As has been seen in earlier chapters, the crash of revolution against reaction in the summer of 1936 resonated far beyond Spain. In the process, it produced responses that ranged from the altruistic to the Machiavellian. In the context of the Spanish Civil War, the concept of 'foreign volunteer' embraced a wide variety of beliefs and goals. This discussion will focus on the role of the International Brigades and the USSR, and contrasting views of their impact on the Spanish conflict.
The connections between the International Brigades and the USSR are open to interpretation. Was it with the approval of the Soviet government that the Comintern recruited the IBs (Alpert) or did Moscow request the Comintern to do it (Smyth)?3 Whatever its origins, the process of IB recruitment was organized by national Communist Parties and Comintern agents. That there were no Soviet names attached to these brigades is not surprising, since the Comintern 'line' was that this was an anti-fascist war for Spanish democracy, not a revolutionary war waged by the working class against capitalism. In this way the democracies abroad might be actively engaged in the Republican cause. On the other hand, the Comintern also ensured that Communists played a pivotal role in the IBs, not least as political commissars.
Contemporary perceptions of the International Brigades varied widely. Franco himself referred to the decisive part played by 'foreign, perfectly organized units' in the Nationalists' failure to capture Madrid in 1936-7.
In contrast, International Brigader Jason Gurney was deeply critical of IB organization and described André Marty, the French Comintern supremo at Albacete, as 'quite literally mad at this time'.4 Soon disillusioned by his experiences, Gurney came to see himself as a pawn in a propaganda game. But for Gurney and his fellow-idealists, the Spanish Civil War per se was a prophetic metaphor for their own national liberation, an episode in a long and continuing crusade against the right's abuse of power. Black Sea and Invergordon mutineers, victims of racism and the dole, leftists persecuted by fascist regimes, free-speech campaigners, pro-Bolshevik veterans of the Russian Civil War and intellectuals of all classes nailed their colours to the mast and would in later conflicts affirm the same spirit of commitment, despite the hostility of their national governments. The 35,000-plus IB volunteers in Spain operated within the Republican People's Army and were, from 1937, formally integrated into it. They comprised 15 per cent of the forces defending Madrid in late 1936 and 18 per cent of the Republican army brigades at Brunete in July 1937.
Since Franz Borkenau's sweeping assertion in the spring of 1937 that, 'In fact, not Miaja but Kléber [Commander of the Eleventh IB], not the Spanish militia but the international brigades, had saved and still continued to save Madrid',5 historians have evaluated and re-evaluated the IBs' role in that military sector. Writing in the mid-1970s, Gabriel Jackson highlighted the IBs' example to the militias in not wasting ammunition and in defensive tactics. For Stanley Payne, however, their role was secondary: Madrid's defence was mainly achieved by the leftist militias.6 For Hills, although the IBs helped delay the Nationalists' advance and crossing of the River Manzanares, their role in the capital's defence was 'important but not decisive'. Though Thomas affirms that the IBs limited the Nationalist advance in the University City, he and Mitchell concur that the Nationalists' momentum had already been checked before the IBs arrived. More recently, Preston has re-emphasized the Eleventh Brigade's vital defensive role and the Internationals' importance in weapons training and morale-building.7 Whatever qualifications may be made, it is undeniable that a role in the saving of Madrid can be ascribed to the IBs.
The International Brigades, Borkenau had written, 'continued to save Madrid'. The defence of Republican territory in the Battles of the Jarama and Guadalajara formed part of this process. In Crusade in Spain, written in the early 1970s, Jason Gurney threw a searchlight on to the IBs' experience at Jarama: comradeship, heroism and individual cases of inspired leadership set against incompetence, squalor and tragedy. But despite appalling losses on the Republican side, including the British and American battalions of the IBs, the Nationalists failed to cut communications between Madrid and Valencia. Nor, at the Battle of Guadalajara in the following month, did they succeed in their advance on Madrid from the east. Borkenau went so far as to describe the Eleventh and Twelfth IBs as 'the best brigades in the whole Spanish army'.8 But the humiliating success of the Garibaldi Battalion's Italian exiles against the CTV may well have reinforced Mussolini's resolve to hold out for a Franco victory by any means possible. Whatever the case, the CTV were to have their revenge against the IBs in Aragón, while, more immediately, the Nationalists' failure at Guadalajara was to spell a grim future for the Republican north - soon to be the focus of Mola's wrath by land, sea and air.
Of the Battle of Brunete (July 1937), Hills asserts, 'This battle, unlike Brihuega [part of the Battle of Guadalajara] was overwhelmingly between Spaniards; especially at the most important and basic level of all, the infantry private.'9 Indeed, though all five IBs took part (Eleventh to Fifteenth), there were also twenty-three Spanish brigades in the field. Yet Brunete was in some senses the IBs' battle. They established a key bridgehead east of the Guadarrama River, and the British Battalion was in the thick of the desperate fighting, at the end of which only 7 per cent of its force of 600 were still battleworthy. Amid bitter recriminations, the British Battalion leaders were summoned to Communist Party HQ in London, while the Thirteenth IB mutinied and was eventually dissolved. Nevertheless, thanks to Brunete, Franco's offensive in the north was disrupted.
