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.
Few people will look back on 2020 with much fondness, but the year did at least provide some solace for those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War. Giles Tremlett’s comprehensive account of the International Brigades was published in November, followed shortly afterwards by Emmet O’Connor and Barry McLoughlin’s study of the Irish volunteers. Pipping them both to the finishing line though, were two studies of the Republican Army by Alexander Clifford. Both are essentially military histories; the first, The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War is a study of the army as a whole, while the second, Fighting for Spain, centres on the International Brigades. Time will tell, but I imagine most readers will plump for one or the other, rather than both, for there is inevitably some degree of overlap. Nonetheless, they are different books, both in terms of content and approach.
The People’s Army analyses the role of the Republican army during three offensives in 1937: the battle of Brunete in July, the attack on Belchite during the Aragon offensive of the autumn and the attack on the remote provincial capital of Teruel in the winter. For Clifford, the crucial exchange was at Brunete when, he suggests, ‘the war stood at a crossroads’. Clifford’s summary of what went wrong at during the battle chimes with other studies, blaming ‘inadequate training, a poorly executed plan and a lack of tactical nous and timing from commanders.’ As a telling example of the shortcomings of the military commanders, the author recounts how the Republican General, Valentine Gonzalez, known as El Campesino, was passed a map of the Brunete battlefield: ‘Without looking at it, El Campesino spread it out on the table, face down, to serve as a tablecloth.’ Clifford’s assessment of the subsequent fighting in Aragon and Teruel is just as critical. Both saw a disastrous loss of troops, materiél and morale which Franco was able to capitalise on in the spring of 1938, fatally cleaving the Republic in two.
While The People’s Army limits itself to one year of the war, Fighting for Spain follows a more established format, tracing the experiences of the foreign volunteers through the course of the conflict. It begins with a familiar overview of the composition of the Brigades and what lay behind the volunteers’ decisions to go to Spain, before turning to an evaluation of their performance as soldiers. Clifford pushes back against some recent criticisms, reiterating that the 11 and 15 International Brigades in particular (together with General Lister’s famed Communist troops) were not only the finest units in the Republican Army but, at their best, equal to any of Franco’s troops. Yes, the Internationals suffered horrendous casualties, but this was not because they were ineffective or because they were sacrificed as ‘cannon fodder’, but because they were used as ’shock troops’, thrown into the heart of battle.
Nonetheless, Clifford is surely right to state that ‘The Republican People’s Army will not go down in the annals of history as one of the world’s great fighting forces.’ As Peter Carroll has observed, raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force.’ Yet the Republicans managed to fight on for nearly three years, even though many observers had written off their chances during the first few months of the war. Why did the Republic manage to hold on, when so much was against it? Franco’s conservative tactics and obsession with the capture and control of territory certainly played a part, but also, Clifford argues, because the Republican Army was actually a better fighting force than some historians might believe. As he says, despite all the obstacles it faced, ‘the Republic developed from being defended by peasants armed with swords and shotguns to having a regular fighting force capable of launching bold combined-arms offensives using modern military hardware and infiltration tactics.’
His insightful assessment of the Republic’s military capacity is likely to be of interest not just to military historians. His analysis of the shortcomings of the brigadas mixtas, on which the Republican army was based, is particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s unfair to point that these are essentially popular military history books, not academic studies. Though the author makes some use of memoir material (in English) and makes reference to the RGASPI files cited in Ronald Radosh’s controversial Spain Betrayed, he nonetheless relies primarily on secondary sources. The drawback with this approach is, of course, that any errors or oversights in previous works can slip through unchallenged. In this instance Clifford greatly overstates the number of Internationals shot for desertion. He also repeats the longstanding – and unfounded – assertion that the French Communist and Commander of the International Brigades, André Marty, was personally responsible for the execution of five hundred volunteers. Fortunately, he does avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls, such as parroting the cold-war denunciation of Republican Spain as a Soviet puppet state. As he states, ‘it is self-evident that the volunteers’ fight in Spain was an attempt to preserve Republican democracy rather than establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ While both books have their particular pros and cons, I suspect that it is Fighting for Spain that would appeal more to members of ALBA. While not as comprehensive as Giles Tremlett’s recent work, or as US centred as the accounts by Peter Carroll or Adam Hochschild, Clifford manages to clearly and succinctly summarise the role of the International Brigades in Spain. In this, he is aided by numerous photos and maps and highlight boxes with details of key individuals and weaponry. But if it’s a more general background you’re after, then The People’s Army might be your preference. Perhaps the publishers, Pen and Sword, can eliminate this dilemma: would it not make sense to bundle the two books together?
This review originally appeared in August 2021 in The Volunteer.
It is now eighty years since the failed military coup which marked the beginning of the civil war in Spain. During the bitter conflict some half a million Spaniards were killed, a sombre warning of the greater slaughter to follow. For while the civil war was at its heart a Spanish tragedy, the internationalism of the war conferred on it a lasting significance beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Crucial military support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany for Franco’s Nacionales was countered – to some degree – by that from Stalin’s Russia for the Republic. Meanwhile, the western democracies did their utmost to ‘keep out of it’, making ineffectual efforts to encourage other regimes to do the same. The ‘non-intervention agreement’ (as it was called) was therefore not akin to neutrality and decisively helped the Nacionales, later openly acknowledged by the Francoist minister Pedro de Sáinz Rodríguez. Britain may have been the main guilty party, but other western democracies also bear culpability for the Republic’s defeat, including the United States. As a new book by the award-winning author Adam Hochschild reminds us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to much the same conclusion in January 1939, admitting to a cabinet meeting that the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic had been a ‘grave mistake’.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is subtitled ‘Americans in the Spanish Civil War’, though the book is not, in fact, about the 2800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. Instead, his account is told through the experiences of a select number of individuals (not all of whom are American) within the cataclysmic war in Spain. And they are select, for Hochschild’s characters are all highly-educated, middle-class writers. The notion of a poets’ (or writers’) war is clearly still attractive to writers and publishers, which neither time, nor the undoubted presence of an overwhelming proportion of manual workers among the volunteers, seems to have dispelled.
