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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.

The Burgos Showtrial of 1970

The court martial of sixteen alleged members of ETA in Burgos in December 1970 provoked demonstrations and strikes in Spain and protests across Europe and elsewhere. These were used by the hardline Francoists of the so-called bunker to attack the “modernisers” of Opus Dei in the Spanish government and to pressure Franco for a return to the severe repression of the post-war years. The trial, in open sessions attended by foreign journalists, and the ensuing crisis also undermined the image the dictatorship had carefully nurtured abroad of a benevolent regime presiding over the modernisation of Spain. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the trial, on 3 December 1970, we are publishing this account of the crisis and its significance in the history of the Franco Regime. 

Although the origins of ETA can be traced to the early 1950s, it was only in the late 1960s that the group launched a series of violent attacks on targets in the Spanish Basque Provinces. In relation to  the Burgos Trial the most important of these occurred in 1968. In June a Guardia Civil officer was killed in a shoot-out and in August Melitón Manzanas, the head of the San Sebastian Brigada Politico-Social (the regime’s political police force), was murdered on his doorstep in Irun. A State of Emergency (Estado de Excepción) was imposed in Guipuzkoa and police action across the Basque provinces led to the mass detention of suspects. Throughout 1969 and 1970 the accused were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment by courts martial in Burgos (the capital of the Sixth Military Region) for offences such as distributing ETA propaganda and attending illegal meetings. 

During the 1960s the Franco regime had attempted to present an image abroad very different from its brutal origins in the Civil War and the post-war repression. Foreign journalists such as George Hills received the regime’s cooperation in presenting Franco as a benevolent family man.  The US journalist Benjamin Welles, for example, reported Franco wearing “black and white sports shoes and a summer suit” when he interviewed him in July 1962 (Benjamin Welles, The Gentle Anarchy, 1965, p. 369). 

The contrast with events in Burgos could not have been greater. In most countries courts martial were – and are  –  restricted to military personnel accused of military offences. In Spain, by contrast, martial law had been proclaimed by the military rebels in July 1936 and was not lifted until 1948. During and after the Civil War courts martial, often lasting a few minutes, issued heavy sentences including the death penalty, on thousands of people whose legal representation was performed by army officers [See Summary Military Proceedings]. Even after martial law ended, military courts continued in use for offences which in other countries would be dealt with by civil courts, particularly for those accused under the 1960 Decree on Military Rebellion, Banditry and Terrorism

Tension rose in Spain ahead of the trial. On 22 November the Bishops of Bilbao and San Sebastian issued a joint pastoral letter declaring all violence illegitimate and calling for any death sentences imposed in the trial to be commuted. Strikes broke out across the Basque Country and elsewhere in Spain. On 30 November, in scenes unprecedented since the Civil War, protesters in Barcelona occupied Plaza Catalunya and fought police in the Ramblas. On the following day, the kidnapping by ETA of Eugen Beihl, the Honorary West German Consul in San Sebastian, attracted attention across Europe. 

The week-long trial was attended by seven Spanish journalists, whose accounts closely supported the regime, and thirteen foreign correspondents. The sixteen defendants included two women and two priests. Their lawyers, who won the admiration of foreign correspondents for their courage, helped the defendants to advertise the goals of ETA and denounce police torture. The prosecution case focussed on the murder of Manzanas and was largely based on confessions extracted under torture. When questioning of the defendants began on the third day, they withdrew their confessions, gave graphic descriptions of their torture and denounced state repression of the Basques. This led to the next day’s hearing being suspended and when the trial resumed the defendants were prevented from making general statements or deviating from the questions. The reaction to this by the final defendant to be questioned, Mario Onaindia, was described by the French journalist Edouard de Blaye:

Shouting Gora Euskadi Askatuta (“Long live the Free Basque Country”), the prisoner leapt on to the platform and tried to grab an axe which lay among the ‘exhibits’ heaped on the floor. Alarmed, two of the magistrates drew their swords. One of the policemen raised his revolver and aimed it at the prisoner, but then lowered it for fear of hitting the judges. Onaindia, knocked over and pinioned, was quickly rendered helpless. Meanwhile, in the courtroom, uproar was at its height. The fifteen prisoners, chained together, plunged into an unequal struggle with the warders in charge of them. When they, too, had been overcome, they began to sing in chorus the old Basque anthem Euzko gudarik gera…From the public benches shouts arose: ‘Murderers! Long live ETA!’

Edouard de Blaye, Franco and the Politics of Spain, 1976, pp. 296-7.

The court was cleared and when the trial resumed in camera the proceedings were very brief. The defence lawyers refused to call the 25 witnesses whom they had planned to present. In his speech, the prosecutor called for death sentences on six of the accused and 752 years imprisonment.  

