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Fighting fascism—remembering the International Brigades

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A new book tells the remarkable stories of the International Brigades who fought fascism in Spain. It’s a fascinating part of the Civil War, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2727
Fighting fascism—remembering the International Brigades
A militia of mostly German and Polish fighters in the early days of the war (Pic: Getty)

The International Brigades are one the most dramatic examples of solidarity in working class history.  

The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 saw 35,000 men and women from around the world volunteer to fight the forces of fascist General Franco. 

More than a fifth were killed and hardly any emerged unscathed. 

Giles Tremlett’s new book on the International Brigades weaves archival material with colourful ­first-hand accounts. 

They came from 80 of today’s countries—including rarely talked about China, India and Ethiopia. There were important contingents from countries where fascists had already taken power such as Germany and Italy. 

Over 80 percent of the ­volunteers were from a manual working class background.

Revolution and war in Spain in 1936 - a battle that could have been won
Revolution and war in Spain in 1936 – a battle that could have been won
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Many were unemployed and most were young—the average age of US volunteers was 26. A large proportion were Jewish. 

As Tremlett says, some were “devout” believers in communism, others were “displaced” migrants with experiences of fascism or Nazism. Many were both and some were neither. 

On 18 July 1936 the Spanish army, backed by the upper classes and the Catholic Church, rose up in a coup. 

The angry response from workers was remarkable.

Workers’ organisations set up militias to fight fascist rebels. Anti-fascist committees organised security and supplies. Occupied buildings were converted into people’s ­restaurants, hospitals or schools.

Most industry and much of the land was collectivised. In the countryside, the great estates were seized. 

The lives of women were transformed and many went to the front to fight. Popular resistance had converted a coup into a civil war. 

From the start there were ­foreigners fighting the fascists. In Barcelona up to 1,500 ­international volunteers attached themselves, ­sometimes arbitrarily, to ­militias with ­different politics. 

At a more formal level Communist parties had started to establish International Brigades. Only the Communist movement had the organisation and discipline to bring people to Spain effectively.   

But the Brigades were also part of a wider policy engineered by Joseph Stalin. He used them both to win alliances with Western governments and maintain his influence in the international labour movement.

Despite being poorly trained, led and equipped, the Brigades were some of the Republic’s best fighters

The International Brigades, like the rest of the Communist movement, were tragically subordinated to this aim. And Russian military aid came with conditions. The Spanish gold reserve was shipped to Russia for “safekeeping” before any arms arrived. The Republic was grossly overcharged for weapons. 

Volunteer John Sommerfield recalled that uniforms and equipment arrived as they left for the front. “Everyone got something and no one got everything. We marched off looking like a lot of scarecrows, and in filthy tempers.” Tremlett recounts in detail how despite being poorly trained, led and equipped, the Brigades were some of the Republic’s best fighters. They were consequently thrown “into the heart of the fire”.   

Their first intervention, in the siege of Madrid on 8 November 1936, became a legend. The first Brigade to arrive was the Eleventh with 1,700 ­fighters, mainly Germans, French, Belgians and Poles. It was followed by the Twelfth four days later with another 1,550.   

The press reported their arrival, “Marching firmly, their footsteps echoing on the ­cobblestones singing revolutionary songs in French, German, Italian. The people ran out to cheer them. The cry rang out from many a balcony—long live the Russians!”

After two days half the Eleventh were dead. A few days later the Twelfth sustained heavy losses in room-by-room fighting on the university campus.

Stalin was the embodiment of a counter-revolution
Stalin was the embodiment of a counter-revolution
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They built barricades out of German philosophy and Indian metaphysics books pulled from shelves and discovered that “enemy bullets got no further than page 350”. 

The International Brigades did not save Madrid, as was sometimes claimed, but their bravery was real and inspirational. They were important in a number of battles.

In the Republic’s major ­offensive at Jarama, US volunteers were thrown straight into battle with very little preparation. Out of 450 men, 120 were killed and 170 wounded. It was the first time white US soldiers were led by a black officer.   

