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An idealistic army fights fascism in 1930s Spain

Greg Klee/Globe staff illustration

What would motivate a person to journey to another country to fight in its civil war? “We came to wipe out the fascists … some of us must die doing that job,” said Oliver Law, the first Black American commander to lead white troops into battle. “But we’ll do it here in Spain, maybe stopping fascism in the United States, too….” Many of the thousands who joined Law felt the same. Giles Tremlett sets out to document the motivations and experiences of the volunteers who came from around the world in 1936 to join the battle in Spain. His book, “The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War,” is nothing less than magisterial, and provides the first “comprehensive, global history” of that conflict written in English in over 40 years.

Some 35,000 people came to Spain to fight. They represented 65 countries, all the major religions, and held a variety of political views. And, as Tremlett notes, “Jews from across the world were so numerous that they provide an alternative narrative to the traditional lament for a people passive in the face of the coming Holocaust.”


What united this wildly disparate group of people? Those who journeyed to Spain were aware that the explicit choice, according to Tremlett, was between fascism and anti-fascism: “Franco and the generals who destroyed Spanish democracy were not all pure-bred ‘fascists’ … [t]heir hybrid ideology mixed the extreme intolerance of entitled, reactionary Spain with the stiff-armed ceremonial and new beliefs espoused by Hitler and Mussolini. Franco incorporated fascist parties and ideas to reinforce an otherwise flimsy set of beliefs and, crucially, would have lost the war without Hitler and Mussolini’s armed forces.”

For those who defied their own countries in going to Spain, it was clear that fascism could not be appeased or reasoned with. It could only be fought. The members of the International Brigades appear much more clear-sighted than their countries’ politicians. European leaders, in particular, desperately wanted to avoid another regional war, but their nonintervention only succeeded in delaying World War II by three years, as Hitler and Mussolini used Spain as a test for their air forces and a training exercise for their troops.


Tremlett has organized his enormous book chronologically, so that each skirmish and battle where the volunteers were present is documented, and rich details are provided through a combination of first-hand witness and participant accounts, newspaper articles, and secondary sources. In each chapter, readers meet individual volunteers whose stories are reconstructed from private letters, memoirs, or, in the case of those who perished, by witnesses to acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. But Tremlett also makes note of those who used the chaos of the war to commit crimes or who were executed for desertion. Not everyone who volunteered to fight behaved admirably.

By telling so many individual stories, Tremlett breaks apart previous analyses that have depicted volunteers as all “Reds.” While a portion of those who came to Spain were aligned with Soviet communism, most were not. Some, like American Walter Grant, had joined the fight in a reaction to right-wing politics at home. Grant embraced left-wing causes after the KKK lynched three men in his hometown. He became a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

When Franco crossed from Morocco into Spain to launch a coup against the democratically elected government, he brought with him 35,000 troops, the Army of Africa. Within this army was the Spanish Legion, whose battle cry was “Long live death!” Witnesses reported that Franco’s troops committed acts of battlefield savagery, torturing and killing the wounded.


Up against this professional army were those driven by their belief in the rightness of their cause. One of these early “amateur warriors” was artist Felicia Browne. She referred in letters to her comrades in their mismatched uniforms as a “pirate army.” In Browne’s letters home, she overcomes the insecurity first expressed to her family, ultimately joining a 10-person unit that went behind enemy lines to sabotage trains. The sabotage failed. “They were then attacked by an enemy patrol and Browne rushed to the aid of a wounded Italian fighter, dragging him behind a rock and raging fire until, according to one of the party, ‘with several wounds in the breast and one in the back, Felicia … sank dead to the ground.’”

The volunteers’ bravery is astounding when one considers not only their unfamiliarity with weapons, but also the organizational problems that afflicted the early brigades, a ragtag bunch of anarchists, communists, and others. Commanders ran into problems with troops that refused to accept the hierarchy of command. Complicating the disorganization was the refusal of western nations (with the exception of Mexico) to send materiel and other necessities to aid the Spanish Republican government in its fight against Franco and his followers. Most of the weapons came from the USSR, but many of them were outdated and nonfunctional. Other needed supplies were prevented from arriving by blockade. In some battles, the imbalance in personnel between the fascist armies and brigades could be as high as 5 to 1, with a 20-to-1 ratio of fascist machine guns to those possessed by the volunteers.


Despite overwhelming odds, volunteers continued to fight until the last battle outside of Barcelona in September 1938. In the two years, 5,000 volunteers were killed and thousands wounded. And yet, despite the enormous losses, in later years, volunteers would look back on the fight as the clearest moment of their lives, when right and wrong were distinct choices. When World War II began, International Brigades members joined their countries’ resistances, or took up arms again to fight on the battlefields of Europe.

Many of those who fell in Spain lie still in its soil. Unmarked graves cover the Spanish countryside. Their names are forgotten, but not their acts. “A law approved by all parties in the Madrid parliament in 1996,” Tremlett writes, “awarded Brigade veterans Spanish nationality, praised their defense of democracy and formally offered them a nation’s gratitude.”

THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES: Fascism, Freedom, and the Spanish Civil War

By Giles Tremlett

Bloomsbury, 720 pages, $30

Lorraine Berry writes for a number of publications and lives in Oregon. She tweets @BerryFLW.