For the next three weeks the seven judges considered their verdict behind closed doors. While Beihl was held hostage in a secret location in France and the prisoners awaited the verdicts, tension increased across Spain. On 12 December 300 leading Catalan cultural figures locked themselves inside the abbey at Montserrat and issued a protest manifesto before leaving on 14 December to prevent the abbey being stormed. The Vatican and several European governments called for clemency. 

The Francoist hardliners also reacted. On 14 December, following a meeting of top army officers, a delegation of four Captains-General visited Franco at El Pardo to express the military’s concern at the situation. Hours later habeas corpus was suspended, allowing the indefinite detention of prisoners. Against a background of protest meetings across Europe, a large pro-Franco demonstration was organised in the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid on 16 December and rural labourers were bussed into the city for the event. On the following days similar pro-regime demonstrations occurred in other major cities. The spectacle of large crowds giving Fascist salutes and singing Cara el Sol (the Falangist anthem) – scenes reminiscent of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – added to the shock felt across Western Europe. Film of the demonstration in Madrid was shown on the no-do newsreels to cinema audiences in Spain [see the no-do here]. 

On Christmas Day, with no decision from the judges, ETA released Eugen Biehl. Three days later the verdicts were finally announced. One of the sixteen defendants was acquitted, six were sentenced to death, three of them receiving two death sentences, and the remainder shared a total of over 500 years imprisonment. After a cabinet meeting two days later Franco announced his decision to commute the death sentences

The crisis marked an important stage in what would prove to be the break-up of the Franco regime as, with an eye to the impending death of the dictator, the bunker rallied against supporters of “modernisation” of the regime. As Paul Preston has written,

The regime’s clumsiness had united the opposition as never before, the Church was deeply critical and the more progressive Francoists were beginning to abandon what they saw as a sinking ship.

Preston, Franco, 1993, p. 754

The trial was also a public relations disaster, reminding people and governments across Western Europe and in the Americas of the origins of the dictatorship and its continuing repressive and violent character. Follow these links for film of the demonstrations in London and Paris

All fifteen prisoners were released under the 1977 Amnesty Law. Three of those sentenced to death would later play significant roles in Spanish politics. Between 1993 and 2000 Mario Onaindia represented Euskadiko Ezkerra in the Cortes after serving in the Basque parliament, where both Eduardo Uriarte and Jokin Goristidi served, Uriarte between 1980 and 1988 for Euskadiko Ezkerra and Goristidi between 1980 and 1994 for Herri Batasuna. In addition, Itziar Aizpurua, sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, represented Herri Batasuna in the Basque parliament from 1982 to 1986 and 1994 to 1998 and in the Cortes between 1986 and 1993.  

Three of the defence lawyers also enjoyed parliamentary careers after Franco’s death. Gregorio Peces Barba, a Socialist deputy between 1977 and 1986, was a member of the parliamentary commission which drafted the 1978 Constitution and President of the Cortes between 1982 and 1986.  Juan María Bandrés represented Euskadiko Ezkerra as a senator between 1977 and 1979 and then in the Cortes between 1979 and 1989. Josep Solé Barberà served in the Cortes for the Communist Party between 1979 and 1982.  

IMAGE: El Diario de Burgos. Biblioteca Digital de Castilla y León.

The red Duchess

During the Civil War the Spanish Republic received support from many people in other countries. One of the most unexpected of these supporters was probably the Duchess of Atholl, an aristocratic member of the British parliament. To mark the 60th anniversary of her death, on 21 October 1960, IHR is publishing this post which highlights the Duchess’s support for the Republic and illustrates the breadth of support the Republic received from across the world. 

Born into a Scottish aristocratic family in 1874, Katharine Marjory Ramsay became Duchess of Atholl in 1917 when her husband inherited the Dukedom. In her youth she had trained as a pianist at the Royal College of Music in London, but, after her marriage she dedicated herself to public service. Before 1914 she was a member of a committee which examined the problems of providing health services in the sparsely-populated Scottish highlands and islands. During the First World War she helped to organise nursing services for the British army. 

In 1923 she was elected to parliament as Conservative MP for Kinross & West Perthshire, the Scottish constituency which included Blair Atholl, the family estate and which had previously been represented by her husband.  She was quickly promoted and from 1924 to 1929 she was  a junior minister for Education, only the second woman to become a British government minister. There was some irony in this: women had received the vote in 1918, but before 1914 she had outspokenly opposed giving women the vote, arguing that they were not yet sufficiently educated. 

In the late 1920s her attention shifted to international issues. She supported a campaign to prevent female genital mutilation in the British colonies in East Africa and she became concerned over developments in the USSR: her book The Conscription of A People (1931) exposed and denounced Soviet forced-labour practices. Despite her hostility to the USSR she decided, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, that Nazi Germany was a greater to threat to European peace. This influenced her support for the Spanish Republic after the failure of the attempted military coup in July 1936.  

