real or imagined, inside the Communist movement were 'Trotskyists'. In the Spanish context the increasingly hysterical attacks on the 'Trotsky-fascist POUM' by early 1937 were preparing the ground for a more decisive offensive against this party and the revolution in general. The leadership of the International Brigades clearly understood the political aspect of their intervention on certain fronts. When Kleber was sent to participate in the offensive on Zaragoza, he reported to the Comintern that these operations gave the Communist Party 'the chance to finish with anarcho-Trotskyist-fascist domination in Aragon'.32 The International Brigade newspaper claimed in February 1937 that after the Moscow trial 'the whole world can see' that the Trotskyists were 'agents of German-Japanese fascism...an incredible system of provocations, sabotage and murder', and in Spain, they had been revealed as 'the artificial mist that hid Franco's Fifth Column'. The 'unmasking of the Trotskyists' united all International Brigaders.33

When the fighting broke out between the anarchists and the POUM on one side, and the Popular Front government and Communist Party on the other in Barcelona in May 1937 it was at a time of general demoralisation at the front and the International Brigade leadership had little difficulty in convincing most volunteers that it was the work of Franco's agents. What happened inside the Lincoln Battalion was probably representative of other units. Robert Minor, the US representative of the Comintern, addressed the battalion for two hours on how the Trotskyists were really in the pay of the fascists. Edwin Rolfe wrote home, 'If you were here you would understand why it isn't enough to be passively bitter or politically opposed to these bastards... Their stinking pro-fascist actions here should convince anyone who really is for the workers that they're fit only to be spat on, crushed'.34 Of those International Brigaders involved more directly in the repression, however, not all remained loyal to Stalin. Hubert von Ranke, part of the KPD's security operation in Spain, fled to Paris in November 1937, broke with the party and announced that the people he had helped repress in Barcelona 'were not agents of Franco but honest revolutionaries'.35

The virulent anti-Trotskyism of the International Brigade press was the other side of the coin to its passionate defence of the Popular Front. 'Collectively, [the International Brigades] constituted one of the most powerful symbols of the urgent anti-fascist message that the USSR tried to transmit to the Western democracies', and with this in mind, 'the Communists set about the task of creating myths about the Brigades.' The very name, 'Volunteers for Liberty', by which the Brigades were known, encapsulated the politics of an anti-fascist alliance that aimed to unite all democrats. The US Communists chose the names of Lincoln and Washington for their battalions to reflect the democratic, and even patriotic, nature of their struggle, rather than that of the imprisoned labour leader Tom Mooney whose case was considered 'too inflammatory'.36

Since the war some former International Brigaders have played an important role in trying to sustain the Popular Front and Stalinist view of events. One Scottish volunteer would still insist 40 years later that 'the terrible crime of the POUM' was that it 'tried to foster the idea that this was a revolutionary war...it never had any signs of a revolutionary war...they were people concerned to expel the Italians and Germans', the war was 'a revolt against an invasion by foreigners...sponsored by a handful of generals led by Franco'.37 Likewise, the reaction of former International Brigaders to Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom as a 'distortion of history', that 'slanders' the International Brigades by accusing them of being controlled by the Stalinists, is only part of a long and sad history of denunciations of any view that challenges the Popular Front myths about the civil war. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, on which Loach's film is loosely based, has been singled out by the last commander of the British Battalion, Bill Alexander, as being 'bitterly anti-Republican...muck and fantasy'.38

Despite sustaining this virulent defence of the Popular Front line since the late 1930s, many Communists at the time had a more contradictory view of what they were doing. Most rank and file Communists saw themselves as revolutionaries and the Popular Front as a necessary tactical interlude before the implantation of proletarian dictatorship. This belief was encouraged by the relatively recent experience of the October Revolution in Russia and the widespread conviction, not only among Communists, that the USSR was a socialist state. It also helps explain the hold of Stalinism over important sectors of the most militant workers in the 1930s. The subsequent development of the Communist parties would see these long term revolutionary aims become even more abstract, but in the 1930s such ideas were still fairly central to the commitment of many of their members.

