International POUM volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

In a previous article we reviewed The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, Giles Tremlett’s exhaustive and wide-ranging account of the 34,000 foreign volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Hot on the heels of Tremlett’s book comes this latest volume, Voluntarios por la Revolución: La Milicia Internacional del POUM en la Guerra Civil Española, by Andy Durgan (Laertes, 2022), currently published in Spanish only, on the foreigners who fought in the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). By comparison with the International Brigaders, the foreign volunteers who served in the militia of the POUM have received little attention. To mark the 87th anniversary of the founding of the POUM – 29 September 1935– we are publishing this review of a book which fills this gap in the literature on the Civil War. At the same time we are adding to our database a further 1,174 records which are drawn from Durgan’s extensive research.

The story of the POUM during the Civil War is usually seen through the eyes of Eric Blair, the English writer who wrote under the name George Orwell and whose experiences in the party militia were recounted in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell was a member of the only group of volunteers which has received much attention from historians, namely those from the British Independent Labour Party (ILP). Andy Durgan, a British academic long resident in Barcelona, is excellently suited to his subject-matter: his previous work has included a study of the origins of the POUM

Following the street-fighting in Barcelona in early May 1937, known in Catalan as els fets de maig, the POUM was accused of being a Nazi-front organisation.  On 16 June 1937 it was declared illegal by the Republican government. One of its leaders, Andreu Nin, was arrested and later murdered by Soviet agents, though it was claimed, bizarrely, that he had been rescued from prison by Nazi agents disguised in International Brigade uniforms. Other party leaders were arrested, the Hotel Falcón in Barcelona – the headquarters of the party’s military committee –  was turned into a Communist party prison and its other offices were closed. Numerous members of the POUM militia were arrested, in some cases after returning on leave to Barcelona after serving on the front line in Aragon.    

At the time of the outlawing of the POUM, the accusations against the party of being agents of the Nazi state were repeated in foreign media and widely believed.  Orwell, who returned to Barcelona from the Aragon front on 20 June, was forced to go into hiding until he escaped to France with his wife. Later, in Homage to Catalonia (1938) Orwell set out to expose the preposterous allegations against the POUM and its members. In 1938 seven prominent leaders of the party were finally put on trial: the charges of being Nazi agents collapsed and, instead, five of the accused were convicted of attempting a revolutionary seizure of power in Barcelona in May 1937. As Durgan points out, the Republican state and its legal system were not under the control of the Soviet Union or the Spanish Communist Party and the kind of show trial which occurred in Moscow in 1936-1938 was not possible in the Republic. 

Despite the acquittal of the party leadership on charges of being Nazi agents, much of the mud thrown at members of the party and its militia has continued to stick.  Among the common accusations which have been regularly levelled at the POUM militia, two stand out: that of playing football against the enemy in no-man’s land on the Aragon front and that of large-scale desertion of the same front during the fets de maig. Durgan provides evidence to refute both of these charges. With regard to the allegations that the POUM was a nest of foreign spies, Durgan accepts that there were probably spies in all military units, but dismisses the idea that they played an important role in the POUM by pointing to the extensive pre-war experience of many of the foreign volunteers as militant revolutionaries.  This, effectively, is one of the fundamental points of Durgan’s volume: by detailing, as he does, the backgrounds of the foreign POUM volunteers, he challenges the reader to believe that such people could be Fascist spies or counter-revolutionaries. 

The exact number of foreigners who served in POUM military units between the military coup of July 1936 and the outlawing of the party in June 1937 is unknown. Durgan puts the number at about 500, of whom he has managed to trace 367; these form the basis of much of the book. The brief biographical notes on each of these which are provided in an appendix give a picture of the extraordinary lives of many of these hitherto-overlooked revolutionaries and will be of use to researchers. 

