Go and get killed, comrade

Gideon Lewis-Kraus

  • Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism by Richard Baxell
    Aurum, 516 pp, £25.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 84513 697 0
  • I Am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went to Fight Fascism by David Boyd Haycock
    Old Street, 363 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 908699 10 7

In the introduction to the third revision of what was once called A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War – it’s no longer said to be concise – Paul Preston points out that this prelude to the Second World War has generated as many books as the Second World War itself. During the Cold War, with the CIA busy collaborating with anarchists and Trotskyists to try to obscure ‘the fact that Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Chamberlain were responsible for the Nationalist victory, not Stalin’, it made sense that foreigners continued to fight the war out in print. The unabated rehearsal of the conflict since then is harder to account for. Preston suggests various reasons: the sheer length of time that Franco remained in power, along with the tolerance of his regime by democratic governments; the parallels between what happened in Spain and national liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua; and the hope that in the Spanish experience we might find ‘the idealism and sacrifice so singularly absent from modern politics’.

The idea that it was ‘the last great cause’ is echoed in the reminiscences of the international volunteers quoted in Richard Baxell’s exhaustive study, Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. John Bassett, who served in the International Brigades for nine months, from March 1938 until they were disbanded that December, articulates the last-great-cause attitude better than anyone: ‘Never again will men of every creed and tongue go to war with the ideals with which the volunteers went to Spain. It was indeed a time of hope, when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs … Men will never go to war like that again, for war will never be as simple.’ Baxell uses Bassett’s words as the epigraph to his epilogue and as flap copy. But what he writes about is the contradiction between the notion that the war was ‘simple’ and the reality of the conflict. It wasn’t the last time a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs, but it was probably the last time a lot of Englishmen with rifles allowed themselves the exhilaration of that belief.

The story of the Spanish Civil War is one of disillusionment. That was Orwell’s model and it hasn’t been superseded. Orwell arrived in Barcelona as a reporter for the New Leader in December 1936, and what he saw – ‘a town where the working class was in the saddle’, where men and women wore blue overalls, looked one another in the eye and said tu – struck him as ‘worth fighting for’. He ended up on the front in Aragon somewhat by chance. Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the British Communist Party, had flatly denied his request to join the International Brigades: his accent and background made him politically suspect. The International Labour Party had set up an office in Barcelona that October in support of its quasi-Trotskyist sister organisation, the POUM. John McNair, the ILP representative, wasn’t sure he wanted Orwell around either but, aware of his fame, escorted him to the POUM barracks, where he was perfunctorily trained before being shipped west. After four months at the front, he arrived back in Barcelona in time for the ‘civil war within the civil war’, the Communist assault on the city’s anarchist-held telephone exchange. Soon afterwards, the POUM was banned and its leader, Andrés Nin, murdered. As soon as Orwell returned, he noticed that Barcelona had changed: it no longer seemed to be a city controlled by its workers: private cars were back on the streets; quail could be bought.

Orwell understood that he would have felt disenchanted whenever he came back:

Everyone who has made two visits, at intervals of months, to Barcelona during the war has remarked upon the extraordinary changes that took place in it. And curiously enough, whether they went there first in August and again in January, or, like myself, first in December and again in April, the thing they said was always the same: that the revolutionary atmosphere had vanished. No doubt to anyone who had been there in August, when the blood was scarcely dry in the streets and militia were quartered in the smart hotels, Barcelona in December would have seemed bourgeois; to me, fresh from England, it was liker to a workers’ city than anything I had conceived possible.

There were two different sorts of demoralisation: the spiritual sort felt by those, like Orwell, who saw the revolutionary cause undermined by Moscow; and the military sort felt by those, again like Orwell, who saw right away that the Republican side was irremediably ill-equipped. The first was much written about during the Cold War. The second is Baxell’s concern: his book provides an episodic history of troop morale. Spanish Republicans were fighting for their own survival, as were those from Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe, who had already lost the battle with Fascism at home. But from the beginning, the British – around 2500 of them, of whom more than five hundred were killed – believed they were on the side of justice, and that justice would prevail.

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