In July 1936, a failed military coup plunged Spain into civil war. The conflict pitted the left-wing republican government against the nationalists backed by the fascists led by General Francisco Franco. With Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini already in power in Germany and Italy, anti-fascists around the world feared that Spain was next to fall, threatening the future of European democracy.
When world powers like the United States and United Kingdom refused to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, more than 35,000 anti-fascist volunteers poured into Spain from 52 countries to take up arms against the nationalists. They included Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, idealistic intellectuals like a young George Orwell, and Communists determined to crush an ideological enemy.
“The Spanish Civil War seemed to be the moment when fascism was finally cast aside,” says Richard Baxell, historian and author of Unlikely Warriors: The Extraordinary Story of Britons Who Fought in the Spanish Civil War. “There was this feeling that maybe people could come out armed with just a gun and some political conviction and do their part alongside the Spanish people to finally defeat fascism.”
The foreign volunteers who fought in the “International Brigades” of the Spanish Civil War hoped to stop the march of fascism in Europe to avoid a much larger war. It didn’t work that way.
Europe and the United States opt for non-intervention and isolationism
The Spanish Civil War broke out less than 20 years after the end of World War I, and most world leaders were desperate to avoid being drawn into another global conflict that could cost millions of lives.
In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to convince Congress to support the Spanish Republic. Instead, lawmakers passed a series of neutrality laws that cemented America’s isolationist stance in the 1930s.
In Europe, the leaders of the United Kingdom and France have called on all European nations to sign a non-intervention pact pledging to stay out of Spain’s civil war. A total of 27 countries have signed the neutrality agreement, including Germany, Italy and the USSR. Hitler and Mussolini quickly violated the pact by sending arms and soldiers to aid Franco, and the Soviets eventually sent supplies and military advisers to aid the Republic.
With Madrid under threat, foreign volunteer fighters arrive
As Franco’s Nationalists marched towards the Spanish capital Madrid in August 1936, it was clear that no allies were coming to the defense of the Spanish Republic. It was then that the first foreign volunteers began to arrive in large numbers, to fight alongside the Republicans attacked in Madrid.
Volunteers came from Poland, France, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Latin America, Canada and dozens of other countries, organizing themselves into ad hoc columns that spoke the same language. . Women also came, mainly as volunteer nurses in military hospitals. Baxell says that about 70% of the volunteers were Communists, since the Communist Party at the time was “the loudest and biggest organization that fought against fascism”.
In the fall of 1936, the Communist International or “Comintern” – a Soviet-led association of international communist parties – was actively recruiting foreign fighters who were organized into International Brigades such as the Garibaldi Brigade (Italy), the Paris Commune ( France) and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (United States).
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The International Brigades fought bravely to help repel nationalists from Madrid, including Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, who often led the charge as ‘shock troops’.
“They were incredibly brave,” Baxell says. “They went where the fight was the hottest and did everything they could to hold their ground. Many had experienced what was happening in Germany and knew they could not return home. Better to die in Spain than in Germany.
Blacks and American Jews join the fight
More than 2,800 Americans, many of them members of the Communist Party USA, crossed the Atlantic to volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. About a third of the volunteers were Jewish, spurred on by a desire to fight the spread of anti-Semitic fascist regimes in Europe.
One of them was Milton Wolff, a young communist from New York who later served as commander of the Lincoln Brigade. When asked by a congressional committee in 1939 why he had joined the Spanish Civil War, Wolff said, “I am a Jew, and knowing that as Jews we are the first to suffer when fascism comes, I went to Spain to fight him. ”
At least 90 members of the Lincoln Brigade were black Americans who viewed fascist oppression in Europe as an extension of racial oppression experienced at home in the United States. Many black volunteers were also Communists drawn to the Communist Party of America’s vow to defend workers of all races. Black Americans bristled at Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and knew that Hitler’s twisted Aryan ideology had no place for people of color.
Vaughn Love, a black volunteer, later said that “we didn’t know much about the Spaniards, but we did know that they were fighting against fascism and that fascism was the enemy of all black aspirations”.
Foreign fighters give their lives for finally a lost cause
Of the approximately 35,000 foreign volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 were killed and thousands more were missing. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for their ideals, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Franco and the Nationalists, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, overpowered the Republicans, took Madrid and won the war.
While some historians view the International Brigades as naïve idealists or useless pawns for the communist regime in the USSR, Baxell sees the volunteers in a more positive light.
“At the time, they showed the Spanish Republic and people around the world that Spain was not fighting fascism alone,” Baxell says. “Given what was happening in the world, that was a powerful message.”
In her farewell speech to what remained of the beleaguered International Brigades in 1938, Spanish Republican leader Dolores Ibarruri, known as “La Pasionaria”, praised the foreign volunteers:
“Communists, socialists, anarchists, republicans, men of different colors, of different ideologies, of antagonistic religions, but all deeply in love with freedom and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally… You are the story . You are a legend. You are the heroic example of solidarity and the universality of democracy.