In his memoirs Men and Politics, published in 1941, the U.S. journalist Louis Fischer gave this assessment of her contribution to the British campaign in support of the Republic

“In her old-fashioned black silk dress that fell to her shoe tops she would sit on the platform, at Spain meetings, with Communists, left-wing socialists, working men and disabled International Brigaders and appeal for help for the Republicans. She would interrogate everybody who had been to Spain and hang on their words and note many of them in a book filled with her illegible scrawl.”

Men and Politics, pp 440-441

She became Chair of the Joint National Committee for Spanish Relief (NJC), which was set up in November 1936 to coordinate the work of the myriad groups established in Britain to provide humanitarian aid to the Republic.  As Chair she worked with people from a wide range of backgrounds and with political views very different from her own, including Ellen Wilkinson and Leah Manning, both of whom were left-wing members of the Labour Party, and Isabel Brown, a prominent member of the British Communist party.  In  April 1937 a parliamentary delegation of Atholl, Wilkinson and the Independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, visited Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. In Valencia they met Italian soldiers who had been taken prisoner while fighting alongside Franco’s forces at the Battle of Guadalajara (March 1937). Madrid was under heavy artillery bombardment but they were taken to watch the fighting in the Casa del Campo.  Shortly after their return she became Chair of the Basque Children’s Committee, which organised the evacuation of nearly 4,000 children from Bilbao and accommodated them in Britain, as we explained in “Expedición a Inglaterra”: The Basque Children in Britain.  

Her support for the Republic led right-wing newspapers in Britain to call her the “Red Duchess”, but she was a very conservative figure and a strong supporter of the British Empire. In 1935 she had temporarily resigned from the Conservative party in parliament in protest at legislation to introduce local self-government in the British colony of India, as she feared this would lead to Indian independence.  Louis Fischer, whom she invited to tea in the House of Commons in 1937, concluded “she is no radical” (Men and Politics, page 440). 

Her support for the Republic led to her book on the Civil War, Searchlight on Spain, which was published as a paperback in June 1938, selling over 100,000 copies within a month. By contrast George Orwell’s now-famous Homage to Catalonia sold  under a thousand copies when published a few months earlier.  Orwell reviewed Searchlight on Spain for the magazine Time and Tide in July 1938 and described it as “a short popular history of the Spanish war” which was “simply written and well-documented” (“Orwell in Spain”, 2001, page 304)  

Searchight on Spain included a chapter on “Insurgent Spain” which, she admitted, she had been unable to visit; basing her comments “on books of others who had visited” (Searchlight on Spain, page xi) she stressed the widespread repression and the refusal of the insurgent authorities to allow independent reporting.  In her final chapter she concluded :

“The barbarities that will be perpetrated if Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid fall into the hands of the insurgents are likely to baffle description. If the Spanish Republicans are crushed, it means the end of liberty, justice and culture, and the merciless extermination of all suspected of caring for those things”.

Searchlight on Spain, page 316

She also stressed the dangers of an insurgent victory in the event of a wider European war which, by 1938, looked increasingly likely. She pointed out that France would be surrounded by three hostile powers (Germany, Italy and Spain), and she highlighted the dangers to Britain, warning – accurately as events would prove during the Second World War – of the threat to British shipping from German submarines refuelling along the coast of Galicia.  

Her fears over Nazi Germany had been increased by visits in 1937-1938 to several central European states. These included Austria,  where she went shortly before the Nazi annexation of March 1938, and Czechoslovakia, which she visited in July 1938. Two months after this visit, in September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister and Edouard Daladier, the French Premier, agreed at Munich to Hitler’s demands to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. When the Agreement was signed she was on a tour of Canada and the United States, where she travelled widely speaking at public meetings in support of a campaign to raise money for food ships to be sent to the Spanish Republic. 

By this time her support for the Spanish Republic and her criticism of British foreign policy had led to her expulsion from the governing Conservative party.  After the Munich Agreement she resigned from parliament to provoke a by-election in her constituency, in which she stood as a candidate.  Her only opponent was from the  Conservative party because both the Labour and Liberal parties withdrew their candidates and supported her. Her campaign focussed on her criticism of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and of the Non-Intervention Agreement which prevented the Spanish Republican government from buying weapons legally. She received support from prominent members of the British literary and artistic establishment, including Gerald Brenan and Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell, both of whom had been living in Malaga when the Civil War broke out.  Winston Churchill, another opponent of the Munich Agreement, phoned her regularly – but avoiding visiting the campaign. Voting, on 21 December after two days of heavy snow, resulted in her being narrowly defeated. This ended her political career, but not her support for the Spanish Republic or for human rights.

