Episode 104: Foreign Fighters in the Spanish Civil War

Host: Joan Neuberger, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin
Guest: Lisa Kirschenbaum, Professor of History, West Chester University

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which pitted a left-leaning Republic, suported by the Soviet Union,  against right-leaning nationalists, supported by the Nazi, more than 35,000 people from more than 50 countries went to Spain to fight against fascism for the Republic.

Today’s guest, Lisa Kirschenbaum of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, talks about who some of those people were and what role the Soviet Union played in training them and welcoming them as exiles.

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Could you start just by giving us a little overview of the Spanish civil war?

The Spanish Civil War is a pretty complicated situation, but in a sense it became an important international cause because it seemed very simple. It started out of all kinds of internal domestic Spanish political problems beginning with the military coup in July of 1936, overthrowing the duly elected Popular Front government of the Republic. Very quickly, however, it became an international struggle that seemed to pit communism, or really democracy, against fascism because the so called nationalist side, –the rebels, the insurgents, the people who had led the military coup — very quickly got assistance from Hitler and Mussolini, and so were very clearly tied in the international imagination to fascism.

Review of Soviet armored fighting vehicles used to equip the Republican Populist Army during the Spanish Civil War.

The Soviet Union was the only country that actually offered aid to the Republic, but did so kind of quietly because they didn’t want to too closely associate the Republic with communism, they were trying to win allies against this fascist insurgency in Spain, but the Soviets were the only countries that provided some aid and they also, through the Communist International, the Comintern, helped to organize an international brigade, about 35,000 people over the course of the war who came from more than 50 countries to aid the Republic, and for them the cause was simple, this was fighting fascism, and a lot of German exiles came because that’s where you could fight fascism with a gun in your hand.

So communism is associated in this war with democracy and a duly elected republic– is that one of the reasons why so many people were drawn to the cause?

I think that’s right, that it’s the era of the popular front, meaning that the communists are trying to kind of put revolution on the backburner and unite the entire left against fascism. Of course, not everybody believes that they’re actually sincere in this, and there’s still a great deal of controversy over what was Stalin really trying to do, and of course we can’t believe that Stalin was legitimately and sincerely fighting for democracy, but a lot of the people who went and fought in Spain did see the communists as the only forces that were in an organized disciplined way trying to fight fascism in Spain.

So who were the young people who came from 50 different countries to fight…

They weren’t all that young, all of them, some of them were WW1 veterans. I think, I don’t know the average age, but actually a lot of them were a little bit older, in their 20s, and 30s, and even older than that. The sort of myth of the Spanish Civil War was that it was the poet’s war, and all these people like George Orwell came to fight but actually a lot of the people who come are very working class. A lot of Welsh coal miners come, they’re are merchant seamen. They are often very working class people who come, usually in the Communist Party, about 75% of the Americans, of whom there are about 3,000 who go in fight in Spain, are members of the Communist Party or the Communist Youth Organization, so they come out of often labor activist politics in the United States. Some of them have been long-term members of the Communist Party. Those are some of the people that I trace more.

I’m interested in how their idea of what it means to be a communist gets them to Spain and how maybe that changes a little bit once they’re in Spain

And what did it mean to be a communist? Again, I’m sure it isn’t just any one thing. What did they believe in?

A lot of it, I think is belonging to a sort of international community for them, and that’s why Spain becomes such a powerful experience, because they’re literally surrounded by people speaking 30 or more different languages, singing The Internationale everywhere, and they think this is really what it means to be part of an international cause and really making a difference for it. Some of course are very sectarian. There’s a lot of infighting on the left. The big enemy for communists in some ways is not the nationalists or the fascists, but the Trotskyites, who they see as in league with the fascists. So there’s a lot of this sort of Stalinist factional fighting that gets pulled into it and that’s a piece too of Stalinist identity. It’s a very “us against them” kind of notion.

And so a lot of these young people, or young and middle aged people went and trained in a school set up in the Soviet Union right?

Some of them actually even long before the Spanish Civil War started, some of the communists went to the Soviet Union to places like The Lenin School to become better communist cadres, so I trace some who were in the Soviet Union in the early ‘30s,– ‘32, ‘33, — and then some who were actually Americans studying at the Lenin school in ‘36 when the war breaks out, and they along with students who are there from Czechoslovakia and other places, some them go directly from Moscow to Madrid to join the international campaign in Spain, and so those are the people who sort of have a long term tie to the Communist Party who are then part of it even when it was putting revolutions sort of on the front burner. Now in 1935 revolution’s kind of off the table a little bit because we have this bigger problem of fascism, but they remain communists and they kind of reinvigorate, in a sense, their communist identity through participating in this armed struggle in Spain.

Women at the Siege of the Alcázar in Toledo, 1936.

Were they mostly men?

Most of the fighters are men. The Spanish Republic initially fights the rebels through these kind of hastily organized militias and those militias in fact enlisted women who fought at the front, and the kind of militia woman in blue overalls becomes a kind of emblem of the war in Spain, and actually it shows up a lot in the Soviet press too, this sort of emancipated woman holding a gun, but by the time the Republic organizes a regular army, surprise, surprise, women are banned from combat, so the men are largely the ones who are fighting.

