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Review of Peter Carroll & Fraser Ottanelli eds., Letters from the Spanish Civil War

My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…

 

Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.

 

The Malcolm Dunbar papers

Shortly after Unlikely Warriors was published in 2012, my publishers, Aurum Press, passed me a letter they had received from a reader wishing to contact me. He claimed to have some interesting information – and papers – relating to one of the British volunteers mentioned in my book. When I heard about the nature of the documents and the identity of the volunteer, my interest was piqued, to put it mildly.

Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

The name of the volunteer was Ronald Malcolm Lorraine Dunbar. As anyone who has read my book (or, in fact, any book on the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War) will know, Malcolm Dunbar was the senior British ranking infantry officer in Spain. A middle-class, Cambridge-educated, homosexual aesthete, he could hardly have been a less typical volunteer. Yet, like a number of other intellectuals, in Spain he discovered a hitherto undiscovered talent for military life. Ranking only soldado (private) at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Chief of Staff of the entire 15th International Brigade at the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938. Unfortunately, the shy, taciturn Dunbar never gave any interviews on his time in Spain and information on him has always been fairly scarce, despite his high rank and illustrious record.

Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

Not much is known about his life after Spain, either. During the Second World War Dunbar served in the British Army, but never rose above the rank of Sergeant, adding fuel to claims that veterans of the Spanish war were being discriminated against. He later worked in the Labour Research Department until, in July 1963, having apparently removed all identification from his clothing, he walked into the sea at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. A clear case of suicide on the face of it, yet intriguingly, as Vincent Brome pointed out in Legions of Babel, his (now out of print) history of the International Brigades, the coroner declared an open verdict at the inquest, rather than declaring his death to have been suicide. This, and Dunbar’s alleged relationship with the Cambridge spy, Kim Philby, have led to persistent rumours of official cover-ups and Secret Service skulduggery.

Following his death, Malcolm Dunbar’s papers, including a number of photographs, were saved by a close friend, the ballet dancer, Thérèse Langfield, whose partner contacted me. In June 2016, I finally fulfilled his wishes, when I handed over the mass of material to the Bishopsgate Institute in London, where they will be available to all. It’s a fantastic collection and I recommend it to anyone interested in the British in Spain.

Malcolm Dunbar is the subject of one of a number of biographies I am writing for a forthcoming book. Watch this space for updates.

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.

Homanaje en Andalucía

Flyer for AABI’s April 2016 Homage to the International Brigades in Andalucía
Flyer for AABI’s April 2016 Homage to the International Brigades in Andalucía

While the story of the International Brigades’ involvement in the defence of Madrid in 1936-1937 is well known, their involvement in bitter fighting in southern Spain during the winter of 1936 and the spring of 1937 is less well documented.

Determined efforts to correct this oversight were made during two days of events in April 2016, when the sacrifices of the International Brigades on behalf of the Spanish Republic were remembered in several Andalucian villages, just east of Cordóba. The homanajes – well-attended and supported by local politicians – saw the unveiling of several new plaques commemorating the Spanish Republic’s fight against fascism.

Friday 8 April saw events held in three separate villages: La Granjuela, Belalcázar and Valsequillo. In front of friends and family members from Spain, Britain, France, Ireland and the United States, the mayors of the villages unveiled memorials and expressed their gratitude for the volunteers’ efforts and sacrifices all those years ago. At the final event in Valsequillo, local dignitaries were joined by Rosa Aguilar, Andalucia’s Minister for Culture, who spoke movingly on the importance of the recuperation of historical memory. As the local media reported, attempts by a local fascist to interrupt the event by blasting Franco’s anthem, Caro al Sol, out of an open window were rather drowned out by the music, singing and laughter of the numerous Republican supporters.

