Virgilio Fernández del Real sent his last testament via WhatsApp on 28 November 2019. I opened the video to see him propped up in bed at his colonial-era haçienda in Guanajuato, Mexico. Bloodshot eyes peered out above a rampant white beard. A big red, gold and purple flag, representing Spain’s short-lived republican democracy from the 1930s, was spread out behind him. “My birthday is on 26 December, when I will be 101,” he wheezed in Spanish, though he clearly did not believe he would make it. “I still have the strength to say: ‘¡Viva la República Española!’”
Nine days before that birthday, his wife, Estela, sent another message: “Fifteen minutes ago, Virgilio went on his journey to the Father’s house, transcending into the infinite. He is no longer suffering.”
They had stayed in my Madrid apartment 18 months earlier, so that Virgilio could recover from a two-week hospital stay after having fallen ill during a visit to Spain. My kitchen became a shrine as visitors trooped through, anxious to thank Virgilio for serving in a volunteer army called the International Brigades. That unit of 35,000 foreigners from 80 of today’s nations had fought against fascism in the Spanish civil war and been disbanded in 1938, a year before the short-lived democratic republic was finally extinguished. More than 50 years later, their actions still resonated.
The republic is an emotional touchstone for leftwing Spaniards, but admirers of the volunteers are spread across the world. Groups devoted to their memory exist in the US, Britain and half a dozen European countries. Mention of them can provoke sudden displays of enthusiasm, as I discovered when I began researching the group: a Spanish journalist pulled down his shirt to reveal the Brigades’ triangular symbol tattooed on his shoulder; a German in California sang their songs; and a Scottish writer at a neoliberal magazine talked wistfully about an uncle from Glasgow who had volunteered. David Simon, creator of The Wire, is now planning a drama series about the International Brigades.
Elsewhere, opinion is dramatically opposed. In Poland, streets dedicated to the Dabrowski battalion of the International Brigades are being renamed by the Institute of National Remembrance, which oversees a controversial “decommunisation” law passed by the ultraconservative Law and Justice party in 2017. The brigaders had “served Stalinism”, their Polish critics argued. They were not entirely wrong.
International Brigades veterans went on to serve as iron curtain prime ministers – or equivalent – in East Germany, Hungary and Albania. They provided dozens of ministers, generals, police chiefs and ambassadors across all Europe’s communist regimes – forming a potent elite, although they were mostly working-class. In East Germany, former International Brigades volunteers founded and ran the notorious Stasi. Suppressing freedom was part of their job. Little surprise, then, that some countrymen now despise them.
History is neither neat nor clean, especially when it comes to past wars. The first casualty of war is said to be truth, but really it is nuance. War presents stark, binary choices. Kill or be killed. One side or the other. The truth is more complex than that, as the story of the International Brigades and their afterlife shows.
In early October 1936, a 21-year-old classics graduate from Cambridge, Bernard Knox, slipped an old pistol into his bag and passed through the border control at Dover on his way to Spain. The pistol belonged to a Cambridge professor of ancient Greek called Francis Cornford, who had last used it as an officer in the first world war. Cornford had given it to his son, John, a 20-year-old poet and friend of Knox’s who was travelling with him. Knox carried the gun because Cornford’s passport showed he had already been to Spain, and police were suspicious of visitors to a country where, in July, Franco and his generals had started a civil war. Britain was promoting non-intervention – a sop to Hitler and Mussolini, whose troops were blatantly fighting for Franco. It did not want British volunteers taking part.
In the early days of the civil war, before returning to Britain to recruit volunteers, Cornford had joined one of the militias that emerged when, in response to the coup, a counter-revolution broke out inside the republic. Socialists, anarchists, communists and regionalists in Catalonia and elsewhere grabbed control of the streets. Militias abounded, with women also donning uniforms and carrying weapons. “The women are fine,” wrote Felicia Browne, a British artist who joined a militia group. They were heady days, with the streets of Barcelona daubed in revolutionary slogans described by another volunteer fighter, George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia as “startling and overwhelming”.
While recruiting, Cornford had depicted the conflict as a dusty, lazy revolutionary war – much as people imagined the Mexican revolution that ended in 1920 – rather than the sophisticated scientific destruction it soon became. His group had no idea which unit they would join, but when they reached Spain, the International Brigades had just been formed. The Communist International, or Co mintern, the Moscow-based organisation advocating for world communism, did the arranging. The arrival of spontaneous volunteers such as these provided the impulse. Another recruit, Winston Churchill’s rebel nephew Esmond Romilly, had cycled across France fuelled by coffee and cognac before volunteering and declaring himself a member of “that very large class of unskilled labourers with a public-school accent”. He sailed on a boat from Marseille, with watch duty split in two-hour shifts between French, Germans, Poles, Italians, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Flemish and Russian-speakers.