Not surprisingly the POUM volunteers shared many characteristics with members of the International Brigades: most were manual workers, only a minority had any previous military experience and a significant number were Jewish. There were, however, differences: Poumistas tended to be older than Brigaders.  Whereas the latter included volunteers from around four-fifths of the total of independent states in the world, the POUM volunteers were drawn from a smaller range of countries and they were more likely to be anti-fascist refugees. Some 60 per cent of POUM volunteers came from countries with authoritarian governments, with the largest groups, not surprisingly, from Germany (about 30 per cent) and Italy (another 20 per cent). Most of these were already living outside their home countries when the Civil War began, often in France or Belgium. However, a significant number foreign Poumistas were already living in Spain before the outbreak of war: Durgan identifies 79 such foreign residents, 34 of them German, 25 Italian. Most of the Germans were living in Barcelona, where, even before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, there was a large German community. By 1934 this was estimated by the police at 15,000-18,000, many of them illegal immigrants. One of the features of interwar Europe underlined both by Durgan and by Tremlett is the large number of displaced people. 

The common background of German and Italian volunteers as refugees from dictatorship in their home countries led to one, possibly predictable, difference between the two groups. The earlier establishment of the Fascist regime in Italy meant that most Italian volunteers had left the country in the 1920s, making the average Italian poumista noticeably older than their German counterpart – and older than the overall average of POUM foreigners.  

Predictably many of the POUM volunteers had been active in left-wing political circles in their own countries, either in dissident Communist groups and parties critical of Stalin or in left-wing Socialist parties, such as the German Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD) and the British ILP.  Durgan helpfully provides both background material on these parties in an early chapter as well as an alphabetical list which many readers will find particularly useful. 

The focus of Durgan’s book is, however, not only on the foreign volunteers: he also sets out to examine the military policies of the POUM, an aspect which, he argues, has been badly neglected by historians. This involves detailed accounts of the establishment and development of the POUM militia units and their military activity during the first year of the war, above all on the Aragon Front. 

Historians seem to have accepted too readily Orwell’s picture of Aragon as a stagnant front where little fighting occurred. This picture fitted easily into accounts of the war written by opponents of the POUM including supporters of the Communist party. The Aragon Front was clearly a backwater in comparison with the battles around Madrid in the winter of 1936-1937 and those in the Basque provinces and Asturias in the summer of 1937. However, Durgan shows that the POUM units were far from inactive, particularly in the attempts to seize the Francoist stronghold of Huesca. Indeed, on the very day that the POUM was declared an illegal organisation, 16 June 1937, troops from the 29th Division, the party’s militia unit which had until shortly before been known as the Lenin Division, captured the strategically important hill “Loma de las Mártires” on the northern outskirts of Huesca. 

While most of the POUM forces were deployed in Aragon, Durgan also details the experiences of the party’s unit on the Madrid front, including the role of the Argentine Mika Etchebéhèhere, who, despite being a woman, commanded a company of the POUM militia and later served on the General Staff of the (Anarchist) 36th Brigade, before dedicating her remaining time in Spain to working with the Anarchist women’s organisation Mujeres Libres

Mika Etchebéhère, who was born in Argentina in 1902 and died in France in 1992 . Here at the Guadalajara front in 1936. PHOTO: Wikipedia

The POUM is often seen as a marginal party which enjoyed an ephemeral existence between its founding in 1935 and its suppression. Durgan challenges this, citing a membership of 30,000 during the winter of 1936/7, mainly in the most revolutionary zones of Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon. While it is often assumed that the outlawing of the POUM in June 1937 spelt the end of the party, Durgan also shows that this was clearly not the case: it continued a shadowy existence in Valencia and Madrid until mid-1938: clandestine editions of La Batalla, the party’s newspaper, continued to appear and Durgan quotes the paper’s editor, Josep Rebull, who claimed that 8,000 to 10,000 members remained active in December 1937.     

After the party was outlawed the fate of the POUM’s foreign volunteers varied. Durgan argues that most of the volunteers who came from countries with democratic regimes were able to leave Spain, though in many cases this was after periods of detention. The situation for the remainder was much more difficult as they could not return to their home countries. Durgan lists 104 volunteers who were arrested after the fets de maig, 31 of whom were expelled. Many of the others stayed on, whether to enlist in anarchist units, in the International Brigades, in regular units of the Republican army, or, in some cases to work in factories. 

