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.
Many years ago, when I was a PhD student researching the British volunteers, I was passed a memoir written by a young German who had fought alongside a group of English volunteers defending Madrid in the winter of 1936. The name of the young German antifascist was Jan Kurzke. His memoir, The Good Comrade, formed part of a wider tale co-written with his girlfriend, Kate Mangan, who was also in Spain during the civil war.
For years the typescript sat in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, read only by a small number of specialist historians. However, 2021 sees the release of the memoir by Clapton Press. Originally combined into one manuscript, the publishers have chosen (I think sensibly) to disentangle Kurzke’s and Mangan’s memoirs and publish them independently: Kate Mangan’s as Never More Alive and Kurzke’s under the original title The Good Comrade. I was very pleased to be invited to write an introduction, which has now been published on the website of ALBA, the organisation that preserves the memory of the American volunteers. It also appears below.
In November 1936, during the first few months of the Spanish Civil War, a handful of English students were holed up in the Department of Philosophy and Letters, in Madrid’s University City. They were part of a desperate and last-ditch effort by the Republican government’s forces to hold back Franco’s Nationalist troops, who were advancing ominously on the Spanish capital. The group of students were reduced to taking pot-shots at the occupants of the adjacent buildings, ‘firing from behind barricades of philosophy books.’ The piles of dense volumes of Indian metaphysics and early nineteenth-century German philosophy, they discovered, gave highly effective protection against enemy small arms fire. Given that the Republican government had made vigorous efforts to promote education and raise Spain’s shameful literacy levels, while the leader of Franco’s Foreign Legion had been accused of yelling ‘long live death’ and ‘death to intellectuals’, one might be forgiven for seeing the skirmish as a metaphor for a much wider struggle.
The group of young students were members of the now legendary International Brigades, volunteers from around the world who were determined to fight for the Spanish government against the forces of General Franco and his German and Italian backers. The majority of them were from Britain, though one was from Germany, a refugee from the Nazi regime. He was, wrote one of his fellow volunteers, ‘a very handsome young man, with aristocratic looks and manners … [a] very quiet, cultured chap … and a talented artist.’ His name was Jan Kurzke.
Born in 1905 to a German father and Danish mother, Hans Robert Kurzke, known as Jan, hailed from a modest background, leaving school at fourteen. However, having shown promise as a portrait artist, two years later he was awarded a scholarship to art school. During the 1920s under Germany’s progressive Weimar Republic he became interested in left-wing politics and worked for a time for a Socialist newspaper. In the early 1930s, with Hitler’s Nazi Party becoming increasingly powerful and violently attacking its opponents, Kurzke prudently fled into exile, travelling through North Africa before ending up in Spain.
Kurzke’s account of his experiences in Spain, published here, was written while the civil war was still raging. It’s a common media trope to talk of ‘long-lost memoirs’ being ‘discovered’ but this is often down to journalistic license (as archivists and historians will confirm). This is not the case here either, for the typescript has resided for some time in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. However, despite a number of previous efforts to see it published – including one by Bernard Knox, a friend of Kurzke’s from Spain, who went on to become a well-respected Professor of Hellenic Studies at Harvard – it has remained tucked away for years, read only by a small number of specialist historians.
Kurzke’s record forms roughly half of a wider memoir that was co-written with his girlfriend, the artist, model and journalist, Kate Mangan (formerly Katherine Prideaux Foster). The two accounts were originally combined into one volume, though it’s clear that Kurzke always intended for his account to stand alone. Now disentangled from each other, the two memoirs have been published separately; Jan’s under the full memoir’s original title, The Good Comrade and Kate Mangan’s as Never More Alive: Inside the Spanish Republic. While the two occasionally overlap, they are very different, both in subject matter and in tone. Kate worked in the Spanish Republic’s Press Office for a time and her account dazzles with descriptions of celebrities such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. Kurzke’s memoir, on the other hand, is very much a soldier’s tale, focusing on his personal experience of combat. He frequently resorts to short, even terse, sentences, which read much like a series of diary entries, helping create a real sense of immediacy. It’s notably anti-heroic and appears to be a generally honest appraisal, laying bare his own faults and errors, as well as those of his comrades and the Republican army itself. He has a keen eye – he was, after all, an artist – and the account is littered with well-observed descriptions of Spain, its people in the 1930s and the civil war.
While personal memoirs are by their very nature subjective and not always reliable, Kurzke’s does chime with other accounts, by both contemporaries and historians. When his friend Bernard Knox first read the typescript, many years after the war, he was astonished by Kurzke’s extraordinary power of recall and the ability to bring back memories of people and events long forgotten, often capturing the particular linguistic idiosyncrasies of his comrades. He wrote with genuine admiration of Kurzke’s account of the fighting in Madrid, how he ‘catches the reality, the tone, the feel of those terrifying and exhilarating few weeks.’
Kurzke did have a distinct advantage over many other foreign commentators on the civil war, in that, having travelled extensively through the country, he spoke enough Spanish to be able to have some understanding of its history, culture and politics. This allowed him insight into areas such as the rivalries between the political factions on the Republican side that bewildered so many foreigners. Nevertheless, in contrast with some memoirs by protagonists, Kurzke does not over-labour the political lessons to be drawn. There is wry humour too, with no attempt to soft-soap the chaos and confusion that is often part and parcel of a foot soldier’s lot. His description of one morning in Madrid is typical:
The sun rose. We still marched. It was nearly eight o’clock when we reached a village. We halted and received a cup of coffee, a little brandy and a piece of bread. We waited again. Somebody said the attack was off. Somebody always says something. We told him to get stuffed.