Poorly armed and virtually untrained, the first volunteers found themselves defending Madrid against Franco’s experienced and ferocious colonial force, the Army of Africa, just a few weeks later. Cornford’s group operated a machine gun in the philosophy faculty of the brand-new University City campus. They built barricades out of thick tomes on early-19th-century German philosophy and Indian metaphysics. Enemy bullets gave up before reaching page 350, making them believe old tales of soldiers saved by Bibles in breast pockets. “I think I killed a fascist,” Cornford, a former pacifist, wrote excitedly to his girlfriend, Margot Heinemann, on 8 December. “Fifteen or 16 of them were running from a bombardment … If it is true, it’s a fluke.”
After Franco’s colonial army was airlifted from north Africa to Seville by German planes in an operation that Hitler personally named Operation Magic Fire (inspired by a section of Wagner’s opera Siegfried), it had swept easily towards Madrid. It was halted at the University City, and the International Brigades were hailed as heroes in Spain and elsewhere. Their discipline set an example to the chaotic republican army, even if some volunteers mistakenly thought idealism could replace training – and paid with their lives. The young and previously untried war photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro took their pictures, and they were lionised by Ernest Hemingway and the New York Times, among others. War correspondents of almost all nationalities blessed their luck at being able to find frontline sources among the brigaders who spoke their language.
Fresh recruits arrived by their hundreds every week from as far away as China, Chile and Abyssinia, though most came from Europe or the Americas – and many were already political or economic exiles. At least one in 10 were Jews, rebelling against their position as fascism’s chosen victims. The American historian and veteran Albert Prago called the International Brigades “the vehicle through which Jews could offer the first organised armed resistance to European fascism.” In fact, almost all brigaders saw themselves fighting a global battle to stop fascism, in which Spain was just a part. With Hitler and Mussolini on the other side, that seemed obvious – if not to politicians in London, Paris or Washington.
Many of those first recruits had died, or been badly wounded, by the end of 1936. Cornford was killed at Lopera, in A ndalusia, the day after he turned 21. Knox had already been badly injured, falling to the ground with a fountain of blood spurting from his shoulder, convinced he was dying. “I was consumed with rage – furious, violent rage. Why me?” he recalled later. “I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life.” Volunteer British and American battalions – each of about 700 men – were not formed until the following year, and first fought at Jarama, about 20 miles from Madrid, that February. About 700 women also enlisted, but the republic sent militiawomen away from the frontline, and most served as doctors, nurses, translators or administrators.
The brigaders were shock troops who generally, but not always, fought courageously. Sometimes, they turned battles around. Other times they were routed. Those captured were mostly shot. Prisoners left alive were sent to a medieval monastery converted into a jail at San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos and made to do fascist salutes. A German-trained military psychologist, Lt Col Antonio Vallejo-Najera, conducted tests designed to prove that Marxists (as he wrongly assumed they all were) were either psychopaths or congenitally dim. He satisfied himself that this really was the case, but – in an academic paper – expressed surprise that, even in jail, “the immense majority remain firmly attached to their ideas”.
It was not all heroics. A considerable number of International Brigade volunteers deserted. Some were shot by their own commanders for doing so. After capturing the town of Quinto, their senior officers ordered them to shoot all the enemy officers, sergeants and corporals. The victims were “kids just like us”, recalled the Canadian volunteer Peter Frye after being assigned to a firing squad. Women were often treated by the brigade’s French commander (and senior Comintern official) André Marty or his security staff as suspected spies. In one case, Marion Merriman, the wife of a senior American officer, was raped by an unnamed Slav officer. She kept silent about it, in order to prevent the American Abraham Lincoln battalion rebelling in her defence. “This must be my secret burden. I cannot tell anyone – ever,” she remembers telling herself in a memoir dedicated to her husband, Robert Hale Merriman, who was killed.
By the time the last brigaders left Spain, 7,000 had died. They had lost their war. Franco declared victory on 1 April 1939 (he would rule as dictator until 1975). By then, most brigaders had returned home or were locked up by France with the rest of the fleeing republican army in vast camps as it dealt with one of Europe’s biggest refugee crises since the first world war. Those not welcome in their own countries – Germans, Italians, Poles and others – or later deemed “dangerous” by Vichy authorities spent several years in the French camps. Others who did return home were watched closely by police in their own countries. Britain’s MI5 held files on many, as did the Dutch police. Authorities painted them as dangerous, foolhardy or wrong. But that would not last.