Admittedly, the author has chosen his stellar cast shrewdly, including the two most famous writers of the civil war (in English at least), Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. While Hochschild seems to have little new to say about the latter, his account of Hemingway’s participation in a guerrilla raid behind enemy lines, which clearly inspired Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls, may come as a revelation to some readers. Jordan’s real-life counterpart, the Professor of Economics and Abraham Lincoln Battalion commander, Robert Hale Merriman, also features, as does society debutante and reporter Virginia Cowles and journalist and International Brigader, Louis Fischer.
Accounts of the war’s impact on the characters’ personal relationships are a recurring theme; Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn obviously, but also Bob Merriman and his wife Marion, POUM supporters Lois and Charles Orr and the cross-Atlantic war romance between American nurse Toby Jensky and English sculptor and International Brigader, Jason ‘Pat’ Gurney, who had suffered a nervous break-down after the appalling carnage of the Jarama battle of 12-14 February 1937.
Gurney’s account of the war, like Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, has been frequently cited and retold and it’s difficult to find much within Hochschild’s account that is strikingly original. Certainly the author’s debt to earlier studies, particularly those of Paul Preston and Peter Carroll (which he generously acknowledges) is clear. So, why then, should this new book be of interest? Principally, it is because of the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. Spain in our Hearts is a rewarding and enjoyable read, for the elegant prose is littered with some of the most telling anecdotes from the literature.
It is also a pretty fair and balanced account. The author is fortunately too sophisticated to fall for the simplistic, binary notion of a war between two equally repugnant totalitarian philosophies, in which ‘Spain’ is merely a passive bystander. Nor does he make the mistake of seeing Republican Spain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, though not denying that the supplies of military materiel and the organisation of the International Brigades gave Stalin great influence. This ‘devil’s pact’ was really the only option left to the Republic, once the western democracies had refused to come to their aid.
Hochschild will, no doubt, come into some criticism for justifying what has become seen as ‘the Communist line’ regarding the argument over ‘war or revolution first’ that Orwell discusses in detail in Homage to Catalonia. Yet it is often forgotten that, after the war, Orwell himself came to the reluctant conclusion that the military necessities of the war should take precedence, though he nevertheless remained furious about the Communist Party’s use of the argument as a smokescreen for the suppression of other parties of the left. Like Orwell, Hochschild clearly has great sympathy for the POUMistas and Anarchists, yet he is not dewy-eyed, dryly observing that ‘the ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs” however splendid in theory, proved hard to enforce, especially when many workers felt that what they needed was more time off.’ (p. 146)
Balanced, of course, is not the same as neutral and Hochschild’s Republican sympathies are plain to see. Perhaps the clearest example is his illuminating account of the role of Torkild Rieber, the pro-Nazi C.E.O. of the American oil company, Texaco, in supplying millions of gallons of oil to Franco on credit. To this can be added the 12 000 trucks received by Franco from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford. As Hochschild points out, the admission by the Under-Secretary of the Spanish foreign ministry that Franco could not have won the war without U.S. trucks and U.S. oil credits reveals just how significant this contribution really was to the Nationalists’ cause.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Heart is much more than just another account of Orwell and Hemingway in Spain. It offers the reader a window into the personal, emotionally searing experiences of those who decided to make the Spanish cause their own. As Albert Camus, from whom the book’s title is drawn, wrote just after the end of the war, ‘it was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten’. Hochschild’s beautifully crafted book explains why, for them, the Spanish drama was and remained a personal tragedy.
My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
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 was, at last, able to come under detailed scrutiny from researchers.
Since the opening of the archives, a number of books have used the material in studies of the national groups within the International Brigades. The process began with Peter Carroll’s ground-breaking study of the American volunteers, published in 1998. As the material was only opened up to overseas scholars immediately prior to publication, the author did not have time to research extensively in the archives. However, he did manage to look at a number of documents and his book remains the set text on the Americans.
The following list – arranged alphabetically by country – is of the most recent studies of the various national groups within the International Brigades.
Argentina: Lucas González et al. Voluntarios de Argentina en la Guerra Civil Española. 2008.
America: Peter Carroll. Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. 1998. (Adam Hochschild’s excellent Spain in our Hearts is more recent, but is not specifically about the Lincolns)
Australia: Amira Inglis: Australians in the Spanish Civil War. 1987.
Canada: Michael Petrou. Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. 2008.
China: Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Tsou. Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España 1936-1939. 2013.
Cyprus: Paul Philippou Strongos. Spanish Thermopylæ: Cypriot Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
France: Rémy Skoutelsky. L’espoir guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires français en Espagne républicaine. Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936-1939. 2000.
Germany: Josie McLellan. Antifascism and Memory in East Germany. 2004.
Great Britain: Richard Baxell. Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. 2012.
Ireland: Robert Stradling. Crusades in Conflict: The Irish and The Spanish Civil War. 1999.
New Zealand: Mark Derby ed. Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
Scotland: Fraser Raeburn. Scots and the Spanish Civil War. 2020.
Wales: Graham Davies. You Are Legend: the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2018.
The letters are from a number of American volunteers, though most were written by Carl Geiser, a young Jewish volunteer from Ohio who became a political commissar during his time in Spain. As the letters demonstrate very clearly, Geiser was a volunteer who never lost his belief in the cause.