Kurzke’s memoir actually begins two years before the civil war, in 1934, as he takes leave from Barcelona, a girlfriend and most of his belongings, which had been stolen from his hotel. His colourful description of tramping from Alicante to Málaga, a trek of nearly 500km, gives a personal and poignant insight into the appalling levels of poverty and inequality in early twentieth century Spain. Unlike the winsome Laurie Lee, Kurzke had no violin with which to charm the locals, though his ability to draw a likeness and speak English provided him with the occasional peseta. In Granada he encountered a group of busking German emigres who asked Kurzke if he would like to join them, despite his lack of musical prowess. His decision to accept was due, in no small part, to the presence of a ‘beautifully built’ young blonde. ‘I am Putz’, she informed him. The leader of the German troop, Walter, informed Kurzke that he could join them under one condition: ‘You mustn’t fall in love with her.’ Of course not, he promised.
The first section of his memoir ends there, somewhat abruptly, before picking up again in Cádiz in late summer, with the depiction of a rather dismal bullfight, where the bull, which hadn’t been killed cleanly, ‘had to be finished off with a knife.’ At this point, the narrative pauses once again. Though we don’t hear it from him, Kurzke bid a no doubt emotional farewell to the admirable Putz – who, of course, he had fallen for – and made his way to Mallorca, where he fell in with a crowd of English holidaymakers who took him back to Britain. At a party in London he met Kate Mangan, who was recently separated from her husband (the Irish-American writer, Sherry Mangan), and the two soon became involved. Early in 1936 the couple travelled to Mallorca and then on to Portugal, where they heard the dramatic news that a military coup had been launched in Spain against the democratically elected government. Jan immediately wanted to go to Spain to volunteer, but with the frontier closed, the pair were forced to linger in Portugal, reading newspaper reports of the rising with growing alarm. Both were horrified to find that a massacre of 4000 Republican defenders at Badajoz, just over the border, ‘was greeted with open rejoicing, the newspapers gloated over the massacres and boasted that the streets were running with blood.’ Kate later speculated that Jan’s loathing of Franco’s Nacionales was bolstered by seeing a propaganda film about the Spanish Foreign Legion called ‘La Bandera’. It featured an officer with one arm and an eye-patch, clearly based on the Legion’s infamous commander, General ‘long live death’ Millán Astray:
It was not that it inspired him with animosity against the men of the Legion but it made him want to lead such a life, and perhaps death, of hardship and comradeship in a cause he believed in.
While Kate approved in principle of Jan’s wish to volunteer, she was understandably anxious about what might happen to him. However, deeply troubled by the prospect that Madrid might not be able to resist against Franco’s army, he was utterly determined to go. His desire became even more urgent when he heard of the failed Catalan attempt to capture Mallorca in mid-August and the fall of Irún in northern Spain the following month. Jan and Kate returned to London and having sensibly obtained a typhoid inoculation, Kurzke secretly set out for Spain in October.
Like the majority of volunteers who left from Britain for Spain, Kurzke made his way to Paris, where the Communist Party headquarters in La Place du Combat (now La Place du Colonel Fabien) was acting as the central recruiting point for the International Brigades. He then joined other international volunteers on a boat and was smuggled into Republican Spain:
In less than an hour we should be in Alicante. I say ‘we’ now, because I am not alone and the ship is much bigger than the one I came on before. We are six hundred men, Germans, Poles, French and English and we know what to do and where we are going.
Kurzke was one of many volunteers for the International Brigades to see the fight against Franco as part of the same struggle they had been waging throughout Europe. French Socialists, Polish exiles, Germans and Italian antifascists, all hoped that victory in Spain would be a first step towards achieving the same in their homelands: ‘Oggi in Spagna, domani in Italia’, wrote one Italian volunteer, ‘today in Spain, tomorrow in Italy’.
Kurzke paints a colourful picture of travelling through Republican Spain on trains that rarely increased their speed above walking pace, of railway stations bedecked with banners defiantly parading their solidarity with the Spanish Republic. Kurzke’s unpretentious prose movingly recreates the powerful emotions that many volunteers remembered, inspired by the welcoming crowds, waving flags and chanting ¡Viva la República! ¡Viva la democracia! ‘Spain had come to greet us’ he wrote proudly. His account, like those of many others, illustrates, contrary to Francoist propaganda, just how welcome these foreigners really were.
Most volunteers for the International Brigades served with their national compatriots, partly because of the common language. Kurzke, however, chose to fight alongside the group of young English volunteers he had met travelling to Spain. At this point in the war there were not yet enough English-speaking volunteers to form a battalion, so Kurzke and his comrades were assigned to a French unit, part of the 11th International Brigade. Officially called the Commune de Paris Battalion, it was known by all as the Dumont, after its popular commander, a former French army officer and long-standing Communist. The English group that Kurzke joined was led by a handsome, charismatic and brilliant former Cambridge student called John Cornford. He had originally intended to write about the conflict, but decided that ‘a journalist without a word of Spanish was just useless’ and had taken the decision to actively join the fight. Alongside Cornford was a friend of his from Cambridge, the classics scholar Bernard Knox, and a writer called John Sommerfield. Other students to join the group were a young Jewish east-ender and Archaeology undergraduate, Manny ‘Sam’ Lesser and a Rear-Admiral’s son and Edinburgh medical student, David Mackenzie. All were, like Cornford, members of the Communist Party. Despite their undeniably scholarly and bourgeois backgrounds, it would be a mistake to assume that the members of the International Brigades were mainly intellectuals. In fact, the students were a small minority and, as Kurzke describes, most were working-class, political activists:
There was Fred, twenty-nine years old from London and his inseparable friend Steve, a small cockney with a big nose and blond hair. There was Jock, a Scot, who had done a prison term for mutiny, he later rose to the rank of colonel. There was Joe, an ex-fighter from the Red Army in China. There was George, a pale, thin young man with a red beard which made him look like Christ and Pat a young Irishman.