Hitler invaded Poland exactly five months after Franco declared victory. Suddenly, almost everyone agreed that fascism had to be fought with weapons.
On 21 August 1941, French International Brigade veteran Pierre Georges and two colleagues met at the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in Paris. All three carried pistols. Pierre had joined the International Brigades aged 17, been wounded at 19, imprisoned in occupied France, escaped and now, at 22, was training young communists to assassinate Germans from Hitler’s occupying army. Georges, better known as Colonel Fabien, jumped into a first-class carriage, shot a naval warrant officer called Alfons Moser and ran off before the train left. A few weeks later, an Italian veteran, Spartaco Guisco, helped kill Lt Col Karl Hotz, the military governor of Nantes. Hitler responded with mass executions – including of several brigaders, who had been locked up as a preventive measure.
Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, was appalled. Fabien’s group had ignored his commands. “I order those in the occupied territory not to kill Germans,” he said, fearing the mass retaliations that soon came. But resistance had shifted to a new level, and De Gaulle had to change his mind. Fabien died in an accident later in the war, and now has a Paris metro station named after him. He was one of hundreds of brigade veterans, including women, to join the French Resistance. More than 100 were killed, but on 19 August 1944, it was another brigader, Henri Rol-Tanguy, who ordered the French force of the interior (FFI), to rise against German troops in Paris. A week later Gen Dietrich von Choltitz formally surrendered the city to Rol-Tanguy and Gen Philippe Leclerc.
When the second world war broke out, it had been natural for brigaders to enlist. They had fought fascism for three years, but the task had not been completed. In Britain and the US, they were initially viewed with mistrust, not least because of the Nazi Soviet non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) of 1939, by which Hitler and Stalin partitioned Poland. The former commander of the British battalion of the International Brigade, Tom Wintringham, approached the government with plans for a home guard. He was turned away, and instead founded a private academy of “ungentlemanly warfare” at the Osterley Park stately home, where brigade veterans and others taught people to make petrol bombs, ambush tanks and conduct guerilla warfare (the surrealist painter Roland Penrose taught camouflage).
Soon, however, it became clear that brigaders had extremely useful experience in warfare and formed a unique network throughout occupied Europe. Knox had emigrated to the US and was recruited by Gen “Wild” Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner to the CIA, which ran guerrilla operations. Sent to liaise with Italian partisans, he bonded with the commander after realising that he was a former brigader and that they had fought together in Madrid. “From then on, relations with the partisans were no problem,” Knox said. In fact, several Italian partisan armies were led by brigaders, as were all four of Tito’s communist armies in Yugoslavia. The former brigader Aldo Lampredi was one of three partisans who executed Mussolini and his lover Claretta Petacci in 1945. Lampredi’s Beretta pistol delivered the final shots. A fellow brigader, Randolfo Pacciardi, became Italy’s postwar minister of defence. Even German brigaders fought against Hitler, with writers Erich Weinert and Willi Bredel shouting propaganda at snowbound Nazi troops from the ruins of Stalingrad. Since their aim was the defeat of fascism, the brigaders could finally savour victory in 1945.
On 13 November 1989, Erich Mielke stood before the East German parliament to answer questions in his role as head of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the state security ministry, commonly known as the Stasi. Mielke was 82 years old, a veteran of the International Brigades, and had run the notorious secret police for three decades. He was known as the “master of fear”, after turning East Germany into what the writer Anna Funder, in her book Stasiland, called “the most perfected surveillance state of all time”. The Berlin Wall had come down four days earlier, and the assembly no longer considered its task to be rubber-stamping everything. Mielke had not realised. Facing unusually tough questioning, he raised his arms and declared: “I love all humanity! I really do!” The assembly dissolved into laughter. Five days later he resigned. In 1993, he was jailed for the 1931 murders of two Weimar Republic policemen.
Brigaders played a remarkable role in East Germany after 1945, since they were among the few people the Soviets trusted. Heinrich Rau headed the German economic commission, its first de facto government. At one stage all three armed ministries – defence, interior and state security – were run by brigaders. Such figures also provided a narrative of heroic German opposition to Hitler, which East Germany also tried to claim for itself. Much the same happened wherever Soviets or communist partisans took control after the second world war. Ferenc Münnich became prime minister of Hungary and machine gunner Mehmet Shehu was his counterpart in Albania for 27 years. Karlo Lukanov became Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister. In fact, the list of ministers, politburo members, generals, police chiefs and ambassadors who had been brigaders runs well into three figures. Many had been senior communists before the Spanish civil war, where exiled parties went en masse, seeking meaning for their existence. “We needed Spain more than the republic needed us,” quipped one Italian exile.
