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Review of Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic

IB edition of Henry Buckley's long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War
IB Tauris’s 2013 edition of Henry Buckley’s long-lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War

The reissue by IB Tauris of Henry Buckley’s long-lost memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, is an event which anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War should celebrate. Buckley’s classic eye-witness account of the eight years of the second Spanish Republic from 14 April 1931 to 31 March 1939 is, I think, one of the best accounts of the period penned by Britons.

Knowledgeable, insightful and beautifully written, Buckley’s memoir possesses a rare sense of immediacy that immerses the reader deep within turbulent 1930s Spain. ‘Spain’, writes Buckley, is ‘a poor country with many rich people’; struggling to cope with a difficult transition, where ‘new ideas, as well as motor-cars, raced along these fine broad roads which now intersected Spain.’ A devout Catholic, Buckley was nevertheless objective enough to recognise the Church’s failings and its complicity in creating and supporting a deeply unequal society. In fact the text is astonishingly fair-minded and objective: while he became deeply sympathetic to the Republican cause (even toying with the idea of joining the International Brigades), he was not blind to its failings, arguing that the Republic needed not just to aspire to be good, but to actually raise the pitiful living standards of the poverty-stricken peasants ‘[which] still form[ed] the majority of the nation’s population.’

Unlike foreign correspondents who arrived at the outbreak of the civil war, Henry Buckley had been in Spain since 1929. He spoke the language fluently and knew the country well. He was acquainted with many of the key figures in the Republic, including Pasionaria, Francisco Largo Caballero, Manuel Azaña and Juan Negrín. And his observations of many key figures are not written in the polite banalities of politicians and diplomats. For example, while Buckley has good things to say about many of the Republic’s political and military leaders, especially Negrín and Pasionaria, he is not always as enthusiastic about the socialist leaders Francisco Largo Caballero and Julián Besteiro.

There are occasional factual errors in Buckley’s account, though surprisingly few when one remembers how deeply immersed in the situation the author must have been. And any errors are more than compensated for by the astute observations and intelligent, grounded analysis. The account of Largo Caballero’s own contribution to his fall from office in 1937 is one good example, as is Buckley’s sorrowful analysis of the doomed attempts by the western democracies to restrict the war to Spain’s borders. Buckley fully understands the inevitable consequence of the French and British governments’ determination not to come to the Republic’s aid. His eloquent account of the final dark days of the Spanish Republic and the dashing of the hopes of those fighting in support of the Spanish Republic are heart-rending. Yet, despite all, Buckley’s conclusion is as clear as it is uplifting: ‘their courage and efforts were not in vain. No sacrifice like that ever is.’ A sentiment that, I suspect, many will feel is as true now, as it was seventy five years ago.

This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 36, January 2014, p. 22.

Review of James Matthews’ Reluctant Warriors

James Matthews' Reluctant Warriors, published by Oxford UP in 2012

Within Britain, popular knowledge of the Spanish civil war usually centres on the internationalisation of the conflict; the support of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy for General Franco and the involvement of the volunteers of the International Brigades in support of the Spanish Republic. However, it should be remembered that foreigners only ever made up a small proportion of those fighting in Spain; most were Spaniards and a huge number were conscripts. Therefore the publication of Reluctant Warriors, James Matthews’ examination of the experiences of these ordinary Spaniards drafted into the armies of both sides, is to be thoroughly welcomed.

For the full review, please see the English Historical Review 2014, issue 129, pp. 761–763.

Review of Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow


Helen Graham’s latest monograph, The War and its Shadow, is not an introductory text to the Spanish Civil War, nor is it an easy read. While only 150 pages long, the text’s richness and complexity, the scope and ambition, the intelligence and sheer breadth of knowledge contained within make it both thought-provoking and challenging. Important and timely too. One of the major issues currently facing the International Brigade Memorial Trust is how to explain to a contemporary audience the significance of a war which was fought in Spain over seventy years ago. This book provides detailed evidence of the enduring relevance of the Spanish Civil War and the thirty-five years of malevolent and vengeful dictatorship which followed.

In structure, the book comprises a number of essays, implicitly divided into three main sections. In the first, the author discusses the legacy of the First World War, which saw the mortal wounding of many European ancien regimes but not, as yet, their destruction. During what was essentially becoming a European civil war, nationalist movements fought to reassert what they believed to be their natural right to rule. The second section examines the notion of the volunteers (originally raised in her inaugural professorial lecture) for the Spanish Republic as ‘border-crossers’. For Helen Graham, many of the International Brigaders were, to use her rather elegant expression, ‘the stormy petrels of social change’, members of a vanguard fighting for ‘cosmopolitan cultural modernity’. The third, final section of the book is a passionate essay on contemporary Spain, the enduring legacy of Francoism and the current battles to control historical memory.