Readers of Homage to Catalonia may recall that, prior to the fets de maig , the author, along with some of the other ILP volunteers, was attempting to transfer to the International Brigades. The events in Barcelona made this unthinkable and Orwell returned to the POUM militia on the Aragon Front until he was wounded. Transfers between military units seem, however, to have been relatively common: Durgan identifies 51 volunteers who served in both the International Brigades and in POUM militia units. In some cases former Poumistas had limited alternatives: the Italian Giuseppe Leban, for example, was expelled from Spain in August 1937, but was then expelled from France two months later and returned to Spain to join the Brigades.

The situation of many of the volunteers emerges from the biographical details in Durgan’s appendix. The German Hans Reiter, for example, a former member of the French Foreign Legion, served in the POUM militia and, after being detained in July 1937, became an officer in the Republican army. Detained in a camp in Algeria between 1939 and 1942, he joined General Philippe Leclerc’s famous 2nd Armoured Division which entered Paris at the head of allied liberation forces in August 1944.  Otto Towe, also German, served in the POUM militia before transferring to the Anarchist Durruti Column in December 1936 and subsequently, in July 1937, enlisting in the International Brigades in which he served until the end of the war (despite being briefly arrested in August 1937). His experiences afterwards included being interned in France, returning to Germany where he was detained by the Gestapo, being sent to Greece as part of a German penal battalion, escaping and joining the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), the largest of the Greek forces fighting the German occupation. 

Towe’s option of joining the International Brigades, however, does not seem to have been available to many of those volunteers who had been members of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Opposition), the dissident German communist party: Durgan notes the role of the KPD-Abwehr, the security organisation of the pro-Moscow German communist party, which accused all German POUM volunteers of being Gestapo agents and was able to prevent most of them from enlisting in the Brigades. 

As the cases of Otto Towe and Hans Reiter indicate, the fate of those foreigners who served in the POUM was often very harsh after the victory of Franco. The relatively large numbers of German and Italian volunteers were, almost inevitably, destined for concentration camps, initially in France, where their prospects worsened after the Fall of France in 1940.  Of the 52 POUM volunteers whom Durgan lists as having been interned in French camps, 28 were Italians and 18 Germans. Their situation can be compared with many of their compatriots from the International Brigades. Like the latter many were sent to the concentration camp at Gurs in South-west France. Here, according to Durgan the Poumistas suffered the additional hardship of being treated as Nazi spies and sympathisers by members of the Communist party. 

How should we assess the contribution of the relatively small number of foreign volunteers who served in the military units of the POUM? Durgan argues that their importance should not be overlooked. He lists 36 volunteers who served as officers and/or political commissars in POUM units and argues that the units in which they served were the most effective assembled by the party. Their role, like that of the POUM itself, has been marginalised in many of the accounts of the Civil War. Few historians have believed the charges levelled at the party and its militia of being a Nazi front organisation, but, as Durgan indicates, many of the other frequently repeated accusations made against it were unwarranted and false.  One of Durgan’s conclusions, indeed, is that:

the main difference between the foreign fighters of the POUM and the members of the International Brigades was the vilification and, in many cases, the repression to which they were subjected

Voluntarios por la Revolución: La Milicia Internacional del POUM en la Guerra Civil Española (p. 485)

As indicated earlier, this book’s focus on the foreign volunteers of the POUM fills a vacuum in our knowledge and understanding of aspects of the Civil War. While much of the material on the party itself may already be found in specialist literature in Spanish and Catalan, Voluntarios Por La Revolución makes this available to a wider readership and is to be recommended to readers interested in the internal politics of Republican Spain during the Civil War. Readers of the English edition of this blog must hope for the early publication of an English-language edition.  

With thanks for Enric’s work on the database.

This post has been updated on 4 October 2022.

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PHOTO: POUM’s militia members being instructed about shotguns. Lenin headquarters in Barcelona. Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Imágenes procedentes de los fondos de la Biblioteca Nacional de España.