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The road to the Coup of September 1923: Social Conflict in Barcelona

Just before midnight on 12 September 1923 Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, Captain-General of Catalonia, declared martial law and announced his seizure of power. On 15 September, after dismissing the existing government, King Alfonso XIII appointed Primo as Prime Minister. To mark the centenary of the 1923 coup we are publishing this blog post which focuses on the role of social conflict in Barcelona between 1919 and 1923 in preparing the road to the coup.  

The parliamentary regime established in 1876 is often seen as having brought Spain political stability. However, from 1917, the regime entered a period of continuous crisis. In some respects the regime itself and the challenges it faced after 1917 may be compared with those of other West European countries in the period, such as Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany. Despite the adoption of universal male suffrage in 1890, Spanish politics was dominated by the landed and business classes. Their influence was exercised through pressure on the voters, particularly in rural areas, as well as through the existence of a nominated upper parliamentary chamber to check the elected lower chamber and through the continued power of the monarchy. 

The immediate post-war years witnessed social and political conflict across Europe, partly as a result of the effects of the war itself and partly due to the post-war demobilisation of troops and attempts to restore the political and social order of the pre-war world. Additional instability was caused by the effects of the Russian Revolution: despite the shortage of reliable information on events in Russia, news of the Bolshevik seizure of power inspired many leftist groups across Europe and terrified members of the propertied classes.  By 1917 the two aristocratic parties (Liberals and Conservatives) on which the system was based, were badly fractured, making it difficult to form a government with a stable majority in the Cortes and providing the opportunity for King Alfonso XIII to exercise greater political influence. Against this background the short-lived Spanish governments of the post-war period faced a series of challenges which would have tested any regime, among them the attempt to control the territory in Morocco allocated to Spain in the international agreements of 1904 and 1912.

Though Spain had remained neutral, the effects of the First World War had been profound, disrupting the pre-war political structure, generating an economic boom which saw vast profits  made from exporting goods to the British and French, accompanied by high inflation which exacerbated the struggles of the urban and rural populations in conditions of rapid industrialisation.  While this affected all sectors of Spanish society, this process was particularly marked in Barcelona, as Francisco J. Romero Salvadó points out:

During the war years, no other Spanish city experienced such a disparity between the wealthy few and the labouring masses. The industrial boom brought extraordinary profits to the textile barons, financiers and businessmen of Barcelona….At the same time, the hard-pressed working class endured long shifts in factories and, with low wages, could hardly afford the rising prices of staple products and rents.

The Foundations of Civil War: Revolution, Social Conflict and Reaction in Liberal Spain, 1916–1923. Routledge, 2008, p. 126

While the years 1919-1921 are known as the “Trienio Bolchevique” largely for the strikes and rural revolts in Andalucía – which were put down with great violence and which involved the deployment of 20,000 troops under General Manuel Barrera – the crisis of the post war years was centred, perhaps not surprisingly, in Barcelona. In Romero Salvadó’s words:

The largest metropolis in the country, with an unequal background of labour mobilisation, the Catalan capital appeared as the paradigm of all the contradictions and tensions of this modernising process: massive immigration, a widening gap between an entrennched bourgeoisie and a pauperised proletariat, strong nationalist feelings, a restless local garrison, and a widespread mistrust of the distant and unrepresentative central administration.

The Foundations of Civil War: Revolution, Social Conflict and Reaction in Liberal Spain, 1916–1923. Routledge, 2008, p. 139

Of central importance in the city’s post-war experience was the great 44 day strike at the Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company Limited (known as La Canadiense or La Canadenca) between February and April 1919. Solidarity strikes by textile workers and utility workers plunged the city into darkness: trams stopped running and the shops closed. The strike demonstrated the power of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the Anarcho-Syndicalist union federation which was able to enforce compliance with the stoppage. In conditions of little violence, the federation was able to rally support for the strike to the point where the printers union was able to block the publication of a decree from the Captain-General, Gen. Milans del Bosch, militarising the public services (the decree had the effect of conscripting workers who could then be prosecuted by courts martial). 

Avinguda Paral·lel in Barcelona in 1913 looking east showing the chimneys of the power station La Canadiense. Photo by Frederic Ballell i Maymí. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona, AFB3-117, Núm 320245. Public domain via wikipedia

Milans pressed the government to declare martial law, but the Prime Minister, Count Romanones refused and sought a compromise solution, which included the promise to introduce a maximum eight-hour working day (the first anywhere in Europe). Resolution of the conflict was, however, undermined by the resistance of many business leaders and by army officers stationed in the city, led by Milans himself. Arguing that drastic measures were needed to break the power of the CNT, they viewed the response of the Romanones government as weak and leaving them defenceless against a threat of revolution. They denounced the introduction of the eight-hour day as rewarding trouble-makers. Although Romanones had replaced the Civil Governor and the Head of Police with more conciliatory figures, these soon came into conflict with Milans and with the Military Governor, General Severiano Martinez Anido and were forced to catch the train to Madrid, a move which led to the resignation of the Prime Minister. This, as Romero Salvado argues, was a “coup in all but name” (The Foundations of Civil War, p. 198) and it received the enthusiastic support of the major institutions of the Catalan business class, notably the Fomento del Trabajo Nacional (FTN) and the Federación Patronal de Cataluña

The Canadiense strike set the pattern for conflict over the next four years and can be seen as paving the route to the 1923 coup. Terrified by the power of the CNT, many of the big industrialists felt that they had been held to ransom during the Canadiense strike by a gang of criminals and were determined to reassert control over the labour force. As Romero Salvadó points out “in an age of mass politics and popular mobilisation, the old governing classes were increasingly perceived as unable to contain the revolutionary avalanche and defend the social order” (The Foundations of Civil War, p.191).  

Even before the Canadiense strike the employers had begun to mobilise. Complaints of a lack of adequate policing were not new (with a population of 700,000 the city had only 1,000 officers) but in early 1919 business leaders and the army established a new parallel police force. This was given the old Catalan name of the Somatén, which referred to a medieval rural militia. Although the new force claimed to be an inter-class force of “patriotic citizens”, its leadership included figures such as Count Godó, the Marquis of Comillas and Francesc Cambó. Another, more shady force was also established with army support, by Manuel Bravo Portillo, a former police chief who had been dismissed for his role as a wartime German spy. This conducted a dirty war against CNT members, subjecting them to arrest, beatings and occasionally murder, often using information assembled in the so-called Fichero Lasarte, a card-index of members of the CNT which was assembled from underground sources. In October 1919, in an attempt to challenge the dominance of the CNT in the labour force, a new parallel union movement, known as the Sindicatos Libres was organised, again with army support.  

In the period between the resignation of Romanones (April 1919) and September 1923 Spain was governed by eight different governments which attempted to grapple with the situation in the city. Some, such as those led by Antonio Maura (April-July 1919) backed the Barcelona elite and military leadership in their attempts to destroy the CNT.  Maura’s successor, Joaquín Sánchez de Toca (July-December 1919) adopted a different approach, attempting to recognise the labour movement and bring it into the legal process, thus isolating the violent sections of the CNT. With 15,000 CNT members in prison, the new Civil Governor, Julio Amado, began negotiations with leading CNT figures and ended martial law. This was followed by a general amnesty, the implementation of the eight hour working-day and the introduction of a Comisión Mixta de Trabajo (a joint Employer-Labour Arbitration Committee). 

After failing to persuade the government to support them in destroying the labour movement, the Catalan industrialists launched a partial lockout in November 1919.  The Patronal denounced what it saw as the complicity of the government with the unions and called for “men of order” to seize power. (The Foundations of Civil War, p. 206). After temporarily lifting their lockout in mid-November, the employers threatened a complete lockout from 1 December unless the government closed down all the workers’ centres and arrested the union leaders. Faced with this, the Sánchez de Toca government collapsed a few days later. Despite the appointment of a new government and the hard-line Count Salvatierra as the new Civil Governor, the Catalan business groups were not satisfied: when Milans del Bosch was forced to resign in February 1920, a symbolic one-day closure of all businesses in Barcelona was called in protest and there were calls for the intervention of the king.   

The alliance between the army leadership and the business classes played a major role in fuelling the violence for which Barcelona became notorious. Although violence spread from Barcelona to other industrial cities in Spain, it was at a much lower level. One contemporary writer listed a total of 225 deaths and 733 people wounded in violence in Barcelona in the years 1917-1921 (B. Martin, The Agony of Modernisation, 1990, citing J. M. Farré Morego, Las atentados sociales en España, 1922). Among the targets of anarchist gangs were industrialists and managers: in one spectacular attack on 5 January 1920 the car carrying the president of the Catalan branch of the Patronal, Felix Graupera was attacked, injuring Graupera and his driver and killing a police officer. The closure of all unions and the arrest of some 1,500 CNT members in early 1920, as well as the violent activities of police forces and the Somatén, increased the influence of the violent gangs within the anarchist movement and reduced that of syndicalist leaders such as Salvador Seguí and Angel Pestaña. Among the victims of anarchist violence were the prime minister (from May 1920) Eduardo Dato, assassinated by an anarchist hit-squad in Madrid in March 1921 and Count Salvatierra, the former Civil Governor of Barcelona, murdered in August 1920. Noticeably, the anti-labour squads did not restrict their targets to the violent parts of the anarchist movement: their victims included the charismatic and popular syndicalist leader Salvador Seguí (March 1923) and Angel Pestaña, who was wounded but survived assassination in August 1922. 