Kurzke’s portrayals of his comrades are generally unsentimental but affectionate and occasionally reveal his dry amusement. The bewilderment of their French comrades at the two John’s precocious pipe-smoking habit and their vain attempts to mimic Jock’s impenetrable Scottish accent ‘by making strangled sounds’ provide a brief respite of comic relief. Though the group clearly seems to have formed a strong bond, Kurzke hints that they were not immune to the misunderstandings and differences that could develop between the middle class students on one hand and the working class activists and former soldiers on the other. As Winston Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly also recounts in his own memoir, Boadilla, some of the ‘old sweats’ harboured grave doubts about the younger volunteers’ lack of military experience, and were fearful that they might unwittingly put themselves or their comrades in danger.
Any doubts were unlikely to be assuaged by the standard of military instruction given in Spain. Kurzke’s experiences of a rather brief and chaotic period of training echo that of other accounts. In the International Brigades orders were usually given in the dominant language of the unit, which for the German Kurzke and his British friends, meant French:
Every morning we trained in the wood just outside the town with many Spaniards looking on. They mimicked Marcel’s ‘un, deux, un deux.’ They had every reason to be amused. When Marcel said ‘à gauche’ some went to the left, others to the right.
Uniforms were anything but uniform and the mishmash of different outfits led to the first of the International Brigades becoming portrayed as ‘the army in overalls.’
The next day we were issued with uniforms consisting of dark blue skiing pants and jackets which looked like those worn by the serenos or night watchmen. They were of thick blue cloth with black braid. They were made for smaller people and did not fit at all … our company looked a fantastic sight. The berets and the short jackets made us look like a bunch of artists from Montmartre.
The arms issued were similarly hotchpotch, consisting of numerous different makes and calibres. Many were in poor condition, some were antiquated and obsolete. Kurzke was appalled to discover that his rifle was an American Remington from the First World War. Many were even older. Kurzke’s account amply demonstrates how the western powers’ policy of non-intervention in the Spanish war, which severely limited the Republic’s opportunity to purchase arms, actually played out on the ground.
Like soldiers of time immemorial, Kurzke writes about the misery of being exhausted, hungry, thirsty, wet, and freezing cold; ‘war is bloody’ wrote George Orwell famously. The food was dreadful and stomach upsets endemic, ‘nobody slept much [and] the cold was terrible’, consequently ‘some men got colds and infected everybody else and soon most of us were coughing and spitting.’ As Kurzke and his comrades learned, though Madrid is often warm during the day, the city’s altitude means it can get surprisingly cold at night. This rather came as a distinct shock to many of the volunteers from Britain, as the correspondent for the Communist Daily Worker, Claud Cockburn, sneeringly related: ‘They had all got the impression they were going to sunny Spain, they’d all seen the posters. And the main source of discontent and grumbling … [was] the feeling that somehow they’d been swindled by the weather.’
Understandably, many men became disenchanted and drunkenness very quickly became common, causing serious discipline problems, as Kurzke admits:
Our Jock was one of them; when he was drunk he started slugging everybody. We wanted to send him back to England but he would not go and he became a great nuisance.
It’s not difficult to understand why such pessimism was rife. In many ways, November 1936 was not so much a time of heroism and glory, as one of trepidation. Few doubted that it was a time of great peril for the Spanish Republic. Franco’s forces had effortlessly brushed aside any opposition on their advance on Madrid. Now the enemy was very much at the gates; ‘everything looked grey, dirty and hopeless,’ confessed Kurzke.
Widespread rumours that Foreign Legionaries and Moroccan Regulares had been seen moving into the western suburbs of Madrid had aroused terror and panic among the city’s population. The wholesale slaughter of the Republican defenders at Badajoz ensured that Madrileños were in no doubt of their fate, should Franco’s forces prevail. And very few doubted that they would, not least the members of the Republican government, who had decamped to Valencia, leaving the city under the command of a military defence junta. Franco’s field commander, General Varela, was supremely confident that his elite force of Spanish Legionaries and Moroccan mercenaries would encounter no more resistance than they had over the previous four months. However, to the astonishment of the representatives of the world’s media, some of whom had already filed stories of the capital’s fall, the population were determined to resist. ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism’, declared its grimly determined defenders: ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ The battle for Madrid, the central epic of the Spanish conflict, was about to begin. ‘Spain was the heart of the fight against fascism,’ wrote a supporter of the Spanish Republicans, paraphrasing W.H. Auden’s famous poem, Spain, ‘and Madrid was the heart of the heart.’
On 7 November 1936 Kurzke was among the first of the International Brigades to arrive in the capital to take their place alongside the Spanish defenders. While many Madrileños assumed that they were Russians, the 1900 volunteers were in fact mainly French, Germans and central Europeans. But, as the Madrid correspondent for the English newspaper, the News Chronicle Geoffrey Cox, reported, ‘Madrid was not worrying who these troops were. They knew that they looked like business, that they were well armed, and that they were on their side. That was enough.’ As Arturo Barea, who worked for the Republican Foreign Ministry’s Press Office recounted in his magnificent autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel, the defending Spanish Republicans were jubilant:
Milicianos [militiamen] cheered each other and themselves in the bars, drunk with tiredness and wine, letting loose their pent-up fear and excitement in their drinking bouts before going back to their street corner and their improvised barricades. On that Sunday, the endless November the 8th, a formation of foreigners in uniform, equipped with modern arms, paraded through the centre of the town: the legendary International Column which had been training in Albacete had come to the help of Madrid. After the nights of the 6th and 7th, when Madrid had been utterly alone in its resistance, the arrival of those anti-Fascists from abroad was an incredible relief . . . We all hoped that now, through the defence of Madrid, the world would awaken to the meaning of our fight.
