In 1936 General Franco led a fascist rebellion against the newly-elected Popular Front government in Spain. The initial advances of the rebellion were met with a strong response from the republican forces, which had every chance of suppressing the coup, thus preventing the civil war that ensued.
However, while both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supplied large amounts of military aid and personnel to boost Franco’s side, the so-called democracies of Britain, France and the US, behind the veil of ‘non-intervention’, conspired to starve the government side of arms. The Soviet Union alone rendered fraternal material, political and moral support to the anti-fascist resistance.
Nevertheless the failure of the ‘democracies’ to support the Spanish government pushed the balance of force decidedly in Franco’s favour, turning the fascists’ attempted coup into a civil war that ultimately led to the defeat of the Spanish republic.
It was in this context that the Communist International (Comintern) sent out a call for volunteers to defend the republic. The resulting International Brigades brought together progressive workers and others from all over the world into military units that joined the heroic anti-fascist struggle being led by the Popular Front in Spain.
In the 1930s Spain was a relatively backward country with feudal or semi-feudal production relations sill predominating in the countryside. Progressive forces had for decades been struggling against the terrible conditions to which the toiling masses of Spain were subjected.
In 1934, while under the rule of CEDA, an extreme right-wing party, a general strike was called during which 70,000 highly unionised and communist-orientated miners in Asturias rose in revolt and occupied the city of Oviedo. CEDA brutally repressed the uprising, killing and wounding 20,000 and forcing surrender on 19 October 1934, when a further 20,000 were wounded or killed in the repression that followed and 30,000 were taken prisoner.
The brutal repression of the strike brought the progressive forces in Spain closer together and, in 1936, the communists, social democrats and left republicans formed the Popular Front in order to contest the general election.
It was the victory of the Popular Front in the February 1936 election that spurred the fascist forces, supported by the ruling class, to mount a rebellion. On 18 July, the army generals led by Franco launched their coup d’état from their base in Morocco.
In response to the rebellion the communists called for the people to be armed, but the government hesitated before taking the necessary steps, enabling the fascist forces to gain ground. Still, once the people had been armed, the fascist putsches were put down in all Spain’s big and densely-populated industrial centres.
In order to continue resisting the fascist onslaught it was necessary to organise troops on a more permanent basis, and to this end the communists took the initiative of establishing a regiment, to be known as the ‘Fifth Regiment’, which was to become the model on which the People’s Republican Amy was based.
Given the strength and morale of the People’s Army, the republicans would have had an easy victory had it not been for the manpower and materiel poured by German and Italian fascist governments into supporting Franco, and the denial of such support to the republican government by Britain, France and the US.
On 6 August 1936 the French social-democratic government proposed the international ‘non-intervention’ agreement on the pretext that being drawn into a war in Spain would ‘undermine’ their attempts to ‘maintain peace’ in Europe. This thinly-veiled excuse ignored the reality that fascist troops advancing through Spain had already ‘undermined’ Europe’s ‘peace’.
Despite this, the Soviet Union signed the agreement, which also included Germany and Italy, in the hope that it would be possible to put pressure on the German and Italian governments to stop their intervention in Spain – or to mobilise the other signatory countries to stand up to such violations of the agreement.
It soon became clear, however, that the fascists had no intention of sticking to the agreement, and that none of the so-called democracies were prepared to act to prevent their violations. That being the case, the Soviet Union withdrew its commitment to the agreement, and by mid-October 1936 was sending military aid and advisers to the Spanish republic.
International Brigades formed
Alongside the attempt to stem the flow of support to Franco’s forces through the non-intervention agreement, the Soviet Union also recognised the urgent need of actual support for the People’s Republican Army. Thus it was that on 18 September 1936, just nine days after the first meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee, the Comintern’s executive committee founded the International Brigades.
Thousands of predominantly working-class men and women answered the call to fight off the fascist onslaught and showed with their heroism and sacrifice what proletarian internationalism could really mean.
Over 35,000 volunteers from 53 countries joined the International Brigades, which organised them into a coordinated fighting force to assist the People’s Republican Army. Imperialist governments put every obstacle in the way of those trying to join the brigades, from passing laws that made it illegal to enlist in a foreign army to placing restrictions on issuing passports. Finally, in February 1937, the Non-Intervention Committee openly prohibited recruitment for Spain.