La Canadiense share. Public domain, via wikipedia

After the resignation of Milans del Bosch, Catalan business leaders found a new hardline military champion in Gen. Martínez Anido, who became Civil Governor in November 1920, following pressure on the government. During the first three weeks of 1921 a total of twenty-one CNT members were killed under the application of the so-called Ley de fugas, the practice under which prisoners were shot and reported as having attempted to escape. To relieve congestion in the city prisons, manacled groups of prisoners were led out of Barcelona by mounted guards each week and forced to march to prisons across the country. 

Although these policies weakened the labour movement, there was never unanimous support for these repressive policies among the parliamentary leaders in Madrid. The final two governments before the 1923 coup, led by José Sánchez Guerra (March-December 1922) and Manuel García Prieto who replaced him in December 1922, attempted a policy of “normalisation”, ending martial law, restoring civil liberties and attempting to introduce legislation on collective labour contracts. Meanwhile, Salvador Seguí and others attempted to rebuild the CNT and distance it from the violence of the anarchist gangs but his death led to a revival of terrorist activity by young gunmen such as Buenaventura Durruti. Their most spectacular attack was the murder of Cardinal Soldevilla of Zaragoza in June 1923. At the same time gunmen linked to the Sindicatos Libres and the police had resumed attacks on CNT members. Pestaña later noted that most of their targets were figures opposed to terrorism. As Romero Salvadó points out “Seguí, as the leader most capable of rebuilding the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement, was the person who had to be eliminated” (The Foundations of Civil War, p. 279).  

The response of the FTN, the Patronal and the army leadership in Barcelona to the new approach of the Sánchez Guerra and García Prieto governments was predictable. In March 1923 the Catalan industrial leaders led a campaign to block the government’s attempt to introduce legislation on collective labour contracts (which would have provided a legal role for the labour movement). Following the dismissal of Martínez Anido as Civil Governor in November 1922, business groups  began to look for a new defender, whom they found in the person of the newly-appointed Captain-General, Miguel Primo de Rivera. 

Following a new transport strike in Barcelona in May 1923 which brought the city to a standstill, the FTN denounced the government for not only tolerating the situation but for protecting the CNT gangs and proclaimed Primo as their only possible saviour. On 12-13 September after Primo announced his coup in Barcelona he was accompanied and encouraged by many of the city’s key business leaders and his move was welcomed by the FTN and the Patronal. On his departure for Madrid to meet king Alfonso and be sworn in as Prime Minister, he was seen off by a reported 4,000 of the city’s prosperous citizens. Their support was not surprising: since 1919 they had, in alliance with military leaders such as Milans del Bosch and Martínez Anido, forced the resignation of two Spanish governments and resisted and undermined any government unwilling to pursue the repressive policies which they favoured. Along with their business allies in other parts of Spain, they had now abandoned the parliamentary regime established in 1876.

After the coup Milans del Bosch and Martinez Anido continued to play important roles in the politics of repression in Spain. Milans del Bosch served as Civil Governor of Barcelona between 1924 and the resignation of Primo de Rivera in January 1930. Martinez Anido was Minister of the Interior (Ministro de Gobernación) and Deputy Prime Minister (Vicepresidente del Consejo de Ministros) between 1924 and January 1930. Between January 1938 and his death in December 1938 he served as Minister of Public Order (Ministro de Orden Público) under Franco.

PHOTO: King Alfonso XIII (left) and Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, by unknown author. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-09411 CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE. The image has been edited to fit the space.

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Tossa de Mar in Peace and War 1935-1939

In 1935 a British couple Nancy and Archie Johnstone opened a hotel on the Catalan coast in Tossa de Mar.  Unlike most foreign residents, the Johnstones stayed on after the Civil War broke out, finally leaving in early February 1939 as Republican resistance to Franco’s forces collapsed in Catalonia. Nancy recounted her experiences in two books published at the time in English: Hotel in Spain (July 1937) and Hotel in Flight  (September 1939). Until recently these books were forgotten but in 2011 a Spanish edition of both volumes together was published under the title Un Hotel en la Costa Brava: Tossa de Mar 1934-1939. (Ed. Tusquets, translated by Jaime Salmerón, edited by Miquel Berga i Bagué).  A Catalan translation, Un Hotel a la costa: Tossa de Mar 1934-1939 (Ed. Tusquets, translated by Miquel Berga i Bagué)  followed shortly after.  In 2018 the Catalan director Isona Passola announced plans to make a film based on the Johnstones’ experiences in Tossa de Mar, although those plans did not seem to progress. We are publishing this review to mark the publication of a new English-language edition of Nancy Johnstone’s books, Hotel in Spain and Hotel in Flight ,  the first since they were originally published. 

Nancy and Archie Johnstone first visited the Costa Brava in 1934 and their hotel – known as Casa Johnstone  – opened the following summer.  Before leaving London Archie worked as a sub-editor on the News Chronicle, a liberal British newspaper, and the couple used their wide connections in England to publicise their hotel among the British middle classes.

In the 1930s Tossa de Mar was very different from the popular tourist resort it became during the 1960s.  The population was largely self-sufficient, relying heavily on fishing and growing fruit and vegetables.  A number of artists lived in the village, notably the avant-garde German painter  Oskar Zugell, who became a close friend of the Johnstones. There was also a small community of refugees from Nazi Germany, who Johnstone regarded as being ill-suited to country life and unable to make friends in the village. 

Hotel in Spain is a humorous and gossipy account of the building of the hotel and of their first year as hoteliers. Much of the narrative focuses on the perceived eccentricities of their guests and she provides a sympathetic and affectionate account of the Catalan workers who built the hotel and of the staff who helped to run it. Most of the guests are not identified, apart from the numerous journalists who seem to have been enthusiastic and boisterous visitors.  They included Frank Jellinek and his wife, Marguerite; later, when the Civil War broke out the Jellineks were living in Spain, though not in Tossa, and Frank would become the Manchester Guardian’s chief correspondent in Spain during the first months of the conflict. Most of the other journalists were from the News Chronicle which would provide some of the best-informed reporting on Republican Spain during the Civil War by any British newspaper.

Nancy and Archie Johnstone. Photo: The Clapton Press

According to Johnstone’s account, the political developments during 1935-36 had very little resonance in Tossa, although perhaps her view may be partly a result of the effort required to start the hotel and cater for their guests. In the early weeks of the war they seem to have continued to receive guests but foreign visitors soon stopped arriving, frightened off by the British press, most of which published exaggerated stories of “red violence” in the streets of Barcelona, often with the connivance of supporters of the military rebels. On three occasions a vessel from the British navy visited Tossa to evacuate British citizens, but the Johnstones refused to leave, arguing that they were in no danger from the local population who were their friends and neighbours. The German refugees in Tossa were understandably much more worried about developments, although Johnstone does not seem to have fully appreciated the difference in their situation: already exiles, their fate in the event of a Francoist victory could hardly be compared with those of the two British hoteliers who possessed British passports and who could return to Britain whenever they wanted. In the event most of the refugees in Tossa left the country, though some volunteered to help the Republican war effort.

Hotel in Spain ends with the author describing life in Tossa in the early winter of 1936, by which time the Johnstones had adapted to life without hotel guests.  She reports that the village had avoided violence and was being run by a committee of representatives of trade unions and political parties. Supplies of essential foodstuffs seem to have been adequate as most families could rely on their own produce and on exchange with friends and neighbours. This was in stark contrast with the situation in Barcelona and the other industrial areas of Catalonia where food-supply problems produced hyper-inflation, food-queues and social protest in early 1937.  The winter of 1937-38 was, however, a different matter in the village: even here there was widespread hardship and, despite being able to barter with friends in the village, the Johnstones were forced to rely partly on food-parcels sent from France and Britain.   

Hotel in Flight can be seen as consisting of two parts: the first, dealing with the author’s experiences from January 1937 to May 1938 when the couple returned to Britain for a short period, and the second from August 1938 to early 1939 when the Casa Johnstone was converted into a children’s home. During 1937 most visitors to the hotel were foreigners resting from their efforts in support of the Republican cause, particularly in Barcelona but also at the front. There were also visits from foreign writers and poets such as W. H. Auden. Relations with the Republican government and with the Catalan Generalitat were clearly very good and both governments used the hotel as a venue for lunches for delegations of visiting foreign dignitaries en route to the French frontier.  

Although Johnstone spent most of the war in Tossa and seems to have only visited Barcelona on rare occasions, she managed to be in the city on three notable occasions: during the street-fighting in early May 1937 which was made famous in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; during the sustained Italian bombing of Barcelona from 16th to 18th March 1938; and in the final days before the city fell to Franco’s rebel forces in January 1939.  

During one of the Italian air-raids in March 1938 she was caught in a small restaurant near the Plaça Urquinaona with Leon, a young German who worked in the Casa Johnstone: 

I found myself lying flat on my back somewhere up against the bar. Leon was coughing nearby. The air was thick with fine dust and a choking smell was making every one gasp. I was certain we were being gassed.

There was an odd silence except for the coughing of various people lying on the floor. People began getting up and walking about. Someone picked up a table and put it straight. Leon was busily talking to me, but I was not interested. He says he was only asking me if I was hurt, but it sounded as if he was reading extracts from Thomas Mann… Leon insisted on going out to see if the raid was over. He came back and reported with triumph that the house next door had disappeared. It looked as if a giant knife had cut a slice out of the row of buildings.