Tremlett powerfully recounts the Sans Nom, or “nameless” battalion of Poles, Serbs and other miscellaneous non-French volunteers in Andalusia. 

After five days of training, having fired only six practice shots each, with only four of their 36 machine guns ­working, they were sent into battle on Christmas Eve without maps. 

They were abandoned by their commander to the fascists’ cavalry. On Christmas Day, the routed unarmed soldiers wandered lost. Only half of the 700 volunteers made it back alive. 

The anarcho‑syndicalist movement in Spain, the CNT, had an ambiguous attitude towards foreign volunteers.

Nonetheless some 2,000 ­foreign anarchists fought with the CNT. The Marxist ­anti‑Stalinist party Poum had 700 foreign volunteers. 

Even the much larger International Brigades were fairly insignificant numerically compared with the Republican Army, which consisted of 450,000 by early 1938. But Tremlett’s book is specifically about the International Brigades rather than a full history of the Spanish Civil War.

The Popular Front ­government was established before the war with the aim of uniting the workers’ and liberal middle class parties.

But far from achieving unity, the Popular Front oversaw a counter-revolution that ­undermined the anti-fascist struggle. 

The Communists were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Popular Front. Their slogan was, “Let us finish Franco first and make the ­revolution ­afterward.” So the revolution and its supporters were attacked in the name of unity.   

The number of women at the front line dropped as the war moved to conventional structures

This ­counter‑revolutionary offensive culminated in street fighting and the bloody persecution of the anarchists and revolutionary left.

But having defeated the ­revolution the Spanish Republic could not defeat fascism ­without it.   

The Popular Front government wanted to fight a conventional war with conventional armies and tactics.

This was linked to attempts to hold back the revolution. The number of women at the front line dropped as the war moved to conventional structures. 

One reason this was a mistake was that the Spanish Republic was creating an orthodox army from scratch. The fascists had most of the existing army plus 70,000 overseas troops.

The war was soon presented as for “national independence” and the participation of the ­brigades was played down.

While somewhat isolated from the shifts and turns of the Spanish Revolution, the ­brigades were staunchly loyal to the Popular Front line.

Paul Mason’s ‘popular front’ of failures is not the way to beat the right
Paul Mason’s ‘popular front’ of failures is not the way to beat the right
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US Communists chose the names of Lincoln and Washington for their battalions to reflect the democratic, and patriotic, nature of their struggle. 

The flip side of loyalty to the Republican government was hostility to dissent.

The International Brigade press followed the line from Moscow that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his followers were fascist agents. All dissident voices were “Trotskyists”. 

There were very few Trotskyists in the International Brigades. One was the Brazilian officer, August Besought, and he was murdered by Stalinist agents. Around 50 International Brigaders were executed for dissent. 

Meanwhile Stalin was ­abandoning the Spanish Republic, both because of the failure to establish alliances with Western governments and because a fascist victory looked inevitable. 

Despite being stood down about 6,000 volunteers remained in Catalonia. They fought rearguard actions as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled towards the border. 

The story of the International Brigades does not finish with the end of the Spanish Civil War. It continued in the prison camps of Franco’s Spain and Nazi Germany, and in the forefront of the anti-fascist movement. As Tremlett’s book makes clear some would perish in Stalinist purges or the post‑war regimes of Eastern Europe. A few would become political and military leaders.

In the West some would be persecuted but others would end up in the leadership of the trade unions. 

The last word should go to one who went. Charles Hutchison was an 18 year old lorry driver from Fulham. He fought at Cable Street, was the chair of Fulham Young Communist league, and explained why he went to fight. 

“I am half black. I grew up in the national children’s home and orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.” Decades later he again explained, “The Brigaders came out of the ­working class—they came out of the Battle of Cable Street, they came out of the struggle.”

The International Brigades—Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett. Available from

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