“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it” (Ernest Hemingway ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, ( Charles Scribners Sons ) New York .1940
The documentation of momentous political events is important for a number of important reasons. Firstly it is quite often done with a view towards educating current and future generations of important events and their political and historical impact. Secondly, when correctly and objectively articulated, they serve as a solemn reminder of the political, economic, and social consequences of such events. Thirdly, they ought to serve as a mirror regarding the manner in which we ought to respond to similar events should we find ourselves being confronted by such.
It is within the context of the latter sentence in my opening paragraph that I have found myself reflecting in recent weeks on the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and the role of the International Brigade therein in combatting Spanish fascism. This reflection was brought about by the looming spectre of war as imperialist countries led by the United States seek to overthrow the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and to replace it with a puppet regime led by its proxy, Juan Guaido. The continuous statements by US president Donald Trump and Guaido that ‘all options remain on the table’ is an indication that for all intents and purposes, military intention spear-headed by the United States remains an imminent option for the right-wing formations in Venezuela. The fact that this all taking place within the context of the re-emergence of right-wing governments in Latin America, and in particular that of Jair Bolsonaro, a former officer who served in the army during the reign of the generals, in neighbouring Brazil, ought to sound the alarm bells for all those who are opposed to imperialism.
Regarding the parallels to be drawn with regard to the Spanish Civil War and the heroic role of the International Brigade it is necessary that a brief account of the that conflict be given. That conflict is the subject of thousands of historical articles, books, poems and works of art . Hence it is not important that we reflect on it in detail. Accordingly, I have added a list of articles and links on the subject of that conflict at the end of this article. Nonetheless, I attempt in the following passages to give, as briefly as possible, the context within which the Spanish Civil War arose, and the role of the International Brigades therein.
The period between the 1920s and late 1930s was one which saw the emergence of fascism, Nazism and the era of right-wing military dictatorships in Europe. This was fuelled in part by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, the political after-effects of the German loss to the Allied Powers in 1918, the great depression, and the growing influence of the international working class movement.
In Italy the fascist Benito Mussolini had risen to power in 1922. Mussolini’s fascist policies in turn gave inspiration to Adolf Hitler in Germany who, upon being elected head of state in 1933, implemented with zeal his ideology of National Socialism. Although analysts will correctly seek to draw distinctions between Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s Nazism, the one common thread running through both ideological systems was their hostility to communism, hostility to liberal political values, racism, the propagation of anti-Semitic views, hostility and disdain for the Slavic people, and the centralisation of political power into the hands of one ruler. Hence Mussolini was given the title “Il Duce”, and Hitler, “De Fuhrer” both of which translate into ‘leader’ in Italian and German respectively.
Almost running parallel to the political developments in Italy and Germany, a military dictatorship under General Francisco Franco resulted with the latter and his right-wing nationalist supporters seizing power in Spain. Franco rose to prominence following the loss by ultra-conservative Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups by a narrow margin to the Popular Front in the 1936 general elections. Urged by the ruling class, including the land-owners and a particularly conservative Spanish Catholic church, Franco and his generals launched a right-wing coup against the Republic. The Republicans resisted the attempt to seize power and launched a counter-attack against the right-wing generals.
Although they initially failed to take control of the whole country, they would eventually manage to do so with the help of Hitler, Mussolini, and Moroccans who rendered military assistance in the form of hundreds of thousands of troops, armoured units and aerial power. Fascists militias from some western countries also flocked to Spain where they enrolled as fighters on the side of the Nationalists. Notable among these were the so-called ‘Blue Shirts’, a fascist militia from the Republic of Ireland. It was within the context of opposing the emergence of totalitarian rule in Spain, Germany and Italy, that thousands of volunteers from over 53 countries went to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic. Given that the volunteers came from so many countries, they eventually came to be referred to as the ‘International Brigade.’ While the effectiveness of the International Brigades in combatting the rise of the Franco junta and that of fascism and Nazism is a matter of historical debate, it is not difficult to hold it up as the most brilliant and heroic display of proletarian internationalism ever recorded.
While the west European powers were reluctant to intervene on the side of the Republic given their policy of appeasement vis a vis the Nazis and their anti-communism, the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin assumed responsibility for coordination of the International Brigade under the auspices of Comintern ( ie ‘Communist International’ ). However it is important to note that some historians and analysts have questioned the motives of the involvement of the USSR under Stalin.(1)
Although most of the volunteers were Communists, there were also many others who were workers, miners, nurses, intellectuals and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Jews and Christians who felt that fascism and Nazism offended the most basic tenets of democracy and human rights. Indeed one of the volunteers who died in combat against Franco’s troops was an Anglican priest from Northern Ireland and a retired member of the Catholic Christian Brothers order. There were also African Americans, Hispaniques and a black British man (2).