The book provides a trenchant demolition of some of the more enduring myths of the Franco dictatorship. As the author points out, the Spanish Civil War was the first battle of a war ‘waged predominantly on civilians’ and there is no shortage of evidence that murder and rape were used deliberately as a weapon to break down resistance. As the leader of the military rebels, General Emilio Mola declared, they were determined to eliminate ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do.’ This included not just members of the ‘left’ and members of some imaginary ‘judeo-masonic conspiracy’, but any representatives of progress and modernity: teachers, trade unionists, homosexuals and ‘modern women’ too, as the accounts in chapter three of the viciousness visited on the Barayón family make only too clear.

Like Paul Preston’s acclaimed Spanish Holocaust, Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow reiterates that Franco’s dictatorship was not ‘softer’ than those of Hitler and Stalin,  remarking pointedly on a persisting lack of awareness of the vast number of ‘extra and quasi-judicial’ killings enacted by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1975. The chapter on Franco’s prisons is particularly harrowing. ‘All Spain is a prison’ wrote Marcos Ana, as Franco’s regime set about ‘teaching the defeated the meaning of their defeat’. As evidence of the truly repugnant nature of Franco’s Spain, the author reminds us that even Heinrich Himmler was shocked by the extent of judicial murder when he visited Spain in October 1940 (though admitting that his main concern may have been the wastage of potential slave labour). The book explains how the victimisation continued within the prisons, with ‘the rape/sexual assault of women prisoners was systematically perpetrated with impunity by the servants of the Franco regime’, and children removed from what were considered to be ‘unfit’ mothers.

The book concludes with a rather depressing, though no doubt accurate, assessment of the situation in contemporary Spain, which finds the conservative Partido Popular in power during a time of severe financial crisis. Attempts to recuperate historical memory are becoming increasing difficult, as court cases are launched against those – however prominent – involved in investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. As the author explains, while there have been many positive changes in Spain since the death of Franco, ‘many of its most damaging effects endure within the constitutional polity.’ Clearly much of Spain remains in shadow and the task of dismantling the Francoist structure has some way to go.

This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 34, January 2013, pp. 24-5.

Review of Elizabeth Roberts’ ‘Freedom, Faction, Fame and Blood’

My review of Elizabeth Roberts’ new book appeared in the Journal of Contemporary History, October 2012, vol. 47:4, pp. 889-891.

The ‘methodologically challenging’ study by Elizabeth Roberts is a comparative study of the experiences of three groups of ‘soldiers of conscience,’ British men and women who risked, and often lost, their lives fighting in ‘a far-away country,’ during the Greek War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish War.

Review of Angela Jackson’s For Us It Was Heaven

The following review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter, issue 32, Spring-Summer 2012, p.10.

NEARLY twenty years ago, Angela Jackson, then beginning the research for her doctorate, conducted an interview with a woman who, many years before, had worked as a nurse in Republican Spain during the civil war. The story that Angela was told that day by her eighty year old interviewee, Patience Edney (née Darton), became an important part of a ground-breaking thesis. It also led to a well-received book which, like this one, was published within the Cañada Blanch series on contemporary Spain.
The publication of this biography of Patience thus brings Angela back to her beginnings and, perhaps understandably, is the cause of a certain amount of reflection by the author. In many ways the book is a personal account of Angela’s relationship with Patience and the process of researching and writing. As the author acknowledges, it is not always an easy task to write about someone that you are close to, requiring the ability to ‘tread carefully the path between hagiography and hatchet job.’ This, in the main, the author manages well, despite her obvious affection for her subject.
The opening chapters portray Patience in the years before Spain, where we learn about the development of two important and long-standing features of Patience’s life: nursing and left-wing politics. Born into an upper middle-class family, Patience decided to train as a midwifery nurse at University College Hospital in London, where she was also introduced to progressive politics by the illustrious scientist and dedicated Communist, J.B.S. Haldane.
The story of Patience’s time in Spain naturally forms the central part of Angela’s portrayal, for Spain always had a strong hold on Patience’s heart. She had been training when the Spanish Civil War broke out and was persuaded to go out to Spain to nurse the British Battalion’s former commander, Tom Wintringham, who was dangerously ill with typhoid. As anyone who has read Angela’s Jackson’s previous works will know, a nurse’s life in war-torn Spain was not an easy one and this biography presents a clear picture of the impossible conditions under which the Republican services were forced to operate, where hospitals and ambulances were deliberately targeted by the Nationalists. Yet, despite the long hours and near exhaustion, there was still the opportunity for love and it is here that Angela’s close relationship with the subject allows us particular insight into Patience’s life in Spain. Uncovered through her personal letters, we hear how she fell in love with and married a young German International Brigader. Soon we realise why Angela refers to Patience’s grief and her fortitude: her new husband was killed on the Ebro in the summer of 1938. Patience didn’t mention him again, nor did she visit Spain, for another sixty years.
In the 1950s, following the Second World War, Patience turned her efforts towards Mao’s China, carrying on the work she had begun in Spain. While there are accounts by other Spanish veterans who went on to work in China, such as Nan Green and David Crook, this is not an area that has been widely written about, so I found this section particularly interesting.
The concluding chapters return the story to Spain. In 1986 Patience attended the huge Homanaje in Madrid, accompanied by her son, Bob, named after her German former husband. The book’s last act is genuinely moving, for Patience did not survive her triumphant return to Spain: To Die in Madrid’, read Patience’s obituary in El Periódico. In a last salute to Spain, Freiheit!, the song of the German Thaelmann volunteers, was sung at Patience’s funeral. It is a fitting conclusion, both to her extraordinary life and to this engaging biography.

