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Review essay of Michael Petrou’s Renegades

Michael Petrou’s Renegades, published by UBC Press in 2008
Michael Petrou’s Renegades, published by UBC Press in 2008

A fully annotated and referenced version of this review essay appears in the History Workshop Journal, 68, Autumn 2009, pp. 251-259.

While the origins of Spain’s civil war of 1936-1939 lay within Spain itself, the course of the war and its outcome certainly did not. The support for the military rebels by Germany and Italy, and Britain and France’s refusal to assist what was a democratically elected government, effectively doomed the Spanish Republic, despite Russian support and the 35,000 men and women from around the world who volunteered to serve with the International Brigades. The role of these international volunteers in the Spanish conflict has ensured that the subject has long had resonance around the world, and been the subject of numerous studies. Initially, following the end of the civil war, many works on the International Brigades were written by veterans of the Spanish war or their ardent supporters, ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted … to be remembered’. To these determined supporters of the Spanish Republic, its heroic struggle against a barbarous invasion by Italy and Germany, and the assistance of supporters of democracy from around the world in the International Brigades, became something to be looked back on with pride, the Left’s ‘last great cause’.

Not surprisingly, many have always seen things rather differently and these rather hagiographic works have come under sustained attack for their overly uncritical portrayal of the involvement of foreigners in Spain. In studies mainly, though not uniquely, emanating from the United States, the control and authority exercised by the Communist Party, the Comintern and Stalin in Spain has been doggedly portrayed as much more significant than an attempt simply to provide the Spanish Republicans with military support. To many, Stalin’s role in the creation and the control of the Brigades was as much political as military, a microcosm of the Communist International’s real goal in Spain, that is, to bring it under Communist (and thus Russian) control. An archetypal example is R. Dan Richardson’s Comintern Army,  in which Richardson argues strongly that the Brigades ‘were a significant political, ideological and propaganda instrument which could be – and was – used by the Comintern for its own purposes, not only inside Spain but on the larger world stage’.

In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades came under new and detailed scrutiny from researchers, many of whom remained deeply suspicious of Stalin’s role in Spain.

Herbert Romerstein’s Heroic Victims: Stalin’s Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War (1994) and, more recently, Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (2001), edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary M. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, are typical. Both books made extensive use of the Moscow material to argue that the Comintern (or Stalin or the Communist Party, rarely differentiating between the three) exercised an iron hold over the Brigades, using them as a tool to further Soviet interests and ruthlessly suppressing any deviation from the official Party line. These commentators argue (somewhat anachronistically) that Stalin supported the Republic, not so much because he wished to prevent Spain becoming another fascist state, but in order to establish a ‘People’s Democracy’, along the line of the later eastern European states.

However, works taking a less hostile view of the role of the Brigades have also made good use of the Moscow material, such as Rémi Skoutelsky’s detailed 1998 study of the French contingent which preceded his 2005 work on the International Brigades in general, Novedad en el frente. Works on the predominantly English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade have also flourished, with Peter Carroll’s 1994 study of the American volunteers, Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, blazing the trail. My own British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2004) followed James Hopkins’s rather less sympathetic book on the same subject, Into the Heart of the Fire: the British in the Spanish Civil War (1994).

The publication of Michael Petrou’s Renegades now completes a set of works on the English-speaking battalions in the Fifteenth Brigade drawing substantially on the Moscow material. It is also the fourth study to be published on the Canadian volunteers, following Victor Hoar’s The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, William Beeching’s Canadian Volunteers, Spain 1936-1939 and Mark Zuehlke’s Gallant Cause. Of the three, Hoar’s 1969 book has probably been the standard reference work for the Canadians, even though it was published before the release of the Moscow archive.

