The Spanish Civil War, in which half a million people died, remains a painful period in Spain’s history. It began when General Francisco Franco, with support from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, challenged the republican government in a military uprising. Spain split between republicans and the fascists in a bloody clash of principles that ended in a fascist victory.
The persecution of anyone with republican leanings continued until Franco’s death in 1975 and it is only in the past decade that discussion of the conflict and its aftermath has become acceptable in Spain.
When the war broke out, Britain and France chose not to help Spain because they were uncomfortable with Madrid’s close friendship with communist Moscow.
Dismayed at the decision, an unlikely group of activists took matters into their own hands. About 2,300 men and women, including trade unionists from Liverpool, Jews from London, a smattering of university-educated poets, and members of the IRA caught boats to France, from where they were helped across the border. Volunteers from countries such as the United States, Canada, Poland and the Soviet Union also joined the fight. Most had minimal, if any, military training and all were poorly equipped. They formed the International Brigades, united under the battle cry “No pasaran — they shall not pass.
Deployed to towns and villages along the front line, the amateur soldiers, dressed in khaki trousers and shirts with a soft hat, dug in alongside the Spanish republican army to face the rebels.
Eventually, the might of the rebels with their German and Italian backers was too great. The end came when Juan Negrin, Spain’s republican Prime Minister, told the League of Nations on September 21, 1938, that the International Brigades must leave, in the futile hope that the rebels’ foreign supporters would also depart. Defeated and despondent, many left, though others were kept as prisoners of war.
Now, more than seven decades after Franco conquered republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, the efforts of the members of the International Brigade are being recognised.
The gesture is too late for most, but next month Spain will give passports to the surviving members of the International Brigades. Seven British pensioners are due to accept their citizenship at the Spanish Embassy in London on June 9. An eighth, Les Gibson, 96, declined because of poor health, and the offer came too late for Jack Jones, the union leader, and Bob Doyle, both prominent brigade fighters who died this year.