Review of Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass! The British Battalion at Jarama


The Battle of Jarama in February 1937, the first action of the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, provided a brutal wake-up call for both the volunteers themselves and the British Communist Party, which had recruited them. During three days of bitter and sustained fighting, the six hundred poorly-trained, ill-equipped ‘city-bred young men’ were attacked by an overwhelming force, comprising the cream of Franco’s professional army, backed up by German armour. That the British Battalion managed to hold the line – just – was a feat of both stubborn defiance and astonishing bravery. But the cost was substantial. After the three days of fighting of 12-14 February, less than half the Battalion remained; Suicide Hill was not named in vain. As the Scottish Political Commissar, Peter Kerrigan, later stated, ‘this battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’

Ben Hughes new study places the battle of Jarama at the centre of the story of the British and Irish in Spain. Drawing on the numerous memoirs, both published and held in archives around the world, They Shall Not Pass! successfully weaves the volunteers’ accounts together, contextualising them within a clear narrative. This is a satisfyingly well-written account which tells the, often horrifying, story with both verve and understanding.

Divided into three parts, the book’s scope actually extends beyond Jarama, though the main focus of the book is, of course, the battle itself. Part one begins with a chapter to set the scene, before two chapters briefly sketch out the volunteers’ journeys to Spain and the hurried and limited attempts to transform the volunteers’ political will into military skill. Hughes then returns to the Jarama Valley, concluding his first section at lunchtime on 12 February 1937, with the battalion under attack, but dug in, still determined that that the fascists will not pass.

In the second and crucial section of the book, Hughes reveals how the naïve optimism of the novice volunteer soldiers was violently shattered by the terrifying onslaught of Franco’s elite troops of the Army of Africa. Ten graphic chapters provide ‘a micro history’ of the battle, almost forensic in the attention to detail. Hughes has clearly spent considerable time on his primary research here and the work certainly pays off. The events are recounted from, in Hughes words, ‘a worm’s eye point of view,’ which provides the reader with an understanding of how shocking the experiences of the Jarama battle – and the war in Spain for that matter – really were for the volunteers.

The third and final part of the book provides an account of the experiences of the British and Irish volunteers from the battle of Brunete of July 1937, through to their return to Britain at the end of 1938. Unfortunately, this section is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps because the previous sections have set such a high standard. Increasingly reliant on secondary sources, it offers nothing like the level of detail of the earlier chapters and is correspondingly less original and informative.

Interest picks up again in the epilogue, which brings the account up to the present day, revealing what happened to the veterans of Jarama during the Second World War and thereafter. For example, the later lives of the three commanders of the battalion at Jarama, Tom Wintringham, Jock Cunningham and Fred Copeman, certainly make interesting reading.

The book also benefits from two useful appendices, including directions to help locate the actual site of the February battle, which I’m sure a number of IBMT members will find beneficial. There is a thorough index and copious footnotes, both of which should prove valuable for students and researchers. All the maps are very clear and other good touches are the brief biographies of the dramatis personae and the numerous photographs, including a number of colour pictures of Jarama features such as the sunken road and ‘the knoll’  in the present day.

There are, of course, a few areas where the reader may disagree with Hughes’ approach or conclusions – I think that he overestimates the casualty rates at Jarama, for example – and there are a number of oversights and little errors, inevitable in a book of this scope and probably only apparent or of interest to the specialist. Most, though, do not detract from what, I think, is one of the best recent additions to the collection of studies on the brave group of British and Irish volunteers, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Review of Hugo García’s The Truth about Spain

Hugo García's The Truth about Spain, published by Sussex Academic Press, 2010
Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain, published by Sussex Academic Press, 2010

There has been a spate of books published recently on The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain, to use the title of Tom Buchanan’s latest (2007) work. In addition to the IBMT’s Antifascistas (2010) written to accompany the exhibition on the British and Irish volunteers, we have had Brian Shelmerdine’s British Representations of the Spanish Civil War (2006), Lewis Mates’ The Spanish Civil War and the British Left (2007), David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War (2008) and now Hugo García has added The Truth About Spain!: Mobilizing British Public Opinion, 1936-1939. This is not to forget Chris Hall’s Not Just Orwell, Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia, the two oral histories of British volunteers – Max Arthur’s The Real Band of Brothers and Peter Darman’s Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War – and two more general books that include much of interest to a British audience: Paul Preston’s study of the war correspondents, We Saw Spain Die, and Steve Hurst’s Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War. Clearly, as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war, the conflict still has a powerful resonance in Britain, despite rarely making an appearance in the classroom.

