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Cheltenham literary festival

Peter Day’s <em>Franco’s Friends</em>, published by Biteback in 2011
Peter Day’s Franco’s Friends, published by Biteback in 2011

Recent reports of British nationals leaving these shores for a foreign civil conflict carry echoes of the past. Richard Baxell (Unlikely Warriors) and Peter Day (Franco’s Friends) discuss what drove Britons to join the war in Spain – both those who fought against Franco and the members of the establishment who secretly supported him.

The discussion, entitled ‘The Spanish Civil War: Divided Britain’, was held on Wednesday 8 Oct in Cheltenham Town Hall. A number of interesting questions arose from members of a large audience which had collected, despite wind and driving rain. I’m very grateful to all who braved the weather to attend. Here are a number of the questions, together with brief summaries of our responses:

What was the attitude in Britain to the volunteers?
While there was much popular support for the volunteers, particularly those in the International Brigades, official responses tended to range from disapproval to outright hostility. It’s perhaps not surprising that parts of the British government (particularly the Foreign Office and the Admiralty) were opposed, however even the leaders of the British Labour movement and Trade Unions initially supported the policy of non-intervention in the war.

Which countries did the volunteers come from?
The 35 000 or so volunteers came from as many as 53 countries around the world. The largest groups came from France and Italy, but volunteers came from as far away as India, South America and New Zealand.

What was Stalin’s role in the civil war?
In contrast to some commentators, who argue that Stalin’s involvement in the infamous suppression of the POUM was a major cause of the Republic’s downfall, I would argue that the huge amount of military materiel – including the International Brigades- supplied by the Soviet Union was the main reason the Republic was able to survive as long as it did. Of course, it must be remembered that Stalin supported the Spanish Republic for his own reasons, certainly non out of ‘international solidarity.’

Are there any similarities between the wars in Spain then and Syria and Iraq today?
As far as I am concerned, there is none between the volunteers for the International Brigades who volunteered to fight in Spain and the fundamentalist Islamic Jihadists now waging war in Syria and Iraq. It’s true that the hostile response of the British Government to the volunteers – especially those who want to return to the UK – is an interesting parallel, but I don’t think it should be overplayed.

And, finally, the shortest question I’ve ever been asked … ‘Anarchism?’
Upon further interrogation, it conspired that the questioner was interested in the internecine struggles among the left during the civil war. Anarchist anti-centralist beliefs meant that they and the Republicans were always likely to be uneasy bedfellows. The political amnesty before the elections of February 1936 and the military coup of July essentially forced them into each others arms. While I feel that the argument expounded by, amongst others, the Communists, that the revolution would have to wait until the war was won, made obvious sense (as, in fact did Orwell), it is certainly the case that it was used as a smokescreen to justify the brutal crushing of the Anarchists and the POUM.

The Long View

Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View
Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View

On 30 July 2014, I joined Usama Hasan, Shiraz Maher, Meirian Jump, Judith Kravitz-Lesser and Samuel West for an episode of Jonathan Freedland’s, The Long View. Somewhat controversially, the programme examined similarities (or not) between British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and for Syria today.

The programme was recorded on Thursday 24 July 2014, on location at 1 Litchfield Street WC2 (formerly the office of the International Brigades’ Dependents’ Aid Committee), the Marx Memorial Library and at the monument to the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, in London’s Jubilee Gardens.

You can find out more about the programme here.

Volunteers in Syria and the Spanish Civil War

Michael Petrou, author of <i>Renegades</i>, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War
Michael Petrou, author of Renegades, a study of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

In May 2013 an article entitled, ‘Homage to Latakia’ appeared in the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine Maclean’s. Written by historian and journalist, Michael Petrou, the piece argued passionately for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds and drew comparisons with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when the western powers had refused to intervene. However, in the six months since the article appeared – chemical weapons inspections aside – the west has not shown any great enthusiasm for doing so.

While debates on the advisedness – or not – of intervention continue, so does a tendency, within the media in particular, to view the Syrian conflict through the prism of the Spanish Civil War. As with many of these comparative exercises, while it’s interesting to engage in, I’m not convinced how useful it actually is.

There are certainly parallels which can be drawn; the most glaring being that in both Syria and Spain foreign powers provided significant military support, while the western powers watched on. The disparate and fragile nature of the coalition facing Assad’s military junta seems, on the surface, to echo Spain, but here too we should exercise caution. (It seems to me the situation in Egypt is actually a closer parallel, where a military coup was launched against a legally elected government).

The most recent attempt to compare Syria with Spain was on 24 November 2013, when I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend (you can listen to my brief interview by clicking the audio-player above). The interviewer, Shaun Ley, was particularly interested to know, first, why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain, given that it was a country of which most of them knew very little and, second, in the light of the experiences of those returning from Spain seventy-five years ago, how any survivors from the 200 or so Britons presently fighting in Libya might be viewed on their return.

Answering the first question is straightforward and clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of comparing British Islamic jihadists fighting in Syria with the men and women who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The overwhelming majority of volunteers in Spain were there because they had watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism across Europe in general and in Britain in particular. For these anti-fascists, determined to do what they could to halt the fascist tide, Spain was just the latest battlefield in the wider war against fascism. As George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, explained in a letter home to his family:

“Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.”

The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched
The ‘secret and personal’ war office memo from 1938 advising that volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War should be watched

Interestingly, Shaun’s second question did tease out one similarity. As I explained, when the veterans of the Spanish war returned to Britain in December 1938, they faced grave suspicion from many within the British government and security services. Though the government recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting volunteers for Spain under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, this should not be seen as a general sympathy for their cause within the British establishment. On the contrary, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked and others described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. Whether any of the 400 or so British Muslims fighting in Syria will ever return to Britain is not clear. However, it is probably safe to say that, if they do, the British security services will view them with every bit as much suspicion. In 1938 the veterans were described as having been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’; in 2013 they will have been ‘radicalised’. The language may be different but, in this aspect at least, the experiences of the two utterly different groups of volunteers may be very much the same.