Like recent studies of other nationalities in the Brigades, Petrou makes use of the Moscow material to provide a detailed statistical analysis of the volunteers’ socio-economic and political backgrounds. Much of the picture of the Canadians that emerges is very similar to that of the British and Americans. The Canadian volunteers were overwhelmingly working-class and approximately three-quarters were Communist Party members. However, they were slightly older than their American and British comrades, with over half aged over thirty. And in a marked difference with the British in particular, a large proportion were unemployed and many were transient workers, often of no fixed abode. As Petrou states, ‘few Canadian volunteers lived in the same place for long’ and he argues convincingly that the transient nature of the Canadians impacted strongly on their motivations for volunteering to fight in Spain. Furthermore, the majority of the Canadian volunteers were not born in Canada, with more than three-quarters hailing from central European countries such as Ukraine, Hungary, Finland and Poland. Clearly, for these immigrants

“A blow against fascism in Spain would be a blow against the Nazis in Germany, the Poles in ‘West Ukraine’, or the ‘Whites’ in Finland… In Spain, the immigrant volunteers saw the roots and the reflections of their own injustices, and a way to reverse them.” (Petrou, Renegades,  pp. 37-8.)

Interestingly, this created a choice (and tension) for the ‘immigrant army’ when in Spain: about half chose to fight in units comprising volunteers of their original nationalities, rather than in the designated Canadian George Washington and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalions.

It may seem surprising that Petrou only devotes fifty or so pages to the central story, the events in Spain itself. This has earned him criticism from the author of an earlier work on the Canadians, but Petrou’s aim was perhaps to concentrate  on new material and issues, rather than retreading old ground. This is no easy task of course, with four books in the last ten years on the Fifteenth International Brigade. Since Canadians were  part of the same military unit and as some Canadians were actually fighting within the American Lincoln Battalion, their story is inevitably very similar.

Like all the Internationals, the Canadians suffered terrible losses in Spain. According to Petrou’s figures, of the 1,700 Canadians who fought in Spain about 400 were killed. The Canadians were ill-prepared and equipped when they first arrived at the Jarama front in February 1937 and more than 100 volunteers were killed or wounded on their first taste of combat. The situation did not improve greatly throughout the war, with the International Brigades thrown into battle where it was fiercest. Whilst members of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion may have received three months training (the longest period for any International Brigade unit), they still suffered from the same shortages that all Republicans endured. With other members of the Fifteenth International Brigade, the Canadians were decimated at the battle of Brunete in July 1937. When they were eventually withdrawn in October 1938, only thirty-five Canadians were left standing.

The third part of Petrou’s book addresses a subject of much contention amongst scholars: discipline in the International Brigades (or, as he entitles it, crime and punishment) and the role of the Communist Party. There is no doubt that a harsh regime existed in the Brigades and critics of Soviet intervention in Spain portray this rigid discipline not as a reaction to the war, but as an extension of Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union. As R. Dan Richardson argues, ‘The mentality of political suspicion, hatred, terror and murder that was then running its grotesque and bloody course in the Soviet Union and that cast its spell throughout the Comintern spilled over into Spain and the International Brigades’. Likewise, James Hopkins claims that ‘Stalin had every intention of achieving effective dictatorship in Spain but behind an anti-fascist façade’.

The assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of volunteers held in the Moscow files have been widely used to support this view. And Petrou also makes considerable use of this material, which certainly makes uneasy reading. Senior figures in the Brigade make frequent accusations of a lack of discipline, of drunkenness and of desertion. Portrayals of volunteers as ‘excellent at the front, but politically undeveloped’ recur. However, as the American historian Cary Nelson has pointed out, the – often highly derogatory – comments were written for Party officials back home, and remarks should be seen in context. The volunteers had at best, limited military experience, and were thrown into a brutal and desperate war where the likelihood of death or serious injury was undeniable. It is perhaps not surprising that a number of individuals failed to measure up to the Party’s strict criteria, and reacted to the stresses of war by drinking excessively or deserting.

Canadians in Spain received various punishments for crimes committed there. One hundred and seventeen Canadian deserters are listed in the Moscow files. Desertion was undoubtedly a major problem in the Brigades and contributed  to some commentators’ perceived disaffection with the leadership and the conditions in Spain.However, desertions were not usually a reaction to the political organization of the battalion, but to the high casualty rates, the lack of leave and the small chance of repatriation. As Petrou states, ‘many of the deserters did not want to quit the war so much as they needed a break’. Many deserters later returned to the front lines, though a number did aim to return home, particularly those who had been under the impression that they would be repatriated after six months service. In a sense, the repatriation problem was irreconcilable, for there was a clear contradiction between the Brigaders as ‘volunteers’ and as members of the Republican army. As one British volunteer later remarked, ‘My sisters just wanted to come to bring me back. And I had to tell them in a letter that while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out’.

