Volunteers in Syria and the Spanish Civil War
In May 2013 an article entitled, ‘Homage to Latakia’ appeared in the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine Maclean’s. Written by historian and journalist, Michael Petrou, the piece argued passionately for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds and drew comparisons with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when the western powers had refused to intervene. However, in the six months since the article appeared – chemical weapons inspections aside – the west has not shown any great enthusiasm for doing so.
While debates on the advisedness – or not – of intervention continue, so does a tendency, within the media in particular, to view the Syrian conflict through the prism of the Spanish Civil War. As with many of these comparative exercises, while it’s interesting to engage in, I’m not convinced how useful it actually is.
There are certainly parallels which can be drawn; the most glaring being that in both Syria and Spain foreign powers provided significant military support, while the western powers watched on. The disparate and fragile nature of the coalition facing Assad’s military junta seems, on the surface, to echo Spain, but here too we should exercise caution. (It seems to me the situation in Egypt is actually a closer parallel, where a military coup was launched against a legally elected government).
The most recent attempt to compare Syria with Spain was on 24 November 2013, when I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend (you can listen to my brief interview by clicking the audio-player above). The interviewer, Shaun Ley, was particularly interested to know, first, why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain, given that it was a country of which most of them knew very little and, second, in the light of the experiences of those returning from Spain seventy-five years ago, how any survivors from the 200 or so Britons presently fighting in Libya might be viewed on their return.
Answering the first question is straightforward and clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of comparing British Islamic jihadists fighting in Syria with the men and women who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The overwhelming majority of volunteers in Spain were there because they had watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism across Europe in general and in Britain in particular. For these anti-fascists, determined to do what they could to halt the fascist tide, Spain was just the latest battlefield in the wider war against fascism. As George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, explained in a letter home to his family:
“Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.”
Interestingly, Shaun’s second question did tease out one similarity. As I explained, when the veterans of the Spanish war returned to Britain in December 1938, they faced grave suspicion from many within the British government and security services. Though the government recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting volunteers for Spain under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, this should not be seen as a general sympathy for their cause within the British establishment. On the contrary, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked and others described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. Whether any of the 400 or so British Muslims fighting in Syria will ever return to Britain is not clear. However, it is probably safe to say that, if they do, the British security services will view them with every bit as much suspicion. In 1938 the veterans were described as having been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’; in 2013 they will have been ‘radicalised’. The language may be different but, in this aspect at least, the experiences of the two utterly different groups of volunteers may be very much the same.