Hotel in Flight (pp. 138-9)

Shortly after this experience the Johnstones spent three months in London, trying, apparently in vain, to interest their English friends in the situation in Spain and attempting to counter their friends’ false assumptions: that the Republic was dominated by the Soviet Union, that their hotel had been expropriated by Communists and that they had been expelled. On their return to Tossa in August 1938 they converted the hotel into a children’s home (colonia) supported by the International Solidarity Fund, an organisation established by the international labour movement to support Spanish civilians. The home mainly housed children whose parents were living as refugees in Barcelona after leaving the war-zones of Aragon.  By then there were three other colonias in Tossa. This part of her book illustrates the scale of the refugee problem faced by the Republic, especially in Barcelona: as early as January 1937 the Quakers had estimated that there were 25,000 children wandering the city’s streets and by the end of 1938, the city probably housed some 400,000 refugees who had fled Franco’s forces and the war-zones. 

After the fall of Barcelona the Johnstones waited with the children in Tossa, unsure whether the International Solidarity Fund would provide transport to take them and the children to France or whether they would all be left in the path of the advancing Francoist forces. Finally escaping in a lorry to Figueras, they all sheltered for several days in the theatre, before Richard Rees, a prominent Quaker worker, arranged their escape to France where the children were initially housed in camps. 

Photo: Ajuntament de Girona. CRDI (Author unknown. Internationaal
Instituut Voor Sociale Geschiedenis – Amsterdam)

At this time –  late January and the first two weeks of February 1939 – some 450,000 refugees are usually estimated to have fled from Catalonia into France.  Johnstone describes their journey to the frontier as “unforgettable”: the road, which shortly before had been blocked by the broken-down and bombed vehicles of some of the refugees, had been cleared: 

The scenes of utter desolation were like pictures of the ravages of a flood or earthquake. It looked as if a giant wave had flung up the broken suitcases, the littered clothes, the swirling heaps of paper. Exhausted refugees flung their possessions from them as they trudged to France. Mattresses, bursting obscenely open, spilled out their entrails, overturned lorries lay nakedly revealing their innermost machinery…Nearer the frontier humans were added to the litter. The fires were alight, warming groups of human jetsam. Smoke from thousands upon thousands of tiny fires wreathed the valleys and poured up from the mountain sides

Hotel in Flight (pp. 353-4)

Understandably Hotel in Flight is more serious in style as well as in content than Johnstone’s earlier volume. Nevertheless George Orwell, who reviewed it for the magazine The Adelphi in December 1939, complained that it was “chirpily facetious”.  At the same time, however, he praised the account she gave of the final months of the Republic:

The book becomes increasingly a story of food-shortage and tobacco-shortage, air-raids, spy-mania and refugee children, and ends with the terrible retreat into France and the stench and misery of the concentration camps around Perpignan. Much of the atmosphere will be horribly familiar to anyone who was in Spain at any period of the war. The sense of never having quite enough to eat, the muddle, the inefficiency, the inability to understand what is happening, the feeling that everything is fading away into a sort of mist of fear, suspicion, red-tape and obscure political jealousies – it is all there with plenty of crude physical adventure into the bargain.

Peter Davison (ed), Orwell in Spain, 2001 (pp. 331-2)

After leaving Spain Nancy and Archie Johnstone worked for refugee organisations assisting Spanish refugees in France, before leaving for Mexico. The couple later separated and, after two visits to Tossa de Mar in 1947 and 1951, Nancy sold the Casa Johnstone and settled in Guatemala. The hotel-building still exists, though it is now part of the Hotel Don Juan

Hotel in Spain and Hotel in Flight are both published in English by The Clapton Press.

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PHOTO: Casa Johnstone. Terrace dining room (1930-1940). Ajuntament de Girona. CRDI (Sebastià Martí) – BY-NC-ND.

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.

The San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp

Between 1936 and 1947 almost half a million people were detained in 188 Francoist concentration camps, the last of which, at Miranda de Ebro, finally closed in 1947 (Javier Rodrigo, Cautivos, 2005, p. 308). One of the most important camps occupied parts of the ancient monastery at San Pedro de Cardeña, about 10 km south east of Burgos. San Pedro is best known as a camp for captured members of the International Brigades and other foreign prisoners in 1938-9. Before this, however, it played an important role in the development of the Francoist detention system during the rebel offensive of 1937 against the Republican-held northern coastal provinces of Vizcaya, Santander and Asturias. San Pedro also deserves to be remembered for the investigations of Antonio Vallejo Nágera to find the “red gene”; the findings of these studies on foreign prisoners were used to justify the Francoist system of repression during and after the war. 

San Pedro and the War in the North

In December 1936, after the failure of their offensive on Madrid, the rebel authorities established concentration camps in several locations in northern Spain. These early camps were usually situated in castles, fortresses or monasteries. One of these was San Pedro: the monastery, which had been closed since 1922, was assessed as being suitable for 1,200 prisoners who would be confined in large rooms rather than in cells. 

In early 1937 the camp began to fill up with men transferred from other camps in northern Spain. Prior to arrival in San Pedro these men had passed through the Francoist screening system which categorised prisoners on the basis of their loyalties: Aa afectos (supportive of the rebels); Ad dudosos (of doubtful loyalty); B reaprovechables (redeemable); criminales (criminals). Men sent to San Pedro were classified as either Ad or B. 

The rebel campaign against Vizcaya which began on 31 March 1937 led to the capture of thousands of people, both civilians and members of the Republican forces, many of whom, after screening, were sent to San Pedro. The summary nature of the screening is clear: following the fall of Bilbao on 19 June a camp was established at Deusto where, in the last ten days of July, the classification committee processed 536 prisoners. Meanwhile at Murgia (near Vitoria), an average of 100 people were screened per ten hour day throughout July, a rate of one case every six minutes (Rodrigo, p. 54). 

The occupation of Santander by Franco’s forces in August 1937 led to the capture of some 50,000 people, while the end of Republican resistance in Asturias, two months later, produced another 33,000 prisoners. In September and October 1937 5,699 of these men were transferred to San Pedro, which operated as a transit camp: prisoners spent about six weeks there until they were sent elsewhere in labour battalions (Batallones de Trabajadores) of 600 men.  During 1937, according to Javier Rodrigo’s exhaustive study of the camp system, some 10,000 men left San Pedro in labour battalions; 3,000 of them were despatched to work in the giant iron ore mine at Gallarta near Bilbao (Rodrigo, pp. 73-4).

Prisoners building a road near San Pedro de Cardeña

Living conditions at San Pedro were very similar to those in most of the camps – in Rodrigo’s words  “lice, cold, hunger, humiliation, culture-shock and punishment”  – as well as illness, the major cause of death, caused by the overcrowding and poor conditions.  Prisoners suffered from what Rodrigo calls Sanpedronitis, a “generalised ill-health: the loss of teeth, bleeding gums, as a result of the poor food and the lack of vitamins” (Rodrigo, pp. 161-2).  Although the camp was, he argues, poorly guarded, there were few escape attempts because the prisoners were too physically weak. The exceptions were six German brigaders who escaped in an attempt to avoid the attention of the Gestapo and/or transfer to Germany: they were recaptured, returned to San Pedro and punished brutally. Although San Pedro, unlike most camps, benefited from a health centre, the only medicine available was aspirin. Research carried out in the 1980s by Carl Geiser, an International Brigader imprisoned at San Pedro, uncovered the deaths of 66 Spanish and 10 foreign prisoners at the camp. (Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986, pp. 115-6.)

Geiser described his own first afternoon in San Pedro: 

Several thousand Basque and Asturian prisoners in civilian clothes were herded into the area between us and the lawn…A tall, lean priest appeared on the raised lawn, a Franciscan, wearing a long brown robe with a white sash. In a twenty-minute homily he explained why fascism was preferable to democracy and communism. Then a short, elderly grey-haired major – the comandante of the camp – and several officers led the singing of the fascist anthem Cara al Sol (‘Face to the Sun’). The ceremony concluded with an officer crying out ‘España!’ to which the Spanish prisoners responded ‘Una!’ a second ‘España!’ and the response ‘Grande!’ a third ‘España!’ and a resounding ‘Libre!’ Then three weaker shouts of ‘Franco!’ synchronised with the raised and lowered arms.

Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, p. 104.

In early April 1938, when the first internacionales arrived, the camp held about 2,000 Spanish prisoners. By 10 June the total number of men in the camp had risen to 3,673 – three times the initial estimate of its capacity. The After this, however, San Pedro and many of the other northern camps became less important as centres for holding Spanish prisoners: the Republican defeats in Aragon in March-April 1938 and the insurgent offensive in Catalonia in December 1938 led to the opening of new camps in recently occupied territory.  

San Pedro and International prisoners

The decision to concentrate captured foreigners including members of the International Brigades at San Pedro was influenced by several factors. Under pressure from its Italian and German allies, the Franco regime decided to exchange these prisoners for Italian and German soldiers and airmen in Republican prisons. Small numbers of foreign prisoners had previously been exchanged, although International Brigaders had frequently been shot when captured (Geiser lists the details of 172 brigaders from the United States shot after capture between April 1937 and September 1938).  The decision to send captured foreigners  to San Pedro came days after the capture of large numbers of brigaders in Aragon, including Geiser, the political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, whose book, Prisoners of the Good Fight is the best account of the experience of the internacionales in San Pedro. 

By early May 1938 there were 625 internacionales in San Pedro. The largest groups were from Britain and Ireland (149), the United States (74), France (48), Germany and Austria (44), Poland (32); the remainder came from 33 other countries. Not all were International Brigaders: Geiser’s later research uncovered an official list of the 653 foreigners in San Pedro on 10 September 1938: 130 were men who had fought in Republican army units. Neither were they all military personnel: they included 41 civilians suspected of supporting the Republic, among them two French lorry-drivers who had visited Spain to buy oranges. (Geiser, Appendix 2). 

