Sunday, November 3, 2013

Spanish Civil War 2, the International Brigades

A chapter in the Spanish Civil War that has always interested me is the involvement of other countries in the conflict. Just before the war, Europe experienced the rise of non-democratic regimes in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. Germany and Italy supported Franco's nationalistic side with troops and arms. The famous Guernica mural by Picasso portrays one of the most outrageous episodes of the civil war when German planes of the Condor Legion and Italian planes destroyed the defenseless small town of Guernica. The Republicans were supported mainly by the Soviet Union and Mexico. Both countries sent arms although the involvement of Mexico after the war was much more intense, opening the country to thousands of Spanish refugees. Something that still surprises many people is the lack of involvement of Western democracies in the conflict to help a democratic regime in Spain, a fact which influenced  the outcome of the war profoundly.

This part is important but I am much more interested in the anonymous citizens who decided to go to Spain to support the democratic government and to stop the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. The reasons that moved these young people to go to Spain were varied but all of them thought that they were helping to stop the spreading of fascism. In most cases their governments were against their participation in the war. According to the website of La Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales the number of members that fought in the Brigadas Internacional is still unclear today but probably close to 50,000 members from around 50 countries. Information about the amount of people going to Spain, the nationalities and the battles in which they took part can be found on the website. Many of these people did not take part in the military action and worked as journalists, in medical care, as translators etc.

Naturally, some members of the International Brigades were already known before going to Spain and some others will become famous after the war. In the Wikipedia article, International Brigades, there is a list of people who are famous for different reasons. The list includes politicians like German former chancellor Willy Brandt, writers like George Orwell and artists like Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiro.

There is not an official number for the Canadians who fought in Spain. The website of La Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales speaks of about 512. Other sources raise the number up to 1,600 men and women. They were integrated into the Mackenzie-Gatineau Battalion, which was part of the Lincoln Brigade. This Brigade had 3 more battalions, one of them was Lincoln Battalion integrated mainly by Americans. A documentary by the National Board Film of Canada shows the political and economical situation both in Spain and Canada before the war and how it pushed young Canadians to travel to Spain even though the Canadian government forbade them to do so. The documentary also shows the battles where they fought and their lives back in Canada.




A very interesting documentary is also about the Lincoln Brigade and the young Americans who participated in the war. It was probably the first time in history that an American military unit was led by an Afro-American.


Most of the members of the International Brigades were not well received back in their countries by their governments. Many lived a life of ostracism and were never recognized by their generosity. In the case of Canada, many were not allowed to join the Canadian army when the World War started just months after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
In 1996, 21 years after Franco's death, the Spanish government decided to offer Spanish nationality to the members of the International Brigades who were still alive. It was the first time I ever heard about them and I was impressed by the emotions they demonstrated when they returned to Spain and being granted citizenship. A documentary on the Spanish television shows that historical moment.

The last Canadian fighter Jules Paivoo, died in September 2013 at 97. When he was 94 he received Spanish citizenship in a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy in Canada. Even then he still thought of visiting Spain with his brand new passport.




In 2000 the British newspaper The Guardian interviewed 23 of the 40 survivors from the Spanish Civil War. They were the last 40 of the 2500 British citizens who traveled to Spain to support the Republican government. Again their opinions are worth being listened to.

Some of the writers who went to Spain wrote novels portraying their experiences in the war. Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, and For whom the bells toll, by Ernest Hemingway, are the most famous ones. While I was researching for this post I came across the story of James Neugass, an American who went to Spain and was driving an ambulance during the war. After he went back to the States, he married, had a family but died when he was 44, leaving two young sons. In 2000, Jim Neugass, the youngest son, got a phone from a professor asking for his permission to publish some of his dad's poems. The professor also mentioned the manuscript of the diary that the father wrote during his time in Spain and the whole family has never heard of. The book was published in 2008 and in 2012, Jim Neugass went to Spain to visit the places where his dad had driven the ambulance. In turn, he took part in a documentary produced and directed by a doctoral student at Oxford University. Here we can read about his journey.

I'd like to finish this post with a reference to El Quijote, the most universal book of Spanish literature. In  chapter LVIII Cervantes, who had been in prison several times, puts the following words in the mouth of the main character Don Quijote: "Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can fall to the lot of man." To those who dreamt and fought for freedom in Spain and all over the world I give my deepest respect and my gratitude.