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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
James Hopkins’ new work follows three earlier books on the role and experiences of British volunteers in Spain, all of which, as Hopkins argues, have been determined to portray the British Battalion, and the Communist Party, in a positive light. The ex-Daily Worker journalist Bill Rust and the ex-volunteers Frank Ryan and Bill Alexander are thus “keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered”. Hopkins attempts to redress some of the oversights and biases of these earlier accounts of the British volunteers, a task considerably eased by the opening up of the large archive in Moscow, on which his work draws heavily.
Hopkins divides his work into two main sections: the first examines the social, political and cultural climate of Britain in the 1930s in which the volunteers motivations can be set; the second assesses the experiences of the volunteers in Spain. Part one is itself divided into two sections: the first looking at middle-class ‘thinkers’, the second at ‘proletarian intellectuals’. The former is an area that has been well studied: how ‘writers took sides’ and the role of British middle class intellectuals such as Orwell and Spender has been written about in great detail. Hopkins argues that despite the influx of middle-class intellectuals into the Communist Party during the 1930s, they were to some extent seen as outsiders; that the alliance between working-class and middle-class communists was somewhat uneasy, at best.
Part two provides much more of fresh interest. Hopkins here presents a detailed examination of working-class intellectual culture in the 1930s, explaining the development and dissemination of left-wing political ideology that led to more than two thousand volunteering for a war in a country ‘of which they knew little’. Hopkins suggests it found three main forms. First, newspapers, in particular the Communist Daily Worker; second literature, not just Marx and Engels, but also the works of Robert Blatchford, Robert Tresswell and Jack London, and third, the oral tradition of street orators: many of the speakers, and many of their audience, ended up in Spain. Hopkins also cites other influences: the influence of religious non-conformism, the alternative ‘English historical tradition’ of Wat Tyler, Thomas Paine and the Chartist movement, the influence of the Lenin School (though only the elite such as Will Paynter and Bob Cooney were sent to Moscow) and, finally, a tradition of internationalism, which Hopkins traces back to the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign of 1917. To Hopkins, the crucial factor that differentiated the British working-class volunteers from their contemporaries was that they were ‘thinkers’, products of ‘an influential working class political culture’. Thus the much-derided view of the conflict as ‘the poets’ war’, has been represented by Hopkins instead as ‘the intellectuals’ war’.
How representative his view is of the battalion as a whole is not clear. Hopkins cites a number of volunteers, but they are only a small proportion of the volunteers. His examples all tend to be Communists, so this ‘plebeian intellectualism’ may be more typical of the Communist volunteers rather than the non-Communists who, by Hopkins’ own estimate, number at least half of the British volunteers. And, as he admits, “for the most part, the British volunteers were not Marxist revolutionaries. Rather, they were men of the left who saw themselves as “the standard-bearers of British Democracy in Spain.””
The second part of the book centres on a trenchant critique of the Communist Party’s role in Spain. Hopkins claims that the only route to promotion in the British Battalion was through the CP and it is the (by definition mainly communist) leadership, at battalion level and higher, that comes in for particular criticism. Hopkins supports Jason Gurney’s criticisms of the role of the political commissars, claiming their propaganda was misguided and they often ill-advisedly drifted into military, rather than political, affairs. He also accuses senior members of the British Battalion of complicity in the suppression of the POUM. Hopkins conclusion is that the leadership of the party, both at national and international level, cynically used the International Brigades to further the aims of the Communist Party, which were inextricably intertwined with the foreign policy of the USSR. Thus the accusation that appeared in the contemporary press that the volunteers were ‘dupes’ returns.
Having argued how he believes the leadership ‘sold out’ the rank and file, Hopkins goes on to claim that the party deliberately covered up the level of discontent by maintaining that deserters had been wounded, and that political ‘unreliables’ were at best imprisoned, and at worst deliberately sent into hazardous areas where there was a high likelihood of being killed. Hopkins completes his attack on the role of the Communist party by examining the ‘true believers’ in Spain, the advocates of ‘revolutionary expediency’. Hopkins believes that there was extensive NKVD and SIM (the Spanish military police) interference in the running of the battalion and that on several occasions, CP representatives of lowly rank appear to have held more influence than the battalion leaders. Here Hopkins’ summary is explicit in its criticism: “If the men on the battlefield sought to live their political ideals on the battlefields of Spain, they were betrayed by the party that made it possible for them to be there.
Few volunteers agree with Hopkins’ conclusions. As Fred Thomas, who fought with the Anti-Tank Battery (and who, sadly, died recently) has pointed out, Hopkins sometimes places too much reliance on volunteers’ testimonies, which as he himself would admit, are often somewhat subjective and impressionistic. For example, Hopkins readiness to accept Fred Copeman’s claim that he created an anti-tank battery composed of “good looking students” to keep the middle and working class Communists separated in a kind of apartheid, seems ill judged. Likewise, the reliability of the testimony of Bill Griffiths, on which Hopkins draws heavily, has also been questioned by ex-volunteers. However, despite these and other criticisms, the value of Hopkins’ work is without doubt. His extensive research, particularly his careful analysis of the Moscow files, ensures that this is a major work which adds substantially to the knowledge and understanding of the experiences of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
This review first appeared in The Journal of Contemporary Iberian History, 13:2, 2000, pp.125-127.