This contradictory view of their role was clear among the International Brigaders, even taking into account their disciplined defence of the Comintern position and their limited understanding of the political situation in Spain. Many US volunteers, for instance, 'defined their mission in revolutionary terms'. Political commissar Sandor Voros would claim years later that he went to Spain 'to fight under the leadership of the Comintern, the giants of the revolution', that he was part of 'the expression of international solidarity forged by the Comintern into an armoured fist of the revolutionary working class'.39 Even more significantly, the International Brigades' officers and commissars often appealed to their men's revolutionary consciousness in order to lift morale. Thus Robert Minor addressed the Lincoln Battalion as 'the cadres of the international revolution' and Kleber urged the surviving International Brigaders into yet another attack on the Madrid front with a resounding 'For the revolution and liberty--forward!'40

Repression inside the International Brigades

Many hostile sources talk of the 'reign of terror' which supposedly existed within the International Brigades, especially at their base in Albacete. Sandros Voros, after he had turned against the Communists, claimed that officers and soldiers of the International Brigades were 'implacably executed following Kremlin orders'. André Marty is singled out in particular as responsible for this repression, and was labelled the 'Butcher of Albacete' by right wing French parliamentary deputies, a name subsequently taken up by embittered former Communists and the writer Ernest Hemingway. What is clear is that Marty was both incompetent as a military leader and obsessed to the point of paranoia about the threat of infiltration by spies and 'Trotskyists'. According to the International Brigade commander in chief, all foreign espionage organisations were at work in the Brigades, 'above all the Deuxième Bureau of the French General Staff'. However, it is misleading to put what repression that did take place solely down to the 'demented Marty'.41

The extent of the repression inside the International Brigades, and Marty's role in it, is open to debate, but what is clear is the complex security structure which operated inside their ranks. Most of those who had a leading role inside these structures were foreign Communists sent by the Comintern, usually connected in one way or another to the NKVD and often involved in counter-espionage activities outside the International Brigades. Apart from the KPD's own secret service, the first organism used to control foreign volunteers was the Catalan Communist Party (the PSUC) Foreigners' Bureau in Barcelona to which new volunteers in the autumn of 1936 surrendered their passports and which was run by foreign Communists and the NKVD. It was later used to organise expulsions, torture and even the murder of both foreign and Spanish dissidents. It was not long before the International Brigades had their own security service. In January 1937 Marty reported to the Comintern that the International Brigades were setting up a 'Control and Security Service' with the collaboration of 'two Mexican [Russian] comrades'. One was probably Alexander Orlov, head of the NKVD's operation in Spain.42

A 'Cadre Commission' was established at Albacete in February which would be the main body responsible for surveillance inside the International Brigades until the creation of the Republican counter-espionage service, the SIM, six months later. Similar cadre commissions had existed in the Russian Communist Party since 1922 and inside the Comintern after 1932 and played a very important role in monitoring party members' trustworthiness. The commission's principal task was to select and promote the best volunteers, as well as unmask any provocateurs. Nearly all the heads of this commission were experienced Comintern cadres, had worked in its cadre section in Moscow and usually had studied at Soviet military schools. After a time the most important linguistic groups had their own commissions. By 1938, the Cadre Commission had 83 collaborators, most of whom were Communists and had previously been at the front. A report on 362 British volunteers, half of them Communists, gives an insight into the commission's work. The report describes 31 of them as 'cadres', 142 as being reliable, and 133, of which 40 were party members, as 'weak or bad'. When the SIM was established inside the International Brigades, it was made up of mainly foreign Communists and its activities overlapped with the Cadre Commission.43

Most punitive action inside the International Brigades, as in most armies, was taken in response to indiscipline and desertion: two 're-education centres' and three jails were established at Albacete to deal with such cases.44 By the spring of 1937 the harsh realities of the war in Spain had become very clear to the volunteers and desertions began to increase. Long inactive stretches in the front lines without leave added to the general demoralisation in the ranks, leading to desertion, insubordination and growing rivalries between national groups. Marty reported to the Comintern after the battles of Jarama and Guadalajara that the Brigades were on the verge of falling apart, such was the level of demoralisation and the loss of men through both casualties and desertion. The change in the situation inside the International Brigades after Guadalajara is clearly reflected in reports to Moscow, where the same men previously praised for their courage at the front are now described as 'cowards, amoral and alcoholics'. One of the more dramatic examples of insubordination took place during the disastrous attack on Brunete in July 1937, when the Polish and Slav units refused to return to the front and discipline was only re-established with the arrival of Assault Guards (Republican police) and tanks. There were also outbreaks of indiscipline and desertion among the British and Americans after Brunete, as there had been at Jarama. By August 1937, according to Marty, 'most battalions were down to less than 200 men, volunteers were tired and there were 'constant desertions...especially among the French and English'. In October, Marty accused the commander of the French-Belgian Brigade of 'organising mass desertions' after half the men in two battalions had abandoned their units in three weeks.45