Despite their inexperience and lack of meaningful training, the International Brigades were nevertheless among the Republic’s best troops. Consequently Kurzke’s battalion was thrown into combat, first in the Casa de Campo, the large park to the west of Madrid, then as part of a ‘great flanking attack on the Fascist lines at Aravaca’, just to the north of the park, before moving to occupy the shell-pocked buildings of University City. His description of the devastation wrought on Madrid is depressingly familiar, no surprise given that the civil war was clearly a forerunner of what was to be unleashed across Europe, and beyond:
There was a great house with only the outer walls standing and the interior blown completely out like a piece of scenery for a film. Through the windows one could see into the empty space strewn with débris and blackened by fire. Other houses were cut in half with furniture hanging from the blackened ruins.
Kurzke’s descriptions of the frontline fighting evocatively portrays the moments of terror interspersed with hours of boredom that soldiers endure, and he captures the confusion, the blunders, and the disasters that are an inevitable consequence of warfare. His account of the accidental death of the groups’ commander, a former soldier from London called H. Fred Jones, is very moving, though just as harrowing is his description of a group of Polish volunteers who had been hit by shellfire:
They all looked strangely alike; their faces pale, waxen, yellow, their eyes dark and still with the expression of surprise and horror of the terrible moment when the shell had burst upon them. Their hair was full of sand as if they had been buried. I fumbled for a cigarette and lit one. One of the wounded was talking to me in Polish and I could not understand what he said. He looked at my cigarette and I put it in his mouth. He sucked it greedily and then died, the smoke still trickling from his mouth.
Fully aware that they were pitted against the best troops of Franco’s army, it must have seemed miraculous to Kurzke that the hastily-assembled forces defending Madrid managed to throw back Franco’s forces. Yet throw them back they did. However it was only a temporary setback for, the following month, Franco launched a new offensive, hoping to encircle the Republican capital to the north. Consequently Kurtke’s unit in the 11th International Brigade were moved up to help stem an attack on the village of Boadilla del Monte, fifteen kilometres west of Madrid.
It was to be, Bernard Knox believed, ‘the biggest offensive the Fascists had yet launched.’ Occupying a defensive position in Boadilla, the defending Republican forces quickly found themselves hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered. Kurzke’s group were forced to retreat through the village, crawling on their stomachs to avoid the murderous hail of bullets. Bernard Knox was hit in the throat and he later described eloquently how he was consumed with a furious, violent rage: ‘Why me?’ he wrote, ‘I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.’ Shortly afterwards, Kurzke was also wounded, briefly losing consciousness after suffering ‘a fearful blow’ to his right leg. Both Knox and Kurzke were fortunate to survive. Two days later, another small group of British and Irish volunteers, part of the German 12th International Brigade, were not so lucky. The group, of whom Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly was part, were virtually wiped out trying vainly to recapture the village that Kurzke and his comrades had fought so hard to defend.
Kurzke’s painful journey to hospital in Madrid and his subsequent convalescence in Murcia and Valencia comprise the final part of his memoir. His recovery was a long, slow process and reveals not just the critical lack of resources in Republican medical facilities, but also the personal toll it took on Kurzke. At one point, unable to sleep due to an agonising pain in his damaged foot, he pleaded to be given a painkilling injection: ‘A strong one,’ he begged the nurse. ‘I don’t want to wake up any more.’
Eventually, however, Kurzke did recover and he was safely repatriated to the UK. But the story of Kurzke’s convalescence holds a puzzle that goes right to the very heart of this memoir. That is, what is missing from his account and why. Clearly, as in any first-hand account, there is much that has been left out: there’s very little on Kurzke’s life before arriving in Spain in 1934, apart from what comes out in conversations with people he meets on the road. There is also the missing period between tramping around Spain in 1934 and his return to the fight for the government two years later. Did he ever write about this time, or did he later decide to edit it out? And what about the story of his life after leaving Spain?
Yet the most significant absence from the book only becomes clear if you have read the account written by his girlfriend, Kate Mangan (and I strongly recommend that you do). She was with him in Portugal when news of the military coup began to trickle out and she travelled to Spain to find him after he volunteered. After he was wounded, she tracked him down to his hospital in Murcia, no mean feat given the chaotic nature of record-keeping in Republican hospitals. And when he was transferred to the Pasionaria hospital in Valencia in April 1937, she devotedly followed him there. She essentially nursed him back to health and almost single-handedly got him out of Spain, accompanying him on the train to Barcelona and over the frontier to Perpignan, Cerbère and Paris. And she got him back to England, despite him being essentially a stateless refugee. Yet Kurzke makes no mention of her at all.
This is problematic because, as Bernard Knox acknowledged, her glaring absence potentially raises questions about Kurzke’s reliability as a witness:
The real difficulty most readers will face is … the total exclusion in Jan’s account of Kate from his narrative … her many visits to him in hospital and even of her company on the train leaving Spain for France. Coupled with her very moving accounts of her efforts to trace him and her devotion to him once found it presents a real problem both morally and artistically. For one thing the reader cannot help feeling that if he is capable of suppression veri in such a vital matter, he may be also capable of suggestion falsi.
How Kate must have felt about being written out of her lover’s account is not known, but she must have been hurt, particularly given that the only time she actually does appear, her identity has been disguised as a Spanish girl he picked up on the street for sex:
I took the girl to a hotel. The concierge was a bit sour when he saw we had no luggage. I had to fill up a large form. I had hoped to have a hot bath but there was only cold water and no heating. The bed was comfortable. I did not enjoy the girl and later I could not sleep.