Hugo García has made an important contribution to this rather crowded field; it is a rich, detailed study, impeccably researched. The title, however, is somewhat of a misnomer for García’s aim, as he admits, is not to judge the veracity of Republican and Nationalist propaganda, but rather to attempt to present an objective, dispassionate analysis of the forms and effectiveness of their propaganda campaigns, how they functioned and impacted on British opinion.

The book comprises four main sections. The first is a history of ‘modern’ forms of propaganda and censorship, from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, focusing on the use of propaganda in the totalitarian countries and in Spain itself during the Second Republic.

Part two compares the differing approaches of the Nationalists and the Republicans and contains a wealth of detail on the development, manning and operation of both sides’ propaganda machines. As García shows, the view of foreign correspondents as spies and criminals by senior Nationalists, and their treatment by their rude and obstructive Press officer, Luis Bolín was often counter-productive. For example, the expulsion of The Times correspondent George Steer required him to move to the Republican zone, from where he later produced his devastating coverage of the bombing of Guernica.

García’s analysis of the Republicans’ approach – frequently drawing on Arturo Barea’s wonderful memoir, The Forging of a Rebel – recognises that the Republic’s initial problem was to overcome the chaos that followed the rising and which had shattered the state apparatus. As García describes, order was gradually re-established by the end of 1936, leading to increasingly sophisticated and professional dealings with the foreign press. In contrast to the repugnant Bolín, Republican faces such as Constancia de la Mora offered an efficient and charming front to the foreign correspondents, recognising their value, rather than treating them as irritants.

García then turns to the propaganda messages put out by both sides, particularly atrocities and foreign intervention. It was obviously vitally important for both sides to get across their version of events: the Rebels’ depiction of themselves as Nacionales with an anti-Communist crusade was countered by the Republicans’ portrayal of the war as ‘progress versus feudalism’, or the defence of democracy against international fascism. García argues that the techniques used by both sides were, in fact, very similar and that both sides knowingly and deliberately used falsehoods to sustain their portrayal of the conflict.

The final section discusses the impact of the propaganda on Britain. As he recognises, García faces the thorny problem of assessing exactly how the ‘messages’ put across by both sides were received in Britain; not easy to judge considering the unreliability of opinion polling, then still in its infancy. García claims that, in the main, there was a general indifference, ‘a plague on both your houses,’ as one contemporary newspaper put it. However, as he recognises, of those who took sides, many more sided with the Republicans than with the Rebels. And while the strongest support for both sides came from the political extremes in Britain, the Republicans had some success in extending their realm of support as the war progressed.

However, García believes that the reportage of the horrors of the Spanish war was most effective in convincing neutrals of the horror of war in general, rather than of one particular side, and thus consolidated support for non-intervention. In a depressing conclusion, he argues that even if the Republican propaganda had been more effective, it would probably still not have achieved enough to be able to save the Spanish Republic. Sadly, it is difficult to disagree with García’s view put forward at the very beginning of the book, that ‘this was, from very early in the war, a lost cause.’ Once Britain and France were determined to pursue a policy of non-intervention in the war, despite ample evidence of a huge German and Italian presence in Spain, the Spanish Republic was effectively doomed.

Review of Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia


It is fitting that Homage to Caledonia, Daniel Gray’s book on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, begins with the funeral of Steve Fullarton, the last remaining Scot to have fought with the International Brigades in Spain. This book acts as a testament, not just for the more than 550 men and women from Scotland who risked their lives in Spain, but also for those who stayed behind in Scotland and campaigned for the beleagured Spanish Republic. Gray’s deep sympathy with his subject is manifest, yet this is a serious, scholarly work.

The book’s first section on the volunteers draws strongly on Ian MacDougall’s excellent 1986 study, Voices from the Spanish Civil War. As Gray explains, the reasons that lay behind the determination of so many Scots to go to Spain are not hard to find. He paints a clear picture of the dire poverty of many working class Scots and the ensuing atmosphere of strikes and protests that led many to join the Communist Party. It is a political journey that took in hunger marches, anti-Blackshirt demonstrations and the long – and often one-way- trip to Spain.

Gray’s descriptions of the horrifying battles of Jarama and Brunete in 1937, though brief, effectively capture the lack of preparation and the awful shock that the volunteers faced in Spain. Further chapters examine the daily grind in Spain and the brutal experiences of those held in Franco’s prisoner-of-war camps. The work of medical services in Spain is not overlooked, with one chapter describing the role of the ‘misguided’ Scottish Ambulance unit. Gray describes how four volunteers left the unit in disgust, following suspicions that its leader was using it as a cover to evacuate Nationalist sympathisers from Spain.

