Secret army: Remembering the Spanish Civil War 80 years later

Remembering the largely American volunteers who risked everything to fight fascism

LAST UPDATED: 18 Jul, 2016 @ 15:18
19
SHARE

IT began in Spanish-held Morocco on Civil war- International BrigadeJuly 18 1936 with a military uprising led by General Francisco Franco against the Republican government of Manuel Azaña.

It ended with the loss of 500,000 lives, many of them foreigners.

Defying their own governments’ non-interventionist policy to join up and follow their passion, some of these non-native untrained volunteers risked not only their lives but their citizenship.

Known as the International brigades, they came from all over – from the United States, Poland, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Cuba, England, Peru, France – even from Germany and Italy, countries supporting the ‘enemy’: 40,000 volunteers in all, including a bunch of raw Americans who had never before held a gun in their hand, most of them under 20.

Republican ranks had hitherto been comprised of many workers and peasants with the support of the Spanish government, Socialists, and Communists.

Rebellious factions of the army, landowners, middle classes, and the Catholic Church supported the Nationalist right.

The Lincoln Brigade was the first American military unit to be fully integrated but this ‘secret army’ was a covert affair.

The United States had adopted a policy of neutrality. Afraid of alienating isolationist voters, afraid that the liberal government in Spain might turn Communist, afraid of antagonizing Hitler, America refused to sell arms to a legally-elected government for the first time in history – a policy that implicitly favoured Franco.

The Republicans could only purchase arms from the Soviet Union and even those efforts were hampered by a British and French naval embargo.

Recruitment for the Lincoln Brigade was organised by America’s Communist party through word of mouth and advertisements in newspapers pretending to seek workers for Spain.

But many of the volunteers were simply working men for whom the war offered idealistic adventure and escape from post-Depression unemployment.

Their deployment was arranged secretly, as travel to Spain was banned. Pretending to be tourists or students, they crossed the Atlantic under the very real threat of losing their US citizenship, had their true mission been discovered.

They were not alone although few volunteers were as inexperienced as the Americans, who were completely unprepared for combat against highly-trained soldiers.

And yet for young African-American soldiers in particular, it was their finest hour.

With the US civil rights movement still 30 years away, African Americans like Tom Page saw war as an escape from racism and an opportunity to live out his political ideals as an equal.

Page poignantly recalls that time in the documentary: The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

He says: “It was the first time in my life that I was treated with dignity, that I was treated as a human being, as a man, not because of my colour, but as a person, and this means a lot to every individual. I hated to leave that country. I hated to leave it.”

His views are echoed by African American nurse Salaria Kea O’Reilly, “I had no problems about being black. I forgot I was black.”

The war they entered was unlike any the world had seen before. For the first time in history, civilian populations were systematically bombed by the German Condor Legion. Picasso portrayed the full horror in his painting, Guernica.

After the fall of Malaga to Nationalist forces, over 100,000 civilians were forced to make a two-week mass exodus along the coast road to Almeria while under attack from air and sea in what became known as the ‘Caravan of the Dead’.

By November 1936, with Republican defences crumbling in Madrid, Franco’s troops began invading the suburbs.

The Lincoln Brigade first saw action at Jarama, in February 1937, defending Madrid. On the worst day of the battle, 127 died and 200 were wounded.

The army of civilians and international brigades were able to hold the city against the Nationalist forces but suffered further heavy casualties as the fighting progressed.

And by the end of 1937, with no planes and a shortage of weapons, ammo and medical supplies, Republican defeat seemed inevitable.

The United States, France and England still refused to help, even as Hitler invaded Austria.

Republicans rallied their forces for a last push in 1938 but were unable to turn the tide of the war.

Fighting continued for five more months but for the Americans, with 70% of volunteers dead or missing, the war was over.

Ultimately, the Republicans withdrew the international brigades in the hope that world pressure would force Franco to withdraw his aid as well.

The Lincoln Brigade left Spain knowing there was no victory, only imminent defeat.

“The pain of that loss never quite leaves you. It comes to me in various ways as the days go by,” explains Lincoln Brigade veteran Abe Osheroff.

However these valiant volunteers went on to win admiration and a place in posterity from unexpected quarters. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls about an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was similarly inspired, largely by British volunteers.

World War II broke out in Europe six months after the fall of Republican Spain, when most of these able-bodied troops joined the United States army to fight fascism a second time.





Subscribe: Olive Press news to your inbox

19 COMMENTS

  1. Very cute fairy tale. But just curious, in this rewrite of history why no mention of the murders of thousands of priests, rapes of nuns and burning of hundreds of churches all across Republican held territories? Nor a recount of the many atrocities committed by the Republican Communists backed by that great humanitarian Joseph Stalin?

    • Franco-loving Rubicon, perhaps you hadn’t noticed, but if it had not been for the anti-democratic, vicious actions of your hero, (best mates with Hitler) these atrocities on both sides would never have occurred. Following which of course, Spain was held in the stone age, repressed, abused and forced to live under the heel of the Catholic Church for decades. The effects of those days, still leaving their mark on the Spanish psyche.

  2. Please be more accurate. There were substantial numbers of Scottish volunteers not only English. In fact located in Princes street East garden Edinburgh there stands a monument dedicated to the fallen.

  3. Why no mention of the Republic’s best soldiers – the Anarchists. The Communist troops were rubbish and kept the best weapons for themselves. The ruling elites of the USA/Britain and France can fairly be said to be responsible for starting WW11. they ruthlessly used every tactic to stop supplies reaching the democratically elected Republicans. Both Hitler and Mussolini were emboldened by Franco’s success and the cowardly appeasement of Britain and France.

    At the end of WW11, there was no way the American elite, who called the tune would allow a couple of divisions of battle hardened British or American troops to enter Spain and destroy the Fascists and re-instate Socialist/Communist and Anarchist republican government.

      • Anarchism, libertarianism in the USA deals with keeping the government to a minimun whereas comunism or socialism are the goverment of a few catering for the ones that don´t know how to manage themselves.

  4. Stuart,
    what a strange idea that the ancestors of Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and George Bush jr. should have sent american troops to ‘re-instate Socialist/Communist and Anarchist republican government’ in Spain.

    • Trump’s grandfather Frederick, was born in Germany, moved to the USA to make money during the Klondike gold rush by running a whore house and tavern for miners.
      After making money he returned to Germany but was deported back to the USA for being a draft dodger. No patriotism or ideological motives – just money.

  5. stefanjo,
    always with the stupid uninformed comments, try studying the factual history of the republic.

    Wolfgang – no follow up comment, not surprised.

  6. How come could there be a republican democratic government with 40% of the people illiterate? Democracy as far as I know imply people know what they are voting to. Franco always said Spain wasn´t ready for a democracy of the like of Swizerland yet and started educating them. Read Brenan it´s all there.

      • What Roman catholicism says about education does not differ of other religions even the greeks. Read the symbolism of Themis, natural law and man-made law. Remember Napoleonic code?

    • Franco “started educating them”? He didn’t do a very good job. Half a century on and they still can’t make their minds up and most can now at least read a newspaper and watch telly.
      A sense of fairness is the key to democracy, literacy is not a requirement for that sense, just a desire for justice. “They who thirst after righteousness shall be filled” (As some old geezer said).

HAVE YOUR SAY...