Given the terrible conditions in which the International Brigades fought, the number of desertions was not that great, a further reflection of the deep political commitment of the majority of the volunteers. An estimated 298 British volunteers deserted (16 percent), compared with about 100 Americans (3.5 percent), who would not have found it so easy to return home. The fate of captured deserters appears to have been mixed. They were usually held in penal battalions, often set to work digging trenches, and eventually released, but, according to Jason Gurney, 'a large number disappeared without trace'. Apart from desertion and insubordination, in the town of Albacete there were numerous cases brought before the local courts of public disorder and even homicide involving International Brigaders.46

Reprisals for political dissent were less common than punishment for indiscipline, but have attracted more attention, if only because of Marty's obsession with unmasking spies and Trotskyists. In October 1937 Marty complained to Moscow of 'foreign centres', especially Lyon, Paris and Nice, from where the 'infiltration of provocateurs' was organised with the recruitment of 'alcoholics, Trotskyists and anarchists'. In this atmosphere, with the daily attacks on Trotskyists, real and otherwise, in the International Brigade and Communist press as fascist agents, not surprisingly any dissident was quickly denounced as a 'Trotskyist' and often arrested. The Comintern Executive Committee in September 1937 exhorted all officers and men of the International Brigades to fight against 'Trotskyist-fascist' infiltration. But there were very few real Trotskyists in the International Brigades. One was the Brazilian officer, August Besought, who was murdered by the NKVD. The Danish Trotskyist, Aage Kielso, fought with the International Brigades on the Madrid and Córdoba fronts. Those few anarchists who enlisted in the International Brigades were 'strictly controlled by the SIM'.47

The exact number of International Brigaders executed is hard to ascertain. One sympathetic history says there were around 50 executions, giving details of 25 of these. The true figure was probably higher.48 At Albacete there was a 'legal commission', really a council of war, which handed out death penalties. The condemned men were usually accused of cowardice or of being spies, provocateurs or Trotskyists. What does seem clear is that the punishment meted out to volunteers differed depending on nationality. Marty was particularly critical of the Belgians and French, who as a consequence were often among those arrested. Volunteers who were political exiles from authoritarian regimes also seem to have suffered disproportionately, especially those from Moscow, as there would be no redress from prying governments. Various International Brigade cadre would be executed upon returning to Moscow, as happened with some of the Soviet military advisers. One of the more dramatic examples of repression was that of nine Germans shot during the battle of Teruel for having tried to incite their comrades to disobey orders. In contrast, the Americans and British came off lightly. Among the US volunteers there are only three known cases of executions and the British only one, and even this case is disputed.49

The effects of this repressive atmosphere, combined with military inefficiency, undermined morale even further, especially among the non-Communist volunteers. According to Gurney, the 'pattern of unkept promises of support, chaotic orders and communications, followed by inquests, the finding of scapegoats and their execution as enemy agents was to underlie the whole course of events.' Or as one US volunteer recalled, 'It was one of the most poignant and tragic experiences of the men who volunteered for the International Brigades, to find out that they could be as greatly defeated by the remote control of the Kremlin as by the Non-Intervention Pact'.50

The end of the Brigades

By June 1938 the Soviet government was considering abandoning the Republic, both because of its failure to establish an anti-Hitler alliance with the Western governments and because a fascist victory looked increasingly inevitable. About this time the Soviet foreign minister Litvinov told the British ambassador that a Franco regime was acceptable provided it did not become a German or Italian satellite.51 The Soviet representative on the Non-Intervention Committee agreed to the drawing up of a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign combatants in Spain and the granting of belligerent rights to both sides--allowing them to buy arms legally. The proposed plan for withdrawal included the far greater forces fighting on Franco's side. However, given the complete cynicism with which the fascist powers had treated the Non-Intervention Committee since its formation, few could have seriously thought that they would carry out their side of any agreement.

