Have we forever lost those bygone days of fervent internationalism that occurred back in the late 1930s, when, on the day after Christmas, a group of 96 American leftists decamped the chilly shores of New York to make the long sea voyage to Spain where its Popular Front government consisting of socialists, Communists and the Catalan-and-Madrid-based left-wing Republicans was being attacked by Nationalists (mostly Catholics, the military, landowners and the business class), who threatened to overthrow the Popular Front in a Falangist takeover which manifested itself in a world-historical politics of mass terror? Once in Spain, they joined various military units dedicated to fighting fascism, known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of many International Brigades created to defend the Spanish Republic against fascist-backed Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco and their allies, Italy and Germany. Eventually, 2,800 American volunteers – ‘poets and blue-collar workers, professors and students, seamen and journalists, lawyers and painters, Christians and Jews, Blacks and whites’ – joined the Spanish Civil War, the first modern struggle against fascism, which Robin D.G. Kelley describes as the authentic beginning of World War II.
The US volunteers were joined by another 35,000 volunteers from around the globe, risking their lives for the cause of democracy and freedom. Kelley writes that these volunteers ‘demonstrate that internationalism is not the preserve of those we call “intellectuals,” that assembly line workers, nurses and sharecroppers are capable of seeing their own struggles tied to working people throughout the world. What an astonishing example for current and future generations!’ What an example, indeed. Federico Garcia Lorca, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Andre Malraux, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Emma Goldman, Tristan Tzara, Illya Ehrenburg and Pablo Neruda lent their support to the Republican cause. Are students today even familiar with these names? Ernest Hemingway, probably. The Spanish Civil War was a messy affair, with pro-communist and pro-democracy forces fighting each other instead of uniting in full force against their common enemy. Democratic militias were, to be sure, divided and, in many ways, disorganised by Stalinists who were not to be displaced as the vanguard of the Communist movement. This situation was at least partly responsible for the inability of the landless workers to organise themselves sufficiently to overcome Franco’s Falangist fighters.
The ‘Trece Rosas’ (Thirteen Roses), as they are known in Spanish, were a group of 13 young women who were part of the Unified Socialist Youth (JSU) group executed by a Francoist firing squad against the walls of Madrid’s La Almudena civil cemetery as part of a wide execution campaign known as the ‘saca de Agosto,’ which included 43 young men (and one fourteen-year-old). The Trece Rosas were savagely tortured prior to their execution. The cemetery now houses the grave of Dolores Ibárruri – a Republican heroine of the Spanish Civil War and the former leader of the Communist Party, known as ‘La Pasionaria’ (the passionflower) – and that of Pablo Iglesias Posse – the founder of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and of the General Union of Workers (UGT).
Here, in the US, we are glacially slow in recognising the bravery and solidarity of antifascists, and very little is taught about the heroic role played by The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the face of such a ferocious enemy that was tightly hierarchical in organisation and under the control of a vicious and murderous fascist enemy, General Francisco Franco. Franco discovered the Falange to be a perfect vehicle for a political party moulded in his own image, in his own political ideology, one that resonated with traditionalist, clericalist, and monarchist elements within Spain’s Nationalist movement. A decree on April 19, 1937, forcibly merged the Falange, the Carlists, and other right-wing factions into one body with the wearisome title of Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista. Fascists do enjoy taking advantage of the undercurrents of rage percolating through society during times of tumult and chaos, organising themselves into tightly run hierarchies and firmly and irrevocably committing themselves to holding their populations hostage through acts of mass surveillance and terror. Consider the Ku Klux Klan under Reconstruction with its intricate roles manifested by the Grand Nighthawk, Grand Kleagle, Exalted Cyclops, Grand Turk, Grand Sentinel, Grand Magi, Grand Ensign, Grand Scribe, Grand Exchequer, Grand Monk and the Ghouls. The boneheaded populism of Donald Trump in his role as political ringmaster of the Republican Party (not to be compared to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War) betrays some of the ideological traits of fascism, which can emerge at any time or place in the political horizon of nation states suffering from political turbulence. The Francoist government of Spain was totalitarian in depth and scope, characterised by the preponderance of the Catholic Church, the Armed Forces and Traditionalism. The legal concentration of all powers was canalised into a single person, Francisco Franco, who embodied the sanctity of God and History, while political opponents, trade unions, liberal democrats and Basque separatists were brutally repressed. Franco personally signed all death warrants up until his death. Franco was known to carry on his person the uncorrupted severed hand of St. Teresa of Ávila (born in Ávila, Spain, in 1515, and remembered as one of Spain’s most famous and charismatic saints known for levitating during her ecstasies during mystical prayer) which he seized as a prized relic during the Spanish Civil War. He took the severed hand with him wherever he went and kept it by his bed. He died holding the sacred relic in his hand. A year after Franco’s death, the gloved relic was returned to a monastery in Ronda, where it had been venerated for four hundred years before disappearing in the war. (That the relic that sits in a gauntlet in Ronda, Spain has been physically compared to the Marvel Comics Infinity Gauntlet, wielded by the supervillain Thanos, the Eternal-Deviant warlord from the moon Titan, who is regarded as one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe, and who serves as a key narrative device to its film franchise, is bewilderingly disconcerting, to say the least.)