Perhaps she would have been slightly mollified to discover that other individuals had also been excised, such as the American Kitty Bowler, who visited Jan in the Palace Hotel in Madrid, and Kate’s long-term friend, the journalist Hugh Slater, who visited Kurzke in hospital in Murcia. However it’s hard not to agree with the words of a French fellow patient of Jan’s who remarked, ‘Il a de chance le bougre, d’avoir sa femme ici! ‘He’s a lucky bugger, having his wife here!’ Why Jan excised Kate from his memoir is not entirely clear, though when she tracked him down in Spain and asked why he hadn’t answered any of her letters, Kurzke told her that ‘his life now was too different from anything I could imagine. He did not want to see girls or maintain any links with what to him was another world. He talked as if he were already dead.’
Another possible explanation for Kurzke’s equivocation might lie with his previous episode in Spain and infatuation with the beautiful young German woman, Putz. It seems highly likely that Kurzke’s decision to go to Spain was driven, at least in part, by a desire to find Putz. Certainly that was the impression gained by Bernard Knox and other comrades of Jan in Spain. In fact, in his memoir Kurzke describes meeting up with Walter (the leader of the German group of musicians) in Madrid and asking where he might find her, only to be told that she had been killed three months earlier. His poignant description of his feelings for Putz reveal an emotional numbness, even existential despair, amid the realisation that all too soon he will also exist only in memories:
I felt very tired. I wanted to think of Putz, but I could not. There was a blank every time I thought of her. There was some mistake, surely, it could not be and yet I knew it was true, but something kept on saying, ‘there must be a mistake – people are often reported dead and it proves false.’ I had to find out, but when and where and how? I knew she was dead. It was no good pretending it was not so. It did not hurt much. It was unreal, like anything else in the war. A bad dream. After one wakes up, it is all over and past. What did it matter? How long is one going to live? A few days, perhaps a few weeks.
Readers, perhaps, should not be too hard on Kurzke. He was by no means the only veteran of the war in Spain to be deeply traumatised by his experiences. Rose Kerrigan, wife of the senior British Political Commissar in Spain, described how she found her husband altered almost beyond recognition on his return:
There was a terrible change in him, he was quite morose and he seemed very within himself. He was really going grey and this was because he’d seen all the people who had died in Spain.
After all, Kurzke had willingly and selflessly volunteered to put his life on the line for the Spanish Republic. He was lucky to survive the war at all; many didn’t. Of almost 2500 men and women to go to Spain from Britain, one fifth never returned. The psychological effects of combat and the death of many of those he served alongside – then known as ‘shell-shock’, but now referred to as PTSD – can be profound and enduring. Certainly Kate found him to be ‘very melancholy [and] despairing’ when he was in hospital and understood that ‘a man cannot be left alone in bed for months thinking and be the same as he was before.’
Spain provided a salutary lesson for the antifascists and supporters of the Spanish Republic, many of whom never got over their shock and heartbreak. Their feelings of desolation and despair were admirably summed up by the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus in his preface to Espagne Libre: ‘In Spain [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’ The International Brigaders had warned that defeat in Spain would bring war not peace, yet the democracies had remained unmoved. ‘The writing on the wall would not be read, not even if it were written in flaming letters,’ raged Kurzke. It soon would be. On 1 September 1939, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht forces swept across the border into Poland, the western powers could hardly claim that they had not been warned.
Few people will look back on 2020 with much fondness, but the year did at least provide some solace for those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War. Giles Tremlett’s comprehensive account of the International Brigades was published in November, followed shortly afterwards by Emmet O’Connor and Barry McLoughlin’s study of the Irish volunteers. Pipping them both to the finishing line though, were two studies of the Republican Army by Alexander Clifford. Both are essentially military histories; the first, The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War is a study of the army as a whole, while the second, Fighting for Spain, centres on the International Brigades. Time will tell, but I imagine most readers will plump for one or the other, rather than both, for there is inevitably some degree of overlap. Nonetheless, they are different books, both in terms of content and approach.
The People’s Army analyses the role of the Republican army during three offensives in 1937: the battle of Brunete in July, the attack on Belchite during the Aragon offensive of the autumn and the attack on the remote provincial capital of Teruel in the winter. For Clifford, the crucial exchange was at Brunete when, he suggests, ‘the war stood at a crossroads’. Clifford’s summary of what went wrong at during the battle chimes with other studies, blaming ‘inadequate training, a poorly executed plan and a lack of tactical nous and timing from commanders.’ As a telling example of the shortcomings of the military commanders, the author recounts how the Republican General, Valentine Gonzalez, known as El Campesino, was passed a map of the Brunete battlefield: ‘Without looking at it, El Campesino spread it out on the table, face down, to serve as a tablecloth.’ Clifford’s assessment of the subsequent fighting in Aragon and Teruel is just as critical. Both saw a disastrous loss of troops, materiél and morale which Franco was able to capitalise on in the spring of 1938, fatally cleaving the Republic in two.
While The People’s Army limits itself to one year of the war, Fighting for Spain follows a more established format, tracing the experiences of the foreign volunteers through the course of the conflict. It begins with a familiar overview of the composition of the Brigades and what lay behind the volunteers’ decisions to go to Spain, before turning to an evaluation of their performance as soldiers. Clifford pushes back against some recent criticisms, reiterating that the 11 and 15 International Brigades in particular (together with General Lister’s famed Communist troops) were not only the finest units in the Republican Army but, at their best, equal to any of Franco’s troops. Yes, the Internationals suffered horrendous casualties, but this was not because they were ineffective or because they were sacrificed as ‘cannon fodder’, but because they were used as ’shock troops’, thrown into the heart of battle.