For the rebel authorities the foreign prisoners in San Pedro were excellent propaganda material, providing evidence of foreign fighters in the Republican army and therefore support for their attempts to justify their own dependence on German and Italian military assistance. Claiming that Spain had been invaded by an army of Communists also helped in their attempts to justify the military coup of July 1936, which, it was falsely claimed, had prevented a planned Communist takeover of Spain. Several propaganda films were issued, including “Prisioneros de Guerra” (1938).

The film presents a picture of prison life which contrasts starkly with the brutal and dehumanising conditions described in the memoirs of those detained, whether in San Pedro or elsewhere in Franco’s Spain . Many of the prisoners portrayed are clearly not internacionales, despite the introductory commentary, which claims that the brigaders had been attracted to Spain by “Soviet gold” (oro Sovietico”) and were “human debris” (despojos humanos) who were being rehabilitated by the generosity of Franco’s Spain.  

Foreign and Spanish prisoners were kept separately from each other, although the conditions they endured were very similar: poor food, lack of adequate clothing which was particularly acute in the cold Burgos winter, poor sanitary facilities, no beds (many slept on a concrete floor) and the constant attention of vermin. Since the internacionales were not allowed– – or required–  – to work and were only allowed out of the camp intermittently, their days were usually spent inside the overcrowded and insanitary halls where they slept. Apart from occasional trips to the river to wash they rarely enjoyed fresh air or exercise. The length of their detention in San Pedro – much longer than the six weeks endured by Spanish prisoners – made these conditions particularly unhealthy. Some of the internacionales arrived with serious wounds, but, although their numbers included three doctors, there were no medicines or surgical instruments to treat them. One foreigner died from dysentery, another from pleurisy and a third from lung-cancer. 

Food being served to International prisoners at the concentration camp in San Pedro de Cardeña

The internacionales were required to attend mass – and beaten if they failed to kneel at the appropriate moment. They were also forced to give the straight-armed fascist salute and to join in the Falangist chant: this was one of many contraventions of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Those who refused were beaten although, according to Geiser, “the sergeants ignored sloppy salutes as long as the fist was not closed” (Geiser, p. 129). Sporadic attempts were made to spread propaganda among them by means of leaflets in several languages. They were subject to arbitrary beatings, whether for minor infractions of the rules or simply to satisfy the moods of the guards. Geiser notes that guards reacted brutally to news of the Republican offensive across the Ebro in July 1938. 

A secret committee, known as the House Committee, was established with representatives from all the major national groups: the identity of its members was unknown to most prisoners. Since the internacionales were usually confined indoors except at meal-times, they developed ways of occupying their time including playing chess with chess-pieces moulded from dry bread. Some English-speaking prisoners wrote a newspaper called the Jaily News, which was posted on the wall but removed when guards arrived. A programme of classes was arranged under the title of the San Pedro Institute of Higher Learning: language classes were very popular but other subjects included Spanish history, mathematics, sociology, economics, philosophy and drama. Geiser describes a group of illiterate Portuguese prisoners being taught to read and write. He adds “no other activity we engaged in was as important as these classes in resisting the dehumanising and degrading atmosphere of the concentration camp” (Geiser p. 128). As Christmas approached a concert was organised, featuring singing and comedy sketches: this was attended by the camp guards and the comandante was so impressed that a repeat performance was held on New Year’s Eve at his request. 

International prisoners playing chess at the concentration camp in San Pedro de Cardeña

The prisoners were interviewed by Gestapo officers who paid particular attention to Germans and Austrians. The House Committee advised prisoners to claim to be ordinary soldiers, to name only Republican army officers who were dead, to deny any Communist affiliation, to express anti-fascist convictions, and to make no derogatory statements about the Republic or the International Brigades. Although prisoners were eventually allowed to send occasional messages to their families, they were initially strictly instructed to write – in their own languages –  “notifying you that I am well” and nothing else. Eventually the lucky ones were able to receive packages from their families as well as from solidarity groups in their own countries. The unlucky ones included German and East European prisoners whose governments were hostile to the Republic. 

A steady stream of other foreigners visited San Pedro, including William P. Carney, the right-wing correspondent of the New York Times; Jacques Doriot, the French fascist leader; and Lady Austen Chamberlain, sister-in-law of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. 

During 1938 several groups of internacionales benefited from prisoner exchanges, usually being transferred to prisons near San Sebastian before crossing into France. Geiser, for example, was among a group who left San Pedro at the end of February 1939, but who were held in Zapatari prison in San Sebastián until 22 April before final release. Their fate, however, depended on the willingness of the Franco regime to agree exchanges and that of their own governments to accept their return. The end of the war complicated the situation further because there were no longer Republican-held prisoners with whom they could be exchanged. When the camp finally closed in November 1939, it still held 406 internacionales, among whom the largest groups were the Portuguese (88), Argentines (56), Germans and Austrians (55), Poles (41) and Cubans (39). These unfortunate men were enlisted in Batallón de Trabajadores No. 75, a labour battalion who worked on the rebuilding of Belchite, the Aragonese town destroyed in fighting in 1937.  

The Investigations of Antonio Vallejo Nágera

Due to the length of their stay in San Pedro the internacionales were one of two groups selected for the studies into the “Marxist problem” directed by the military psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo Nágera (the other study was of female prisoners in the Caserón de la Goleta prison. What life was like in Franco’s women’s prison in Malaga). A total of 297 internacionales were studied, including Geiser who describes part of this process:

“Behind the table sat a Gestapo agent with a ledger. As each prisoner was identified, an assistant using the calipers called out the length, breadth and depth of his skull, the distance between his eyes, the length of his nose, and described skin colour, body type, wound scars, and any disability”   

Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, p. 146.

The study also involved a visit by two German sociologists who presented the prisoners with a two- hundred-item questionnaire: this attempted to judge the morality of each subject through questions about their family, sexual, political, religious and military backgrounds. Questions about the family focussed on drunkenness, criminality, social position, religious affiliation, level of education, pauperism, illegitimacy, emigration and mental illness. 

Vallejo argued that support for revolution in Spain was best explained on the basis of biology and psychology and that support for the Republic was based on criminal rather than political factors. As Rodrigo has pointed out, Vallejo’s work was of great importance, serving to establish a pseudo-scientific justification for the use of forced labour as a means of seeking the “national redemption” of prisoners. He points to the irony that research which aimed to identify the cause of the “illness” supposedly afflicting Spain (Marxism) was based on studies of non-Spanish subjects (Rodrigo, p. 145).

After closure San Pedro was occupied by the Cistercian order. Although there is a small museum dedicated to religious art, most of the Monastery, including the areas occupied by the camp, is closed to the public. A small information panel outside is the only reference to its use as a concentration camp.  

Note: The figure of 188 concentration camps is not the total of detention centres used by the Franco dictatorship. The real figure would be much higher if we included labour camps, prisons, etc. 

PHOTOS: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Biblioteca Nacional. CC-BY

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Hay una luz en Asturias: The Asturian Miners Strike of 1962

Sixty years ago, in April-May 1962, a strike in the coalfields of Asturias which spread to other sectors of the Spanish economy presented the biggest challenge to the Franco Dictatorship since the end of the Civil War. Often known as La Huelga del Silencio due to its peaceful and non-violent character, the strike led to the imposition of a State of Emergency (estado de excepción) in the provinces of Asturias, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia and challenged the regime’s ability to control the working class through the Organización Sindical Española (O.S.E.), the state-run organisation established at the end of the Civil War.

The Asturian miners’ strike of 1962 can be seen as the harbinger of the industrial action which would mark the final years of the Dictatorship.  To mark 1st May, International Workers Day, we are publishing this post to highlight the importance of the struggle of the Asturian miners and their families as well as those workers in other parts of Spain who risked their livelihoods and their lives by confronting the repressive labour policies of the Franco Regime. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Asturian miners –famous for their resistance in October 1934 – were not a major source of opposition to the dictatorship.  Asturias had been the last of the northern coastal provinces to fall to the Francoist armies in 1937 and the miners were subjected to fierce repression.  According to Ruben Vega, the leading historian of the Asturian labour movement, 410 miners were executed following Francoist consejos de guerra (courts martial) and at least 368 were murdered extra-judicially. (Ruben Vega García et al, El Movimiento Obrero en Asturias Durante el Franquismo, 1937-1977, p. 54.) [More information about consejos de guerra here]

Iconic photo of the miners’ revolt but not taken in Asturias: a column of Civil Guards with arrested miners in Brañosera (Palencia) on 8 October 1934. Concern Illustrated Daily Courier – Illustration Archive – Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Poland. Public domain

Although mine-workers were exempted from military service after the war, mining was not an attractive occupation: it was both extremely dangerous and very unhealthy. According to Vega, an average of 85 workers per year were killed in mining accidents in Asturias in the 1940s and 1950s (the total mining labour force in the province was 30,000 in 1950 and 49,000 in 1958). Miners also suffered from a high incidence of silicosis and other occupational diseases (Vega p. 55).

By the 1960s Asturias produced about seventy per cent of Spanish coal. The industry, centred around Langreo and Mieres, the main towns respectively in the valleys of the Nalón and Caudal rivers, dominated the local economy and society. Although the mines were owned by 72 different companies, seventeen of these dominated the industry, employing 93 per cent of the workers and producing 90 per cent of Asturian coal. Until the late 1950s coal-mining was sheltered from foreign competition by the Francoist policy of autarchy, but the 1959 Stabilisation Plan, which opened the Spanish economy to imports, provoked a severe crisis in the industry, as Asturian coal was forced to compete with cheaper imports.