Yet it would be naïve to deny that some Canadian volunteers (just as in other units) expressed dissatisfaction with the influence of the Party in the brigades. As Petrou states, ‘The men knew that those who led them were too often given leading positions because of their party connections rather than military skill and experience’. And it is certainly true that the domination of the Brigades by Communists, both in numerical terms and in the command structure, determined that political dissenters, particularly those perceived as ‘Trotskyists’ (a catch-all term for leftists who did not subscribe to the Communist viewpoint), were treated with suspicion. Within military units political and military conformism were regarded as a necessity to win a war in which they were fighting a desperate fight to the death. Not surprisingly, paranoia about potential fifth-columnists was widespread. Thus, as a Canadian agent in the communist-dominated (and Soviet NKVD influenced) Republican secret police, the Servicio de Investigación Militar, admitted, the SIM had ‘an agent in every company and an informant in every platoon’. There is no doubt that Soviet influence within the Brigades provided the USSR with invaluable resources for espionage, including passports and recruits. Allegedly Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, travelled to Mexico using the passport of a Canadian Brigader.

Petrou shows that some Canadian volunteers clearly resented the hierarchical structure of the brigades, and that a small number were singled out and labelled as ‘Trotskyists’. However, these individuals were by no means always punished. As the political assessments make clear, political weakness did not necessarily correlate with military weakness, and even the most rigid political commissars sometimes recognized this. Unfortunately, the Brigade leadership demanded both, and occasionally over-reacted. In June 1938 the Brigade leadership warned of a ‘violent campaign’ by English-speaking volunteers against the Brigade leadership in general and André Marty (French commander of the International Brigades) in particular. In fact, as Petrou rightly points out, this was just an exaggerated and insensitive reaction to gripes following the retreats during the spring of 1938, when a huge offensive by Francoist forces split the Republic in two. In general, Petrou acknowledges, ‘letters home and to their commissars and commanding officers suggest they were much more concerned with missing mail, food and cigarettes than with politics’. As one Canadian volunteer succinctly pointed out, ‘Well, shit, we were in the trenches most of the time’.

Other disputes involving Canadian volunteers and their superiors can be seen to have been as much cultural as political. There was a great deal of intolerance between the various national contingents in the Fifteenth International Brigade. Arguments between the Irish volunteers and the British in January 1937 are well documented, as is the rivalry between the American and British volunteers. This was exacerbated by the overwhelmingly American leadership of the Brigade who, according to a report by an (American) Political Commissar, ‘demonstrated a feeling of superiority… towards the Canadian, Latin American, Spanish and Negro comrades’. The Canadians clearly resented the American influence. One Canadian volunteer complained about the Brigade being run by ‘a clique of American Jews’; and many other disparaging remarks were made about the Americans, whom some Canadians felt to be rather less hardy than themselves. As one Canadian acidly observed, ‘I think most of them would starve to death in a grocery store’.

It is probably the case, as Petrou states, that ‘the natural irreverence of the Canadian volunteers put them at odds with their commanders’. One Canadian volunteer, when asked by a political commissar whether he liked his morning coffee, replied, ‘It depends… If I’m politically developed, comrade commandante, the coffee is very good. But if I am not politically developed, it tastes like horse piss’. Another, in the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion, ‘asked what was the most outstanding thing he had noticed since leaving North America, described a recent bowel movement’. That some volunteers were able to respond thus flippantly and insubordinately suggests, perhaps, that dissent and insubordination in the Brigades were rather better tolerated than some critics would admit.