Despite this, communist parties across the world found ways of mobilising volunteers and organised routes to get them into Spain, with the south-eastern city of Albacete becoming the base where new recruits received their training.
More than 1,800 volunteers were mobilised from Britain, of whom almost a third were killed in battle. Although the Brigades were organised on a non-sectarian basis, with volunteers joining from all backgrounds, the majority both from Britain and elsewhere were members communist party members.
The composition of the International Brigades under the direction of the Comintern was such that it was the first time in US military history that a black officer, Oliver Law, led white troops into battle. In later years, Paul Robeson, the great singer, actor and friend of the oppressed, wanted to make a film of Law’s life but was unable to get backing. He said in response: “The same money interests that block every effort to help Spain control the motion-picture industry, and so refuse to allow such a story.” (Quoted in page on Oliver Law, spanishcivilwar1936.com)
Defence of the republic
In early November 1936 the British volunteers in the Commune de Paris battalion, alongside their comrades in the 11th International Brigade, were involved in the defence of the Spanish capital Madrid that was being headed by the communists and the United Socialist Youth. By 23 November, although the fascist forces under General Mola had previously captured two thirds of the city, the republican forces were so well established, organised and determined that they were forced to retreat.
The International Brigades fought alongside the People’s Republican Army, with battalions involved in most of the major battles against Franco’s forces, from Madrid to the Jarama River, Brunete to Guadalajara, Aragon to the Ebro offensive.
However, in the latter part of 1938, at the height of the battle of the Ebro, the Non-Intervention Committee ordered the withdrawal of the Brigades from Republican soil. In an attempt to get the fascist aggressors to withdraw and persuade Britain and France to lift their arms embargo on the republic, the government announced the disbandment of the International Brigades on 21 September 1938.
Dolores Ibárruri, the communist deputy from Asturias, known as La Pasionaria, delivered a powerful speech to more than 13,000 members of the International Brigades at a farewell parade in Barcelona on 1 November 1938 expressing the gratitude of the Spanish people for the contribution made by the volunteers:
“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 …
“Today many are departing … You can go proud. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.”
It must be mentioned while remembering the heroic contribution made by the International Brigades that there were other foreign forces mobilised to fight in Spain, namely those associated with the POUM and the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity, including George Orwell.
However, the POUM and the International Bureau, despite their rhetoric, were far from revolutionary and, rather than assisting the republican forces in their defence against the fascist onslaught, hampered the struggle by diverting precious resources, time and morale.
At a time when fierce battles were taking place, with fascist forces advancing, the POUM indulged in much ‘revolutionary’ and ultra-left phrase-mongering as camouflage for their policy of opposing every attempt to create a People’s Army and police force under the republican government. The foreign volunteers that came to join the POUM saw little of the frontline battles and spent most of their time away from where the most important fighting was taking place.
While the POUM were sabotaging the republican rear, Trotsky was busy denouncing the International Brigades and the support rendered to Spain by the Soviet Union – despite the fact that they were a lifeline for the fragile republic. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Still relevant today
‘Non-intervention’ in the Spanish civil war was an excuse used by imperialism to undermine the republic and ultimately threaten the Soviet Union. Those that joined and supported the International Brigades saw through these lies and were not prepared to sit quietly by while the Spanish republic was destroyed by fascist forces.
As Stalin wrote in a telegram to communist leader José Díaz: “The toilers of the Soviet Union only fulfil their duty when they give aid to the Spanish revolutionary masses. They are aware that the liberation of Spain from the persecution of fascist reactionaries is not a private cause of Spaniards, but a universal cause of the whole of advanced and progressive mankind.” (15 October 1936)
Seventy-five years ago it was Franco’s fascists attacking Spain; today, it is Nato attacking Libya, and tomorrow there might be an imperialist attack on Syria. With the descent into revisionism and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, the communist movement lost the power it once had to mobilise in defence of progressive forces.
Today’s international brigaders are more likely to be young muslims going off to help countries with a predominantly muslim population fight off invasion and occupation. Notwithstanding their religious motivations, their fight in defence of the sovereignty and national integrity of countries attacked by imperialism is a just cause.
We must support it and oppose the victimisation of these brave young people who today are treated as terrorists and murderers for doing no more than their internationalist duty, as did the International Brigaders in their time. We must learn the lessons of the International Brigades and stand in solidarity with those fighting fascist, imperialist forces.
Long live the International Brigades!
Victory to the forces of anti-imperialist resistance!