In Asturias, as elsewhere in Spain, the Stabilisation Plan provoked an economic recession and inflation which reduced workers’ real wages. The atmosphere in the mining communities was also influenced by the return of miners who had emigrated to Western Europe, especially to Belgium and Luxembourg. Working abroad they had experienced not only better working and living conditions, but had witnessed the freedom of workers to organise and to strike.

By contrast, in Spain strikes were illegal and until 1958 wage-rates had simply been imposed by government decree. Although the 1958 Law of Collective Agreements (Ley de Convenios Colectivos Sindicales) allowed collective bargaining at factory, local or national level, this had to be conducted within the structure of the O.S.E. and all agreements had to be approved by the Ministry of Labour. In 1960 a government decree ruled that strikes deemed to be politically-motivated or which were seen as representing a serious threat to public order constituted military rebellion and were subject to military jurisdiction.  

Developments in the coalfields in the late 1950s should have alerted the Franco regime to increasing discontent. A strike at the La Camocha mine, near Gijón, in January 1957, in which the miners occupied the mine for nine days, resulted in improvements in conditions and wage rates. Another strike centred on the Nalón valley in March 1958 led to the declaration of a State of Emergency and the dismissal of 200 workers: miners of military age were conscripted and 32 workers accused of membership of the Spanish Communist Party (P.C.E.) received prison sentences of between two and twenty years (Vega p. 272).

The 1962 strikes began on 7 April at the Nicolasa mine in Mieres after a protest at harsh and brutal working conditions. Nicolasa was one of the larger mines employing 2,000 men and the strike spread quickly to other mines in the Caudal valley. By the third week of April miners in the Nalón valley had joined the action and the strikers demands now included freedom to organise and compensation for workers afflicted by silicosis. The government’s response was predictable: the arrest of mineworkers and, in some cases, their relatives, the torture of prisoners, the intimidating presence of the Policia Armada and the Guardia Civil in the streets of the mining towns and major cities. About 400 miners were detained and many others deported to other parts of the country. (Vega p. 282)

The struggle continued for two months and depended on the solidarity of the close-knit communities in the mining valleys. An important element of this was the role of women in smuggling leaflets to spread the strike and in encouraging solidarity with the miners cause. The company-run stores (economatos) were closed as soon as strikes broke out and families were forced to rely on small traders who provided credit and on Catholic church groups who organised communal kitchens (comedores).

Throughout April the repression was accompanied by a complete media silence. Despite this solidarity strikes spread to workers outside the mining valleys – to the mines of Leon, to the Río Tinto mines in Huelva, to the steel and engineering plants in Asturias and to the major engineering works in the valley of the Río Nervion around Bilbao. The declaration of a State of Emergency in the provinces of Asturias, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa on 4th May to deal with what were described as anormalidades laborales (“labour abnormalities”) had little effect. By the second half of May about 300,000 workers were on strike across the country, affecting factories in a total of 28 provinces, including Barcelona where production had halted at most of the engineering and textile factories in the province.

Compañeros del Pozu Carrio en 1962. Memoria Digital de Asturias. CC-BY

Meanwhile, on 6th May, a manifesto signed by 171 leading Spanish intellectuals – including Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Josep Fontana, Juan & Luis Goytisolo, Jose Bergamín, Salvador Espriu and Alfonso Sastre – called for the establishment of freedom of information and the right of workers to strike. [Read the manifesto here, archived by the Fundación Juan Muñiz Zapico]

Extraordinarily, the regime was forced to negotiate with the miners’ leaders: on 15th May a government minister, Jose Solís Ruiz, who, as Secretary-General of the Movement, was responsible for the O.S.E., travelled to Gijón for talks with a hastily assembled committee of miners’ representatives. This marked the only occasion during the Franco regime when the government was forced to negotiate directly with workers’ leaders. The building workers of Gijón greeted Solís’s arrival by joining the strike.

Even after Solís had conceded an agreement on increased wages and improvement in working conditions which was published in the Boletín Oficial del Estado on 24th May, the strike continued until detained miners were released and deported workers were allowed to return to the province. By then other groups had joined the protests: in late May there were student protests in Madrid and Barcelona. Demonstrators chanted “Franco No! Asturias Si!” and sang songs such as Hay una luz en Asturias que ilumina todo España (“There is a light in Asturias which lights up the whole of Spain”) and Asturias patria querida (“Asturias my beloved homeland”). (Vega, pp 282-3)

Front page of Mundo Obrero, 1 September 1962. Biblioteca Virtual de Prensa Histórica. CC-BY 4.0

The return to work of the miners between 4th and 7th June was followed by an end to the other strikes. However, there was, perhaps inevitably, a sequel to the Asturian strikes of April-May. In August a second round of strikes broke out over the victimisation of some miners and the failure to fully implement the agreements which ended the earlier dispute. Both the Caudal and Nalón valleys were quickly brought to a halt. This time, however, the police and employers had compiled a black-list of workers: 126 were deported to other provinces and many others were dismissed. The strikes soon collapsed, partly because many miners and their families did not have the resources to resist after the two-month stoppage earlier in the year. (Vega, pp. 282-90)

As was customary, the regime blamed the strikes on Communist activists particularly from other countries.  On May 27th addressing the Hermandad de Alfereces Provisionales, an organisation of Falangist war veterans, at Mount Garabitas, a Civil War battlefield outside Madrid, Franco claimed that the Civil War was still being fought, dismissed the strikes as unimportant and attacked un-named enemies for exploiting the situation. A few months later he told the New York Times correspondent Benjamin Welles

Italian and other foreign agitators came into Spain equipped with funds, but they got away before our police could put their hands on them.

Benjamin Welles, Spain: The Gentle Anarchy, 1965 (p. 130)

While the initial dispute at La Nicolasa can be seen as improvised, members of various clandestine opposition groups played important roles in spreading the strike, both in Asturias and elsewhere. As well as the Spanish Communist Party (P.C.E.), these included activists from the Socialist U.G.T. (Union General de Trabajadores) and members of Church groups, especially from  the Juventud Obrera Cristiana (J.O.C.) and the Hermandad Obrera de Acción Católica (H.O.A.C.). Police reports suggest that the government was particularly alarmed at the activities of Catholic activists. While the Bishop of Oviedo, Segundo García Sierra, was hostile to the strikes and transferred J.O.C. activists from the mining valleys to rural areas, police reports identified numerous priests, particularly in the Basque provinces, whose sermons indicated support for the strikers’ cause.  (Vega, p. 285).

The events of April-May 1962 had, however, raised serious questions for the future of the Franco dictatorship. The regime had been humiliated: a government minister had been forced to travel to Gijón to negotiate directly with the miners’ leaders, even though, since strikes were illegal, the latter were – according to the laws of the regime itself –  criminals. Publication of the agreement reached by Solís while the strikes continued was another humiliation. Clearly this indicated the failure of the Francoist system of manage labour relations through the usual methods of the state-controlled union and police repression. It also underlined the fact that, since strikes were illegal, any strike automatically became a political issue involving the government.

The spread of the strikes and protests during April despite the silence of the Spanish media and despite the heavily distorted coverage after the declaration of the State of Emergency raised questions about the effectiveness of the system of press censorship. This would be reformed in 1966 when Fraga Iribarne’s Press Law (Ley de Prensa e Imprenta) abolished censorship in advance but subjected the press to severe penalties for breaking the ill-defined rules on publication. The most important source of information about the strikes was Radio España Independiente, the Communist Party’s radio station based in Bucharest. Known by the public as “La Pirenaica”, its reports were listened to widely across the country. Analysis of police records by Ruben Vega indicates the accuracy of La Pirenaica’s reports, something which must have further alarmed the authorities (Vega, p 284).

The conflict in Asturias in particular and the strike wave in general severely damaged the Franco regime abroad at a time when it had been attempting to present an image of a conservative civilian administration governing a peaceful, modernising society. In February 1962 the Spanish government had officially requested the opening of negotiations for membership of the European Economic Community.  The nature of the Franco regime meant this was probably never likely to succeed, but the events of April-May 1962 reminded governments and the public in Western Europe of the fascist origins of the Franco regime and the continuing repressive nature of the dictatorship. Demonstrations in solidarity with the miners erupted in Western European capitals and in the United States, while labour movements outside Spain drew attention to the lack of independent trade unions and the illegality of strike action.

These two documentaries will be of interest to readers who understand Spanish:

Listen to the song Hay una lumbre en Asturias, played by songwrite Chicho Sánchez Ferlosio.

It is part of the documentary Si me borrara el viento lo que yo canto [If the wind blew what I sing], by David Trueba in 1982 [Available here]

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Photo: Miner in front of Pozo Nicolasa in 1967. Memoria Digital de Asturias CC-BY

Memories of Spain in the 1930s

In a previous article [Memoirs of the War & Post-War by female writers] we discussed the memoirs of Constancia de la Mora, the grand-daughter of Antonio Maura (Spanish PM under Alfonso XIII) who became director of the Foreign Press Office during the Civil War. Her memoirs were first published in English in the United States in 1939 under the title In Place of Splendour.  The English-language edition has been out of print since then but has now been republished by a London publisher, Clapton Press, as part of a new series of memoirs of Spain in the 1930s. To mark the launch of this series this post reviews a few of the books so far published. 