Nonetheless, Clifford is surely right to state that ‘The Republican People’s Army will not go down in the annals of history as one of the world’s great fighting forces.’ As Peter Carroll has observed, raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force.’ Yet the Republicans managed to fight on for nearly three years, even though many observers had written off their chances during the first few months of the war. Why did the Republic manage to hold on, when so much was against it? Franco’s conservative tactics and obsession with the capture and control of territory certainly played a part, but also, Clifford argues, because the Republican Army was actually a better fighting force than some historians might believe. As he says, despite all the obstacles it faced, ‘the Republic developed from being defended by peasants armed with swords and shotguns to having a regular fighting force capable of launching bold combined-arms offensives using modern military hardware and infiltration tactics.’
His insightful assessment of the Republic’s military capacity is likely to be of interest not just to military historians. His analysis of the shortcomings of the brigadas mixtas, on which the Republican army was based, is particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s unfair to point that these are essentially popular military history books, not academic studies. Though the author makes some use of memoir material (in English) and makes reference to the RGASPI files cited in Ronald Radosh’s controversial Spain Betrayed, he nonetheless relies primarily on secondary sources. The drawback with this approach is, of course, that any errors or oversights in previous works can slip through unchallenged. In this instance Clifford greatly overstates the number of Internationals shot for desertion. He also repeats the longstanding – and unfounded – assertion that the French Communist and Commander of the International Brigades, André Marty, was personally responsible for the execution of five hundred volunteers. Fortunately, he does avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls, such as parroting the cold-war denunciation of Republican Spain as a Soviet puppet state. As he states, ‘it is self-evident that the volunteers’ fight in Spain was an attempt to preserve Republican democracy rather than establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ While both books have their particular pros and cons, I suspect that it is Fighting for Spain that would appeal more to members of ALBA. While not as comprehensive as Giles Tremlett’s recent work, or as US centred as the accounts by Peter Carroll or Adam Hochschild, Clifford manages to clearly and succinctly summarise the role of the International Brigades in Spain. In this, he is aided by numerous photos and maps and highlight boxes with details of key individuals and weaponry. But if it’s a more general background you’re after, then The People’s Army might be your preference. Perhaps the publishers, Pen and Sword, can eliminate this dilemma: would it not make sense to bundle the two books together?
This review originally appeared in August 2021 in The Volunteer.
In March 2006 Spanish police raided a number of homes and offices belonging to Jesus Gil, the mayor of Marbella and to Juan Antonio Roca, head of town planning. The police seized cash amounting to some 2.4 billion euros, much of it casually stuffed into bin-liners, plus staggering quantities of valuables: ‘boxes of jewellery, several luxury cars, 245 valuable paintings including one by Miró hanging in a bathroom, a helicopter, a pavilion full of hunting trophies in the form of stuffed elephants, zebras, giraffes and leopards and a stable of more than a hundred thoroughbred horses.’ On this occasion the culprits went to jail, but it is just one of many examples of the astounding levels of corruption to have dogged Spain for centuries, laid out starkly in Paul Preston’s new history of the country, A People Betrayed.
Preston is, of course, the world’s foremost authority on contemporary Spanish history and this study – running to 565 pages with a further 134 of references – draws on some fifty years of research. Fortunately, his elegant and engaging narrative style make it eminently readable, enjoyable even, despite the subject matter. While the book follows a traditional chronological structure, it concentrates on a number of themes; as the author explains, ‘it is the central thesis of this book that the violence, corruption and incompetence of the political class have betrayed the population.’ Spain is hardly unique in this, of course, and Preston is quick to discount the popular caricatures and stereotypes of Spain and its people, the so called ‘black legend’. Nevertheless, it is striking how brazen the venality and sleaze appear to be. As Preston argues, public service in Spain has always been a route to private profit for some, and it should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that many people view it as an unsurprising, normal part of politics.
A People Betrayed begins in 1874, with the demise of Spain’s first republic and the foundations of the nineteenth century electoral stitch-up known as the turno pacifico, when ‘politics became an exclusive minuet danced by a small privileged majority.’ Subsequent chapters discuss Spain’s loss of empire in 1898, the ’tragic week’ of 1909 and the country’s missed opportunities during the first world war. All are typically thorough, though it the chapters on Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship from 1923 to 1930 which many will find particularly interesting. Preston recounts how, ushered in on the spirit of ‘regenerationism’ that pledged to make Spain great again, Primo’s regime instead sank to outrageous levels of incompetence and corruption. Monopolies were given to friends and cronies in banking, petroleum, telecommunications, even rodent eradication. Meanwhile four million pesetas were ‘donated’ by the populace to pay for the dictator’s family home.
As the descriptions of the dictator’s outrageous corruption and excesses are laid out, it gradually dawns that perhaps twentieth century Spain is not the only issue on the author’s mind. History often tells us as much about the present as the past, as the arguments currently raging over statues and memorialisation amply demonstrate. The author’s descriptions of Primo de Rivera’s boastful, thin-skinned demeanour and his pathetic yarns of macho womanising are strongly reminiscent of a more recent vainglorious blowhard. This parallel is made explicit when Preston notes how the dictator’s tendency to put out triumphalist announcements resonates in Trumps’ midnight twitter tirades. Perhaps Primo’s swift fall from power – with the country in chaos, blaming those around him for his personal and political failings – will find another contemporary echo.
IBMT readers will no doubt be on familiar ground when the author turns to the second Spanish republic, the military coup and civil war. However, there is plenty of new material here and, as ever, it’s elegantly done, explaining clearly how the fledgling democratic government faced myriad problems and bitter foes, all at a time of global economic meltdown. Returning to the theme of corruption, Preston reveals how the unscrupulous Mallorcan multi-millionaire Juan March, ‘the sultan of Spain’, utterly perverted the 1933 elections. The ensuing government was so notoriously corrupt that a roulette-fixing scandal directly involving the P.M. Alejandro Lerroux provided the Spanish language with a new term for the black market: el estraperlo.
