Josep Almudéver

Born: July 30, 1919;

Died: May 23, 2021.

JOSEP Almudéver, who has died aged 101, was the last known survivor among the thousands from around the world who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

He was a teenager taking part in a moment in history defined by many as “the last great cause” – the fight against fascism following the attempted coup by Franco’s right-wing generals against the Spanish Republic’s fledgling democracy.

Such was the passion aroused that intellectuals and renowned writers including George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway joined peasants, workers, Communists and anarchists. They received no support from Western governments, while the fascists who were fighting to reinstate the old order enjoyed direct assistance from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

Almudéver – born in France of Spanish parents – turned 17 just after the war began in 1936 and lied about his age to enlist in the Pablo Iglesias Column, set up by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and based in a monastery in Alcàsser, in the province of Valencia.

Its first big challenge was at the front in Teruel, southern Aragon, then held by Franco’s forces and a strategic town on the road to Madrid. “We went to the front without bullets,” Almudéver recalled. “After five kilometres, a column from the Spanish Communist Party gave me five, then a colonel gave me five more. Ten bullets to fight a war!”

During almost six months of action, he suffered an arm injury after being hit by shells from a howitzer and was moved to the rear of the column.

Shortly afterwards, an order from Spain’s defence minister forbade foreigners to serve in the republic’s armies, so in 1938, using his French citizenship, Almudéver was accepted by the Italian Rosselli Column in Alcàsser, alongside Canadians, Cubans, Germans, Chinese and other nationalities, under the command of the 129th International Brigade.

He enjoyed the camaraderie and the “passionate talks about everything” that he and his fellow volunteers engaged in, although he was one of those left in Alcàsser when the column saw frontline action.

Then, in January 1939, the Spanish regime banned the brigades following the arrival of members of other European governments’ Non-Intervention Committee, which sought to enforce their policy of not interfering in the war, while Franco enjoyed the decisive military support of Italy and Germany.

Within weeks, the fascists entered Madrid in triumph and Almudéver forever decried the policy, recognising the crusade as a chance to stem the tide of fascism and possibly avert the Second World War. He also dismissed the notion that it was a civil war, pointing out that the involvement of other countries made it a world war fought on a small stage.

“The Republic was cruelly abandoned to the hands of Nazism, since the British and French leaders believed that Hitler only wished to exterminate Communism,” he said. “Britain and France refused to sell any weapons or give any help to the Republic, while the United States continued to trade with Franco.”

Almudéver was captured with others in Alicante and sent to a concentration camp in nearby Albatera, where some of his comrades died of starvation and he was forced to watch as others who tried to escape were put in front of firing squads. “Never in all my life will I forget the screams of the people who were shot,” he said.

He was then sent to a prison before being released in 1942, spending another five years as an anti-fascist fighter with an underground Communist group, then fleeing into exile in Pamiers, across the border in the Occitanie region of France, where he worked in the construction industry.

He lived there for the rest of his life, although he regularly visited Spain from 1965 – 10 years before the death of Franco ended fascism and heralded democracy for the country – to keep alive the memory of those who fought for democracy.

Josep Eduard Almudéver Mateu, known as José, was born in 1919 in Marseille, where his parents met at the start of the First World War. His father was a builder who moved to France to find work, fleeing from Alcàsser after trying to burn down the local church when the priest banned a dance from being held there. His mother was from a Valencian circus family on a European tour.

After a brief move to Morocco, the family returned to Spain to live in Alcàsser when Josep was a boy. He fondly recalled the “first euphoric week and the explosion of freedom on the streets” after the Republic was declared in 1931, when he was 11. “For the first time, secular schools were created to educate children,” he said. “The Republic was also the first government that gave equality to women. Women could now vote, be elected and be educated.”

In later life Almudéver travelled widely to tell his story, which was also featured in a 2018 documentary, The Last Brigadier. His memoir, The Non-Intervention Pact, Poor Republic, was published in 2014. In 2016 he was presented with the Honorary Medal of Freedom by the Absent Government of the Republic in Spain.

He is survived by his brother, Vicente, 104, who fought in the regular Republican army during the battles of Jarama and Madrid, and his three sons, Ivan, Amar and Jean-Pierre, and two daughters, Ilda and Sonia. His wife, Carmen Ballester Vicens, died in 2006.