Review: The British in Spain

June 20, 2013
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Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. By Richard Baxell. (London, Aurum, 2012).

Of the 35,000 foreigners who fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War 2,500 were British  and 500 of them were killed.  There have been several books written about their activities as well as memoirs by some of the participants. Two of them were written by Richard Baxell: English Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2004) and, with Angela Jackson and Jim Jump, Antifascistas: British & Irish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2010). The former is short and covers only the three years of the war itself and the latter is fundamentally a book of splendid pictures and short texts. Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment. It appears to use every available source, not only archives in Britain but the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in New York, the collection in Moscow as well as much unpublished material, including many interviews  available at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Although most of the story is devoted to those who were with the International Brigade, Baxell pays attention to those who participated in other contexts, most notably George Orwell who fought with the POUM, as well as chapters on the few who fought on Franco’s side and on the British reporters who came to Spain.

This is a remarkably well balanced and fair minded account. It faces one squarely with the endless paradox of war.  The experience of war itself could not be, as was certainly true in Spain, more dreadful yet for many though not all who participated and survived, it was the most important and rewarding experience of their lives, one that they didn’t regret. After many years, with the death of Franco and Spain’s transition to democracy the right side won.  La Pasionaria’s famous speech in October, 1938 was finally fulfilled: veterans could return and become Spanish citizens should they wish.  The story is set in the broader context of Britain in the 1930s, the Depression, the growth and activities of the Communist Party and the fight against Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascists.  Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War the idea of an International Brigade, under the aegis of the Comintern directed from Moscow, took shape.

The Party in Britain was the chief recruiter and organizer for British recruits. It is intriguing that the one nation conspicuously missing as a supplier of manpower to the Brigade was the Soviet Union itself.  There were crucial Russian advisers, most of whom were to be executed when they returned home, victims of Stalin’s paranoia. The West supplied most of the international volunteers. Although the writers and intellectual who participated were significant, by far the great majority who came were from the working class. Three-fourths of the British members of the International Brigade were Communists.  Those who went to fight thought, probably rightly, that if Franco could be defeated, it might stop Hitler in his tracks and that the looming war would not be necessary. It is a brutal story. Very few of the volunteers had military experience. Training was inadequate. The leadership was far from flawless. Not only were there military commanders but also a parallel command structure of the commissars who were to make sure that the Communist party continued to be in control. The losses through death or injury were horrific. Through Spanish Medical Aid and other groups there was an attempt to cope with medical needs and important advances were made in the area of blood transfusion but they were quite primitive and difficult. British participation in famous battles are finely described—Madrid, Jarama, Brunete, the Ebro. The deaths, injuries, and suffering of the battles do make one wonder if war is ever worth it. How can it be tolerated even in the interests such a good cause, trying to stop the rise of Fascism? War is not romanticized in Baxell’s vivid accounts, nor is it hidden from the reader that there were incompetents and scoundrels among the British who went to Spain.

Baxell deals well with the May days in Barcelona. Certainly one of the most famous accounts of the war is Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, either ignored or attacked when it was first published in 1938, seen as unhelpful in winning the war. It came into its own in the 1950s on the basis of its merits, augmenting Orwell’s greater fame, but was also used as a weapon in the Cold War. Orwell himself was hoping to join the International Brigade, appalled at the inefficiency he had experienced while with the POUM militia. But then when he came to Barcelona and found his POUM comrades being attacked, he knew which side he was on. In his view the Communists and their allies were willing to murder those on the same side as well as the truth in order to achieve their aims. Baxell appreciates the tragic irony of the situation: that the Communists were right to suppress the revolution in order to have the best chance to win the war and their opponents were right about what should be the ultimate aims of the struggle: achieving a better society.  But could the latter happen without the former?  Indeed the Communists and their allies won out and the still Republic lost, largely because of the policy of non-intervention.

Baxell continues the story, describing vividly the departure of British volunteers and the brutal experiences of those who were taken prisoner. He follows the veterans through World War II when quite a few of them were seen as untrustworthy, “Premature Anti-Fascists,” and were ridiculously kept out of the military. Others managed to serve. Tom Wintringham, drummed out of the puritan Party because of his love life, used his Civil War experience to help found the Home Guard. Bernard Knox came to the United States, joined the OSS and was parachuted into Europe. Others helped to defeat Hitler. Loyal Communists had to deal with the difficulties of the party line, most notably when the Nazi-Soviet pact sparked the claim that the war against Germany was on behalf of imperialism. Despite hopes to the contrary, the end of the war did not bring the fall of Franco.

This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale.  War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in.  Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account.

Peter Stansky has recently published with William Abrahams Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War.

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One Response to “ Review: The British in Spain ”

  1. [...] ‘Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment … A remarkably well balanced and fair minded account … This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale.  War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in.  Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account. Peter Stansky, author with William Abrahams of Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War  in The Volunteer. Read Peter Stansky’s review here [...]

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