The book’s second section turns to ‘Scotland’s War’, the home front. Gray examines of the role of Scottish women, such as the Conservative MP Katherine Atholl, ‘the Red Duchess’, in raising funds and campaigning for the beleaguered Spanish Republic. He also outlines the huge importance of family politics, evidenced by the extraordinary Murray family, three of whom went to Spain whilst their five sisters stayed at home campaigning. As Gray says, ‘anti-fascism often ran in families, who supported each other in the shared belief that no death was in vain, no matter the personal pain a parent or sibling might feel.’ (p.52)

Whilst Gray’s work naturally focuses on the Scottish supporters of Republican Spain, he does not forget the Scottish ‘Friends of National Spain.’ Far-fetched stories in the right-wing press north of the border mirrored those in England: for example, Grays recounts how both the Catholic Herald and Glasgow Observer claimed that the Republican government had created a battalion of prostitutes to defend Madrid. Gray brings to life the various right-wing fanatics, such as Major-General Sir Walter Maxwell-Scott, Walter Scott’s great-great grandson, who alleged in March 1937 that 50 000 ‘workers of the world’ were fighting for the Republic.

Gray concludes the section with the tale of ‘Scotland’s other left’, the parties who, with the Communists, supported the Republic. The chapter’s main concern is the Independent Labour Party, whose four MPs were all Scots. Of the Scottish volunteers in Spain, perhaps as many as 100 were members of the ILP, who divided themselves between the Catalan POUM militia (in which George Orwell famously served) and the International Brigades. The sectarianism between the CP and ILP in Scotland mirrored that in Spain; as Gray says, ‘the politics of Catalonia had been imported by Caledonia.’ (p.145)

Gray’s final section is a collection of essays on individuals and themes of Scottish interest. The first two subjects, the ILP volunteer Bob Smillie and the Anarchist Ethel Macdonald, have both been covered in detail by Tom Buchanan and Chris Dolan respectively. The only note of real controversy here is that Gray repeats the accusation that Smillie was kicked to death by SIM agents during his interrogation. However, as Tom Buchanan has argued, the lack of conclusive evidence suggests that this case must remain not proven.

Gray’s chapter on the Aragon campaigns of 1937 and 1938 include a number of well-chosen vignettes, giving a powerful sense of the Scot’s experiences in Spain. Gray provides an extremely moving description of the terrible last days of the battalion in September 1938, in which nearly 200 volunteers were killed or wounded in just three days of desperate and bloody fighting.

The issue of dissent and discipline is now an important part of any study of the foreign volunteers in Spain. Obviously Russia, via the Communist Party, had a very powerful influence on the volunteers, particularly on their attitudes to the Barcelona May days and the POUM. However, Gray believes that ‘this should not … detract from the credibility of the 35 000 people from around the world who travelled to Spain of their own volition.’ (p.193)

Gray concludes his study with an examination of the legacy of the Scottish supporters of the Spanish Republic. As Gray argues passionately, the Spanish episode remains something to be proud of; ‘a glorious, if often tragic, chapter in Scotland’s unwritten history.’ (p.211)

This review first appeared in Family and Community History, 13:2, November 2010, pp.149-150.

Review essay of Michael Petrou’s Renegades

Michael Petrou's Renegades, published by UBC Press in 2008
Michael Petrou’s Renegades, published by UBC Press in 2008

A fully annotated and referenced version of this review essay appears in the History Workshop Journal, 68, Autumn 2009, pp. 251-259.

While the origins of Spain’s civil war of 1936-1939 lay within Spain itself, the course of the war and its outcome certainly did not. The support for the military rebels by Germany and Italy, and Britain and France’s refusal to assist what was a democratically elected government, effectively doomed the Spanish Republic, despite Russian support and the 35,000 men and women from around the world who volunteered to serve with the International Brigades. The role of these international volunteers in the Spanish conflict has ensured that the subject has long had resonance around the world, and been the subject of numerous studies. Initially, following the end of the civil war, many works on the International Brigades were written by veterans of the Spanish war or their ardent supporters, ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted … to be remembered’. To these determined supporters of the Spanish Republic, its heroic struggle against a barbarous invasion by Italy and Germany, and the assistance of supporters of democracy from around the world in the International Brigades, became something to be looked back on with pride, the Left’s ‘last great cause’.

Not surprisingly, many have always seen things rather differently and these rather hagiographic works have come under sustained attack for their overly uncritical portrayal of the involvement of foreigners in Spain. In studies mainly, though not uniquely, emanating from the United States, the control and authority exercised by the Communist Party, the Comintern and Stalin in Spain has been doggedly portrayed as much more significant than an attempt simply to provide the Spanish Republicans with military support. To many, Stalin’s role in the creation and the control of the Brigades was as much political as military, a microcosm of the Communist International’s real goal in Spain, that is, to bring it under Communist (and thus Russian) control. An archetypal example is R. Dan Richardson’s Comintern Army,  in which Richardson argues strongly that the Brigades ‘were a significant political, ideological and propaganda instrument which could be – and was – used by the Comintern for its own purposes, not only inside Spain but on the larger world stage’.