A description of the Republican success in capturing Teruel (late December 1937) as 'a bloody victory for an objective of little significance'10 can be challenged. The logic of Republican strategy could not be faulted - to pre-empt a Nationalist attack, ease communications with Aragón, and obstruct Nationalist routes out of Zaragoza. Similar rationality underpinned the Ebro Valley Offensive, launched by the Republic in July 1938 and the IBs' last groat confrontation with fascism in Spain: namely, to reconnect Catalonia with Spain's central heartland and deflect the Nationalists from Valencia. But in both campaigns the Nationalists ultimately prevailed. Having suffered terrible losses in its attempt to take Hill 481, the British Battalion was finally withdrawn from the Ebro Campaign, and the war, in late September 1938, along with the nearly 13,000 other foreign volunteers operating in IB units. Neither the Condor Legion nor the CTV would follow their example.
The left-wing French historians Broué and Témime wrote in 1961,
'Whatever their political views, journalists and writers have always stressed the influence of the commitment of the International Brigades in the stiffening of Republican resistance. They formed a corps d'elite involved in all the fighting of any importance until the end of October 1938.'11 Enrique Lister suggested in the early 1980s that the IBs were 'ambassadors representing millions of people in the world who were on the side of the Republic, on the side of Spanish democracy. Additionally, they played an important part in this or that battle.'12
The Spanish Civil War became a phenomenon of history in which the International Brigades stand out in sharp relief. If Britain, France and the United States were not persuaded that Spanish democracy was a cause to which their own armies or armaments should be committed, who else was there apart from the brigaders to assist the Republic? Moreover, the IBs played a prominent role in defining the images we have of the Spanish Civil War, in written, oral and visual form. The names of their battalions and companies - Thaelmann, Garibaldi, Louis Michel, Lincoln, Dombrowski and Attlee - are testimony to the historical and moral imperative they embraced then and continue to personify now.
Buchanan has pointed out that it was the international communist movement that made the IBs possible. The Third Communist International, or Comintern, had been established in Moscow in 1919 to promote international revolution. However, it adopted a Popular Front policy in 1935 - an anti-revolutionary stance that was consistent with Stalin's Socialism in One Country doctrine and appropriate to Spain's need for a broad pro-democracy front against fascism. Apart from organizing the International Brigades, the Comintern had already inspired the Fifth Regiment (which Lister described as 'a powerful preparation for the communist approach to the war'), which in turn invoked a new professionalism in the Republican army.13 Comintern officials such as Marty and Togliatti sat in on PCE executive meetings just as Soviet generals participated in those of the General Staff. The PCE and PSUC were Comintern affiliates; both welcomed a wide range of potential members.
The American Cold War historian and diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in 1960, 'Eventually the Comintern gained strength and came to command the loyalty, and even obedience, of a sizable left-wing minority among the European labour movement. It remained, however, under strictest domination of the Russian communists, and soon became . . . a vehicle for the policies of the Soviet leaders rather than a political instrument and mouthpiece of international communist sentiment.'14 But in the context of Spain, Kennan's apparent inference that its 'policies'
were motivated by Soviet imperialism is wide of the mark. For Soviet intervention was primarily, at least in the short and medium term, defensive; as Denis Smyth has pointed out, it was intended to encourage British and French intervention in Spain to defend the Republic and also their partnership with the Soviet Union in an anti-fascist European bloc.
Whatever British and French perceptions were, the USSR intervened in Spain with vitally timed matériel and military advisers who, monitored by Orlov's NKVD, were attached to the staffs of Republican generals and played a significant part in the field, for example, at Guadalajara. Russians helped to implement the Republican war in the air, and, on the ground, to train the mixed brigades; Lister and Kléber had attended military training school in Moscow. The quid pro quo for such assistance was a political, economic and diplomatic presence in Spain, 'constructive' or 'insidious' depending on the perspective adopted; indeed, gratitude for Soviet food and state-of-the-art aircraft was paralleled by resentment of 'Russian police methods [which], like Russian propaganda, were crude and offended patriotic susceptibilities'.15
At government level, both Largo Caballero and Prieto had complicated relations with the USSR and PCE. But the line of argument advanced by historian Burnett Bolloten to the effect that Largo's successor Negrin (Prime Minister May 1937-March 1939) was a puppet both of an imperialistic Stalin and a power-hungry Stalinist PCE has been disputed. Such writers as Angel Viñas in Spain and Helen Graham in the UK are concerned to place Negrin and the PCE in a more three-dimensional context: thus, the PCE was a coherent force in consolidating the Republican war machine, just as Negrin's government needed all the Soviet aid Stalin could be persuaded to give, especially after the grave setbacks of 1938, whatever the price.16 Negrin also hoped that aid could so prolong the war that Britain and France would intervene when the conflict in Spain fused with the anticipated mass assault by European (including Spanish) fascism. But Colonel Casado believed Negrin's reliance on the PCE was endangering the hope of a negotiated settlement with Franco. Hence his coup against Negrin and the 'resisters' in March 1939.
In the final analysis, the impact of the USSR can be perceived on at least four levels: that of an 'alien' ideology that engendered Franco's crusade; that of direct intervention, crucial to the Republic's survival; through the Comintern and the International Brigades; and through the PCE and PSUC with whom the USSR had close contact. The gradual withdrawal from the Republic of direct Soviet support was one of several factors subverting the Republic's ability to wage war effectively.
After the end of the war, Franco remained committed to his long standing anti-communist crusade. In Spain he had defeated an enemy but not a doctrine; abroad he would assist Hitler in his equally obsessive project. But in the latter case neither the Soviet army nor Soviet ideology would succumb to the Caudillo's and the Fuhrer's zeal.
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