In an interview Simon Deefholts, Managing Director of Clapton Press, argued that the 1930s was

a critical decade not only for Spain but across Europe as a whole. The fight to defend the Republic was seen by many outside Spain as their first opportunity to take a stand against increasingly aggressive right-wing ideologues. It attracted a whole range of people from different backgrounds who provided support in a variety of ways. Many of them wrote vivid accounts of their experiences that have now been out of print for more than eighty years and can only be accessed in specialist libraries or at vast expense for collectors’ copies.

The Clapton Press aims, he added, to

make these primary sources available at a reasonable cost. Nearly all of the people who volunteered to help defend and support the Republic – in a variety of ways – showed great courage and determination, so we feel that it is important to provide direct access to their first-hand accounts.

In Place of Splendour , which includes an introduction by her biographer, Soledad Fox Maura, provides an account of the author’s conservative elite upbringing and her subsequent radicalisation during the Second Republic. Along with her second husband, Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros (head of the Republican airforce), she became a key figure in the Republican war effort. Her knowledge of foreign languages made her an important figure in the Foreign Press Office in Valencia: although she censored their dispatches, correspondents appreciated her help in arranging accommodation, organising interviews and arranging transport to the battle-front. According to Paul Preston her ability to communicate with journalists was assisted, when necessary, by her knowledge of English obscenities. After the press office moved, along with the Republican government, to Barcelona in October 1937, she became its director.  

In Place of Splendour  was completed in the months after De la Mora’s arrival in the United States in January 1939. Soledad Fox and others have concluded that it was ghost-written by Ruth Mckenney with assistance from Jay Allen, the former Chicago Tribune correspondent. Noticeably the book does not mention the fact that De la Mora and her husband were both members of the Spanish Communist Party and it generally plays down the party’s role in the Republic during the Civil War. Despite this, her memoirs provide insights into the working of the Republican war-effort at a high level. On publication in November 1939 it attracted favourable publicity in the United States and sold very well. Shortly afterwards De la Mora settled in Mexico where she translated the book into Spanish; the first Spanish edition was published in Mexico in 1944.  

The outstanding new publication by the Clapton Press is Never More Alive: Inside the Spanish Republic, the memoirs of Kate Mangan. In his introduction Paul Preston writes:

ever since I first read the manuscript about fifteen years ago, I have longed to see it in print. I regarded it when I first read it, and ever more so with each subsequent reading, as one of the most valuable and, incidentally, purely enjoyable books about the war.

An English artist who had studied at the prestigious Slade School of Arts in London, Mangan visited Spain and Portugal in 1935-36 with her boyfriend, Jan Kurzke, a refugee from Nazi Germany. After their return to Britain in August 1936, Kurzke was an early volunteer for the International Brigades, arriving in Madrid at the beginning of November 1936. Mangan followed him soon afterwards and, unable to be near him, supported herself by translating, interpreting and writing. Her experiences, as a foreign woman, could not be described as typical of the population, but her account describes many aspects of life in Republican Spain in 1936-37, particularly the problems of food supply, the difficulties of transport and the conditions endured by the large number of refugees from war and Francoist repression. She describes vividly the hospital conditions – the lack of medicines and adequate hygiene, the poorly trained staff, the badly wounded soldiers. There are also descriptions of conditions in Barcelona, which she and Kurzke passed through on their journey out of Spain in July 1937. 

Like Constancia de la Mora, Kate Mangan worked for a time in the Foreign Press Office in Valencia. Mangan’s motives for visiting Spain and her lack of a political background help make her account less partisan than many others. The book sparkles with details of journeys and places as well as with her incisive profiles of the journalists and writers she encountered. 

Jan Kurzke’s memoirs have also been published for the first time in this series as The Good Comrade: Memoirs of An International Brigader with an introduction by Richard Baxell.  Kurzke describes firstly, his pre-war experiences tramping around Spain and busking with a group of emigrés in 1934-1935 and then, following a break in Britain where he met Kate Mangan, his service with the International Brigades [see his record on Sidbrint here ]. This is an account of the soldier’s experience of war: he often writes in short sentences, which, as Baxell remarks, “read much like a series of diary entries, helping to create a real sense of immediacy”. Kurzke was seriously wounded in the leg at Boadilla del Monte in December 1936 and, after hospitalisation in Madrid, was moved to Murcia, where Mangan tracked him down and arranged medical help for his recovery

Both Mangan’s and Kurzke’s memoirs end with their departure, but their later lives are covered in these volumes by other means, including letters and brief biographical notes by their daughter, Charlotte. Between 1940 and 1941 Kurzke was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien by the British government. Kurzke and Mangan never married and, in 1945 Kurzke married a young actress. This perhaps, will not surprise readers of both volumes; Kurzke’s memoirs never even mention Mangan.  

My House in Málaga by Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell has been out of print since first publication in February 1938. The author, an eminent Scottish zoologist and the founder of London Zoo, Chalmers-Mitchell, retired to live in Málaga in 1932 and stayed in the city after the July 1936 military rebellion. The main focus of his memoirs is an account of his life in the city during the six months before its occupation by rebel forces in February 1937. At the centre of this is his relationship with his neighbours, the Bolín family, whose cousin Luis Bolín was a prominent supporter of Franco. Fearing for their lives, the Bolíns sought refuge and help from Chalmers-Mitchell and their house was taken over by local anarchists for use as a hospital. Although Chalmers-Mitchell eventually helped the family escape to Gibraltar, he enjoyed good relations with the Republican authorities and local anarchist leaders. His memoirs detail the deterioration of conditions in the city and the effects of repeated rebel air attacks. In a letter to The Times in October 1936, he attempted to counter the exaggerated claims of violence and bloodshed in Málaga which had been made in the British press on the basis of the reports of refugees and rebel supporters in Gibraltar. This letter did not endear him to the rebel authorities. 

Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell PHOTO: Agence de presse Meurisse – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Dominio público.

Despite his role in assisting the Bolín family, Chalmers-Mitchell was arrested along with his guest, the journalist Arthur Koestler, by Luis Bolín after the Italian occupation of Málaga. While Koestler was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Seville for over three months and subsequently released in a prisoner-exchange, Chalmers-Mitchell was, in effect, expelled from rebel-held Spain. He returned to Britain where he used his extensive contacts to secure Koestler’s release and to assist the public campaign in support of the Republic. 

My House in Málaga also includes an account of a meeting with the writer Ramón J. Sender and his family in Madrid weeks before the military coup. He had earlier translated Sender’s 1932 novel Siete Domingos Rojos into English (it was published as Seven Red Sundays in April 1936) and his translation of Sender’s account of the opening months of the war was published in 1937 as Counter-Attack in Spain. 

Simon Deeffholts has ambitious plans for future publications, pointing out that “there are still many valuable resources which are currently unavailable outside specialist libraries, or only available at vast expense.” Among the publications planned for 2022 two will particularly attract readers interested in the Civil War: new editions of The Last Mile to Huesca by Agnes Hodgson and of Behind the Spanish Barricades by John Langdon-Davies

The Last Mile to Huesca, with a revised introduction by Judith Keene, are the diaries of an Australian nurse who served in the Republican medical service in 1937. Arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 Hodgson, who had no political background and who had worked in Hungary and Fascist Italy, initially faced accusations of being a Fascist spy. Her diaries describe not only her experiences in the Republican medical service, but also her journey to Spain in November 1936 and her impressions on arrival in Barcelona, where she attended the funeral of the German international brigader Hans Beimler

Behind the Spanish Barricades was written in a few weeks in the autumn of 1936 and is an account of the author’s two visits to Spain earlier that year as a correspondent for the London News Chronicle, the first in April-May and the second just after the July military rebellion.  Unlike many of the journalists who flocked to Spain after the coup, Langdon-Davies knew Spain well from before the war, having lived in Catalonia in the 1920s (he was the author of a well-received book on the Catalan national dance, the sardana).  His account describes his conversations with Spanish friends and his visits to several parts of Spain both before and after the coup . However, Behind the Spanish Barricades is particularly worth reading for his evocative impressions of Barcelona, both before the July 1936 military coup and in its immediate aftermath. 

This is only a selection of the books published by the Clapton Press: a full list is available via their website

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PHOTO: Collage with Clapton Press book covers

Writing the History of the Civil War in 1961

In 1961, 25 years after the military coup that sparked off the Civil War, two important books on the conflict appeared, one in English (The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas) and the other in French (La Révolution et la Guerre d’Espagne by Pierre Broué and Emile Témime). These were perhaps the first books written by a generation of historians uninvolved in the events themselves, all being children in the 1930s . To mark the sixtieth anniversary of their publication we publish this blog-post on these two books and their reception in the 1960s. 

La Révolution et la Guerre d’Espagne is a remarkable work which is divided into two parts; the first, by Broué, examines the revolutionary process in 1936-37 while the second, by Témime, is an account of the international aspects of the war and the construction of the Francoist Dictatorship. In the introduction the authors explained this approach, admitting their differences of sympathy –  Témime being more sympathetic to the “progressive Republicans and the moderate Socialists in his concern with organisation and efficiency and the world balance of power” while Broué felt that “those who fight revolutions half-heartedly are merely digging their own graves” (p 14). Their aim was, they added:

“in the face of ignorance, neglect, and falsification, to recreate this struggle in the most truthful possible way and to rid it of the legend which had prematurely buried it.” (p. 7)

It was the first part which received most attention. The attempted military coup of July 1936 which sparked off the Civil War also provoked a widespread social revolution in the areas of Spain which resisted the coup. Yet, in the years after the war this revolution had been largely ignored by historians or treated as insignificant.