In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades came under new and detailed scrutiny from researchers, many of whom remained deeply suspicious of Stalin’s role in Spain.

Herbert Romerstein’s Heroic Victims: Stalin’s Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War (1994) and, more recently, Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (2001), edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary M. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, are typical. Both books made extensive use of the Moscow material to argue that the Comintern (or Stalin or the Communist Party, rarely differentiating between the three) exercised an iron hold over the Brigades, using them as a tool to further Soviet interests and ruthlessly suppressing any deviation from the official Party line. These commentators argue (somewhat anachronistically) that Stalin supported the Republic, not so much because he wished to prevent Spain becoming another fascist state, but in order to establish a ‘People’s Democracy’, along the line of the later eastern European states.

However, works taking a less hostile view of the role of the Brigades have also made good use of the Moscow material, such as Rémi Skoutelsky’s detailed 1998 study of the French contingent which preceded his 2005 work on the International Brigades in general, Novedad en el frente. Works on the predominantly English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade have also flourished, with Peter Carroll’s 1994 study of the American volunteers, Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, blazing the trail. My own British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2004) followed James Hopkins’s rather less sympathetic book on the same subject, Into the Heart of the Fire: the British in the Spanish Civil War (1994).

The publication of Michael Petrou’s Renegades now completes a set of works on the English-speaking battalions in the Fifteenth Brigade drawing substantially on the Moscow material. It is also the fourth study to be published on the Canadian volunteers, following Victor Hoar’s The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, William Beeching’s Canadian Volunteers, Spain 1936-1939 and Mark Zuehlke’s Gallant Cause. Of the three, Hoar’s 1969 book has probably been the standard reference work for the Canadians, even though it was published before the release of the Moscow archive.

Like recent studies of other nationalities in the Brigades, Petrou makes use of the Moscow material to provide a detailed statistical analysis of the volunteers’ socio-economic and political backgrounds. Much of the picture of the Canadians that emerges is very similar to that of the British and Americans. The Canadian volunteers were overwhelmingly working-class and approximately three-quarters were Communist Party members. However, they were slightly older than their American and British comrades, with over half aged over thirty. And in a marked difference with the British in particular, a large proportion were unemployed and many were transient workers, often of no fixed abode. As Petrou states, ‘few Canadian volunteers lived in the same place for long’ and he argues convincingly that the transient nature of the Canadians impacted strongly on their motivations for volunteering to fight in Spain. Furthermore, the majority of the Canadian volunteers were not born in Canada, with more than three-quarters hailing from central European countries such as Ukraine, Hungary, Finland and Poland. Clearly, for these immigrants

“A blow against fascism in Spain would be a blow against the Nazis in Germany, the Poles in ‘West Ukraine’, or the ‘Whites’ in Finland… In Spain, the immigrant volunteers saw the roots and the reflections of their own injustices, and a way to reverse them.” (Petrou, Renegades,  pp. 37-8.)

Interestingly, this created a choice (and tension) for the ‘immigrant army’ when in Spain: about half chose to fight in units comprising volunteers of their original nationalities, rather than in the designated Canadian George Washington and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalions.

It may seem surprising that Petrou only devotes fifty or so pages to the central story, the events in Spain itself. This has earned him criticism from the author of an earlier work on the Canadians, but Petrou’s aim was perhaps to concentrate  on new material and issues, rather than retreading old ground. This is no easy task of course, with four books in the last ten years on the Fifteenth International Brigade. Since Canadians were  part of the same military unit and as some Canadians were actually fighting within the American Lincoln Battalion, their story is inevitably very similar.

Like all the Internationals, the Canadians suffered terrible losses in Spain. According to Petrou’s figures, of the 1,700 Canadians who fought in Spain about 400 were killed. The Canadians were ill-prepared and equipped when they first arrived at the Jarama front in February 1937 and more than 100 volunteers were killed or wounded on their first taste of combat. The situation did not improve greatly throughout the war, with the International Brigades thrown into battle where it was fiercest. Whilst members of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion may have received three months training (the longest period for any International Brigade unit), they still suffered from the same shortages that all Republicans endured. With other members of the Fifteenth International Brigade, the Canadians were decimated at the battle of Brunete in July 1937. When they were eventually withdrawn in October 1938, only thirty-five Canadians were left standing.