Rosa Aguilar (in red), Andalucia’s Minister for Culture unveiling the memorial to historical memory in Valsequillo
Rosa Aguilar (in red), Andalucia’s Minister for Culture unveiling the memorial to historical memory in Valsequillo

Saturday’s events began with a commemoration in front of the railway station at Andújar, where Internationals – many of them veterans of the fighting in Madrid – had disembarked in December 1936, following their posting to the southern front. From here the volunteers advanced to the front, near the village of Lopera, scene of the subsequent commemoration. Here, a local historian described – in eloquent and moving detail – the terrible events of the battle of Lopera on 28 December 1936. Outgunned and unprotected from aerial bombardment, Republican attempts to assault the high ground held by experienced Franco’s Moroccan soldiers were doomed to failure. During the vicious fighting many, many volunteers lost their lives, including the popular and respected Marxist scholar, Ralph Fox, and the Cambridge intellectual, poet and political activist, John Cornford.

Members of the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland and the International Brigade Memorial Trust in front of Andújar station
Members of the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland and the International Brigade Memorial Trust in front of Andújar station

In the village of Lopera itself a memorial to Fox and Cornford has been erected. Here relatives gathered to remember them, hearing accounts of volunteers’ reasons for joining the fight for democracy in Spain, together with a moving recital of one of John Cornford’s poems by the daughter of an Irish volunteer.

The final event of the two-day homanaje was the unveiling of a plaque in the centre of Lopera. The village’s mayor  earned widespread applause for her declaration that the commemoration marked only the beginning of a series of events to commemorate the democratic government’s fight against Franco and his allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. It looks likely that these will include an international conference in November 2106 to mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the International Brigades. Watch this space.

My thanks to all of those involved in organising the two day’s events, particularly AABI’s Almudena Cros and Seve Montero and the IBMT’s Pauline Fraser. It was, I think (and by all accounts), a resounding success.

Members of the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland in the village of Lopera
Members of the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland in the village of Lopera
Friends and families of the International Brigades gather on a hilltop at Lopera, scene of bitter fighting in December 1936
Friends and families of the International Brigades gather on a hilltop at Lopera, scene of bitter fighting in December 1936

New edition of John Cornford’s Collected Writings

It’s now eighty years since the gifted young student, John Cornford, was killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In commemoration, Carcanet have released a new edition of Cornford’s Collected Writings under its original 1976 title: Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound. The new edition features a digitally recoloured front cover and afterwords by myself and Jane Bernal, the daughter of Cornford’s girlfriend and fellow student activist, Margot Heinemann.

The collection includes Cornford’s poems written at school, university and in Spain and letters to his mother and to Margot, leading up to the time he was killed fighting in Lopera, in the south of Spain, the day after his twenty-first birthday.

Review of Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion?

This edited volume is based upon a series of public lectures and seminars at Gresham College London delivered during 2013 and 2014. It features an introduction and two central essays by professional historians (Roderick Floud, Kevin Morgan and Nicholas Deakin) and a number of biographies, most by family members – the so-called ‘red nappy babies’ – with brief additions by Denis Healey, Peter Hennessy and Juliet Gardiner.

The book’s central premise is to critically re-examine the reasons that lay behind middle-class men and women joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. One obvious answer, of course, might be that following the Party’s abandonment of its disastrous class-against-class policy, they were no longer discouraged from doing so. Kevin Morgan’s essay, however, provides a rather more detailed analysis of, what Juliet Gardiner describes as, ‘a perfect political storm’. Clearly, the rise of fascism was crucial, but Deakin argues that there were as many different reasons for joining the Party as there were members: some practical, some philosophical. And, of course, Spain played a vital part, becoming ‘the “good cause” of the decade and one on which communists could campaign – and recruit – without inhibition, alongside other progressives.’ (p. 63.)