Using the concept of “dual power”, evocative of events in the Russian capital Petrograd after the collapse of the Czarist regime in February 1917, Broué explores the complex situation produced by the collapse of the Republican state and its replacement by the local committees which sprang into life in 1936. He traces the stages by which, against the background of the defeat of Republican forces on the battlefield, the Republican state was rebuilt under the government of Largo Caballero (Sept 1936-May 1937). The tensions this produced and the rise of the Communist party as the party of counter-revolution formed the background to the crisis which erupted in Barcelona in May 1937, after which the revolutionary groups and parties were marginalised under the new government of Juan Negrin.

In the second part of the book Témime argues that the failure of Britain and France to support the Republic was crucial for the war’s outcome, turning almost inevitable defeat for the rebel generals into almost inevitable victory. This points to the tension in their accounts: Broué sees the defeat of the revolution as depriving the Republican war effort of the enthusiasm of peasants and workers, while Témime identifies fear of social revolution as a key motive for the hostility towards the Republic of the British and French upper-classes. 

The book was enthusiastically reviewed by the U.S. historian Gabriel Jackson, whose own account, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939, was published in 1965. Writing in the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1962 Jackson praised the work as “the best general interpretation available concerning both the revolution of 1936 and the war”, adding that:

“it is especially valuable for analysis of the C.N.T., the P.O.U.M. and the anarchists in both the industrial and rural areas of Catalonia.” 

In France the reviews were more mixed, with Antoine Prost in the Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (October-December 1962), pointing to the authors’ lack of an adequate analysis of the pre-war Republican period and of the agrarian problems of Spain. Prost, however, praised the work as an important advance in the study of the conflict, adding that further research was necessary and that the history of the war remained to be written. After the book was finally published in an English-language edition in 1972, the U.S. historian Temma Kaplan described it as the “best single volume” on the Civil War in a review in the Hispanic American Historical Review (1974).  

Both authors went on to enjoy distinguished careers as historians in France but, sadly, La Révolution et la Guerre d’Espagne was never updated to take account of new sources and new interpretations.

Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War quickly became the standard work on the subject in English, bringing the author fame and wealth. Thomas had no background in Spanish history – and, indeed, had to start his task by studying Spanish. Like Broué and Témime he benefited from being able to interview many of the surviving key figures involved. Perhaps reflecting his brief previous career as a British diplomat, Thomas stressed the international and diplomatic aspects of the conflict. His approach is best described as “narrative”; at times this leads him to shift in the space of two or three pages between concurrent developments in several different locations (Salamanca, Barcelona, Bilbao, Washington, London etc). This narrative approach was, perhaps, the key to the book’s success: telling the story of the war to a generation of readers outside Spain who had no memory of the events as well as to an older generation whose memories were patchy. 

The Spanish Civil War received enthusiastic reviews in the British press, including from journalists such as Claude Cockburn who had reported on the war, as well as from Peter Kemp, one of the few British volunteers who had fought in Franco’s rebel forces. In the United States, Vincent Sheean, who had covered the war for the New York Herald Tribune, praised it in the New York Times (9 July 1961) saying

“there is something quite wonderful about a book which is written on a thing which the author never saw and never could have seen. (…) (Thomas) has understood it incredibly well and has written it superbly”.  

Some historians were, however, less impressed. In the review in the Hispanic American Hispanic Review cited above Jackson criticised the author for relying too heavily on accounts by Francoist historians such as Manuel Aznar. This, he argued, led Thomas to accept what Jackson describes as “an obviously forged document” alleging a Communist plot to overthrow the Republic (the claim of such a plot was the basis of the military rebels’ attempt to legitimise the coup and the Franco Dictatorship).

He also criticised Thomas’s acceptance of the Francoist figure for the number of people murdered in the Republican zone– which was taken from the Causa General, the Franco Regime’s mammoth general prosecution brought against people alleged to have committed crimes in the “red zone” during the war.

Jackson also criticised what he called “the tone of unpleasant scorn” adopted in discussing the repression “as though dealing with the melodramatic customs of a barbarian people”.  He concluded that

“in a strict scholarly sense it can be recommended for its coverage of the international aspects, but as military and political history of Spain it spreads more confusion than light.”

Inside Spain The Spanish Civil War was reviewed in academic journals such as the Revista de Política Internacional (No 60, 1962) and the Revista de Estudios Políticos (No 161, 1961), but Thomas recognised that there was no prospect of it being published in the country. 

Despite this, it would become an important work in Francoist Spain as a Spanish translation was published by Ruedo Iberico, which had been established in Paris to challenge the regime’s control over publishing inside Spain. The book was smuggled across the frontier and sold clandestinely. The first Spanish print-run of 5,000 copies sold out very quickly.

The book’s popularity in Spain forced Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Spanish Minister of Information & Tourism (1962-1969) to establish a centre of Civil War Studies under Ricardo de la Cierva, in an attempt to reassert the Franco regime’s version of the Civil War as a “crusade” against Marxism, liberalism and freemasonry.  

A revised English-language edition of The Spanish Civil War was published as a paperback in 1965 and it was revised substantially for third and fourth editions which were published in 1977 and 2003. By this time the author’s political views had changed significantly, leading him to become a key advisor to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s. The later editions are much longer than the original, carry much more extensive footnotes and respond to some of the criticisms of the first edition. In particular, Thomas expanded his discussion of the revolutionary process of 1936-37, which he, like so many other writers before Broué and Témime, had badly neglected in the first edition. His account of the Second Republic was also improved and extended with the assistance and advice of Paul Preston, who had been his doctoral student

Sixty years after their publication, how are we to assess these two books?  The authors had the advantage of being able to interview many of the survivors but, at the time, many of the archives were closed, particularly in Spain where the regime maintained a close watch on challenges to the official version of the country’s history.  Both La Révolution et la Guerre d’Espagne and the early editions of The Spanish Civil War have long been superseded by the work of later historians, but the authors were pioneers in the field and had a lasting impact. Their books introduced new generations of readers – inside Spain as well as outside – to the history of the war and some of these readers themselves went on to research and write on the subject. 

Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, La Révolution et la Guerre d’Espagne, Les Edicions de Minuit, 1961. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961.

PHOTO COLLAGE: Original 1961 book covers

The Weight of the Absent Past

Today, 15 June, is the anniversary of the 1977 general election, the first elections held in Spain after the death of General Franco and an important landmark in the Transition which followed the Dictatorship. To mark this date IHR is publishing this review of a new book by Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio.  

In recent years it has become commonplace to attribute many of the features of Spanish politics to the limitations of the Transition. Some people have called for reform of the 1978 Constitution and for a “Second Transition.” The exhumation of Franco’s corpse and its removal from the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) in October 2019 briefly attracted the attention of the world’s media [See The people buried in the Valle de los Caídos: Where did they die? ]. Its symbolic significance is used as a starting point by Faber for a discussion on contemporary Spain and the influence of its troubled twentieth century past. This influence may be summed up in the words of the historian Jaume Claret:

“(S)peaking in general terms, we could say that for Spanish society – for Spanish democracy – the past is absent. In a sense it simply does not exist. And yet the weight of that absent past is undeniable” (p. 231)

The book is based on interviews conducted in 2019-2020 with a range of Spanish observers, most of them journalists and historians. Faber does not claim that his interviewees cover the diversity of Spanish opinion: he points out that most of the people involved “would identify as progressive rather than conservative” but defends this by adding that “the debate about the questions driving this book has been more intense and varied among the Left than on the Right” (p. 21).  In fact, the different approaches and opinions of those interviewed make this a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion which should be of interest to readers in Spain as much as to those in the English-speaking world.  

The legacies of both the Dictatorship and the Transition are discussed not only in institutional terms (such as the failure to reform either the judiciary or the universities) as well as in sociological terms. 

Not all of those interviewed see these legacies as important. The journalist José Antonio Zarzalejos traces much of Spain’s current political polarisation to the refusal of the Partido Popular to accept defeat in the 2004 elections. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Vox – and, to a lesser degree, the Partido Popular – have been equally reluctant to accept the legitimacy of the current Socialist-led government). Another interviewee, the cultural critic Ignacio Echevarria, argues that the Francoist legacy has been exaggerated by politicians on the left for political purposes and attributes many of the features of modern Spain to her pattern of development stretching back over the past 200 years. 

Despite the disagreements among the contributors, common themes emerge, among them the lack of institutional reform after the death of Franco. One of the consequences of this, according to the journalist Guillem Martinez, is  “constitucionalismo” (“constitutionalism”) which he sees as a “reactionary interpretation” of the constitution which is used to defend the myths of both the Dictatorship and the Transition (p. 84).

The judge Joaquim Bosch emphasises the lack of judicial independence, which he attributes partly to the fact that judges know that promotion to the highest courts depends on them gaining the support of one of the two major political parties. Also untouched by the transition were the country’s universities, some of which have been affected by scandals in recent years: the historian Luis de Guezala contrasts the destruction of the higher education system in the Francoist purges after the Civil War with the lack of change in personnel after Franco’s death. 

Several interviewees, including the journalist Cristina Fallarás, stress the way in which the major business corporations in Spain are descendants of companies which benefitted from the policies of the Franco Regime: its expropriations of the property of Republican supporters, its reliance on forced labour after the Civil War, its repression of the labour movement and the cosy relationship which large corporations enjoyed with the regime.  One legacy of this which is outlined by several commentators is the influence of major corporations over many Spanish newspapers, to which should be added the power still exercised by Spanish governments over broadcasting.  

