The Devout and the Displaced: A new History of the International Brigades

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During the Civil War thousands of people from other countries volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against the insurgents led by General Franco. Most of these joined the International Brigades. Volunteers were usually recruited through the communist parties of their own countries and travelled to Spain by crossing the French frontier, often illegally, or by ship from Marseilles. There were about 35,000 volunteers, though fewer than half of these were involved at any one time. Recruits came from many countries, with the largest contingents from France, Poland, Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Although a small minority were writers, artists and intellectuals, most came from working-class backgrounds. Most had little military training or experience, and, on arrival in Spain, they were sent to Albacete for training. They fought in most of the major battles of the Civil War. On 8 February 1939, as Catalonia was occupied by Franco’s forces, the last Brigade units crossed the Spanish frontier into France. To mark this anniversary, we are publishing a review of a recent book on the International Brigades, which was published in English and Spanish last October. 

Apart from the memoirs of former brigaders, there have been many histories of the International Brigades. Most have focussed on volunteers from particular countries  – or, in some cases, on those from individual cities. What distinguishes this volume by Giles Tremlett, the former Madrid correspondent of The Guardian, is that it attempts to cover all of the brigaders, regardless of countries of origin. In this sense it is “international” but, unlike earlier accounts of this sort, it has benefited from the opening of the Russian State Archives, which the author has used extensively along with archives elsewhere including Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the USA.

The book is organised chronologically in a series of time-specific episodes, but many of these episodes are used to explore broader themes and issues. Although the Brigades were formally established in the autumn of 1936, Tremlett begins before that by including earlier volunteers. Most of these were in Barcelona at the time of the military coup in July 1936, when the city was preparing to celebrate the opening of the “Popular Olympics” (organised in protest at the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin). Some of the athletes were among the foreigners who joined the militias which fought to resist the army. Tremlett ends his account, following the military defeat of the Republic in early 1939, with a discussion of the post-war experiences of volunteers.  

People’s Olympiad Poster. Author: Lewy, Fritz, 1893-1950; Contributor: Centre Autonomista de Dependents del Comerç i de la Indústria. Source: CRAI Pavelló de la República (Universitat de Barcelona)

Tremlett’s research in the Soviet archives reveal that volunteers came from more countries than has previously been established – from sixty-five of the sovereign independent states then in existence. 

As he explains in the introduction, most volunteers came from two overlapping categories of people, which he calls “the devout” and “the displaced”. The devout were often, but not always, members of the Communist party. Party leaders attempted to vet volunteers on the basis of motivation, military experience, political views and physical fitness and over half of all volunteers were party members. 

However, in the 1930s Europe housed large numbers of political refugees from repressive regimes. Although the most recent of these were from Germany and Austria, there were also refugees escaping political repression and anti-semitism in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Longer established refugee communities included those who had fled the anti-semitic pogroms in the Czarist Empire and people displaced by the Russian Revolution and by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires at the end of the First World War. To these should be added economic migrants, especially following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression.  

The importance of such refugee communities for recruitment is clear from Tremlett’s account, particularly in the case of Polish volunteers. There were large Polish communities outside Poland, especially in France and Belgium. Only around twenty per cent of Polish brigaders were recruited directly from Poland, the remainder coming from as far away as Argentina. Some 350 Polish volunteers came from Belgium, of whom 131 were Jewish. Of the 1,900 volunteers from Belgium, 800 were, in fact, recent immigrants to that country. Jews accounted for about ten per cent of all volunteers, including 200 of those from Belgium. Volunteers from outside Europe also frequently came from migrant communities: the majority of Ukrainian volunteers, for instance, came from Canada. 

How important was the contribution of the Brigades towards the overall Republican war effort? Tremlett rightly avoids exaggerating their role. They played a crucial part in preventing Franco’s forces from taking Madrid in the winter of 1936-37. In the battles of Jarama in February 1937 and Guadalajara a few weeks later, they helped stop rebel attempts to surround the capital. They were used as shock troops throughout the war and deployed in most of the key battles. Foreign medical staff, often women, attached to the Brigades, played a crucial role in establishing and training the Republican forces’ medical services. The Brigades were, however, always deployed as part of the Republican army and their contribution was limited. They did not fight on the Northern Front, where the Basque Provinces, Santander and Asturias were isolated from the rest of Republican territory. As the war progressed and the Republic trained a new army, the relative importance of the Brigades declined. The five Brigades became decreasingly “international” as their ranks were augmented by Spanish troops and as some of the surviving brigaders  were deployed in the rearguard, in some cases training Spanish recruits. 