Examining the history of the Spanish Civil War is crucially important for today’s high school population, who are facing political conditions in their own country that bring the spectre of fascism to the fore. And yet, we find much of the left in the US undermining their own commitment to self-rule and their vehement rejection of foreign fascist aggression in their support for Putin’s Wagner brigades ripping at the seams of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, as imperfect as that democracy happens to be. What would Governor DeSantis have to say about the teaching of the Spanish Civil War, a landmark in the history of socialism? What would all those other nincompoop governors and democracy-hating politicians who have jumped on the DeSantis bandwagon have to say? George Orwell wrote as follows: ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarian and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’
That Orwell quotation alone would preclude any serious discussion of the politics surrounding the Spanish Civil War to take place in Florida or in other classrooms across the United States today for fear that students could possibly emerge from such discussion with positive conceptions of socialism. Orwell was shot in the throat back on the front lines, and he escaped to France after his brigade, the POUM, was declared an illegal organisation because it was a left-wing Trotskyist organisation formed by Andreu Nin in 1935 to oppose Stalinist communism in Spain. While POUM militias fought on the side of the Republicans, they were also involved in factionalist fighting with the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). The victory of the PCE led to a virulent suppression of the POUM. Trotsky fled to Mexico, where he and his wife were briefly under the care of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Trotsky was eventually hunted down by Stalinist assassins and murdered in Coyoacán, Mexico.
Trotsky, one of the key architects of the Russian Revolution, was a fierce critic of Stalin’s reactionary politics and his bureaucratisation of everyday Soviet existence, which Trotsky labelled totalitarian, and his belief in communism in one country, i.e., that communism could survive in the Soviet Union alone. By contrast, Trotsky championed the idea of a global proletarian revolution. In his book, Results and Prospects (1906), Trotsky outlined his conception of ‘permanent revolution,’ that a bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia would, in time, transform into a proletarian socialist revolution that would inevitably spread far beyond Russia. Trotsky also called for a restoration of workers’ democracy. He blamed Stalin’s politics for the failure of socialism to take root in Germany, resulting in the rise of Adolf Hitler’s fascist Nazi Party in Germany. He also labelled the Soviet Union a ‘degenerated workers’ state.’ Stalin expelled Trotsky, soon to become a political pariah, from the Politburo and the Communist Party. He was banished in 1929 and eventually condemned to death. While in exile in Mexico, Trotsky organised the Fourth International.
I recall vividly my many visits to Trotsky’s compound over the years (now a private museum), where bullet holes are still visible in the walls from a 1940 attempt to assassinate Trotsky by a group of Stalinists led by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. His reading desk is still there, the very spot where he greeted Ramón Mercader, a young Spaniard who had been hired by Stalin’s secret police and who had befriended Trotsky under the alias of Canadian businessman ‘Frank Jackson.’ As Trotsky leaned over his desk, Mercader struck the fatal blow with a pickaxe, leaving a wound three inches deep in Trotsky’s skull, torrents of blood pulsating onto his desk, red rivulets cascading onto the floor. I would stay in the compound for hours, contemplating what world history might have looked like had the Spanish Revolution been won. Or had this happened, or had that happened. Historical speculation, I came to believe, can become the pastime of romantic fools. What is imperative is to focus the imagination on the concrete present (concrete totality), on the dialectics of the concrete, the destruction of the pseudo-concrete (à la Karel Kosik) because all too often subjectivity (everyday life as produced by our consciousness and refracted through ideology) is not always what it seems. What good is the cultivation of reason if the imagination is out of focus? Was it not Mark Twain who opined: ‘You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’
The 1995 film Land and Freedom, by Ken Loach, one of my favourite directors, is an excellent dramatic feature set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, mainly involving members of the POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish: Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, POUM; Catalan: Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista). Loach identified a commonality between what happened in 1936 Spain and what could happen in current-day England. Land and Freedom follows the story of a young Englishman who was part of the multi-national POUM militia fighting against Franco. There are many amazing scenes, such as an extended debate by local workers about the pros and cons of land collectivisation.
