On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
Published by Clapton Press on 23 November 2023, Forged in Spain is a collection of ten biographies recounting the lives of a number of extraordinary men and women who left their families and friends to risk their lives in the Spanish Civil War. The majority of those to feature were members of the International Brigades, the battalions of foreign volunteers raised by the Communist International (known as the Comintern) to fight for the Republic. However, also included are a number of individuals who served in other roles, such as journalists, political functionaries, relief workers and medics. While the biographies centre on the experiences gained during the war in Spain, they all include an account of the subjects’ early lives and backgrounds, to help explain their political development and their choice to become involved in the war. Likewise, the consequences of their participation in the civil war are explored in detail: how they faced up to the defeat of the Spanish Republic and consequent forty years of Franco dictatorship, their involvement (or not) in the Second World War and their attitudes towards the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
‘As the Spanish Civil War fades from living memory, Richard Baxell has rescued from obscurity some of the brave men and women who left the safety of their homes in Britain to risk all in the fight against fascism, using newly released archival material to bring their stories vividly to life.’
‘These enthralling biographies give a picture of the passions of the age … Baxell’s research is meticulous … Forged in Spain is a serious and moving book that may inspire readers to fight the rise of a new fascism today.’
‘Baxell does not avoid controversy and discusses rumours and humanity frailty. You do not get heroes in his book but what you do get is remarkable individuals, none of whom are perfect, described and researched in Baxell’s usual extensive manner.’
‘This is a book that should be of great interest to many readers … the involvement of the volunteers in Spain is usually passed over as a footnote in British history. It is to be hoped that Forged in Spain will help rectify this situation.’
My review of the book appears in the latest edition of The Spectator. I thought it an engaging read and a well-researched, comprehensive work of scholarship. Based on a mass of primary research, especially the RGASPI material in Moscow, he’s written a very even-handed, ‘warts and all’ account. And his conclusion is, I think a fair one:
‘There was nothing perfect about the brigaders and attempts to paint them as 20th century saints only serve to highlight their failings. These were (mostly) men at war. They killed and were killed. Some fought bravely, others did not. Some were noble and brave in their actions, others were cruel, cowardly or callous. Some fought for an ideal, others for adventure. And, for some, those ideals would take them on a journey of oppression that placed them closer, in their behaviour and blind defence of Stalinist communism, to the fascists whom they declared as their enemies than to the democratic Republic that they defended. All fought, however, against the most destructive and evil force unleashed by 20th century Europe’s violent politics and history. As Bernard Knox – by then a distinguished Classics professor at Yale – pointed out, there could be nothing ‘premature’ about anti-fascism.’
Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War. London: Bloomsbury, 2020, p. 528.