The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War

Giles Tremlett

Bloomsbury, £30

It’s fair to say that as a boy, I was obsessed with all things to do with the Spanish Civil War. To a young reader like myself there was a mystique and romanticism epitomised by those volunteers from around the world who in many cases gave their lives for a cause that on the face of it pitched good against evil.

Years later in my youth, I would find myself in Glasgow’s now long-gone Star folk club that sat on Carlton Place on the south bank of the Clyde. There, when not singing along to the famous ballads written about the exploits of what by then were known as the International Brigades, I often attended Communist Party meetings flush with the same youthful idealism that had taken so many young men and women to Spain in the 1930s.

Even today whenever I take a jog or stroll along the Clyde walkway, I make a point of stopping at the spot where a stylised figure of Dolores Ibárruri, a communist politician and Spanish Republican heroine, sits atop the monument erected in memory of those Glaswegian Brigaders who volunteered to fight against General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in Spain.

As someone who has spent the last three decades of my life as a journalist covering conflict, I’m under no illusions about the barbarism, stupidity and utter waste that much of war involves, even when fought ostensibly for all the right reasons.

This is the great strength of Giles Tremlett’s hefty tome, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War. For here is the unabridged warts-and-all account of those 35,000 men and women from 65 countries around the globe who sacrificed so much in their effort to halt fascism and defend democracy in the Spanish Republic.

Yes, within the chapters of this impeccably researched 539-page volume you will find no shortage of what the author calls “the more piously political Brigaders”, sometimes known as “100 percenters”, most of them communists.

But among the remarkable assemblage of first-hand accounts that comprise this book, you will also encounter what American journalist Virginia Cowles, one of numerous correspondents covering the war, described as a “diverse assembly of foreigners ... idealists and mercenaries; scoundrels and martyrs; adventurers and embusqués; fanatics, traitors and plain down-and-outs”.

In her description, Cowles was admittedly referring to those who frequented Madrid’s Hotel Florida, temporary watering hole of grandstanding author Ernest Hemingway, who idolised the Brigaders.

But it’s from within the ranks of those often poorly armed and untrained individuals from every conceivable walk of life and corner of the world that the compelling narrative of this book draws its most vivid accounts. Those who manned the trenches and machine guns, drove the ambulances, courageously defended Madrid, and fought in the streets of Barcelona and in the mountains and villages of rural Spain.

At times, the accounts are searing. As the dead piled up following the battle of Boadilla del Monte north-east of Madrid, there were difficulties in identifying those killed, because no proper register existed or the bodies were unrecognisable.

Where names were unavailable, small recycled sepia cards used to record those buried offered clues to the deceased’s identity such as “he has black skin” (maybe a volunteer from Cuba, the US or perhaps Jamaica), “monogrammed red socks”, or “tattooed chest reads ‘souvenir du Maroc’”.

In one chapter, Tremlett cites a line from another account of British volunteers’ involvement, Richard Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors, describing how the ensuing battle near Jarama between Franco’s professional soldiers and “city-bred young men with no experience of war ... and no competence as marksman was brutal”.

Drawing heavily on formerly secret documents held in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow, has allowed Tremlett to gain detailed and nuanced insight as to the political makeup and intrigues surrounding both rank and file volunteers and those who commanded the International Brigades.

The sweep of the book is impressive. At its start we meet some of the Brigades’ earliest volunteers caught up in the wake of the so-called “People’s Olympiad” in Barcelona, an alternative Olympics to that in Berlin run by the Nazis.

It also details the role of women activists like Clara Thalmann, a Swiss anarchist sympathiser and swimmer attracted by the “revolutionary tone” of Barcelona at that time.

Perhaps one of the most valuable qualities Tremlett brings to this historical tour-de force is a determination not to avoid the darker side of goings on within the ranks of the Brigades.

The rape of American woman Marion Merriman, wife of an International Brigades commander, by an officer from her own side, is a case in point. So are details of some senior Brigade leaders’ willingness, while gripped by political paranoia, to put before a firing squad those deemed politically “troublesome”.

The exploration of what became of some “Commissars” years after their service in Spain, also casts light on the hitherto unexamined role they played as state oppressors in the service of some autocratic regimes.

Above all, though, it is the incredible bravery, resourcefulness and selflessness of the tens of thousands of volunteers that leave its mark on the reader.

Many Brigaders came from the global Jewish diaspora, while others were already political exiles or had faced discrimination at home.

Among the book’s photographs there is one to accompany the story of Oliver Law of the US Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the first African-American to command white troops, before he was killed in action in the battle of Brunete.

In our own troubled political times, with the far right and fascism again on the rise, there is much that resonates and that we can learn from this magnificent book. It will take its rightful place on the shelves among many I have on the Spanish Civil War. These include an edition of collected verse related to the conflict. One of its poems is from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and it serves as an elegy to one International Brigader, but speaks for the spirit of so many. It reads:

“But the thing that I saw in your face

No power can disinherit:

No bomb that ever burst

Shatters the crystal spirit.”