The Abraham Lincoln Battalion , which was the brigade made up of combatants from the United States was at one point led by an African American, Oliver Law. (3 ) An African American, Canute Frankson gave reasons for joining the International Brigade in a letter to his parents :
“ I am sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what this international struggle has to do with my being here. Since this a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult upon us….; why I, a Negro who had fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?
“Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with and become an active part of a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of human civilisation from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power.
“Because if we crush Fascism here we will save our people in America, and in other parts of the world, from vicious persecution, wholesome imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish suffered and are still suffering under Hitler’s heels.”(4)
The internationalism of combatants like Canute was such that even attempts by reactionary elements in their homelands would fail to dissuade them from partaking in their internationalist obligations in Spain. Andy Durgan succinctly highlighted the unwavering internationalism of the volunteers :
“This internationalism would not have contrasted more strongly with the treacherous policies of the bourgeois democracies and their supporters, both left and right, who preferred the Republic to fall rather than themselves to make a stand against fascism.
“The fact that many International Brigades were later persecuted by democratic governments, and by Fascist and Stalinist regimes alike, is the clearest testimony to the example they provide to anyone who seeks to rid the world of injustice.” (5)
The American communist and volunteer, Alvah Bessie also wrote : “In the history of the world, there had never existed a group of men like this…..an international army formed …..by volunteers from all walks of life. The actual existence of this army ….was a guarantee of the brotherhood of the international working class, the definitive proof that (the workers) have a common interest and obligation” (6)
The International Brigade were involved in some of the fiercest battles of the civil war, including the siege of Madrid, the battles of Guadalajara, Ebo, and the famous battle of Jarama. Of the 59,380 combatants and volunteers who enlisted on the side of the Republicans, 5,300 are said to have perished in combat.
The fascist believed ( and still believe) in the use of terror on a massive scale in order to subdue their opponents. The architect of the coup in Spain, General Emillo Mola , told his co-conspirators: “It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do” (7 )
Accordingly, the fascists backed by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy unleashed their military assets on an unprecedented scale. Hitler deployed to Spain the notorious ‘Condor Legion’, which was an elite corps of the German army comprising commandos, airborne troops, heavy armour and their latest aircraft, including Junckers JU86, Heinkel HE111 bombers and the prototypes of the dreaded Messerscchmittmit Bf 109 fighter plane. The strategy, tactics and weapons deployed by the Fascists and their Nazi allies would eventually provide them with the necessary expertise and battle experience upon which they would rely when World War II broke out. The bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was the earliest display of the brutality of fascist and Nazist use of indiscriminate bombing in modern warfare. It is said that 45,400kg (100,000 pounds) of high explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped on the town. Guernica was reduced to a smouldering ruin. George Steer , then a reporter for “The Times” newspaper, relayed to the world the ferocity of the bombing and the intention of the fascists, led by Hitler’s Condor Legion, in carrying it out : “Guernica was not a military objective….The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”(8)
The bombing of Guernica and its aftermath was graphically illustrated by the artist Pablo Picasso in his famous painting , ‘Guernica’ which was completed in 1939.
Historians might seek to establish if the designation by the CIA and the Pentagon in the 1970s and 1980s of their covert operations in Europe and Latin America as “Operation Condor” was not inspired by Hitler’s Condor Legion. This operation, fundamental aspects of which remain in place in Latin America, was meant to destroy progressive governments and movements with the sole objective of entrenching US and imperialist domination of the world.
The involvement of the International Brigade in the civil war came to an end on 23 September 1938 following the decision of the Spanish prime minister, Juan Negrin, to dissolve it in an attempt to secure the support of the western liberal democracies. The latter had been reluctant to support the Republican government due to their hostility to socialism and their fundamentally flawed and ill-informed policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini.
At the farewell parade in Barcelona, Dolores Ibarruri, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (the ‘PCE’ ) paid tribute to the departing combatants in her now famous speech : “Comrades of the International Brigade! Political reasons…send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy. We will not forget you; and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.” (9)
It is common knowledge that the fascists eventually gained control of the whole of Spain after Mussolini and Hitler sent hundreds of thousands of reinforcements, military hardware and fighter bombers to sustain the war effort of Franco. The people of Spain and humanity as a whole would eventually pay a very heavy price for the failure and reluctance of western liberal democracies to arrest the emergence and growth of fascism and Nazism. Franco had himself installed as the ‘Caudillo’ ( ie military strongman ) of Spain .