The Franco Regime and some historians outside Spain have portrayed the Brigades as a Communist army, under the control of Moscow. The importance of party members, especially among the officers and political commissars, is well known. But different units had different political characters :Tremlett portrays the German-speaking Thälmann Battalion as more thoroughly under Communist party leadership than the Garibaldi Battalion, whose leadership reflected the more diverse nature of Italian anti-Fascism. While figures such as the Frenchman André Marty and the Italian Luigi Longo played key roles at the Brigades’ base in Albacete, Soviet “advisors” occupied many of the leading military posts. The most important of these were not Russians but Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians, who operated under assumed names. These included the Hungarian Paul Lukacs, the Ukrainian Emilio Kléber and the Polish General Walter, all of whom had served in the Red Army. 

The Brigades suffered very high casualty rates –  about a quarter of volunteers from the United Kingdom, France and Canada were killed and Tremlett estimates overall deaths at about twenty per cent, with a high proportion of the survivors wounded. The reasons for this are clear from Tremlett’s account. Their use Brigades as shock-troops, especially in the early months when the Republic was struggling to train an army to replace the improvised militias who had resisted the military coup, meant that the brigaders were often thrown into battle with minimal training and with antiquated weaponry. Until their withdrawal in September 1938 they continued to be involved in much of the heaviest fighting, with resulting heavy casualties. Capture by Franco’s armies, especially during the Republican retreat in Aragon in early 1938, often resulted in immediate execution, though hundreds survived to be used in prisoner exchanges after being subjected to brutal treatment at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos. 

San Pedro de Cardeña (Burgos). 22 September 1938. International prisoners. Ministerio del Interior / Sección técnica. Biblioteca Nacional de España. Images licenced CC-BY.

The Brigades were withdrawn in September 1938 and given a formal farewell in a grand parade in Barcelona the following month, where famously they were addressed by “La Pasionaria” (Dolores Ibarruri). Their subsequent fates differed starkly, as Tremlett outlines in one of the most interesting chapters. Some brigaders, such as the British, US, French and Canadians made their way home, often to be treated with suspicion – in the 1950s they were accused of “premature anti-Fascism” in the USA. Their former comrades from Germany, Italy and other European dictatorships were often less fortunate. In January 1939, some 3,200 volunteers, mainly Germans, Italians, Poles and other east Europeans, were still in Spain because returning to their own countries would mean imprisonment or death. As Franco’s forces advanced on Barcelona they were called upon to return to the battlefield in a vain attempt to help avert military defeat.

By March 1939, following the fall of Catalonia, over 5,700 brigaders were detained in camps in France. Some would play important roles in the French Resistance, others would be deported to Nazi camps where few survived. Some of the Polish volunteers made the journey via North Africa to the USSR where Stalin recruited a Polish army against Germany. Former volunteers would also make important contributions elsewhere, notably in partisan forces operating in Italy and Yugoslavia, where all four of Tito’s partisan armies were led by former brigaders. Some of the Eastern Europeans survived to play important political roles after 1945, notably in the German Democratic Republic, where six former brigaders would become government ministers while others played key roles in the army and security forces. 

Over eighty years later how are we to view those who volunteered and risked their lives in the International Brigades? In the past many writers have seen them as heroic figures who left their homelands and risked death to stop the spread of Fascism. To the Franco Regime – and to Cold War warriors in the West – they were mere adventurers or an invading army of Marxists under the control of Moscow. Tremlett manages to avoid either characterisation, pointing out that they were not uniformly good people and that, as in any large group of people, they included cowards and psychopaths as well as those who were prepared to risk their lives in the pursuit of a noble cause. This recognition of the variety of the brigaders as well as the breadth of the sources used make this a genuinely international history of the Brigades which should be read by anyone interested in the Civil War or interwar Europe. 

The most comprehensive database on membership of the International Brigades is SIDBRINT of the Universitat de Barcelona, which includes a database of over 30,000 volunteers.

Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2020). 

ABOUT THE SAN PEDRO DE CARDEÑA PHOTO [Note added on 3 March 2021]: Our photo shows prisoners of war from the International Brigades giving the straight-armed Fascist salute. This was required of all prisoners – Spanish and non-Spanish – in San Pedro and in other prison camps. According to the American volunteer, Carl Geiser, who was imprisoned in San Pedro between April 1938 and February 1939 the imprisoned Brigaders – mainly British and American – agreed among themselves to give the Fascist salute to avoid the beatings which were given to prisoners who refused. He adds “the sergeants ignored sloppy salutes as long as the fist was not closed” (Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986, p. 129).  The obligation to give the Fascist salute, which was accompanied by the shout of the Dictator’s name, along with the beatings administered to prisoners, were among numerous contraventions by the military rebels of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. 

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MAIN PHOTO: Members of the XV International Brigade, possibly the English Battalion, being farewelled during the Battle of the Ebro in the football field of Marçà (Tarragona), October 1938. Author: Concern Illustrated Daily Courier – Illustration Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.