The third part of Petrou’s book addresses a subject of much contention amongst scholars: discipline in the International Brigades (or, as he entitles it, crime and punishment) and the role of the Communist Party. There is no doubt that a harsh regime existed in the Brigades and critics of Soviet intervention in Spain portray this rigid discipline not as a reaction to the war, but as an extension of Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union. As R. Dan Richardson argues, ‘The mentality of political suspicion, hatred, terror and murder that was then running its grotesque and bloody course in the Soviet Union and that cast its spell throughout the Comintern spilled over into Spain and the International Brigades’. Likewise, James Hopkins claims that ‘Stalin had every intention of achieving effective dictatorship in Spain but behind an anti-fascist façade’.

The assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of volunteers held in the Moscow files have been widely used to support this view. And Petrou also makes considerable use of this material, which certainly makes uneasy reading. Senior figures in the Brigade make frequent accusations of a lack of discipline, of drunkenness and of desertion. Portrayals of volunteers as ‘excellent at the front, but politically undeveloped’ recur. However, as the American historian Cary Nelson has pointed out, the – often highly derogatory – comments were written for Party officials back home, and remarks should be seen in context. The volunteers had at best, limited military experience, and were thrown into a brutal and desperate war where the likelihood of death or serious injury was undeniable. It is perhaps not surprising that a number of individuals failed to measure up to the Party’s strict criteria, and reacted to the stresses of war by drinking excessively or deserting.

Canadians in Spain received various punishments for crimes committed there. One hundred and seventeen Canadian deserters are listed in the Moscow files. Desertion was undoubtedly a major problem in the Brigades and contributed  to some commentators’ perceived disaffection with the leadership and the conditions in Spain.However, desertions were not usually a reaction to the political organization of the battalion, but to the high casualty rates, the lack of leave and the small chance of repatriation. As Petrou states, ‘many of the deserters did not want to quit the war so much as they needed a break’. Many deserters later returned to the front lines, though a number did aim to return home, particularly those who had been under the impression that they would be repatriated after six months service. In a sense, the repatriation problem was irreconcilable, for there was a clear contradiction between the Brigaders as ‘volunteers’ and as members of the Republican army. As one British volunteer later remarked, ‘My sisters just wanted to come to bring me back. And I had to tell them in a letter that while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out’.

Yet it would be naïve to deny that some Canadian volunteers (just as in other units) expressed dissatisfaction with the influence of the Party in the brigades. As Petrou states, ‘The men knew that those who led them were too often given leading positions because of their party connections rather than military skill and experience’. And it is certainly true that the domination of the Brigades by Communists, both in numerical terms and in the command structure, determined that political dissenters, particularly those perceived as ‘Trotskyists’ (a catch-all term for leftists who did not subscribe to the Communist viewpoint), were treated with suspicion. Within military units political and military conformism were regarded as a necessity to win a war in which they were fighting a desperate fight to the death. Not surprisingly, paranoia about potential fifth-columnists was widespread. Thus, as a Canadian agent in the communist-dominated (and Soviet NKVD influenced) Republican secret police, the Servicio de Investigación Militar, admitted, the SIM had ‘an agent in every company and an informant in every platoon’. There is no doubt that Soviet influence within the Brigades provided the USSR with invaluable resources for espionage, including passports and recruits. Allegedly Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, travelled to Mexico using the passport of a Canadian Brigader.

Petrou shows that some Canadian volunteers clearly resented the hierarchical structure of the brigades, and that a small number were singled out and labelled as ‘Trotskyists’. However, these individuals were by no means always punished. As the political assessments make clear, political weakness did not necessarily correlate with military weakness, and even the most rigid political commissars sometimes recognized this. Unfortunately, the Brigade leadership demanded both, and occasionally over-reacted. In June 1938 the Brigade leadership warned of a ‘violent campaign’ by English-speaking volunteers against the Brigade leadership in general and André Marty (French commander of the International Brigades) in particular. In fact, as Petrou rightly points out, this was just an exaggerated and insensitive reaction to gripes following the retreats during the spring of 1938, when a huge offensive by Francoist forces split the Republic in two. In general, Petrou acknowledges, ‘letters home and to their commissars and commanding officers suggest they were much more concerned with missing mail, food and cigarettes than with politics’. As one Canadian volunteer succinctly pointed out, ‘Well, shit, we were in the trenches most of the time’.

Other disputes involving Canadian volunteers and their superiors can be seen to have been as much cultural as political. There was a great deal of intolerance between the various national contingents in the Fifteenth International Brigade. Arguments between the Irish volunteers and the British in January 1937 are well documented, as is the rivalry between the American and British volunteers. This was exacerbated by the overwhelmingly American leadership of the Brigade who, according to a report by an (American) Political Commissar, ‘demonstrated a feeling of superiority… towards the Canadian, Latin American, Spanish and Negro comrades’. The Canadians clearly resented the American influence. One Canadian volunteer complained about the Brigade being run by ‘a clique of American Jews’; and many other disparaging remarks were made about the Americans, whom some Canadians felt to be rather less hardy than themselves. As one Canadian acidly observed, ‘I think most of them would starve to death in a grocery store’.