Many international volunteers joined the POUM during the first months of the war when Stalin instituted a policy of non-intervention, and the Communist International outlawed the sending of foreign militants to Spain. Later, after Stalin reversed this policy, there was considerable repression against the POUM, which was a treacherous betrayal against the Spanish workers, ultimately hindering the fight against Franco. The film is well worth sharing with students, to be followed, of course, by spirited discussion and debate.
Learning the lessons of the Spanish Civil War is of paramount importance today. We neglect his piece of history at our peril. Some might see parallels between the Spanish Civil War and the international brigades fighting alongside Ukrainian forces attempting to repel vicious missile and artillery attacks by fascist Russia. And sometimes there is an overcompensation in the other direction, with ‘campists’ and ‘tankies’ seeming to take the side of Russia in the conflict by virtue of minds more dimmed than they ought to be because they can’t think beyond the fact that Ukraine is currently supported by the US. This I consider a form of ‘reasonless faith’ in Russian political analysis. There is something to be said of G.K. Chesterton’s analysis, in his book Orthodoxy, of the man ‘who has lost everything but his reason.’ There is nothing reasonable about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and reason is what is left when moral integrity fails, and truth is inapplicable. Joel Wein writes:
German socialist August Bebel is supposed to have called antisemitism the ‘socialism of fools’ (‘der Sozialismus des dummen Kerls’). By that, he meant people who recognise capitalist exploitation only if the exploiter happened to be Jewish but who would otherwise turn a blind eye to the economic realities. The German Nazi party did call itself ‘national socialist,’ but the only businesses it expropriated were those of Jewish owners, while other big industrialists benefited from government contracts for rearmament and from cheap slave labour during World War II.
A similar phenomenon is at play in the response to Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. Russia is receiving support from people around the world, both on the far left and the far right. These Putin apologists spread Russian talking points and other propaganda. They often paint Ukraine as a mere pawn of an imperialist West dominated by the USA, which, according to them, is using the war to marginalise Russia and push it aside in the post-Cold War order. These people will accuse the US of past crimes and other immoral actions in Iraq, Serbia, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere while ignoring torture, rape and killing perpetrated right now by Russia. According to them, your right to criticise Russian crimes in Ukraine depends on you first joining their condemnations of past actions of the West.
Let’s be real: These apologists of the Russian war of aggression are not anti-imperialists, far from it: These people are not guided by a moral compass or by concern for the victims of imperialism but by suspicion and hatred of specific countries. They are merely anti-western. Russia is an imperialist power of its own that, over several centuries, grew from the small Muscovite principality to the largest country in the world by intimidation and military conquest and even genocide. From the Holodomor genocidal famine in Ukraine in the 1930s to the deportation of Crimean tartars to deportations of Poles and Balts in the 1940s, it has used utmost brutality. To this day, Russia treats its neighbours not as sovereign countries but as the ‘near abroad,’ a sphere of influence in which governments can make independent decisions only at their own peril. Should their choices run counter to Moscow’s wishes, anything can happen!
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has surely divided the left. In fact, it is common to see the war described as NATO versus Russia. There is some truth to this, to be sure, but it’s also possible to miss the forest because of the trees. It’s also quite possible to miss Putin, the ethno-nationalist, the overseer of war against Chechnya, or the leader responsible for administering cluster bombs in the Gori and Kareli districts of Georgia, or the man who ordered airstrikes in support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, or the Emperor with the barrel chest determined to reunite the old Tsarist Empire and become the saviour of all Eurasia. By building common ground in their support for Russia’s right to absorb Ukraine into its empire, campist groups are now participating together in the Big Top, somersaulting out of the Clown Car along with QAnon crazies ready to take on upper-echelon liberal paedophiles who are blood-harvesting adrenochrome for their fellow Luciferians’ feasts, including those in honour of the most powerful interplanetary reptilians in the galaxy, Hillary Clinton and King Charles III. And the ringmaster, Donald Trump, is laughing all the way to the presidency.
