The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
On the Thursday and Friday evenings of this week I attended two events, in two very different settings. The first was a tour of Aldgate and Whitechapel, an area famous for its robust response to Sir Oswald Mosley’s BUF Blackshirts in the 1930s, as part of a book launch for Lydia Syson’s teen novel. The second was a lecture and discussion I took part in, alongside Jim Jump of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and cambridge post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dacia Viejo Rose, held in St John’s College of the University of Cambridge. The two events were only an hour away from each other by train but, to paraphrase the title of Lydia’s book, there was – and is – a world between them. The link between the two areas was, of course, that they were both the home of a number of Britons who served with the Republican Government’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Lydia’s novel A World Between Us opens in London’s east end on 4 October 1936. It was then the home of Britain’s largest Jewish community and was virtually under attack by the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. On Sunday 4 October, a huge anti-fascist rally was organised, which prevented Mosley’s Blackshirt thugs from marching through the area. As Lydia recounts, the experience was formative for a number of men and wome who would confront Mosley on the streets of London and Franco in the trenches of Madrid.
Cambridge, in a very different manner, was just as formative, of course and more than thirty men and women who served in Spain had studied at the university. Probably the best known, John Cornford, was killed in Spain, the day before his twenty-first birthday. Many thanks to Cambridge University’s Communist and Hispanic Societies, who jointly organised the latter event.
Antifascistas is to be translated into Spanish and published by Piedra de Rayo. The new Spanish edition will include a bibliography listing many of the works now available in Spanish on the British volunteers. It is planned to launch the new edition on 15 February 2013 at CAUM in Madrid, to coincide with the Jarama march weekend.
Proving to be a popular read, the book was co-written by Richard Baxell with Angela Jackson and Jim Jump, based on the IBMT’s successful exhibition of the same name. The English edition is still available from the IBMT at a very reasonable £10.00.
‘Clearly a labour of love, this book is packed with information, photographs, posters and artefacts, and details of the battles they fought. It’s a must, even if you’ve already read Preston et. al.’
‘Not much to say when something is so perfectly realised. Does what it says on the cover and then some. Not for the faint at heart (especially the photo on page 36) but a stunning memorial to a period in European history that should not, cannot be forgotten.’
Co-author (with Jim Jump & Angela Jackson) of ‘Antifascistas’, an exhibition and accompanying book on British and Irish volunteers and the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigade Memorial Trust, 2010
Both the exhibition and the book have been well received. The following comments are taken from review of the book on the Amazon site:
‘Not much to say when something is so perfectly realised. Does what it says on the cover and then some.’
‘Clearly a labor of love, this book is packed with information, photographs, posters and artefacts, and details of the battles they fought. It’s a must.’
This book brings together leading British and Spanish historians in an examination of key aspects and themes of the Spanish Civil War. Contributors discuss the politics of memory; recent revisionist historiography; biographies of international volunteers; the experience of nursing in Catalonia; the baptism of fire of Jarama; Britain’s blocking of aid to the Republic; Soviet intervention in the conflict; and the crimes of Franco, both during and after the war.
‘Useful compilation of the last 9 years of annual lectures of the IBMT – bringing us up to date with current thinking in the Spanish Civil War as republican memory is revisited. Useful for A Level GSCE, but more so for under/post graduate work.’
‘Looking Back at the Spanish Civil Waris a collection of the first 10 Len Crome annual lectures sponsored by the IBMT. These include Paul Preston’s tribute to the man for whom the series is dedicated, “‘No Soldier’: The Courage and Comradeship of Dr Len Crome,” describing one of the many medical personnel who gave generously to the Spanish cause and later served in World War II. As expected, the British side receives considerable treatment—essays by Richard Baxell and Angela Jackson, and Enrique Moradiellos’s “Albion’s Perfidy” about the pro-Franco response of the British government. But running through most of these essays is a strong international thread: Helen Graham’s “The Return of Republican Memory”; Ángel Vias’s “September 1936: Stalin’s Decision to Support the Spanish Republic”; Julián Casanova’s “History and Memory …
This historical work is good—have no doubt about it—and reflects the growing interest around the world in matters related to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. Partly the result of new archival discoveries, partly because of the passing of the generation that lived and fought the war, the new scholarship has effectively shifted the historical narrative closer to its original, pre-Cold War position.
Most recent writing emphasizes that the war in Spain had long, indigenous roots; stresses selfish national interests in Britain, France and the United States for the failure to prevent fascist expansion; and treats the IB volunteers as heroic anti-fascists (rather than dupes of Stalin). On these grounds, the Spanish Civil War was a fight between an elected democracy and a fascist-military rebellion rather than a war between fascism and communism (the Cold War version). Instead of seeing the Spanish war as a precursor or “dress rehearsal” for a world war, it appears as it once was seen by its contemporaries, the first battlefield of World War II.’