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.
In early August 2020 I joined Alex Clifford, author of Fighting for Spain, a new military history of the International Brigades, to talk about their role in the Spanish Civil War.
In a long-ranging discussion lasting almost two hours(!), we discussed the formation of the Brigades, to why and how so many volunteers flocked to Spain, the battles they fought, and the people who served in them. Why did these men (and some women) became History’s Most Unlikely Warriors?
The podcast was released on 7 September and can be found here.
Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.
The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.
If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.
Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.
The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.
Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:
If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.
The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.
Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).
Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.
Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.
George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.
Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).
Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.
There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!
John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012
I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.
Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.
Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.
With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion. Seb Browne’s Medicine and Conflict looks interesting but at around £100.00 for the hardback, is probably out of reach of most readers.
For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading. Angela also contributed an introduction to the most recent publication, Firing a Shot for Freedom; the memoirs of Frida Stewart (2020).
I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.
The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.
There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.
Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.
I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.
Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.
Barbara Lamplugh’s The Red Gene, published in 2019, tells the story of a young English nurse who volunteered for the Spanish Government’s medical services and fell for a Republican soldier. The story touches on the awful conditions during the civil war and the scandalous forced adoptions in Franco Spain. It was reviewed in the January 2020 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
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. The event was a Radio 3 Proms extra, presented by Clemency Burton-Hill and produced by Karen Holden.
LINE-UP OF EXTRACTS
You Who Stand at Your Doors – Randolph Swingler (CE)
George Orwell – On what the International Brigades were fighting for (CE)
Why Go to Spain? – Explanation by London volunteer, Jason Gurney (CE)
Dance of Death – W.H. Auden (CE)
The Volunteer – Cecil Day-Lewis (CE)
Excited to arrive in Spain – Nottingham volunteer Walter Gregory (CE)
General Emilio Mola – On the Rebels’ deliberate use of terror (CE)
No Pasarán – Speech by Dolores Ibárruri (YV)
Poem (Heart of the heartless world) – John Cornford to Margot Heinemann (JB)
Farewell to the International Brigades – Passage from Dolores Ibárruri’s famous speech in October 1938 (YV)
George Orwell – On the horror of war (CE)
Shortly after Unlikely Warriors was published in 2012, my publishers, Aurum Press, passed me a letter they had received from a reader wishing to contact me. He claimed to have some interesting information – and papers – relating to one of the British volunteers mentioned in my book. When I heard about the nature of the documents and the identity of the volunteer, my interest was piqued, to put it mildly.
The name of the volunteer was Ronald Malcolm Lorraine Dunbar. As anyone who has read my book (or, in fact, any book on the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War) will know, Malcolm Dunbar was the senior British ranking infantry officer in Spain. A middle-class, Cambridge-educated, homosexual aesthete, he could hardly have been a less typical volunteer. Yet, like a number of other intellectuals, in Spain he discovered a hitherto undiscovered talent for military life. Ranking only soldado (private) at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Chief of Staff of the entire 15th International Brigade at the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938. Unfortunately, the shy, taciturn Dunbar never gave any interviews on his time in Spain and information on him has always been fairly scarce, despite his high rank and illustrious record.
Not much is known about his life after Spain, either. During the Second World War Dunbar served in the British Army, but never rose above the rank of Sergeant, adding fuel to claims that veterans of the Spanish war were being discriminated against. He later worked in the Labour Research Department until, in July 1963, having apparently removed all identification from his clothing, he walked into the sea at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. A clear case of suicide on the face of it, yet intriguingly, as Vincent Brome pointed out in Legions of Babel, his (now out of print) history of the International Brigades, the coroner declared an open verdict at the inquest, rather than declaring his death to have been suicide. This, and Dunbar’s alleged relationship with the Cambridge spy, Kim Philby, have led to persistent rumours of official cover-ups and Secret Service skulduggery.
Following his death, Malcolm Dunbar’s papers, including a number of photographs, were saved by a close friend, the ballet dancer, Thérèse Langfield, whose partner contacted me. In June 2016, I finally fulfilled his wishes, when I handed over the mass of material to the Bishopsgate Institute in London, where they will be available to all. It’s a fantastic collection and I recommend it to anyone interested in the British in Spain.
Malcolm Dunbar is the subject of one of a number of biographies I am writing for a forthcoming book. Watch this space for updates.
Recent reports of British nationals leaving these shores for a foreign civil conflict carry echoes of the past. Richard Baxell (Unlikely Warriors) and Peter Day (Franco’s Friends) discuss what drove Britons to join the war in Spain – both those who fought against Franco and the members of the establishment who secretly supported him.