While many of the essays are critical in the strict academic sense, there is the sense that, twenty-five years after the end of the cold war and freed from its intellectual baggage, studies of the CPGB in the 1930s are free to adopt a more nuanced view. Yes, there is recognition that many recruits had to suspend their critical faculties in order to swallow the Party’s unquestioning support for the USSR, their philosophical about-turns and ideas of ‘revolutionary expediency’ and ‘democratic centralism’. However, at the same time there is an acknowledgement that most people became communists because they wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the Party was the best means of achieving this. As Elizabeth Dolan puts it, writing about her parents, Mary Macintosh and Richard Clark:

It is my contention that this youthful enthusiasm for Communism, with its at that time inevitable support for the Soviet Union, far from being an illusion, or misguided or naïve, in fact helped to produce well-balanced, thoughtful citizens whose subsequent lifestyle, attitudes and values were a direct development, not a contradiction. (p. 149)

What is missing from the book is a discussion of the Cambridge spies. It’s true that plenty has been written about them already, but it does rather lead to an unfortunate feeling that there is something important that everyone is carefully avoiding. Apart from Denis Healey, that is, who cannot resist drawing a comparison between the Oxford Communists (of whom he was one) who ‘never wanted to do anything particularly for the Russians’, with those from Cambridge who ‘all spied for the Russians’. Clearly sectarianism can be just as rife in academia as it is in politics.

This review appears in the January 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds

It has become a tired cliché that necessity is the mother of invention, but it is nevertheless true that the demands of warfare have spurred the advance of technologies; some of them fortunately designed to preserve lives rather than cut them short. The war in Spain was no exception, with the pioneering work in the treatment of fractures and front-line surgery by the Catalan surgeons Josep Trueta and Moisès Broggi offering one pointed example. Developments in blood transfusion, the subject of Linda Palfreeman’s latest study, is another. As the author points out, ‘the Spanish Civil war marked a new era in battlefield blood transfusion.’

Though written in an academic style, the book is accessible to a non-specialised reader. It begins with a useful overview of developments from ancient times to the present, covering the use of direct arm-to arm transfusions established in the nineteenth century, Karl Landsteiner’s vital (and Nobel prize-winning) discovery of blood-groups in 1900, and subsequent improvements in storage. And for anyone with an interest in haematology, there is plenty of detail on the actual processes of transfusion: overcoming the limitations of direct arm-to-arm transfusion, mixing donations to minimise rejection and the use of sodium citrate to prevent coagulation.

The book focuses on the contribution of a number of key players involved in the developments of transfusion in Spain, including a brief chapter on the Nationalist efforts, led by Carlos Elósegui Sarasola. Interestingly, many Nationalists appear to have been singularly unenthusiastic about the use of stored blood, preferring traditional direct transfusions.

Amongst those working on the Republican side, the ground-breaking work of the Canadian Doctor, Norman Bethune, obviously features strongly. Described as an ‘explosive and unpredictable virtuoso’, Bethune does not seem to have been the easiest person to work with. However, as he has already been the subject of a previous volume in the Cañada Blanch/Sussex series, this study spends less time on the personal politics that underpinned his downfall, instead concentrating on his undeniable contribution to the Republican blood service and the mechanics of transfusions.

British readers will be pleased to find a chapter on Reginald Saxton, whose transfusions helped save the lives of numerous British and Irish casualties at Jarama and Brunete in 1937. Intriguingly, Saxton experimented with the use of cadaverous blood during the battle of Teruel in the winter of 1937-8. However his work was apparently brought to a halt by a Spanish law which prohibited any experimentation on corpses within twenty-four hours of death.

The author is clearly an admirer of Frederick Duran Jordà, for two chapters are devoted to the influential Catalan surgeon. However, a little explicit bias does not do the book any harm. Certainly Duran and his work were admirable and, as the author convincingly argues, political malice and the professional envy of colleagues has prevented his ground-breaking work from receiving the fame it should have. In fact, the author chooses to conclude the book with Duran’s exile to Britain in 1939 following the Republic’s defeat. Unwilling or unable to the take up of the lessons learned during the Spanish war, the British Government initially refused Duran permission to practice as a doctor and he could only find work as a laboratory technician. It was only in 1941 that he was at last able to take up a job as a pathologist. As the relatives of brigaders will know, it is an all too familiar tale.