In January 1939 she was one of the signatories to a joint letter to The Times which called for the Republican government to be allowed to buy weapons legally. After the defeat of the Republic she visited the camps in Southern France where hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees were confined and, in May 1939, she travelled to the French port of Sête to witness the departure of the Sinaia, which the NJC had chartered to transport Republican refugees to Mexico. 

After the Second World War she helped to establish the British League for European Freedom which she chaired. The League campaigned to expose the human rights situation in Eastern Europe after it came under Soviet domination. Her memoirs, Working Partnership, were published in 1958, two years before her death. Surprisingly perhaps, she had relatively little to say about her work in support of the Spanish Republic.  However, as Louis Fischer had observed in 1941,

“she had gone to Madrid and thenceforth worked as hard for Loyalist Spain as anyone in the realm”. 

Men and Politics, page 440

Photo: Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray (née Ramsay), Duchess of Atholl by Howard Coster. Half-plate film negative, 1938. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x12264. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

“Expedición a Inglaterra” : The Basque Children in Britain

The Spanish Civil War disrupted the lives of a generation of children. Many were forced into exile, whether temporary or permanent. Nearly 4,000 children from the Basque provinces became refugees in Britain. To mark the anniversary of their departure, on Friday 21 May 1937, we are publishing a blog-post on their experiences.

When the Habana, a steamer chartered by the Basque government, sailed from the port of Santurce, 14 km north of Bilbao, she carried 3,826 child refugees who were escaping the assault by Franco’s forces on the city to an uncertain future. They were accompanied by 120 señoritas (female helpers), 80 teachers, 16 priests and 2 doctors.  The vessel, built to carry only 800 passengers, had a difficult voyage, hitting storms in the Bay of Biscay and arriving in Southampton on the morning of Sunday 23 May.  After disembarkation the children were taken, by a fleet of municipal buses, to a campsite at North Stoneham, outside Southampton, which had been hastily prepared for them.  [Watch this 1937 British newsreel report of the children’s arrival].

As the failed military coup of July 1936 developed into Civil War, the British Conservative-dominated government adopted a policy of “non-intervention”.  However,  within days local groups were launched across Britain to support the Republican government in its struggle against the military rebels. In the autumn representatives of these groups formed the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief

By the spring of 1937 support for the Republic focussed on the plight of the Basque country which was blockaded by Franco’s navy and threatened by the advance of the insurgent army. The destruction of Guernica on 26 April by the German Condor Legion was widely reported in the British press, most notably by George Steer, The Times correspondent who visited the destroyed town hours after the bombardment [Read Steer’s original article].

Even before this there were fears for the civilian population of Bilbao: the city  was being bombed daily and was home to an estimated 100,000 refugees. From early April, plans were made to evacuate some of the women and children, with offers to accept refugees coming from several countries including France and the Soviet Union. In Britain leading members of the National Joint Committee formed a separate Basque Children’s Committee (BCC), chaired by the Duchess of Atholl, a Conservative MP, to organise the evacuation of some children. Leah Manning, a former Labour MP, was sent to Bilbao to organise this and was followed in early May by two doctors and two Spanish-speaking nurses. Families were invited to apply for their children to be included.  In the crisis of May 1937 this was an agonising decision with important consequences: in some cases the children who left would not see their parents again for years, if ever.

The British government reluctantly agreed to the arrival of 2,000 children aged six to twelve, on condition that no public money should be spent on them and on the understanding that their stay would be limited to a few months.  Soon far more than 2,000 had been registered in Bilbao and the Duchess of Atholl persuaded the government to increase the number accepted to 4,000. Since she also highlighted the threat to teenage girls from Franco’s soldiers, the government agreed to accept children up to the age of sixteen, with girls making up a higher proportion of older ones. A desperate search for a site to house the children led to the offer of three fields covering 12 hectares at North Stoneham and volunteers worked hastily to erect tents and install necessary facilities including gas and water supplies. The War Office provided the tents and field kitchens and charged for their rental.

Accounts of life at North Stoneham stress the early difficulties which the children encountered – the strange food, the language, the life in tents and the heavy rain within days of their arrival which flooded the campsite. They also indicate the traumas caused by the children’s experiences of war (many, for example, ran to hide when a small plane flew over the camp to photograph it). The fall of Bilbao to the insurgent forces on 19 June led to emotional scenes as the children feared for their families and several hundred broke out of the camp.

North Stoneham was a temporary camp. Soon arrangements were made for groups of children to be dispersed across the country. 1,200 children were housed in communities run by the Catholic Church. The rest were moved to about 70 homes (known as “colonies”)  established by local community groups, the children being invited to put their names down for places of which they often knew nothing. Inevitably the colonies varied enormously as they depended on the resources of the host communities. Some colonies were clearly inadequate and were closed by the BCC, with the children being transferred.