The discussion, entitled ‘The Spanish Civil War: Divided Britain’, was held on Wednesday 8 Oct in Cheltenham Town Hall. A number of interesting questions arose from members of a large audience which had collected, despite wind and driving rain. I’m very grateful to all who braved the weather to attend. Here are a number of the questions, together with brief summaries of our responses:
What was the attitude in Britain to the volunteers?
While there was much popular support for the volunteers, particularly those in the International Brigades, official responses tended to range from disapproval to outright hostility. It’s perhaps not surprising that parts of the British government (particularly the Foreign Office and the Admiralty) were opposed, however even the leaders of the British Labour movement and Trade Unions initially supported the policy of non-intervention in the war.
Which countries did the volunteers come from?
The 35 000 or so volunteers came from as many as 53 countries around the world. The largest groups came from France and Italy, but volunteers came from as far away as India, South America and New Zealand.
What was Stalin’s role in the civil war?
In contrast to some commentators, who argue that Stalin’s involvement in the infamous suppression of the POUM was a major cause of the Republic’s downfall, I would argue that the huge amount of military materiel – including the International Brigades- supplied by the Soviet Union was the main reason the Republic was able to survive as long as it did. Of course, it must be remembered that Stalin supported the Spanish Republic for his own reasons, certainly non out of ‘international solidarity.’
Are there any similarities between the wars in Spain then and Syria and Iraq today?
As far as I am concerned, there is none between the volunteers for the International Brigades who volunteered to fight in Spain and the fundamentalist Islamic Jihadists now waging war in Syria and Iraq. It’s true that the hostile response of the British Government to the volunteers – especially those who want to return to the UK – is an interesting parallel, but I don’t think it should be overplayed.
And, finally, the shortest question I’ve ever been asked … ‘Anarchism?’
Upon further interrogation, it conspired that the questioner was interested in the internecine struggles among the left during the civil war. Anarchist anti-centralist beliefs meant that they and the Republicans were always likely to be uneasy bedfellows. The political amnesty before the elections of February 1936 and the military coup of July essentially forced them into each others arms. While I feel that the argument expounded by, amongst others, the Communists, that the revolution would have to wait until the war was won, made obvious sense (as, in fact did Orwell), it is certainly the case that it was used as a smokescreen to justify the brutal crushing of the Anarchists and the POUM.
On 17 July 2014, I discussed the Spanish Civil War and the British volunteers with George Galloway for his programme Sputnik, for Russia Today TV. The interview was first broadcast on 19 July 2014.
This short piece on the European elections of May 2014 was written for The Spain Report.
In my recent book, Unlikely Warriors, I described the devastation wreaked by a global financial crash, and the rise of fascism and right-wing movements across Europe. Sadly, it is an all too familiar picture. However, I was not discussing the events taking place today, but eighty years ago, during the turbulent years preceding the Second World War.
The drawing of easy historical parallels is tempting and, to be frank, is often the only time when the mainstream media is interested in the views of historians. As I have mentioned previously, the most recent example is the war in Syria, which continues to be analysed through the prism of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. However, the situation in Syria is very different from Spain, and the jihadists fighting against President Bashar Hafez al–Assadare poles apart from the anti-fascist volunteers in the International Brigades. Likewise, despite some alarmist comments which have appeared on social media sites, the rise of the right in Europe in the twenty-first century is very different to that of the 1930s, however much both of them owe to a ruinous financial crash.
This is not to say that parallels cannot be made. For example, just as many volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War complained that mainstream politics appeared to offer little for working people, it is clear that many people across Europe currently feel themselves to have been politically and economically marginalised. Only two fifths of the electorate turned out to vote during the recent European elections and a large number of them probably used their vote mainly to vent their anger with the established parties. This apathy, of course, has benefited political movements of the far right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, Austria’s Freedom Party and the National Democratic Party in Germany.
In Spain, however, the collapse of the previously dominant parties – the conservative Partido Popular and the socialist PSOE – seems to have created space on the left. The strong showing of Podemos– an anti-austerity party founded only months ago – demonstrates that there can be alternatives to both the established parties and the anti-EU nationalists. They will probably now forge an alliance with similar parties, such as the Greek radical-left party Syriza, whose successful campaign was also based on opposition to the austerity programme.