Their specialities, as soldiers, were defence and security. In the paranoid world of Stalinism, that also meant repression. Orwell had already spotted this in Spain, after the Marxist militia unit he fought for was banned and Barcelona’s walls were suddenly covered with “posters screaming from the hoardings that I and everyone like me was a fascist spy”. That experience inspired Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet most communist brigaders knew nothing about the horrors of Stalinism, and saw themselves as soldiers in a broad anti-fascist coalition. “Stalin was still a saint,” one explained later. Most eventually disabused themselves of that. Some, like Mielke, never did.
In fact, a good number were purged, precisely because they had fought in Spain and been in contact with the outside world. They featured in show trials from Prague to Budapest. “I was a treacherous enemy within the Communist party. I am justly an object of contempt and deserve the maximum and the hardest punishment,” Czech veteran Otto Šling intoned before he was hanged after the notorious Slánský trial. Hungary’s foreign minister László Rajk was executed in 1949 after a trial in which 16 of 97 defendants were Spanish veterans. A suspicious number of those purged were Jews. In Poland, many lost jobs – and went into exile – after a wave of socialist antisemitism followed Israel’s victory in the six-day war in 1967.
This persecution was mirrored, in a lesser way, in the US. The screenwriter and former brigader Alvah Bessie was one of the Hollywood Ten jailed in 1950 for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Communist witch-hunting was partially balanced out by Ernest Hemingway, a brigades devotee who made the fictional American brigader Robert Jordan the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Mostly, however, the cold war narrative won, not least because the brigades also produced several prominent Soviet spies. The most famous was Morris Cohen, who helped steal nuclear weapon blueprints from Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.
When the cold war ended, history lurched into a new phase. Soviet communism was no longer a danger. Fascism was a distant memory. Leftwing domestic terrorism in western democracies – from the Red Army Faction in Germany or Italian anarchists in Italy – began to diminish, while rightwing terror grew.
On 18 July 2011, members of Norway’s Labour party’s Workers’ Youth League attending a summer camp on the island of Utøya unveiled a plaque to four young social democrats who had died in the International Brigades. The plaque bore poetry by Nordahl Grieg, a celebrated writer who had visited the brigades on the frontline. Four days after the unveiling, far-right gunman Anders Breivik reached the island, armed and posing as a policeman. He murdered 69 of those young people in the country’s worst massacre since the second world war, picking off teenagers as they tried to swim away. It was a tragic reminder that, even in the most advanced democracies, ideologies based on violence and tyranny refuse to go away.
For the families of brigade veterans, the fact that they fought one sort of tyranny, while some of them ended up serving another, complicates their memory. In Hungary, the niece of the writer, brigades commander Paul Lukács (AKA Béla Frankl and Máté Zalka), wanted to defend her adored uncle. When she and her daughter contacted me, they highlighted that, before being killed in action in Spain, Lukács suffered nightmares. The family destroyed his diary, which contained dangerously anti-Stalinist jottings.
Like several international brigades officers who were not of Russian origin, but had joined the Red Army and settled in Moscow, he might have returned only to be purged and shot. In Hungary, which experienced both fascist and communist rule, that conveniently puts him on the “right side of history” twice over.
Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance told me that it viewed brigaders as “instruments of Soviet Union’s imperialist politics” and that some “took part in forced and brutal introduction of communism in Poland”. For communists outside the Soviet bloc, the contradiction is less intense. In his video testament, Virgilio Fernández del Real (by then only one of three Brigaders still known to be alive) had proudly announced that “I have been a communist since I was 14”, before adding that “we are not ruffians”. For those brigaders who were not communists, or simply saw themselves as anti-fascists, it seemed even simpler. They had done their duty, even if others looked down on them for associating with communists. After an illustrious behind-the-lines career during the second world war, for which he won France’s Croix de Guerre medal, Bernard Knox applied to study for a classics doctorate at Yale (he later directed the Center of Hellenic Studies at Harvard). At the interview, he was told by a professor that his time in Spain made him a “premature anti-fascist”. Knox was dumbfounded.
“How, I wondered, could anyone be a premature anti-fascist?” he recalled asking himself. “Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison? A premature antiseptic? A premature antitoxin? A premature anti-racist? If you were not premature, what sort of anti-fascist were you supposed to be?”
The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett is published by Bloomsbury and available at guardianbookshop.com
• This article was amended on 22 October 2020 to replace two photographs: the main image was of the Thälmann Group, which predated the International Brigades, and another showed George Orwell with the POUM, not with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as the caption purported.