And the prominence of the campist left also reveals that, as Peter Hudis puts it, Stalinism still resides among the left but has taken on different forms. Hudis writes:
We oppose Putin’s invasion, but we do not support any US/NATO effort to bring down his regime or prolong the war for the sake of gaining the upper hand in its intra-imperialist rivalry with Russia and/or China.
We support Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination against colonial domination. One cannot oppose US imperialism but not Russian imperialism, nor oppose Russian imperialism but not US imperialism; one cannot support self-determination for Cuba but not for Ukraine, nor support it for Ukraine but not for Cuba. To do so is pure hypocrisy; it is anti-humanist. As Frantz Fanon wrote, ‘In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set humanity free.’
While we defend the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination, we do not support the Ukrainian government, which follows regressive neoliberalism. This is completely consistent with the stance Marxist-Humanists have taken for 65 years. We supported Vietnam’s fight for national independence but not its Stalinist leadership; we support Palestinian self-determination but not the pro-capitalist Hamas.
We want this war to end as soon as possible – hopefully, by Putin getting such a bloody nose that the Russian people will make their voice heard in opposing it. There are two worlds in every country.
We reaffirm these basic Marxian principles because they are easy to neglect when one is hit with a dramatic change in world politics. We see this with the revival of campism – the notion that leftists should support any state power or force opposed to the US or NATO. Such views are not restricted to the old left but increasingly characterise many young activists. It shows that Stalinism never died; it continues on in slightly altered form.
I agree with Michael Kazin that,
Leftists proved prescient … in the late 1930s when they rallied to defend the Spanish Republic against a right-wing military and its fascist allies, Italy and Germany. The republic’s defeat emboldened Adolf Hitler to launch what quickly became the Second World War. When, twenty years later, American Communists backed the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, they shoved their party firmly and irrevocably to the margins of political life, which opened up space for the emergence of a New Left that rejected imperial aggressors of all ideological persuasions. The war in Ukraine has a good chance of turning into another such decisive event.
Speaking of decisive events, the most serious existential threat of terrorism in the US at present includes the intensifying danger of domestic white supremacist organisations and militia groups. Far-right domestic terror threats from vigilante groups and their alarmingly successful recruitment strategies, their torch-lit spectacles of hate and racist militant activities that include opposition to Black Lives Matter and bloody assaults on defenceless protestors are increasing exponentially across the country. Organisations such as The Three Percenters, The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Texas Freedom Force and other self-described Nazis and white supremacist organisations such as the Boogaloo Bois are aligning themselves with law enforcement and the armed forces. Their intimidation tactics include parading about in camo pants and tactical vests and carrying semiautomatic weapons. They relish their engagement in street battles and were among the mob that abjured the pinnacle of US structural power by storming the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, and, since that time, have become part of the national conversation. Many of these organisations focus on recruiting current and former military and first responders, and many have infiltrated US law enforcement agencies in every region of the country over the last several decades. Numerous states are involved, including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. These far-right contingents (including white supremacist religious orientations such as Christian nationalism) might think they are in the same mould as patriotic freedom fighters, but they are mistaken: they are more in the vein of Nazi brownshirts projecting a shadowy scapegoat-oriented animus toward anyone who will listen – the federal government is deliberately thinning out the white citizen population, utilising a Great Replacement Strategy that involves bringing into the country non-white immigrants from Central and South America who will vote for the Democratic Party as part of the establishment of a New World Order.
These far-right and extremist groups have ideologies embedded in four main pillars of fascist belief systems: white supremacy and nativism, an extreme hostility to socialism and communism (what one might call political sinistrophobia) and ideological antisemitism. They are shaped by ideological beliefs from white supremacist orthodoxy as well as paleoconservativism and identitarianism, which, in turn, are also shaped by a distinctive online subculture that evolved on websites such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit.