It is probably the case, as Petrou states, that ‘the natural irreverence of the Canadian volunteers put them at odds with their commanders’. One Canadian volunteer, when asked by a political commissar whether he liked his morning coffee, replied, ‘It depends… If I’m politically developed, comrade commandante, the coffee is very good. But if I am not politically developed, it tastes like horse piss’. Another, in the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion, ‘asked what was the most outstanding thing he had noticed since leaving North America, described a recent bowel movement’. That some volunteers were able to respond thus flippantly and insubordinately suggests, perhaps, that dissent and insubordination in the Brigades were rather better tolerated than some critics would admit.

This is not to deny that discipline was not, on occasion, extremely brutal. It is beyond any doubt that several Canadians were executed in Spain. As Petrou says, ‘it is a fact that “problem volunteers” were occasionally taken on a midnight walk and shot in the back of the head’, and he cites four Canadians shot in the spring of 1938, in the desperate aftermath of the retreats. Nevertheless executions were rare in the Fifteenth Brigade, even though execution for acts of desertion or rape would have been the norm in most armies of that time. And the International Brigades were run on Soviet military lines, with a much more brutal tradition towards offenders.

Most minor misdemeanours were treated within the battalion by demotions, or deductions of pay or time in the guardhouse, though some unfortunate volunteers ended up in the Republican prison at Castelldefels, or the ‘re-education’ Camp Lukacs, where prisoners were often badly treated, ill-fed and held without trial. Other miscreants could be transferred to disciplinary units, usually referred to as engineers’, fortification, or labour battalions. In Petrou’s view, these were ‘a convenient means to get rid of problem volunteers’, as the chance of survival in these units was slim. However, it should be remembered that their chances would hardly have been better fighting in the Brigades themselves. It is important to keep the punishments in perspective. A number of volunteers did suffer harsh and sometimes unfair punishment, but Petrou is right to point out that ‘how International Brigade leadership reacted to desertions and other offences varied greatly’. Only 150 Canadians in total were in fact punished in Spain which, considering the pressures placed on untrained volunteers with a seemingly ingrained mistrust of authority, is perhaps not that surprising.

Just as it is a mistake to portray the volunteers simplistically as ‘heroic victims’, as Petrou recognizes, it would also be wrong to see the volunteers as Stalin’s foot soldiers in a ‘Comintern Army’. The Brigades were, first and foremost, a reaction by anti-fascists around the world to what they saw as another country being swallowed up by a fascist tide sweeping across Europe. This response, it is important to remember, began before the involvement of the Comintern in the formal creation of the International Brigades. As Petrou notes,

“Built on a communist foundation, but with wider leftist and even mainstream support, the brigades were a tangible and stirring symbol of support for an anti-fascist cause that was not explicitly linked to the Soviet Union.” (Petrou, Renegades,  p. xvii.)

This is not to downplay the role of the Communist Party in the Brigades. As Petrou has demonstrated with the Canadians, the Communist Party both organized and paid for almost all the volunteers to travel to Spain. But how else would the Canadian volunteers have managed to get there? Likewise, it is important to remember that, ‘though most were members of the Communist Party of Canada, they were not ordered to fight by the party. They made a choice’. Volunteers were not ‘the dupes of Moscow’, they were mostly determined anti-fascists who chose to join the Communist Party, rather than Party members told to go and fight. Petrou cites the example of ‘Constant [who] was not a communist when he volunteered to join the International Brigades in early 1937, but he clearly identified himself as and anti-fascist. Most Canadians in Spain saw themselves in the same way’. As with the British, many Canadians were not Party members when they volunteered for Spain; others joined the party shortly before leaving, or in Spain itself. While in Spain most volunteers referred to themselves as anti-fascists, whatever their particular affiliation. In fact, volunteers were instructed to label themselves as such in order to prevent them being singled out if captured. This also served Communist Party interests in that it was used to validate the claim that the Brigades were an example of Popular Frontism in action, a coming together of anti-fascists from around the world and across the political system to defend Spanish democracy. Undoubtedly, national parties downplayed the number of party members amongst volunteers to boost the image of a popular front against fascism.

It simply is not possible to talk of a homogenous mass of Communist volunteers. Though most volunteers accepted the ‘Moscow line’ during their time in Spain, they were not all blind adherents or ‘true believers’. As Petrou demonstrates, the Party did not exercise absolute control over the Canadian volunteers, just as (others have shown) they did not exercise absolute control of other battalions in the Fifteenth International Brigade. While in Spain the volunteers acknowledged what many commentators seem to ignore; that the Republic was involved in a fight to the death and that, as George Orwell himself recognized, ‘war is bloody’. The myth of the ‘last great cause’ has prevented many from accepting that the imprisonment of insubordinates and the callous treatment of deserters were not necessarily symptoms of the ‘Stalinization’ of Republican Spain, but should be seen as the desperate reaction of the Republican army in a bitter and, ultimately, fruitless struggle for its very survival.