For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
Talk Radio's Home Schooling
On 12 June 2020 during Britain's Coronavirus lockdown, I was asked to contribute to Talk Radio's 'Home-Schooling' segment.
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:
When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.
The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.
The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.
Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.
Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’
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.
Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.
When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.
Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.
From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.
Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.
After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.
Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.
For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.
In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’
Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.
George Wheeler one of the last survivors of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil war has died, aged 91.
Born in Battersea in 1914, the son of a committed socialist, he left school at 14 before taking an apprenticeship and working as a joiner in Brentford for a company that made spare parts for Royal Navy ships.
Following the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936, his father, a Labour councillor, became an active member of the local Aid Spain Committee. Inspired by a speech given by Aneurin Bevan at a rally in Trafalgar Square in early 1938, George decided to volunteer for the Republican forces. Assisted by the Communist Party, he departed for Spain in May 1938, accompanied by, among others, the trade unionist Jack Jones.
Within three months, he and his comrades in the British Battalion were thrown into the dramatic republican Ebro offensive which astonished those who had written off the Spanish loyalists. However, Franco’s superior forces – supplied with huge amounts of materiel by Hitler and Mussolini, despite an international agreement not to intervene in the conflict – soon reversed the Republican gains. After seeing many of his comrades killed or wounded, George was finally captured by Franco’s forces on 23 September 1938.
He was fortunate not to be summarily executed and was imprisoned in the notorious PoW camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. Kept in appalling conditions, many prisoners died from a combination of disease, malnutrition and the frequent vicious beatings. Finally released in April 1939, George returned to London, work and marriage to Winifred, who died ten years ago, before continuing his anti-fascist fight in the Second World War.
Although he was in a reserved occupation, he became such a thorn in the side of the management at the factory where he spoke out against the waste of raw materials, that he was released to join the army. George became an army instructor and was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train local troops. Promoted to Regimental Sergeant-Major, he was due to travel with his troops to Burma, but he caught malaria and was unable to travel.
Surviving the Second World War, he resumed his work as a carpenter and became an active trade unionist. After his wife’s death, George renewed his interest in the International Brigades and, to his obvious delight, his graphic account of his Spanish experiences, To Make the People Smile Again, was published in 2003.
Lawrence George Wheeler, carpenter: born Mitcham, Surrey 21 March 1914; married 1940 Winifred McDougal (died 1993); died Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.
Len Crome was Chief Medical Officer in the 35th division of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War; and a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Military Corps during the Second World War- earning the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.
He was born Lazar Krom in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1909, but in 1926 he departed for Scotland, where his father had business interests, to study medicine at Edinburgh University When, in July 1936, four years after he graduated, civil war broke out in Spain, Crome viewed the rising as an attempt to instil another Fascist dictatorship in Europe. Though not a member of the Communist Party, Crome, like many others with leftist sympathies, on hearing that volunteers were leaving Britain to join the republican forces, decided to join them.
He wrote offering his services to Harry Pollitt, who suggested that he contact Sir Daniel Stevenson, a rich Scottish mine-owner, who was organising a Scottish Ambulance Unit. Despite reservations about Stevenson (Crome was taken aback to discover Stevenson was the proud owner of a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler), he joined the ambulance unit and arrived in Spain in December 1936. However, he did not remain with it for long; in March 1937, amidst rumours of members of the unit’s involvement in abetting the escape of rebel sympathisers from Madrid, Crome and three others left to join the International Brigades.
Len Crome became, Assistant Chief Medical Officer for the 35th Republican Division, of which the British Battalion was also part, until in August 1937 he replaced “Dr Dubois”, the Chief Medical Officer (Mieczyslaw Domanski, a Pole), who had been killed by a sniper: Displaying exceptional courage, Crome, with “General Walter”, the divisional Commander (another Pole Karol Swierczewski), personally retrieved Dubois’s body from no man’s land.
In his new role, Crome demonstrated great competence and imagination: by placing mobile hospitals as near the front as possible- necessarily increasing the risk to Crome and his comrades from enemy fire- trauma to the patients was dramatically reduced. As Jim Fyrth’s history of the British medical unit in Spain, The Signal was Spain: the Spanish Aid Movement in Britain 1936-39 (1986), acknowledges,
Wounded men in Crome’s command were getting better treatment than they would have been given at the time in famous London teaching hospitals.
When the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938, Crome returned to London, where he resumed his work as a GP and taught first aid to ARP workers. He also joined the Communist Party, impressed by what he had seen of the efforts organising the resistance against Franco in Spain. He continued to look after brigaders: with the help of Jack Brent, the Secretary International Brigade Association, he successfully, lobbied the US Ambassador to expedite the release of brigaders from camps in Vichy France.
In 1941 Crome was drafted into the British army as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to North Africa. Whilst helping many survivors of the International Brigades who had escaped there, Crome wrote an article in The Lancet complaining that medical lessons learned in Spain were not being fully utilised by the RAMC.
In the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943-44 Crome won the Military Cross for showing extraordinary bravery by carrying on working despite heavy enemy fire. His citation reads:
During the battle for the crossing of the River Gari, shortly after the bridge ‘AMAZON’ was established, on 13 May 1944, this officer established an A.D.S. [Advanced Dressing Station] on the west side of the river, having worked there himself from the time the bridge was established, until he decided it was safe to bring his section across. The section location was subjected to very heavy intermittent mortar fire for the next 48 hours, during which time an infantry A.D.S. nearby was forced to withdraw. Capt. Crome, by his courage and example, was instrumental in keeping the medical chain of evacuation open as established, and his conduct is worthy of the highest praise.
Two months later Crome was presented to King George VI during his visit to Italy. The King apologised to Crome for not being able to receive him in Buckingham Palace and invited him to “drop in next time you are in London”.
After the war Crome returned to Britain and trained as a pathologist at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Paddington (working under Alexander Fleming), and as a neuropathologist at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1956 he joined the Fountain Hospital in Tooting as pathologist before moving to the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton as an expert in paediatric neuropathology.
Crome retired from the NHS at 65, though he carried on with locum work before accepting a post at the Wilhelmina Geisthuis Hospital in Amsterdam. Here he added Dutch to his impressive repertoire of languages, which included Russian, Latvian, Polish, German, English, Spanish and French.
Crone’s last position was at the Institute of Laryngology, specialising in the neuropathology of mental retardation. With J. Stern, he was the author in 1967 of the textbook The Pathology of Mental Retardation, which went into a second edition in 1972. After finally retiring at 75, he wrote Unbroken: resistance and survival in the concentration camps (1988), the story of his brother Jonny Hüttner’s resistance and survival through nine years of imprisonment in Nazi camps.
During the 1990s Crome continued to look after the interests of the International Brigaders as the Chairman of the International Brigade Association and was also the Vice-Chair of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR from 1969 to 1976, before becoming National Vice-President.
Len Crome said that he was proud of having been in the International Brigades but, a self-effacing man, he resisted what he considered to be the glorification of the brigades in general and his role in particular. However, others do not doubt his worth. As Sam Lesser, one of his fellow International Brigaders, remarked,
War is a bloody business, and Len saw more bloodiness than most. But all who were treated by Len Crome and his team knew that everything that could be done for them would be.
Lazar Krom (Leonard Crome), medical practitioner born Dvinsk, Latvia 14 April 1909; MC 1944; married 1940 Helen Hüttner (died 1995; one son, one adopted son); died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 5 May 2001.
This obituary of Dr Len Crome originally appeared in the Independent (review section) 11 May 2001, p. 6.
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.