As the author states, it’s obvious that the Republican army was militarily outclassed during the civil war; hardly surprising, given the colossal assistance provided by Mussolini and Hitler. However, Preston reiterates the view of many brigaders (and many others) that the British and French policy of non-intervention played a significant part in the Republicans’ defeat. As Preston argues, ‘More than the losses on the battlefield, the greatest defeat was Munich.’
While corruption, blunders and war profiteering were hardly unknown within the Republican camp, Preston remains sympathetic to the government’s plight, particularly to the efforts of ‘the brilliant’ Juan Negrín (whatever can it be that the author finds to admire in the larger-than-life, liberal, gourmet, university professor?). However, it will come as a surprise to no one that within Franco’s zone, hatred, incompetence and profit ruled. As Franco himself admitted in 1942: ‘our crusade is the only struggle in which the rich who took part in the war emerged richer.’ Once again Juan March’s money played its part, funding not just Captain Bebb’s infamous Dragon Rapide, but as much as ten per cent of the cost of the Nacionales’ war effort. Naturally, March was amply rewarded during Franco’s ‘kleptocratic state’ which followed. This state sanctioned corruption was, Preston argues, utterly deliberate. Franco ‘turned a blind eye to venality’, because it gave him leverage and kept people loyal. Meanwhile the dictator, who clearly drew no distinction between himself and the country, built up a huge personal fortune, including property, cash, and multiple investments. His family all gorged from the same trough and the avarice of his wife, Doña Carmen, was legendary; Preston recounts how Madrid jewellers shut up shop in panic when they saw her coming.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this tale. Preston maintains that, despite the return to democracy in 1977, ‘Forty years of brainwashing guaranteed that Francoist attitudes would survive for decades.’ Incompetence and scandal also persisted: ‘Spain was bedevilled by a level of corruption that involved virtually every institution in the country.’ To this day, political and financial scandals feature regularly in the Spanish media, embroiling politicians of all colours and even the royal family. Sadly the author doesn’t seem optimistic that this will end any time soon; he titles the final chapter, ‘the triumph of corruption and incompetence.’
The observant among you will notice that the book’s cover bears an image taken by the acclaimed Hungarian photographer, Andre Friedmann, better known as Robert Capa. It shows a long line of defeated Spanish Republican soldiers being marched off, not to freedom, nor even safety, but to be incarcerated in grim internment – dare I say concentration – camps in the south of France. Surrounded by barbed wire on three sides and the sea on the other, lacking basic food and shelter, thousands of the Spanish refugees perished. A People Betrayed indeed.
This review first appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2020, pp. 18-19.
On 12 November, 2020 I joined Giles for an online discussion and virtual launch of Giles Tremlett‘s new study of the International Brigades, hosted by the IBMT and Marx Memorial Library. You can listen to the discussion here.
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.
In early August 2020 I joined Alex Clifford, author of Fighting for Spain, a new military history of the International Brigades, to talk about their role in the Spanish Civil War.
In a long-ranging discussion lasting almost two hours(!), we discussed the formation of the Brigades, to why and how so many volunteers flocked to Spain, the battles they fought, and the people who served in them. Why did these men (and some women) became History’s Most Unlikely Warriors?
The podcast was released on 7 September and can be found here.
On 10 June 2017 a memorial to volunteers for the Spanish Civil War from Oxfordshire was unveiled in St. Clement’s, Oxford. The road to this event had been incredibly long and tortuous, not least because many locals had opposed the erection of a monument to ‘a bunch of reds’. That the project had ever managed to be realised was down to the hard work, determination and bloody-mindedness of the members of the Oxford Memorial Organising Committee, not least the historian and journalist Chris Farman who sadly died last week, one of all too many victims of the Coronavirus pandemic.
With Valery Rose and Liz Woolley, Chris was the author of No Other Way, Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War. Sales of the book did much to help fund the erection of the Oxford memorial. It’s a great piece of local history, well written and extremely thoroughly researched, with a great introduction written by Chris. He was the perfect choice for the introduction, for he had previously written for The Guardian and the Illustrated London News and worked as an editor on a book on the British Empire, published by Time-Life Books. He also has written his own monograph: The General Strike, published in 1972.
I first met Chris in at a fundraising for the Oxford memorial. Like his fellow organisers, Colin Carritt and John Heywood, Chris put a huge amount of time and effort into this and subsequent events. His natural charm and enthusiasm did much to help make them a success and (as I know) he was adept at persuading other people to get involved. A regular and popular presence at IBMT events, Chris will be very sadly missed.
Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.
The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.
If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.
Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.
The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.
Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:
If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.
The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.
Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).
Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.
Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.
George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.
Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).
Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.
There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!
John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012
I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.
Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.
Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.
With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion. Seb Browne’s Medicine and Conflict looks interesting but at around £100.00 for the hardback, is probably out of reach of most readers.
For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading. Angela also contributed an introduction to the most recent publication, Firing a Shot for Freedom; the memoirs of Frida Stewart (2020).
I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.
The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.
There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.
Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.
I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.
Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.
Barbara Lamplugh’s The Red Gene, published in 2019, tells the story of a young English nurse who volunteered for the Spanish Government’s medical services and fell for a Republican soldier. The story touches on the awful conditions during the civil war and the scandalous forced adoptions in Franco Spain. It was reviewed in the January 2020 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
Based in his farmhouse in Andalusia, Jason Webster has spent much of the last fifteen years writing with great affection about Spain, its people, culture and history. Many readers will already know Duende, his account of years obsessing over flamenco, or Guerra, an examination of the enduring legacy of the civil war and Franco dictatorship. His latest publication, Violencia, is a bold attempt to write the history of Spain in less than 400 pages. This has earned one or two disdainful remarks on social media, unfairly, for this book is aimed at the everyday reader, rather than specialist academics. It’s very engagingly written and should be read as an – occasionally irreverent – introduction to Spanish history.