The presence of the children was not welcomed by everyone. Supporters of Franco argued that allowing refugee children into Britain was a form of support for the Republic.  A campaign group, the Friends of Nationalist Spain, which included several Conservative MPs, was set up to press for their repatriation. Right-wing newspapers claimed that the children were communists, violent and unruly: a Daily Mail editorial described them as “potentially murderous little wretches”. In the summer of 1937 boys from two of the colonies were involved in disturbances with local residents, which provided further ammunition. After the fall of Bilbao the Catholic Church, which had supported the evacuation, joined the campaign for the children to be returned quickly.

However, most of the colonies managed to establish good relations with local communities. Boys’ football teams from the colonies played matches against local teams and some colonies organised concerts featuring Basque songs and dances to raise funds. The experiences of the children were very varied. Some of the colonies were better supported by local communities than others. Two of the best were those in Cambridge and in the south Wales town of Caerleon.

The 29 children in Cambridge were orphans from the families of Socialist militiamen. Initially they lived in a large vicarage outside the city, before moving to a big house near the railway station (a blue plaque now marks the house). They received classes from Cambridge University staff and spent a month in the summer of 1937 on the Norfolk coast as guests of the parents of John Cornford, who had been killed fighting in the International Brigades. Their music teacher, Rosita Bal, had studied under Manuel de Falla, and they performed songs and dances at concerts in London and elsewhere.

The colony in Caerleon benefited from the close links between Vizcaya and south Wales which developed in the nineteenth century as both areas industrialised (Vizcayan iron ore was exported to south Wales and the ships returned with Welsh coal for use in Basque steel mills). The Caerleon colony was supported financially by the South Wales Miners’ Federation as well as by local Methodists and Baptists and by the small Spanish community in Cardiff. The children were taught in both Spanish and English, established their own journal (Cambria House Journal) and gave concerts in towns across south Wales. In the summer of 1938 the children were invited to spend a week’s holiday with local miners’ families. Their football team developed a reputation as “the Basque Boys” and “the Invincibles”. The building which housed the colony also has a blue plaque. 

The children’s return to Spain was often a complicated process. In some cases one or both parents were dead or in refugee camps in Catalonia or in France. Letters from parents asking the children to return were in some cases clearly written under pressure from the Francoist authorities. Gradually, however, most children were reunited with their families, though this became more difficult after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.  Eventually about 400 children remained in Britain, either because they had no families to return to or because, on reaching the age of 16, they chose to stay. By 1945 only one of the colonies remained – at Carshalton in Surrey – and it closed soon afterwards. Although the Basque Children’s Committee was finally wound up in 1951, in 2002 a Basque Children’s Association was set up by descendents of those who remained.    

Further details on the Basque children in the United Kingdom may be obtained from BCA ‘37: The Association for the UK Basque Children.

Photo: Niños vascos en Stoneham, cerca de Southampton (Inglaterra). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licencia CC-BY-NC-SA

The Mission of the School is to Transform the Country

Universal education is now considered one the most important duties of the state. This is, however, a recent development. Today, 14 April, to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, we publish a blog-post on the efforts made by the early governments of the Republic to to deal with the high levels of illiteracy by establishing a system of universal primary education

Spain had been one of the first European states to recognise the importance of universal education. The 1812 Constitution proclaimed that every village should have a primary school (article 366) and the Moyano Law of 1857 made school attendance obligatory until the age of nine.

These ambitious aims were, however, not translated into reality and the state relied heavily on the Church to provide education, both at primary level and at secondary, where some of its schools were among the most prestigious in the country.  In 1931 the Ministry of Education estimated that there were 32,680 schools and 27,151 more were needed [see Educación y Cultura en la Segunda República]. Based on an assumption that the average rural primary school would have one class of 50 pupils, there was a deficit of one million primary school places.

The consequences of this shortfall in school provision were to be found in the high rates of adult illiteracy, which amounted to over 30 per cent in the early 20th century and which, in some provinces, were over 60% [see detail]. As in any society with such high levels of illiteracy,  the abilities of many of those who qualified as literate were probably also very low.  Not surprisingly these estimates obscured major variations – between different social classes, between urban and rural areas (literacy tended to be higher in cities) and also between different parts of the country (northern Spain was generally more literate than the south). Illiteracy also largely affected women: the overall rate of adult illiteracy in the province of Zaragoza at the time was 30 per cent but 62 per cent of those who were illiterate were women, according to the Museo Pedagógico de Aragón

For the political leaders of the Second Republic universal literacy was fundamental. The Republican project did not simply represent the replacement of the monarchical form of government, but rather the opportunity to modernise Spain. Part of that modernisation was the creation of a literate and informed citizenry who would be capable of exercising the responsibilities necessary to support a system of representative government. This was recognised, for example, by Manuel Azaña, who became Prime Minister in October 1933, when he stated that “the state school should be the shield of the Republic” [“la escuela pública debía ser el escudo de la República”]. The role of education was also stressed by Rodolfo Llopis, Director-General of Primary Education, in a speech in Zaragoza in December 1932:

the mission of the school is to transform the country….so that those people who are now treated as subjects may become the responsible citizens of a Republic [La misión de la escuela es transformar el país en estos momentos (…) que los que estaban condenados a ser súbditos, puedan ser ciudadanos conscientes de una República] [source]

Llopis’s words were reflected in several articles in the 1931 Constitution, which stated that “the provision of culture is an essential responsibility of the State, and it will be provided by means of educational institutions linked to a unified system of schooling”. [El servicio de la cultura es atribución esencial del Estado, y lo prestará mediante instituciones educativas enlazadas por el sistema de la escuela unificada].  Under Article 48 primary education was to be “free and obligatory” [gratuita y obligatoria] and teaching was to be “carried out by lay professionals” [laica] and “inspired by ideals of human solidarity” [se inspirará en ideales de solidaridad humana].

Given the shortage of primary schools, the new government  committed itself almost immediately to a plan to build 5,000 new primary schools a year for the next five years. Land was to be provided by municipalities while the government would contribute towards construction costs and pay the salaries of teachers.

After the first ten months the Minister of Education was able to announce the construction of over 7,000 new schools.  Thereafter the pace of building dropped, partly because of financial restraints and partly because of the conflict with the Church and its political consequences. As a result the figure for 1932 was 2,580, for 1933 3,990 and for 1934-35 (the two years of government by the centre-right) 3,421. This represented a total of 9,991 in four years. These figures should be compared with the  total of 11,128 new schools opened under the monarchy in the three decades after 1900.

The government ministers most closely associated with this building programme – and with further reforms to strengthen and modernise the school system –  were Marcelino Domingo, Minister of Education between April and October 1931 and Fernando de los Ríos who succeeded him from October 1931 until the fall of the Azaña government in October 1933.

Of course, new schools required more teachers and the Ministry launched a programme to recruit some of the many holders of the title of licenciado (a teaching qualification) who had no teaching experience by providing 7,000 places on refresher courses. There were also measures to improve the status and pay of primary teachers: the notoriously low pay of teachers was reflected in the common expression “to be as poor as a school-teacher” [“pasar más hambre que un maestro de escuela”]. Teachers, who under the Constitution were given the status of public servants or  “funcionarios publicos”,  saw their salaries increase by about 15% between 1931 and 1933.

Teachers were, in fact, seen as key figures in the consolidation of the Republic: as the Revista de Pedagogía stressed in May 1931: “As Spanish teachers, we more than anyone, are obliged to be the most enthusiastic defenders of the Republic. We have the duty of providing the schools with the essential ideas which support it: liberty, personal independence, solidarity, civility”. [“Los educadores españoles estamos, como nadie, obligados a ser los defensores más entusiastas de la República. Tenemos el deber de llevar a las escuelas las ideas esenciales en que se apoya: libertad, autonomía, solidaridad, civilidad.” [source]. As Carlos París has noted:

“this gave rise to a generation of teachers identified with the Republic. The Franco regime identified this and banned from teaching those who had taught in the Republican zone during the Civil War” [“Surge así toda una generación de maestros identificados con la República. El régimen franquista tomó tan buena nota de ello, que prohibió la enseñanza a todas las personas que la habían ejercido en la zona republicana durante la Guerra Civil.”

Measures were also taken to improve and extend secondary education, including the building of new schools. Co-educational secondary schools were to replace single-sex provision, a move which provoked opposition from parents especially in some rural areas and smaller cities. Co-education would later be banned by the Franco Dictatorship. 

The Republic’s educational reforms helped to fuel a serious dispute with the Church and to earn it the hostility of many devout Catholics. Article 26 of the Constitution prohibited religious orders from teaching. In 1931 the Ministry of Education asked municipalities for the number attending religious primary schools. The total came to 350,000 – to replace which, again on the basis of fifty pupils per school, would require the state to build an additional 7,000 schools. The Church also owned about 300 secondary schools with some 20,000 pupils. Unlike primary schools, the government could not immediately replace these because of the lack of qualified staff to substitute for the members of religious orders who taught in them. However, before this issue could be resolved, the Azaña government fell from office and was replaced by a centre-right administration led by Alejandro Lerroux which ignored this constitutional provision.  

PHOTO: José Sánchez Rosa’s school. He was an Andalusian rationalist teacher, follower of Francisco Ferrer Guardia’s teaching model. Image taken in Seville in 1936, shortly before the so-called ‘Alzamiento
Nacional’ (National Rising), the name given by its supporters to the
attempted military coup.. Author: Franciscojosecuevasnoa [CC BY-SA]

Pioneers: The First Spanish Women Deputies: Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent & Margarita Nelken

The new Spanish government, announced in January, includes 11 women of a total of 22 ministers.  Women’s participation at the highest levels of government in Spain is, however, only a recent development. To mark International Women’s Day 2020 Innovation and Human Rights celebrates the first three women deputies to enter the Spanish parliament, all of them elected to the Constituent Cortes of the Second Republic in 1931

Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken were all elected under the 1890 electoral law which restricted the vote to men.  Women only received the vote under the constitution of the new Republic, passed by the Constituent Cortes in December 1931. This enabled women to vote for the first time in the Cortes elections held in November 1933.

Paul Preston has pointed out that “pressure for the female vote had come not from any mass movement but from a tiny elite of educated women and some progressive male politicians, most notably in the Socialist party” (“Doves of War: Four Women in Spain”, Harper Collins, 2003).  Female suffrage was above all the work of Clara Campoamor, who was a member of the commission which drafted the constitution and who led the argument for women’s legal equality in the Cortes debate in October 1931. Article 36, which would give the vote to women over the age of 23 – on the same terms as men – passed by the Cortes by 161 votes to 121, mainly due to support from the Socialist party. (Read the 1931 Constitution here)

Before being elected in June 1931 for Madrid as a deputy for the Radical party, Clara Campoamor had made her name in the 1920s as a lawyer.  Born in Madrid in 1888 to working-class parents, she qualified in 1924 and then specialised on paternity issues and cases relating to marriage at a time before divorce was legalised. In 1928 she helped establish the International Federation of Women Lawyers. She was the first woman to appear before the Spanish Supreme Court and, in 1931, was the first woman to address the Cortes during the Republic.  Her campaign for women’s suffrage was met not only by opposition from the Church and hostility from conservative opinion, but was also opposed by most of the members of her own party. She was defeated in the 1933 election and left the Radical Party soon afterwards in protest at its increasingly right-wing policies. In 1933-1934 she served briefly as Director of Public Welfare. In 1936, fearing for her safety, she left Spain and settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she died in 1972. 

The other two women deputies in the Constituent Cortes, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken, opposed female suffrage in 1931, though the latter was only elected in a by-election in October 1931 and had not entered the Cortes in time for the debates on Article 36.  Both Kent and Nelken argued that women were not socially and politically ready for the vote and that, since many women were subject to the influence of the Church, they would support parties which were hostile to the Republic. As Victoria Kent argued during the debate  “this is not a question of the ability of women; it is a question of the future prospects of the Republic” (“no es cuestión de capacidad; es cuestión de oportunidad para la República”). Both Kent and Nelken, had impressive backgrounds as campaigners for women’s rights and social justice and their fears about the consequences of women’s suffrage are, perhaps, a good measure of the strength of opposition which the Republic faced within months of its proclamation.

Victoria Kent was born in Málaga in 1891. She was one of the first women to pass the Spanish bar exams and became famous as the first woman to address a military court when she successfully defended Álvaro de Albornoz in his court martial after the attempted rising against the monarchy at Jaca in December 1930.  After the proclamation of the Second Republic in April 1931 Albornoz became Minister of Justice and Kent was elected to the Cortes as a member of the Radical Socialist Party. As Director of Prisons between 1931 and 1934 she implemented important reforms to improve conditions; these included the building of the new women’s prison of Ventas in Madrid (read about its inauguration here). 

Although she lost her parliamentary seat when the parties of the right won the 1933 elections, she was returned to the Cortes in February 1936, this time for the Left Republican party (Izquierda Republicana) in Jaen. During the civil war she worked in the Spanish embassy in Paris, helping child refugees from the conflict. After the German invasion of France she lived under a false identity, avoiding deportation to Spain where Francoist courts had sentenced her in her absence to 30 years imprisonment. In 1948 she moved to Mexico and then to New York where she lived until her death in 1987. One of the railway stations in Malaga is named after her. 