On 21 September, in a last desperate attempt to win the support of the Western governments, the president of the Republic, Juan Negrín, announced at the League of Nations, while the decisive battle of the Ebro was still being fought, his government's unilateral decision to withdraw all foreign combatants from the Republican zone. Of the 12,673 foreign volunteers left in the Republican Army, 7,000 fought in the Ebro offensive--75 percent of them becoming casualties.52 The Republican side now lost a small, but important, minority of experienced fighters. The positions handed over by the International Brigades were soon lost and by 18 November, the Republicans held no point on the southern bank of the Ebro.

The actual evacuation of the International Brigaders was not easy and by January 1939 only 4,640 had left. About 6,000 volunteers remained demobilised in Catalonia. As the region fell, the Communist Party called on the remaining International Brigaders to re-enlist. Eighty percent did so, fighting in the desperate rearguard actions as the Republican forces and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled towards the border. On 9 February the International Brigaders were among the last Republican troops to cross the border.53 On 24 February, France recognised the Franco government and three days later Britain did the same.

The story of the International Brigades does not finish with the end of the Spanish Civil War. Their odyssey would continue in the prison camps of Franco's Spain and Nazi Germany, in the forefront of the anti-fascist resistance and in the allied armed forces. Others would perish in the Stalinist purges in the USSR or the post-war regimes of Eastern Europe--the very fact they had been in Spain made them a threat. A few would escape the purges to become political and military leaders in the new Soviet bloc. In the West they would also be persecuted, particularly in the US where they were accused of being 'premature anti-fascists'; others would end up in the leadership of the trade unions or as political leaders of the left. Some would turn against their past and become right wing anti-communists or, in a few cases, join revolutionary groups.

The legacy of the International Brigades

The legacy of the International Brigades is contradictory. Their intervention in the civil war not only directly aided the Republic in its fight against fascism but also boosted the credibility of the Communist parties. As one British historian wrote, 'The unquestioned bravery and sincerity of these men did much to enhance the reputation of the Communist Party among those members of the battalion who held other views and at the same time had a great propaganda value in Britain itself... As the civil war progressed the idealism and heroism of the Battalion had an ever greater impact on the labour movement, with the resulting rapid increase in the membership and influence of the Communist Party'.54 In particular, this prestige was used to justify the Stalinist popular front strategy. The class collaboration and reformism enshrined in this strategy have been a hallmark of Communist Party politics ever since.

For revolutionary socialists, the question arises of whether volunteers should have gone to Spain. Should not the task of socialists have been first and foremost to have fought for the revolution in their own countries as the most effective way of supporting Spanish workers? Although this is undoubtedly the case, there were also important reasons for socialists to have considered volunteering. At a practical level, there were German and Italian exiles who were unable to fight in their own countries. More importantly, the workers' organisations in Spain, with the exception of some sectors of the anarchists, wanted volunteers to come and fight. The real problem was the political context in which the International Brigades intervened. The participation of international volunteers on the side of the Republic was only really openly used to bolster morale during the first months when they were present, after which they virtually disappeared from public view so as not to alarm the democracies too much and above all to reinforce the propaganda that this was a war for 'national independence' against foreign (Italian and German) invaders. If the volunteers had returned to their countries to explain the revolutionary nature of the Spanish war, their role in their respective labour movements would have been very different.

Despite the obvious weaknesses of the International Brigades' politics, for the left today they remain one of the most impressive and heroic examples of working class internationalism and anti-fascism. As US volunteer and life-long Communist, Alvah Bessie, wrote, 'In the history of the world there had never existed a group of men like this...an international army formed...by volunteers from all walks of life. The actual existence of this army...was a guarantee of the brotherhood of the international working class, the definitive proof that [the workers] have a common interest and obligation'.55 This internationalism could not have contrasted more strongly with the treacherous policies of the bourgeois democracies and their political supporters, both left and right, who preferred the Republic to fall rather than themselves make a stand against fascism. Despite being relatively few in number, the International Brigades played a relatively important role as shock troops. Their political commitment and revolutionary consciousness, despite the treacherous role of their Stalinist leaders, were central to their effectiveness and for this they paid a heavy price. The fact that many International Brigaders were later persecuted by democratic governments, and by fascist and Stalinist regimes alike, is the clearest testimony to the example they provide to anyone who seeks to rid the world of injustice.

Notes


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