The author’s fondness for his adopted country is made abundantly clear by a detailed description of its influence around the world. ‘Without Spain,’ he points out, ‘emblematic aspects of “Western” civilisation as diverse as rational thought, modern surgery and the American cowboy would all be missing.’ Likewise, he highlights the powerful impact of centuries of Arab rule over Spain. The ‘Moors’, he argues, were not (and are not) ‘the other’, but a vital part of Spanish history and culture.
However, as the book’s title would suggest, it is not just a celebration of Spain’s past greatness. The main tenet of the book is an argument that Spain has a long and unfortunate tradition of turning to violence as a means of solving political crises. Spanish history, Webster argues, has been an enduring struggle between two sides, personified by the two faces of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain: on the one hand Matamoros, the violent Moor-slayer, and on the other the peaceful Sage. This ‘dark side’ of Santiago has been turned against many different forms of enemy, for Spain has always needed an ‘other’ to unite a disparate country against. Sometimes that enemy has lain overseas, but on other occasions it has existed within the ‘indivisible’ Spain itself. The expulsion of the Jews, the Reconquista, the Carlist wars of the nineteenth century and the civil war itself thus all become symbols of this struggle.
At the end of the book, the author considers whether this thesis might be applied to contemporary Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was, of course, built on violence and though the transition appeared to signify that Spain was at last turning away from violence, many would argue that the transition is still not over. As Paul Preston and others have pointed out, there was never a denazification (or de-Francoisation) in Spain. Many on the Right still resent any perceived challenge to their inalienable right to rule. The government’s heavy-handed response to the Catalan referendum of October 2017 and the draconian sentencing of the separatist leaders up to 15 years for their crimes – originally portrayed as rebellion – could be seen as further evidence of the trend.
The author is certainly right to state that Spain currently faces many challenges. Yet another election beckons, in which concerns about Catalan nationalism and immigration are likely to see support for the neo-Francoist Vox spread well beyond its Andalusian cradle. The recent disinterring of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen was not supported by a third of the population (according to a recent poll in El Mundo) and has infuriated the family and supporters. In these circumstances, the author wonders if Felipe VI might be the last King of Spain. Does the country’s future lies with democracy or authoritarianism? Could Spain return to the violence of the past? Personally, despite the recent angry protests in Catalonia, I think that’s unlikely. Franco is long dead and Spain has been a democracy for more than 40 years. In many ways, the importance of disinterring Franco’s remains was symbolic, more than anything else. However, it’s hard to disagree with the author when he concludes that ‘pretending that the ghosts from the past don’t exist, only makes them stronger in the long run.’
This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán!, 1-2020, p. 19.
RGASPI have recently updated their website, so this new post explains how to access the records of the British and Irish volunteers (the old blogpost can still be found here). As before, though the documents themselves are in the languages of the various national groups (English, Spanish, French, German etc.), the website itself is in Cyrillic. Unless you read Russian, I’d recommend accessing the site using Google Chrome, which can automatically translate webpages. The main page for accessing the six sections of the RGASPI files can be found here.
N.B. For those of you returning to this blogpost, I have made each image an active link, so you can go directly to the respective page.
As you can see there are six ‘children’ (main sub-sections of the site), accessed by clicking on the link ‘go to the next level’, which will take you to the next page.
The individual files of volunteers are held in Inventory 6. Lists, personal files of soldiers and commanders of inter-brigades. Follow the link, then click on ‘Go to the next level’ on the following page and you will be presented with the first page of cases (there are 1618 in total).
The files are divided up by nationality, then alphabetically. The first of ‘English’ files is number 100 (Aa-Ai) and the last is 218 (Y-Z).
Other national groups in the Fifteenth International Brigade include: Australians & New Zealanders beginning from file 67, Irish from 439, Canadians from 534 and Americans from 845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 855).
I hope you find this guide useful. Please let me know if you have any suggestions, criticisms etc.
Having read quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War over the years, I tend to approach novels set during the turbulent period of 1930s Spain with a fair degree of trepidation. While fiction is not constrained by the rules of historical non-fiction, it still grates when authors make lazy, factual errors. Fortunately, Jessie Burton has obviously researched thoroughly; not many novels would include Henry Buckley’s wonderful memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, in the bibliography.
The Muse opens in 1960s London, where we meet the young, Caribbean immigrant Odelle Bastien. Fed up with her tedious job in a London shoe store, she manages to land herself a job in an obscure London art gallery, along with a posh boyfriend who seems to have little to show for himself, apart from ownership of a mysterious, strikingly beautiful painting.
The book then shifts to Spain in early 1936 and the affluent, British ex-pat family of frustrated teenager Olive Schloss. She’s been offered a place to study art at Slade in London, but her bipolar mother and out-of-touch father take neither Olive, nor her painting seriously. We also meet Isaac and Teresa, siblings from the nearby Andalusian village who, through their desperation for work, open our eyes to the appalling inequalities and class-hatreds of pre-civil war Spain.
As the book progresses and the narrative switches backwards and forwards with increasing rapidity, we begin to understand that the two stories are indelibly linked. Burton manages to inject a real sense of foreboding, which builds steadily as the plot develops and the pace quickens. It’s an extremely well-crafted novel, with strong, three-dimensional characters and a convincing portrayal of the two very different worlds in which they reside. It’s also very knowing, touching on themes such as racism in 1960s London and the long-standing lack of recognition of female artists.
The Muse is a powerful follow-up to the author’s debut, The Miniaturist, which sold over a million copies and was made into a BBC TV series. If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent, literary pager-turner, this might well be it.