While fascist militias are a great threat to American democracy, we need also consider the rising tide of authoritarian control over women’s bodies. Thom Hartmann writes that men today are behaving as fourteenth-century witch prosecutors when it comes to a woman’s right to make decisions over their own reproductive health. Hartmann reports that in 1967, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the nation’s most permissive abortion regulation. This was a full six years before the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision. Prior to the 1980 election, both the GOP and the Democratic Party considered pre-viability abortions to be a decision made by a woman alone or in close consultation with her physician, spouse, and/or religious counsellor. Even George HW Bush had supported Planned Parenthood – including abortion rights – as far back as the 1960s. All of this changed in 1980, notes Hartmann, when the Reagan campaign recognised, there were voters to be had – those who were pushing back against Roe v Wade and who were generally suspicious of the Supreme Court. There was an attempt to gain Catholic and Evangelical Protestant voters who vehemently opposed abortion. This was similar to the attempts by Protestant and Catholic churches during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to garner the loyalty of Christians who sought protection from Satanic forces of evil. Hartmann also establishes economic factors to the witch hunts which operate today in contemporary abortion politics. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, which were times of horrific economic insecurity for feudal serfs, children were a source of cheap labour for the feudal lords, and thus women who performed abortions or provided birth control were often executed as witches. In times of economic prosperity, however, abortions were more likely to be tolerated since child labour was not needed as much, and thus witch trials occurred much less often. In 1973, the US was enjoying a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. The Supreme Court legalised abortion nationwide. This was accompanied by more progressive attitudes towards abortion.
By 1980, the middle class was beginning to shrink as a result of Reagan’s ‘trickle down’ economics which included tax cuts on corporations and the ‘morbidly rich’ and, notes Hartmann, as many as 18 tax increases on average working people, which witnessed the middle class declining from 65% of American families to roughly 45 % of families today. Attacks on feminists grew loud and vicious, and far-right extremists called for ‘more white babies.’ Immigrants, who were viewed as competition for scarce jobs, were scapegoated. According to Hartmann, ‘Reaganomics produced a $50 trillion transfer of wealth from the homes and savings accounts of America’s working class into the money bins of the morbidly rich, where that money remains to this day. It set off a scramble for what little was left.’
Hartmann is worth quoting further on this issue:
If white men could knock out more than half the population – the 51 per cent women and the roughly 15 per cent Blacks – there was more money to split up among themselves. While most white men merely intuited that forbidding women abortions would reduce their representation in the workplace both through parenthood and pregnancy-related deaths, social scientists were proving it. Five states had legalised abortion prior to the Roe decision: in addition to Reagan’s California, the procedure was also available in Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington state. As researchers found comparing statistics from those states with similar states where abortion was still criminalised prior to 1974: ‘Abortion legalisation reduced the number of women who became teen mothers by 34% and the number who became teen brides by 20%…. [L]egalisation reduced maternal mortality among Black women by 30-40%….’
The suicide rate has skyrocketed as a direct result of abortion becoming less and less available in the United States and has become the second-leading cause of death among American women between 20 and 24 years old, and the third-leading cause of death among women 25-34. In the years between Roe and 2016, when TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws made it harder to get an abortion, the American Medical Association’s Journal JAMA Psychiatry found that there was a distinct increase in female suicide rates among reproductive-aged women. Hartmann concludes: ‘Religious freaks and workplace-insecure men are no longer burning women at stake for the heresy of having or providing abortions. Instead, they’re using the power of the state to set them up to die often agonising deaths, all while bragging about their brutality to win elections.’ The struggle for reproductive rights is a struggle that is paramount in the broader struggle against forms of populist authoritarianism that often serve as precursors to more overt and more virulent forms of fascism.
There is clearly a welcomed urgency for creating antifascist organisations in the US. But where do we stand in this struggle? The most well-known leftist antifascist organisation in the US, known as Antifa, is under constant assault by Republicans and some Democrats, with more than half of US Republicans still believing in the debunked conspiracy theory that the January 6 Capitol riot was led by Antifa, who wanted to make Trump look bad to Democrats. Antifa is largely nonviolent. While at times participating in digital activism, doxing, harassment, physical violence, and property damage, its supporters reflect a wide array of left-wing views. Mark Bray writes that a ‘vast majority of antifascist organising is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and pre-emptively shut down fascist organising efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.’ Not surprisingly, Trump has labelled Antifa as a domestic terrorist organisation. If fighting fascism in the US becomes more prominent across the country, such actions are not likely to be done in the name of international socialism; more likely, they will occur under the banner of defending democracy.
Whatever the case, there is clearly much to gain in the struggle for liberty by studying the Spanish Civil War, including and beyond its current implications for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Spain’s International Brigades, which risked life and limb for the cause of freedom, add a crucial dimension to both the importance and urgency of socialist internationalism today, as does an analysis of the interlocking and multiplying antagonisms that are discharged through debates over communism, fascism and democracy, debates that are still playing out at this historical juncture and disrupting the settled and sealed annals of world history.
