Seventy years on – an International Brigadier returns to Spain

LAST UPDATED: 8 Mar, 2011 @ 09:34
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By Theresa Hogue. Additional reporting by Mark Roulston

“VIVA Rusia,” the women shouted from their balconies as a group of mainly French and German soldiers readied  themselves to defend Madrid. It was October, 1936, and the rebelling Nationalist troops led by General Francisco Franco were advancing on Spain’s capital.

Volunteers from around the globe had come to Spain to fight in the name of socialism and to battle against the spectre of fascism. La Brigada Internacional they became known as.

Civil war had been declared two months before and cities around the country were falling to the rebels: a coalition of Catholics, fascists, capitalists and rebelling factions of the army ultimately led by General Francisco Franco.

President Francisco Largo Caballero had moved parliament and the country’s capital to Valencia also in October 1936 in a bid to prolong the Second Spanish Republic. The global volunteers along with their Spanish counterparts successfully defended Madrid as the west of the city came under heavy attack.

Around the country, the International Brigade fought to stop the advance of Franco’s troops.

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion, consisting of US volunteers, was formed the following year in 1937. It saw its first
action on February 11 in the successful defence of Madrid as the Nationalist troops attacked from the Jarama  Valley , to the east of the capital.

The League of Nations banned foreign involvement in the war soon after and many of the surviving global volunteers returned home. Some were shot as they headed for ports, airports, train stations and borders; others taken prisoner. However, this prohibition on foreign involvement did not stop German bombers flattening the city of Guernica  in the Basque Country.

Soon, the Republicans’ grip on the country weakened with internal factions arguing among themselves. Over the next two years, places of tactical importance fell to the Nationalists:>Málaga, Segovia , Aragon , Teruel, Tarragona, Barcelona and finally Madrid  on March 28, 1939.

Four days later, Franco in his new role as leader of Spain  declared the civil war to be over.

Below is an account of a civil war veteran, returning to Spain  for the 70th anniversary of the International Brigade. The article first appeared in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

Carl Geiser, 95, who fought for the Loyalists against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist Army in the Spanish civil war in the later half of the 1930s, reunited last week with surviving members of the International Brigade – a group of 30,000 volunteers from the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France and Russia who came to defend the Second Spanish Republic. 

In the midst of the Spanish Civil War of the mid to late 1930s, a group of international forces that were drawn to the struggle poured into Spain  to aid the Loyalists who were battling against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist Army.

Many of the young people who came to fight were enamoured with the Loyalists democratic and socialist visions, and were determined to help defeat Franco and his fascist backers, including Nazi Germany and Italy .

Among them was a young man named Carl Geiser, who joined the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades at the age of 26.

It has been 67 years since the Loyalists were defeated by Franco in 1939, and he began a dictatorship that lasted until 1975.

Since the ensuing democratization of Spain, however, the surviving soldiers of the International Brigade have been celebrated as national heroes by the Spanish. Geiser and his fellow brigadistas have returned again and
again to reconnect with the foreign land that came to mean so much to them.

But over the years, fewer and fewer survivors have returned for anniversary celebrations, and this week, Geiser, 95, is one of the few frail men who has made what is likely his final trip across the ocean to Spain.

“Being there is something that is quite unique,” Geiser said softly during an interview a few days before his trip.

Now living in an old people’s home in the US state of Oregon , Geiser gets around via a wheelchair. While his mind is sharp and his memory clear, it is often a struggle for his words to keep pace with his mind.

Geiser’s  daughter Linda, while worried about the toll the trip might take on her father, knew the importance of the trip to him, and said past reunions have been joyous occasions.

“There have been three other reunions of international brigades, and all of them have been incredibly emotional
experiences,” Linda said. “They are so admired by the Spanish people.”

During the 60th reunion, all the international soldiers were given honorary Spanish citizenship by the government. This year’s 70th reunion was paid for in full by the Association of Friends of the International Brigade, including hotel costs and meals.

The former soldiers are travelling around Spain, including Madrid  and Barcelona , and meeting up with people they have not seen in years.

Geiser  is accompanied by family friend Ray Drapek, who is helping Geiser get from place to place and making sure he is well cared for.

Speaking about Spain and his experiences during the war is still an emotional process, even after 70 years. He was one of the brigadistas captured and held in a Spanish concentration camp for a year and a half because of his involvement with the Loyalists. He lived on garlic soup and not much else.

When he was finally released and came back to the United States , the situation was not much better. The country was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and because of the ties between the Loyalist movement and the Soviet Union , many International Brigade participants were blacklisted. Geiser himself has an FBI file a half inch thick.

“It was very rough for me,” Geiser said.

Geiser  had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union in its early days, before his time in Spain , and at the time, was fascinated by the socialist system, which seemed to him to be serving the people well. This was before World War II and the changes that followed.

“Everything looked rosy,” he said. “I thought, ‘Boy, this country is going to show the world.'”

Despite Geiser’s eventual disappointment in communism, and the failure of the International Brigades to oust Franco, hope and optimism never left Geiser. It is why he has returned to Spain, despite health concerns and the emotional toll of going back.

His daughter said Geiser has never wavered in his faith.

“His ideals never changed,” she said. “People should work to help others. That is the most rewarding thing you can do. And he always believed in the power of democracy, of the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions. That optimism has never left him.”

Copyright 2006 Theresa Hogue Corvallis
Gazette-Times

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  1. Carl died in late 2009, and today, May 22 2010, there was a gathering in Cirvallis, Oregon to celebrate his life.

    Carl would not have cared that the local paper had no presence at that ceremony, nor would he have wondered about the absence all but one or two of the civic leadership.

    What mattered to Carl was that he expressed his dislike of injustice and of oppression by the example he chose to set; the gathering consisted of folk who choose to be active in opposition to the misuse of power,

    Michael

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