When Margarita Nelken entered the Cortes as a Socialist deputy for Badajoz in 1931 she was already a celebrated art critic, novelist and women’s rights campaigner. Born in Madrid in 1894 into an affluent Jewish immigrant family, her book La condición social de la mujer en España (1919) exposed the subordinate position of women in Spanish society and argued that the achievement of women’s rights depended on the success of a revolutionary movement. The book created such a scandal that it was debated in the Cortes and was condemned by the Bishop of Lleida. Right-wing newspapers and politicians maligned her, accusing her of being a foreigner and of being sexually promiscuous. Once elected as deputy for Badajoz she adopted the cause of the landless labourers and campaigned for land reform. Her experiences in Badajoz, including the resistance by landowners to the labour reforms of 1931-1933 and the right-wing violence and electoral fraud in the 1933 elections, led her to join the more radical wing of the Socialist party.  She was re-elected to the Cortes in 1933 and 1936. In the autumn of 1936, when Madrid was threatened by Francoist forces, she stayed in the capital, helping to organise the defence of the city. In 1937 she joined the Communist party but her relations with the party were very strained and she was expelled in 1942. In the later stages of the civil war she worked in government jobs first in Valencia and then in Barcelona, leaving the latter city shortly before Francoist troops entered in January 1939. After the war she settled in Mexico, where she made a living as an art critic, supporting her mother, daughter and grandaughter and where she died in 1968.

In total only nine women were elected to one or more of the three parliaments of the Second Republic. Of these, five represented the Socialist party (Julia Álvarez, Veneranda García-Blanco,  María Lejarraga, Margarita Nelken and Matilde de la Torre), two were Radicals (Clara Campoamor and Victoria Kent), one represented the Communist party (Dolores Ibarruri) and one the right wing CEDA (Francisca Bohigas Gavilanes).

Photographs: [From left to right] Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken. Author: Estudio Alfonso. Source: Archivo General de la Administración at Portal de Archivos Españoles.

Some Recommendations for Summer Reading

Top of the list of summer reading recommended by Innovation & Human Rights this year is La vall de la matança (Cossetània Edicions, 2012), by Josep Masanés, a writer from Barcelona now based in Menorca. This novel won the award for Narrative Fiction at the 29th  Ribera d’Ebre Book Fair. It tells the story of the Civil War struggle by Republican troops led by Captain Creus and Second-lieutenant Ciurana during an attack on Francoist defensive positions held by the fearsome Major Marín. Although this attack resulted in victory, the Republican armies were forced to continued retreating.  Summoned in front of the General Staff, Creus and Ciurana were entrusted with a difficult mission. As they carry this out we meet the other men chosen for the mission including Ulldevidre, Reimann and Homs.  By the end of the Civil War we have learnt about their fears, their desires and their loves, along with the enemies who pursue them, personified by the diabolical Major Marín. Josep Masanés has paid tribute to the influence of the American writer, Cormac McCarthy.

Our second recommendation is La memòria de l’Oracle (Edicions del 1984, published in 2018), the third novel of Pere Joan Martorell, which won the Premio Mallorca de Narrativa 2017.  In this the author reflects on the human condition in a harrrowing tale set in the brutal atmosphere of the Civil War on the island of Mallorca. The story follows the search for their father by Jacob and his family: his mother, his aunt and his uncle. Jacob himself is the omniscient narrator who begins his account from within his mother’s womb. The novel offers a double perspective: it takes place both at the time of the conflict and during the post-war years. It is neither a historical novel nor a documentary.  The author details the barbarity and the dark times of the Fascist period in Mallorca. Martorell’s language is both rich and poetic.

While we are on the subject of the Balearic Islands, we cannot fail to recommend Llibre d’Exilis (2018), by Josep Portella, a biographical dictionary of Menorcan exile. This is a work which took over seven years of research, documenting the lives of Menorcans who were driven into exile by the Civil War and the Franco Regime. It is a volume of great documentary value: extending to over 700 pages and  including over 1,000 photographs, it is a major contribution to the recovery of historical memory in Menorca. It was published in collaboration with the local council (Consell Insular de Menorca).

Another book which is highly recommended is Las heridas (Editorial Pepitas de Calabaza, 2012), by  Norman Bethune, translated from English by Natalia Fernández. Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor is famous for the role played by his medical units during the Spanish Civil War and, later, with the Chinese armies during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He is considered to have developed the first mobile blood transfusion service in Spain in 1936. This small but interesting volume is a compilation of his fundamental writings. In the first part, Bethune defends the idea of universal medical attention. In the second, he narrates the events which he witnessed as a doctor during the flight of the population of the city of Málaga along the road towards Almería in February 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The third part describes the privations of life in China and his work for the cause of medicine there.  

Finally, since it has been topical recently, we take this opportunity to recommend Los Girasoles Ciegos (Editorial Anagrama, 2004, published in English as Blind Sunflowers, Arcadia Books, 2008). This, the only published work of Alberto Méndez, consists of four connected tales:  “If the heart could think it would cease to beat”,; “Manuscript found in oblivion”; “The language of the dead”; “Blind sunflowers” .  This is in many ways a grim book, reflecting the atmosphere of the Civil War and the post-war Francoist repression.  A Spanish-language film version of the novel was released in 2008.