Among the less obvious legacies of the Dictatorship which Faber identifies are many of the assumptions about democracy and the language in which politics is discussed: as he points out, many right wing politicians and their supporters still use language dating from the Dictatorship, referring, for example, to people on the left disparagingly as “reds”, while labelling supporters of Basque and Catalan independence as “separatists” or agents of “anti-Spain.”  Guillem Martínez  argues that the problem is not Francoism itself, but that Spain’s democratic culture has “normalised” Francoism so much that society is unaware of the influence of the dictatorship. Politics itself, he adds, was stigmatised and issues which are viewed as “political” are dismissed by many people as being unseemly and partisan. 

At the same time it is clear, as many of the contributors argue, that important features attributed to the Dictatorship could be found in Spain long beforehand.  The historian Ricard Vinyes points out Francoism merely inherited the most conservative and reactionary ideas and views from earlier periods. The legal historian Sebastian Martin agrees and identifies among these views a hierarchical view of society and a “uniform” and “imperial” view of Spain as a Catholic society. Emilio Silva, one of the founders of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (AHRM), is in agreement over this and adds that Francoism blocked – and is still blocking – the modernisation of the country.  

There is almost universal agreement over the inadequacy of the teaching of Spanish history in schools and the urgent need for a greater and more informed coverage of Spain’s twentieth century past. Though the civil war and dictatorship are on the curriculum, they form the last part of an overcrowded programme, which means that they are often not covered at all, which is, perhaps, a relief to some teachers who regard these as politically sensitive topics. Many of the teachers themselves, however, are ill-trained for the task. Fernando Hernández Sánchez, who trains secondary school teachers, points out that the practice, inherited from the late Franco period, of teaching about the Civil War as a struggle between two “bandos” (“sides”), not only avoids mentioning the fact that the war started with a military revolt against a democratically elected government but also helps perpetuate a moral equivalence along the lines of “both sides were to blame” and “both sides committed atrocities.” He describes the population’s knowledge of the past as a “black hole” which, he argues, is growing in size. He points to this ignorance of the past as providing a fertile environment for the growth of right-wing myths.    

As might be expected a variety of other measures are advanced, though none of the contributors is optimistic about their chances of being adopted. Guillem Martínez calls for legislation forcing the courts to annul the sentences passed by the Franco dictatorship’s courts because these judgements express the idea that Francoism was a legitimate form of authority. He argues that the 2017 law passed by the Catalan Generalitat annulling Francoist sentences was “bogus” because the annulment of sentences is not the role of parliaments. Logically, any such annulment by the courts would raise the question of the seizure by the Dictatorship of the property of those who had supported the Republic [See Victims of Francoism in Catalonia, finally available on opendata].

Antonio Maestre calls for the revocation of the 1936 Decreto de Incautacion de Bienes Materiales (Decree-law to Seize Material Goods) which authorised such confiscation as well as for the repeal of the 1977 Amnesty Law.  

It is difficult to do justice in a review to the range and complexity of the arguments introduced in this short book. In his conclusion Faber argues that, in some respects, Spain is not unique in facing  these challenges. As he argues, many other countries, often seen in Spain as “normal”, also have problems dealing with their conflictive violent past, whether in relation to dictatorship, imperial rule or slavery. As he also points out, the populist right across the world wants to present history as something which should make citizens feel proud, by extolling “heroes” of the past. Vox is not unique in this, any more than it is novel in the Spanish context. These are good points and, although most readers will look to this book to help them to understand contemporary Spain, there is much here which should cause those from other countries to reflect on their own societies and the celebration of mythical versions of their own histories.  

Sebastiaan Faber, Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Spanish Transition (Vanderbilt University Press, 2021)

A Spanish edition is planned for publication in 2022. 

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“Prison of Women” by Tomasa Cuevas

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In a blogpost in 2019 we reviewed Tomasa Cuevas’s book Carcel de Mujeres 1939-1945. We mentioned that her book had been published in English in 1998 under the title Prison of Women: Testimonies of War and Resistance in Spain, 1939-1975 (State University of New York Press, 1998).  We were mistaken because Prison of Women is a different book from any of Tomasa Cuevas’s books published in Spanish. Today, to mark 23 April, which is celebrated as Dia del Libro (Book Day) in Spain we are publishing this article to draw attention to a book which will probably be unknown to our readers and to highlight the remarkable life and work of Tomasa Cuevas (1917-2007) and some of her fellow-prisoners whose lives are covered in it. 

Prison of Women was translated into English by Mary E. Giles, a historian from the United States who is the author of several books on the Inquisition in Spain. In an introduction she explains how, by chance, in 1989, she came across Cárcel de Mujeres in a Madrid bookshop.  Five years later, through a mutual friend, she arranged to meet the author and together they spent three days selecting and organising material from Cuevas’s three Spanish publications. Prison of Women is the result of their labours and is both an autobiography of Cuevas and a portrait of largely forgotten aspects of Spain during the dictatorship. Although the structure of the book is provided by Cuevas’s own story, eleven of the twenty-three chapters are extracts from interviews which she recorded in the late 1970s with some of the women whom she had met in prison.  

Cuevas grew up in Guadalajara and started working at the age of nine in a knitwear workshop. By the age of seventeen she was a member of the Spanish Communist Party.  She spent the Civil War in a variety of jobs including working in hospitals. At the end of the war she was arrested after being recognised and denounced by a neighbour from Guadalajara while catching a train for Madrid. She was sentenced by a court martial in a mass trial to thirty years imprisonment and began her journey through the nightmare world of the Franco regime’s prison system. Her sentence was subsequently reduced to twenty years and in 1944 she was released on licence and required to live in Barcelona. Re-arrested in 1945 for renewed activity in the Communist party, she was freed again in 1946 and lived under assumed names until 1953 when she escaped to live in France. In 1961, after the arrest in Spain of her husband who was also an active member of the Communist party, she was allowed to return to live in Barcelona.  

One of the outstanding aspects of Cuevas’s book is her picture of the solidarity shown between the prisoners: the help given to older women and to those most at risk, the sharing of food parcels received from relatives, the support given to those awaiting trial and the activities organised in prison to keep up morale. In one prison, for example, the younger inmates played out a mock trial of Franco every evening, drawing lots to decide who should take on the hated role of the dictator. 

Cuevas was sent to seven different prisons. In the women’s prisons in Madrid and Barcelona the prisoners benefited from visitors who were in touch with the clandestine prisoners’ support network run by the Communist party.  Most of the prisons outside Madrid and Barcelona were in convents, where – with one exception – the nuns seem to have been harsher on the prisoners than the guards. The worst prison was in the small Basque town of Amorebieta, which the prisoners called “the cemetery of the living”. Cuevas was one of 450 women who arrived one evening in 1942 at the already crowded gaol after a day-long train journey from Santander. She describes the scene next morning:

“With morning we could see the faces of the women in Amorebieta. Their skin was so yellow they looked as if they belonged to another race. Obviously these women were wasting away…The prison was a hell-hole. We women from Santander looked as if we’d been eating in a restaurant every day”

Prison of Women, p. 86

In mid-winter 1940 Cuevas and 350 other women were sent by freight train (they had to clean it out first as it had been used to transport animals) from Madrid to the Basque town of Durango.  After travelling for three days they reached the little town of Zumárraga where they had to wait overnight to change trains:

“It was very cold, and even before we got to Zumárraga we could see the ground all white with snow…When the town found out that there were political prisoners at the station, many people hurried to see us and even bring us things.”

Prison of Women, p. 51

“Every day new groups [of prisoners] arrived in Durango…There weren’t enough prisons in all of Spain for so many prisoners. That’s why convents like the one at Durango were converted into prisons. Finally more than two thousand women were housed in the converted convent in Durango along with scores and scores of children ranging in age from a few months – some had been born in gaol- to three and four years.”

Prison of Women, p. 52

When, she recounts, the population of Durango learnt about the children they arranged to provide homes for those under the age of two until arrangements were made for their families to collect them. She recalls that when the prison was closed a year later and the prisoners were sent elsewhere, many of the local people gathered at the railway station to present them with food for the journey. It is, perhaps, worth recalling the level of repression in Spain at this time and that only four years earlier, in April 1937, Durango had been destroyed by the aircraft of the German Condor Legion – in an attack very similar to that carried out on Guernica  – to appreciate these displays of courage and support towards political prisoners. 

The interviews with fellow-prisoners tell of equally remarkable women and their hard lives. They include the stories of Nieves Waldemer Santisteban who gave birth in prison in Guadalajara;  Rosario Sánchez Mora, who had helped to assemble crudely-made bombs using dynamite during the Civil War and who lost a hand in the process; Esperanza Martínez who was arrested after spending time in the mountains with the guerrillas who fought the dictatorship in the 1940s and María del Carmen Cuesta , who was a minor when she was sentenced at the age of fifteen for membership of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas, the youth wing of the Communist party. There are also the stories of three women – Victoria Pujolar, Adelaida Abarca and Angelita Ramos – who escaped from the Les Corts prison in Barcelona and made their way across the frontier into France.   

The prisoners whose lives are portrayed in this book are not typical of all of the women who experienced imprisonment in the post-war years. Many of those interviewed by Cuevas had been members of the Communist party and Cuevas herself continued to be active in the party and in resistance to the dictatorship until after the death of Franco in 1975.  Nevertheless, with its portrayal of an often forgotten aspect of the Franco dictatorship and of some of the extraordinary lives of those who survived the post-war repression, Prison of Women deserves to be more widely known and, perhaps, even translated into Spanish. 

You may preview part of the book here

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

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.