This is not to deny that discipline was not, on occasion, extremely brutal. It is beyond any doubt that several Canadians were executed in Spain. As Petrou says, ‘it is a fact that “problem volunteers” were occasionally taken on a midnight walk and shot in the back of the head’, and he cites four Canadians shot in the spring of 1938, in the desperate aftermath of the retreats. Nevertheless executions were rare in the Fifteenth Brigade, even though execution for acts of desertion or rape would have been the norm in most armies of that time. And the International Brigades were run on Soviet military lines, with a much more brutal tradition towards offenders.

Most minor misdemeanours were treated within the battalion by demotions, or deductions of pay or time in the guardhouse, though some unfortunate volunteers ended up in the Republican prison at Castelldefels, or the ‘re-education’ Camp Lukacs, where prisoners were often badly treated, ill-fed and held without trial. Other miscreants could be transferred to disciplinary units, usually referred to as engineers’, fortification, or labour battalions. In Petrou’s view, these were ‘a convenient means to get rid of problem volunteers’, as the chance of survival in these units was slim. However, it should be remembered that their chances would hardly have been better fighting in the Brigades themselves. It is important to keep the punishments in perspective. A number of volunteers did suffer harsh and sometimes unfair punishment, but Petrou is right to point out that ‘how International Brigade leadership reacted to desertions and other offences varied greatly’. Only 150 Canadians in total were in fact punished in Spain which, considering the pressures placed on untrained volunteers with a seemingly ingrained mistrust of authority, is perhaps not that surprising.

Just as it is a mistake to portray the volunteers simplistically as ‘heroic victims’, as Petrou recognizes, it would also be wrong to see the volunteers as Stalin’s foot soldiers in a ‘Comintern Army’. The Brigades were, first and foremost, a reaction by anti-fascists around the world to what they saw as another country being swallowed up by a fascist tide sweeping across Europe. This response, it is important to remember, began before the involvement of the Comintern in the formal creation of the International Brigades. As Petrou notes,

“Built on a communist foundation, but with wider leftist and even mainstream support, the brigades were a tangible and stirring symbol of support for an anti-fascist cause that was not explicitly linked to the Soviet Union.” (Petrou, Renegades,  p. xvii.)

This is not to downplay the role of the Communist Party in the Brigades. As Petrou has demonstrated with the Canadians, the Communist Party both organized and paid for almost all the volunteers to travel to Spain. But how else would the Canadian volunteers have managed to get there? Likewise, it is important to remember that, ‘though most were members of the Communist Party of Canada, they were not ordered to fight by the party. They made a choice’. Volunteers were not ‘the dupes of Moscow’, they were mostly determined anti-fascists who chose to join the Communist Party, rather than Party members told to go and fight. Petrou cites the example of ‘Constant [who] was not a communist when he volunteered to join the International Brigades in early 1937, but he clearly identified himself as and anti-fascist. Most Canadians in Spain saw themselves in the same way’. As with the British, many Canadians were not Party members when they volunteered for Spain; others joined the party shortly before leaving, or in Spain itself. While in Spain most volunteers referred to themselves as anti-fascists, whatever their particular affiliation. In fact, volunteers were instructed to label themselves as such in order to prevent them being singled out if captured. This also served Communist Party interests in that it was used to validate the claim that the Brigades were an example of Popular Frontism in action, a coming together of anti-fascists from around the world and across the political system to defend Spanish democracy. Undoubtedly, national parties downplayed the number of party members amongst volunteers to boost the image of a popular front against fascism.

It simply is not possible to talk of a homogenous mass of Communist volunteers. Though most volunteers accepted the ‘Moscow line’ during their time in Spain, they were not all blind adherents or ‘true believers’. As Petrou demonstrates, the Party did not exercise absolute control over the Canadian volunteers, just as (others have shown) they did not exercise absolute control of other battalions in the Fifteenth International Brigade. While in Spain the volunteers acknowledged what many commentators seem to ignore; that the Republic was involved in a fight to the death and that, as George Orwell himself recognized, ‘war is bloody’. The myth of the ‘last great cause’ has prevented many from accepting that the imprisonment of insubordinates and the callous treatment of deserters were not necessarily symptoms of the ‘Stalinization’ of Republican Spain, but should be seen as the desperate reaction of the Republican army in a bitter and, ultimately, fruitless struggle for its very survival.