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Review of Lisa Kirschenbaum’s International Communism and the Spanish Civil War

Since the end of the cold war and the consequent opening up of the Moscow archives, fresh light has been shone on the relationship between the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and Spain during the country’s civil war. Increasingly, this has allowed a rather more nuanced, ‘warts and all’ analysis. Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion? (reviewed in issue 41 of the IBMT newsletter) is a good example of this rather more thoughtful, balanced approach; so too is this latest study by Lisa Kirschenbaum.

Though the book’s title refers to international communism, it focuses mainly on Party members in the Soviet Union, Spain and the U.S. This may limit its appeal to a British audience, which would be a shame, because many of the issues the book discusses transcend nationality such as, for example, the accounts of Communists ‘who reported, then and later, they in Spain they lived their ideals more intensely, passionately, and fully than they had anywhere else.’ (p. 10) Likewise, discussions of the now well-known problems the International Brigade command faced – leave and repatriation, the distrust of other nationalities, resentment of Spanish officers, a lack of effective communications – could relate to any of the national units.

While the author does touch upon some of the more over-arching themes of the role of the Communist Party in Spain – including a refreshing scepticism towards the old trope that the Spanish Republic was controlled by Stalin – it is the individual lives of Communists which are of main concern here. The author’s detailed discussion of notions of ‘Communist identity’ examines volunteers’ attitudes towards a wide range of issues: the impact on families back home; bravery and cowardice in battle; drinking; sex and notions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. The author is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, arguing that ‘despite the fact that gay men served in the International Brigades, homosexuality remained for many communists presumptively fascist.’ (p. 174.)

The final section of the book turns to the period after the war in Spain, recounting the persecution of Communist Party members in both the US and the USSR. It is a deeply dispiriting story and many readers will be shocked and appalled by the levels of paranoia, distrust and persecution directed towards Spanish civil war veterans on both sides of the iron curtain: ‘labelled subversives and spies by authorities on both sides, they were harassed, tried, convicted and, in the Soviet bloc, tortured and sometimes executed.’ (p. 236)

Yet, while Stalin’s brutal and murderous regime caused many Party members and civil war veterans around the world to reject Soviet Communism, the author argues that very few of them came to abandon the cause of Spanish democracy, or anti-fascism. This is, I think, an important point to make. After all, just because the description of Republican Spain’s struggle as ‘the cause of all advanced and progressive humanity’ originated with Josef Stalin, it does not make it any less true.

This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

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