Friday, 31 October 2014

UNLIKELY HEROES: The Extraordinary Story of the Britons Who Fought for Spain by RICHARD BAXELL

UNLIKELY HEROES: The Extraordinary Story of the Britons Who Fought for Spain
Aurum Press, 2014,  531 pages, $24.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The defiant red and black flags, the proud trade union banners, the clenched fists, the full-throated slogans (No Pasaran! No Pasaran!), the spine-quivering singing of The Internationale – these drove the waves of emotion in Spain amongst the 2,500 British volunteers who came to the military defence of the Spanish Republic against General Franco’s fascists in the late 1930s, writes the London School of Economics’ Richard Baxell in Unlikely Warriors.  The Britons, although they and democratic Spain were to lose the Spanish Civil War, would never lose the memory of this electrifying solidarity.

The English-speaking volunteers from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries (including over fifty from Australia) comprised the 15th International Brigade from amongst the 35,000 overseas volunteers from 53 countries.

Most of the Britons were anti-fascists who had waged a “muscular response” to Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in England.  They would now do, in Spain, what their anti-communist governments, adopting the policy that the Spanish Republic was ‘better dead than red’, would not.

Unlike the early wave of literary intellectuals and other “radical romantics and middle class Marxists” in spontaneously-formed militias, the Brigaders were organised by the Communist International (the Moscow-led global network of national communist parties), around three-quarters being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Most were working class men (and the occasional woman – the first British volunteer to be killed in battle was the sculptor, Felicia Browne).

The communist foundation of the International Brigades has allowed Cold War polemicists to argue that the Brigades were simply a political instrument for Stalin to pursue a satellite Spanish dictatorship behind an anti-fascist façade.

Whilst the Brigades’ political leadership certainly kept a watch on dissidents and rival leftist forces, the British Brigaders did not share in the responsibility for the Stalinist bastardry, so brutally illustrated in the suppression of the anarchists and the radical Partido de Unificacion Marxista (POUM) in the 1936 Catalan uprising.  There were no executions of Britons for political disobedience, a leniency extended to deserters whose harshest punishment was being sentenced to digging trenches or latrines, the comparatively mild disciplinary reactions of a “desperate army in a bitter struggle for its very survival”.  If the war was lost through military indiscipline, concludes Baxell,  then no revolution could be won.

The Stalinist “civil war within the Civil War” was tragically unhelpful at best, although Baxell notes that the Spanish Republic was to be defeated, not by Stalin’s terror, but by the “utterly farcical”  non-intervention agreement signed by 28 countries, including fascist Italy and Nazi Germany which blatantly supplied weapons and soldiers to their Francoist ally.  This one-sided pact left the Spanish Republic out-numbered, out-gunned and out-financed, doomed in the face of the ferociously effective, elite military forces of Franco’s Army of Africa from France’s Moroccan colony. 

Nevertheless, the political fervour and suicidal bravery of the Brigaders served to delay the end until they were withdrawn in 1938 by a besieged Spanish government in a vain attempt to mediate a peace with Franco through obtaining international assistance by expelling the illegal overseas fighters.  The International Brigades not only made a difference, they were different in that, as a British ambulance driver put it, ‘it was their war, they were fighting for their interests, unlike soldiers in large imperialist wars’.

As a work of academic scholarship, Unlikely Warriors is more than sound, and more than ethically decent in its not-uncritical empathy with the sometimes-shades-of-Stalinist-grey cause and personnel of thirties’ anti-fascism.

Baxell does not gloss over brute military reality (the wretchedness of life as a soldier) and he acknowledges that all was not battlefield heroism (incompetence and individual weakness fray the edges of the anti-fascist epic) or working class harmony (the Irish decamped en bloc from their ‘British’ comrades to the American battalion).  Baxell also examines the grudgingly-tolerated affront to the volunteers’ egalitarian political idealism offered by a traditional, non-democratic army (the Brigades were part of the Spanish Republican Army). 

Unlikely Warriors is, however, primarily a work of oral history, and in this it excels by giving vivid, moving and honest voice to those who upended, and too often ended, their own lives in their attempt to save millions of others’ from fascism.

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