The collapse of the centre and the consequent gains for parties of the right and left may superficially resemble the situation in the ‘hungry thirties’, but it hardly needs saying that, over the last eighty years, the social and political landscape of contemporary Europe has altered fundamentally. The existence of a political and economic union incorporating much of Europe is evidence enough. Not that the process has always been smooth; the EU has always faced challenges, of which the frightening possibility of war in Ukraine is but the latest. However, the leaders of far-right European movements, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Ilias Kasidiaris in Greece – let alone the discredited Nick Griffin of the British National Party – simply do not present the same threat to European democracy that Hitler and Mussolini once did.
No matter the scapegoating and poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is currently being bandied about, the mainstream parties tend to spurn overt racism – in public at least. When the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, recently declared himself unwilling to live next door to a Romanian family, he was quick to recant. We should not be complacent, and racism must be countered robustly wherever it crops up, but we should also maintain a sense of perspective. This is not history repeating, even if the success of some of the right-wing parties in Europe may appear to be both a tragedy and a farce.
To commemorate seventy-five years since the end of the Spanish Civil War – and to publicise the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors – I was invited by Robert Elms to join him on his lunchtime show on BBC London 94.9. Robert owns a house in Spain, speaks the language and has long been a supporter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Even so, he proved to be an extremely well-informed interviewer. As one commemtator put it to me admiringly,
I’ve just listened to the whole interview and thought how skilfully you were given the opportunity by a sympathetic interviewer to put the story across and present the International Brigaders in the favourable light they deserve.
Sadly, as I stated in the programme, there are no longer any of the British volunteers left in Britain to tell the story for themselves, so it was good to be given the opportunity to talk about them. Thanks, Robert.
Click the media player above to listen to the interview, recorded on 7 April 2014.
For the second year running, the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s Len Crome memorial Lecture was held in the Manchester Conference Centre. While last year’s event was an examination of the role of George Orwell in the war and its historiography, this year focused on the involvement of artists and writers in the Spanish Civil War. As before, there were four speakers, expertly chaired by Professor Mary Vincent from the University of Sheffield. Sadly, there was one other echo from the previous year: Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics was unable to attend due to illness. Professor Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English language and literature fellow of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, very generously agreed to take his place.
The event began with Royal Holloway’s Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom discussing Republican arts initiatives between 1931 and 1939. Arguing that they were an essential part of the Republic’s humanitarian and democratic programme of reforms, he presented an astonishing statistic from 1937: that the Republican Ministry of Fine Arts had a larger budget than the Ministry of War. Even when qualified by the observation that the Republic had deposited their gold reserves in Moscow, it is pretty amazing. ‘No wonder they lost’, commented one wag.
Carl’s forensic presentation was followed by an illustrated lecture by Dr Carmen Herrero, Principal Lecturer on Spanish Culture and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, outlining recent portrayals of the International Brigades in cinema. One of her examples was Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela! – as Carmen pointed out, it’s a great shame that is so hard to get hold of, for it’s a terrific film. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom was also raised – perhaps bravely- though it’s always interesting to hear how the much-admired director works. Whatever you think of the film, Ken Loach’s enthusiasm for allowing actors to ad-lib made the (long and convoluted) discussion over the issues of collectivisation in a small Spanish village extremely lifelike and convincing.
During the lunch-break, the organisers kindly allowed me time to launch the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, due to be officially released on 1 April, 75 years to the day since the end of the Spanish Civil War. My thanks to all involved in the Manchester event for this.
The afternoon session opened with the writer and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska’s overview of the Gerda Taro’s contribution to the canon of photography of the civil war – both by taking photographs herself and by enabling her lover Robert Capa to do so. She explained how the identity of Robert Capa was a deliberate construction, a means by which the Hungarian Jewish migrant Andre Friedmann could overcome his background. Gerda Taro also changed her name (she was born Gerta Pohorylle), and the intelligent and multilingual Taro initially began by acting as Friedmann’s business manager. However, as the war progressed, and she moved from using a square-format Rolleiflex, to the 35mm Leica, her photographs became every bit as good as – and often indistinguishable from – those of Robert Capa.
The afternoon finished with a lecture on the ‘aestheticising of tragedy’ by Valentine Cunningham. Initially a bewildering barrage of names of the (mainly) English poets and artists who (mainly) supported the Spanish Republic, he moved on to a soaring and erudite discussion of the, perhaps understandably, elegiac nature of much of the writing. There was so much in the lecture to discuss, that I felt it would have been churlish to point out that there were in fact 35 000, not 60 000, volunteers for the International Brigades and though the English writer and poet Laurie Lee was undoubtedly one of them, to cite his A Moment of War as a reliable account is unwise, to put it mildly.
My thanks go out to the IBMT in general and the Manchester organisers in particular. The event was, I think, a great success.
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.