This review appears in the January edition of the IBMT newsletter.

James Maley, International Brigader

Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.

In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader

James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.

James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.

From Stockholm to Spain and Somalia

Stockholm’s La Mano
Stockholm’s La Mano

Overlooking the beautiful Swedish capital Stockholm sits a four metre high sculpture of an open hand, raised beseechingly to the sky. Entitled La Mano, this is the city’s memorial to the volunteers from Sweden who volunteered to fight for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. As a historian who writes about the involvement of foreign volunteers in Spain (and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust), I make an effort to visit the civil war memorials found in many of the cities around the world and I recently paid the Stockholm memorial a visit.

As I stopped to photograph the statue, a young couple with a small child approached. Politely checking to make sure they weren’t getting in my way, they paused to pay their respects and placed a small token next to the flowers, condolence cards and Spanish Republican colours lying at the foot of the statue. Intrigued, I asked them about their connection to a war, so far both temporally and spatially from Sweden in 2015. I thought, perhaps, they might be relatives of one of the Swedes commemorated by the statute. No, they explained in typically faultless English, they were there to remember a friend who had died only recently and not in Spain.

Their friend, I discovered, was Abdirahim Hassan, who was born in Somalia, but grew up in the Swedish capital. In his early twenties, he joined Vänsterpartiet (the Young Left) and became involved in demonstrations and protests in the suburb of Husby, which lies to the north-west of the city and has the lowest income per capita of any district of Stockholm. Abdirahim remained in contact with his birth country of Somalia, to which he seemingly felt a personal commitment.

Abdirahim Hassan
Abdirahim Hassan

In the summer of 2013 Abdirahim and other members of Vänsterpartiet travelled to Mogadishu in a mission to express their solidarity with the suffering populace of Somalia. While driving through Mogadishu, their car was attacked, probably by kidnappers from Al Shabaab. During a violent struggle, Abdirahim Hassan was shot trying to protect Stockholm’s opposition deputy mayor, Ann-Margarethe Livh. She was badly wounded in the chest but, thanks to Abdirahim’s bravery and sacrifice, she survived.

For the young Swedish couple I encountered in Stockholm, La Mano has become a personal memorial to their young friend. They believe that Abdirahim’s motives for joining Vänsterpartiet and travelling to Somalia were the same as those that, nearly eighty years earlier, had inspired men and women from Sweden – and around the world – to leave their homes and families and fight to save the Spanish Republic. The volunteers were from different times and different continents perhaps, but the actions of Abdirahim and the International Brigaders were nevertheless an expression of one and the same thing. They called it solidarity.

Abdirahim Hassan, political activist, 1989-2013.

The IBMT’s annual commemoration, London 2015

I have been attending the IBMT‘s annual in commemoration in London for over ten years now and, in my opinion, this year’s event was the best yet. Fears that the death of the last UK veteran would lead to an inevitable decline in the charities fortune have certainly proved to be ill-founded. Attendance this year was higher than ever.

Wreaths in the red, yellow and purple of the Spanish Republic
Wreaths in the red, yellow and purple of the Spanish Republic

Clearly the weather played a part and there’s no denying that Owen Jones is a big draw. And not to forget a plug from the consistently supportive Robert Elms. But there was more to it than that. This year’s line-up was not just strong, it was well-balanced: a few, well-delivered speeches, some atmospheric music and the recital of an extremely moving poem.

Banners in honour of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades flying proudly
Banners in honour of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades flying proudly

Speaking and performing at this year’s event in Jubilee Gardens were:

And performing afterwards in the Camel and Artichoke were:

na-mara in full flow at the Camel and Artichoke
na-mara in full flow at the Camel and Artichoke

There is an excellent online photo gallery of the event and several of the day’s speeches are on the IBMT’s YouTube page, including the passionate speech by Owen Jones featured on this blog, above.

It was great to see so many familiar faces; it was also great to see so many new faces. Congratulations to all involved. Roll on 2016!