There’s a large number of women that go as medical personal, and one of the people that I follow who’s really interesting, who spent the 1930’s in the Soviet Union working at The Moscow News, which was an English language newspaper for foreign workers in Moscow, leaves Moscow at the end of 1936 and works for the kind of republican press office in Spain. Her name’s Millie Bennett. She’s one of the really interesting women who goes, but I haven’t followed any women combatants. There were some early on.

This was also a period of terror at home, so this was the height of, when we think of the worst crimes of Stalinism, this is the period were talking about. When intellectuals and others were rounded up and exiled and killed. It was a period of enormous uncertainty and disillusionment in Soviet communism. How did that end up playing into the recruiting of people to go fight?

This is exactly, in a way, why I got interested in the Spanish civil war because it’s the moment of the worst of Stalinism, of the terror, combined with this moment that sometimes considered the only thing Stalin did right, which was to try and help the Spanish republic, so for some people I think it functions as a kind of literal or figurative escape from that kind of disillusionment. So for example, a lot of political exiles in the Soviet Union, there’s a large number of Austrians, for example, who are there. They kind of read the writing on the wall that foreigners are not very welcome in the Soviet Union anymore, the situation’s looking very dangerous, they volunteer to go to Spain, and this is true of other people who are kind of getting the sense that it’s politically dangerous for them as foreigners in the Soviet Union, who decide it’s time to make a quick exit and go to Spain, and not publicly say that they’re being disloyal to the Soviet Union, but it’s a way to escape.

For Soviet people it also was a kind of escape, because its this moment of real kind of revolutionary idealism that’s kind of a counter to the purges. But in some ways what’s going on in Spain becomes a sort of justification, or even explanation, for the purges, same enemy, same Trotskyites who are supposedly trying to kill Stalin are the same Trotskyites who are undermining the Republican struggle in Spain, and so it almost in a sense validates this idea of a global Trotskyite conspiracy

So is that support for Stalinism played out in the journalism, in the press back in the Soviet Union?

Yeah its very, very much part of the story of the war in the Soviet Union, and the war gets a good bit of coverage in the Soviet Union. It’s partly pushed off the front pages by the show trials, but even so it gets a fair amount of coverage and a lot of that coverage is about the evil Trotskyites trying to overthrow the regime. You see this a lot in Mikhail Koltsov’s coverage.

Dolores Ibárruri in 1978

So more “evil Trotskyites” than “heroic young communists”? Or are there also portraits of all the heroic young communists?

There’s lots of portraits of heroic Spaniards. The female militia members are very prominently featured and Dolores Ibárurri, known as “La Pasionaria,” the head of the Communist Party is very recognizable. Her picture shows up all the time in the Soviet press, so much so, that when she finally goes into exile in the Soviet Union, she gets fan mail from Soviet people saying “we’re so glad you’re here in the Soviet Union,” and “we’re so distraught by what happened to the Republic,” so she becomes a kind of well known figure in the Soviet press.

And what happened to her? What was her life like in Moscow after the war?

She stays there a long time. She’s either in the Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe until 1975-76 after Franco dies, so she’s in exile a long time. She tells a really funny anecdote in her memoir, which was written in the 1980’s, how when she got to Moscow — she gets there in August of 1939 something like that, just before the Nazi- Soviet pact.  And she tells a story about how she’s trying to learn Russian, and she realizes that political words are more or less the same in all languages, so she can kind of work her way through Pravda, and then she says in the memoir of course what I thought they were saying was sometimes the opposite of what the newspaper was really saying. You think, well yes of course, because suddenly there’s this alliance with the Nazis. So that moment of the Nazi-Soviet pact was not one that she talks very much about…

The pact that Stalin signed to buy some time at the beginning of the war…

Right, which just kind of ends this notion of Soviet anti-fascism, because now they are allied with the fascists, but once the German invasion happens in the summer of 1941, then she actually becomes a kind of prominent figure again, kind of making some of the same kinds of speeches that she was famous for in Spain, and her son, Ruben, actually serves in the Red Army and is killed outside of Stalingrad, so she becomes this figure of Spanish-Soviet friendship and kinship and shared anti-fascism.

Do you know the post Spanish Civil War story of some of these people who fought in the international brigades?

Yeah, it was one of the things I was really interested in, was kind of how, or whether, they maintained some of these international networks afterward, which was of course tough to do in the Cold War, because both sides were very much opposed to any kind of cross-Iron Curtain connection, so a lot of the Americans, people like Steve Nelson, who had studied in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, was a Commissar in Spain, became kind of a muckity muck in the Communist Party in the United States, was accused of helping the Soviets learn about America’s nuclear secrets in Berkeley. He and others are eventually charged under the Smith Act, which criminalizes essentially pro-communist speech, you didn’t have to do anything pro communist, you just had to speak in favor of the Communist Party.

So he’s charged under the Smith Act and the Pennsylvania State Sedition Act, and those people who fought in Spain are often targeted in the kind of McCarthyism of the early 1950’s. On the other side of Iron Curtain a lot of international volunteers from places like what becomes East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, they’re initially sort of celebrated as these anti-fascists, but then a lot of those sort of Stalinist show trials in the early 50’s, they also targeted Spaniards as people who have these suspicious international ties, maybe they’re working for American intelligence. Maybe they’re working for Tito. They’re very dangerous, and so a lot of them become targets of these xenophobic purges in the 1950’s. It’s not a happy story.

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