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The International Brigades: Magnificent and readable history

Book review: Giles Tremlett offers a sweeping account of fascism and the Spanish civil war, with a vital warning

The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom & the Spanish Civil War
The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom & the Spanish Civil War
Author: Giles Tremlett
ISBN-13: 978-1408853986
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £30

When the classicist Bernard Knox was interviewed at Yale University after the second World War, he was asked how he had come to speak such good “and (if necessary) pungently coarse” French. Knox explained that he had fought in the French brigade on the republican side of the Spanish civil war, prompting the head of the Yale classics department to call him “a premature anti-fascist”.

Knox found the description baffling. “Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison?” he later wondered. “If you were not premature, what sort of anti-fascist were you supposed to be?”

In this sweeping and brilliant new history of the International Brigades, Giles Tremlett emphasises that amid all their nationalities, ideologies and motivations, “only one political and moral category” fits them all. “They were anti-fascists” at the beginning of a global fight against fascism that most would not realise was binary until it was too late for Spain. Making use of accounts from across the world and the archives of the brigades (long kept secret in Moscow), Tremlett – a veteran Guardian journalist based in Madrid – assembles a magnificent and readable history.

After General Francisco Franco and a far-right alliance launched a coup against the Spanish Republic in 1936, nearly 40,000 volunteers – from what are now more than 80 countries – travelled across the Pyrenees, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to stem the rising fascist tide. The Communist International (Comintern) organised brigades to fight alongside the Spanish republican army, “a fresh Tower of Babel”, with dozens of languages, men of different races and religions, and “left-wingers of all kinds”.


There were many unlikely comrades and Tremlett charts a harrowing war – full of idealism and camaraderie, cowardice and cruelty – from the perspective of a fascinating and motley cast. The Polish-Soviet general Karol Swierczewski, known as Walter, wanted to meet IRA men as he had studied the urban warfare of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence in Moscow. From the other side of that conflict came George Nathan, a Jewish east-Londoner who had “almost certainly” taken part in the murders of Limerick city mayors George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan while a member of the Auxiliaries.

Leading the first Irish republican volunteers – there were, of course, far more Irishmen in Eoin O’Duffy’s brigade fighting for the fascists – was Frank Ryan, who had split with the IRA over his demands for a more left-wing republican struggle. Among them were men from all over Ireland, including Bob Hilliard, a lapsed Church of Ireland reverend from Killarney known as the Boxing Parson (he boxed for Ireland at the 1924 Olympics in Paris), who would entertain his comrades with benedictions in the name of Marx.


Like a number of the Irish, Hilliard died in early 1937 in the Jarama Valley, where the untrained, badly armed and badly led Internationals were exposed to Franco’s battle-hardened colonial army. Despite (and at times because of) the presence of Soviet military “advisers”, the Internationals often remained amateurs fighting in the new “total war” waged by Franco and his Nazi and Italian allies.

“There is something very wrong here,” thought the German anti-fascist Hans Kahle (the model for General Hans in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls) when comparing Madrid to his memories of the trenches at Verdun. “This is slaughter in comparison.”

The Bulgarian-French communist César Covo – a speaker of Ladino, the language descended from Spanish Jews – observed that many Soviet officials (nicknamed the Mexicans) “had come to Spain in the same spirit in which, in other times, civil servants had gone to the colonies”. Many would go on to become the establishment of the Soviet bloc, making the brigades “as potent a generator of elites as any Ivy League university, Oxbridge college or French grande école”.

Tremlett shows that while the Soviets were centrally important in organising the Internationals, at no stage did their support for the republicans come close to the 19,000 Luftwaffe men and 76,000 Italian troops that Hitler and Mussolini sent to bolster Franco. If the civil war had been the Soviet crusade that Europe’s right-wing claimed it was, the defiant Spanish republican resistance – immortalised by its slogan “¡No pasarán!” – might have lasted even longer than the nearly three years it took Franco to take Madrid.

Solidarity, however, fractured between factions of the left, and many in Spain were suspicious of Soviet control of their struggle. After being arrested by Catalan anarchists, the German communist Fritz Franken told his captors: “The winner of a fratricidal struggle among anti-fascists can only be Franco and fascism.” Tremlett reveals how Stalin’s purge of dissent spread to Barcelona, where the Irishman Hugh O’Donnell (code-named Seán O’Brien) was the handler for spies including the British communist David Crook.

George Orwell – writing his Homage to Catalonia – was under Crook’s surveillance, while others, including the Irish Soviet spy Brian Goold-Verschoyle, were abducted and sent to the gulags or murdered.


The greatest betrayal was that of the western powers. Even as the fascist atrocities grew – the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Guernica, the indiscriminate Italian bombing of Barcelona, the mass murder of civilians by Franco’s army – Britain and France did nothing, wary of alliance with communism or antagonising Hitler. In spring 1939, as some Internationals sought refuge in the cellar of Figueres castle, the British journalist Henry Buckley remarked that the place was “like a tomb”. “This is the tomb,” his Russian colleague, Ilya Ehrenburg, replied. “Not only of the Spanish Republic, but of European democracy.”

As the volunteers fled Spain after Franco’s victory, the Basque communist leader, Dolores Ibárruri, known as la Pasionaria, assured them they had been more than quixotic symbolism. “You can go proudly,” she assured. “You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality . . . We shall not forget you.”

Spain’s socialist government is seeking to honour that promise by retrospectively granting citizenship to the Internationals and their descendants. While they are normally viewed as having been defeated, Tremlett argues this misunderstands the International struggle. While a flexible Franco remained in power until 1975, the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini in 1945 was the Brigadiers’ “final victory”, since they had “begun that fight long before others realised that it was necessary”.

“If fascism is victorious in Spain,” the volunteers swore in their oath, “tomorrow it will come to my country and destroy my land.” With the far-right on the rise across the West and the term anti-fascist becoming degraded by those who deny its threats with false equivalence, Tremlett offers both powerful history and a vital warning.

Dr Christopher Kissane is an editorial fellow at History Workshop

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast