Foreigners fighting for Ukraine may call to mind the International Brigades that fought in defense of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The multifaceted conflict between Republican and Nationalist factions was the first time since the Crusades so many people came together as volunteers to do battle for political reasons. Between 1936 and 1939, more than 35,000 men and women from almost every country—and colony—then existing joined the fight against Franco and Spain’s fascists. This made the International Brigades essentially different from the mercenary French Foreign Legion, which was set up in 1831 as a colonial enforcement arm of the French military.
Their astonishing military achievements, and the humanitarian commitment of so many individuals, are beyond peradventure. A majority should be remembered with respect; many deserve admiration. Even for those whose individual record is imperfect, human failings should not detract from this.
This is the conclusion drawn by scholar Rob Stradling’s after his close look at the grim situation the Brigades found themselves in, bombed by Nazis on side and, on the other, threatened behind the lines by Stalin’s killers.
Under-trained and under-equipped, international volunteers were thrown into combat against a professional army forged by Spanish colonialism in north Africa. The resulting casualties were high. Giles Tremlett’s magisterial history, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and The Spanish Civil War details the punishment the Brigades took as sacrificial “shock troops.” Tremlett writes that the “chances of returning home unscathed” was “somewhere below 50 percent.” Those taken prisoner were often shot, their bodies mutilated.
Although a non-intervention treaty was supposed to prevent other nations from getting involved in Spain, signatories Italy and German blatantly sent troops and weapons to support Franco. Italy even had submarines sinking ships off the Spanish coast. In fact, the fascist powers jump-started the war by air-lifting Franco’s army, including Moroccan mercenaries, across the Strait of Gibraltar. For the Axis-to-be, Spain became the place to prototype blitzkrieg and devastating air-assaults on civilian targets, most infamously in the Basque town of Guernica.
The United Kingdom and the United States did little to help the legitimate government of Spain, but American companies did sell trucks and fuel to Franco. France, meanwhile, was on-again off-again supportive, depending on the government in power.
The future Allies of World War II were more concerned about Bolshevism than Hitler and Mussolini, for it was the Soviet Union that did the most to support the Spanish Republic militarily. The International Brigades were a Communist International (Comintern) operation, directed from Moscow. Not every volunteer was a communist, and not every communist was a Stalinist, but Moscow’s totalitarian hand made for an awkward fit in an avowed defense of republican democracy.
In fact, many of the volunteers saw their participation simply as a fight against fascism and, if lost, as a prelude to a new world war—which in fact began six months after Franco captured Madrid on April 1, 1939. Hitler and Mussolini were very much emboldened by the hands-off approach of the democracies. Later, on the Cold War’s domestic front, American participants would be suspiciously labeled “premature anti-fascists.”
Stradling ends by citing poet W. H. Auden for an encomium of the International Brigades: “Pardon them their mistakes,/The impatient and wavering will./They suffer for our sakes,/Honour, honour them all.”