The Internationale is an international anthem of anarchists, communists, socialists, social democrats and democratic socialists. It is worth listening to, especially in these times. Socialist International solidarity cannot be taken for granted. It is something that needs to be cultivated through an increasing understanding of the contextual complexity of current world geopolitics and its relationship to the past, present and future. And, most assuredly, it is not dependent upon ignoring America’s politically and dangerously checkered past.
It is worth replaying the speech on October 28, 1938, delivered in Barcelona by the inimitable Dolores Ibárruri, that bade farewell to the International Brigades.
It is very difficult to say a few words in farewell to the heroes of the International Brigades, because of what they are and what they represent. A feeling of sorrow, an infinite grief, catches our throat – sorrow for those who are going away, for the soldiers of the highest ideal of human redemption, exiles from their countries, persecuted by the tyrants of all peoples – grief for those who will stay here forever mingled with the Spanish soil, in the very depth of our heart, hallowed by our feeling of eternal gratitude.
From all peoples, from all races, you came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain; and in the hardest days of the war, when the capital of the Spanish Republic was threatened, it was you, gallant comrades of the International Brigades, who helped save the city with your fighting enthusiasm, your heroism and your spirit of sacrifice. – And Jarama and Guadalajara, Brunete and Belchite, Levante and the Ebro, in immortal verses, sing of the courage, the sacrifice, the daring, the discipline of the men of the International Brigades.
For the first time in the history of the peoples’ struggles, there was the spectacle, breathtaking in its grandeur, of the formation of International Brigades to help save a threatened country’s freedom and independence – the freedom and independence of our Spanish land.
Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans – men of different colours, differing ideology, antagonistic religions – yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally.
They gave us everything – their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations – and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honour of dying for us.
Banners of Spain! Salute these many heroes! Be lowered to honour so many martyrs!
Mothers! Women! When the years pass by, and the wounds of war are stanched; when the memory of the sad and bloody days dissipates in a present of liberty, of peace and of wellbeing; when the rancour has died out, and pride in a free country is felt equally by all Spaniards, speak to your children. Tell them of these men of the International Brigades.
Recount for them how, coming over seas and mountains, crossing frontiers bristling with bayonets, sought by raving dogs thirsting to tear their flesh, these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain’s liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism. They gave up everything – their loves, their countries, home and fortune, fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children – and they came and said to us: ‘We are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.’
Today many are departing. Thousands remain, shrouded in Spanish earth, profoundly remembered by all Spaniards.
Comrades of the International Brigades: Political reasons, reasons of state, the welfare of that very cause for which you offered your blood with boundless generosity, are sending you back, some to your own countries and others to forced exile. You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.
We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain – return!
Return to our side, for here you will find a homeland – those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship – all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people, who today and tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm.
Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!
At the end of the war, Ibárruri fled to the Soviet Union. Her only son, Ruben Ibárruri, fought for the Red Army during World War II and died in action at Stalingrad on December 3, 1942. After becoming Secretary General of the Communist Party in May 1944, Ibárruri remained in Moscow after World War II and, in 1964, was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and, the following year, the Order of Lenin. In 1968, to her credit, she strongly attacked the Red Army invasion of Czechoslovakia. No doubt, she is turning in her grave at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
That revolutions for liberty and freedom rarely live up to their dreams is understandable. But the question as to why revolutions turn into their opposite is a consideration of utmost urgency and should form a thematic centrepiece in school curricula across the country. The harsh reality of today is that we are still killing others in wars in the name of freedom, and we are unsure of how to remember those moments. I take some raw comfort in the words of Denys Turner, who writes:
War is a horrible reality. But it is also a stark metaphor of all the accumulated evil that is in the world, that mass of evil in which are interwoven, inseparably, elements of our own personal responsibility – for it is our acts and our own complicities which make wars – together with impersonal implacable powers of evil which are beyond our capacity to control or make any sense of. There is the evil, then, that we do, our sins, and we can make a certain sense of them through our freedom and the seductions of its misuse; but there is the evil in which we are in, bigger, more powerful than we are, overwhelming us with its utter senselessness; and in a more self-confident age we called it the sin which was ‘original’, visited upon us, implicating us with a collective responsibility from which there is no unravelling of our own, personal, responsibility. Before the reality of that evil, we have no power of our own except to utter a helpless plea: ‘Father, forgive.’