Richard Baxell, historian, author and lecturer sums up the painful lesson to be drawn from the failure of western democracies to support the cause of anti-fascism and anti-Nazism in Spain : “The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that despite the volunteer’s sacrifice, they – and the Republican Army in which they fought – were unable to defeat Franco and his German and Italian allies in Spain. Just as the volunteers had feared and prophesied, this led the way to six years of world war and the death of 60 million people. It also led to more than thirty years of dictatorship in Spain. Only with the death of Franco in 1975 could a democratic Spain emerge, which did not forget the gratitude conveyed by ‘La Pasioneria’so many years earlier.” (10 )
The selfless sacrifice, heroism and unparalleled display of internationalism of the volunteers of the International Brigade will forever be immortalised in the moving tribute which Ernest Hemingway gave in his seminal presentation, ‘The Earth Endureth Forever’ : “The dead do not need to rise. They are part of the earth and can never be conquered; for the earth endureth forever. It will outlive all systems of tyranny. Those who have entered it honourably, and no men ever entered it more honourably than those who died in Spain , have already achieved immortality.” (11)
As we reflect on the legacy of the International Brigade, we cast our eyes to Latin America and in particular at the rapidly developing political situation in Venezuela. The United States under the leadership of the right-wing and racist fanatic Donald Trump has, in seeking to destabilise that country and the rest of the continent, resorted to use of the so-called ‘Monroe Doctrine”, was based on the proposition that the Western Hemisphere was the sole preserve of the US from a geopolitical point of view. Thus in an interview on the American network CNN , the US National Security advisor John Bolton argued : “In this administration , we are not afraid to use the word ‘Monroe Doctrine. This (ie Venezuela) is a country in our hemisphere.” (12)
The US has in fact maintained a policy of covert intervention since the inception of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez in 1999. Having won elections that year , Venezuela adopted a socialist system which however made provision for multi-party democratic participation , with opposition parties being freely and openly allowed to participate in the political arena and to challenge the United Socialist Party led by Chavez.
The government introduced a number of policies and measures whose primary focus was the improvement of the living standard of the working class and the rural population. These included subsidisation of the price of food and fuel, access to health care, and a relatively high standard of education. Economic assistance especially in the export of oil of left-wing governments, which was done in pursuit of the governments internationalist obligations. The latter in particular drew the ire of the US and its imperialist allies. With the covert backing of the US, certain elements within the armed forces launched an abortive coup attempt in 2002 which was crushed by the army, popular militias and supporters of Chavez who rallied onto the streets of all major cities and town. Although the US initially denied involvement, the short-lived support for the coup betrayed its involvement. Information would soon emerge that the abortive coup had been planned by senior US government officials, including Elliot Abrams, the champion of the so-called ‘Hemispheric’ policy which in many ways mirrored the ‘Monroe Doctrine’. (13). Abrams, who is a convicted criminal for having lied to Congress regarding the Nicaraguan “Contras” scandal, has since been appointed by Donald Trump to be the US Special Envoy for Venezuela.
The US would however also display its hostility of the Bolivarian Republic through its continued imposition of tough economic sanctions and the freezing of Venezuelan assets abroad. The collapse of the electricity grid throughout Venezuela is largely believed to have been caused by a sophisticated cyber attack carried out by the US. The ultra conservative Republican senator Marco Rubio betrayed prior knowledge of the collapse of the electricity grid in statements made to the media. (14) Max Bluementhal draws on confidential documentation in arguing that the cyber attack on the electricity grid was planned as early as the year 2010.(15). There has also been talk of the covert destabilisation of the Bolivian currency by western agents , the objective of which is to fuel hyper-inflation . (16 )
The tough economic sanctions and the dramatic price in the price of oil had a severe effect on the socio-economic situation in the country. In 2017 when the government tried to introduce measures designed to alleviate the increasingly tough socio-economic situation, the opposition led Congress blocked them. The rapidly deteriorating situation, which had been created largely through covert US intervention, gave the latter and its imperialist accomplices the pretext to openly motivate for regime change and the attempted installation of a puppet government led by self-declared ‘president’ Juan Guaido.
The intervention of the US and other imperialist powers resulted in Guaido emerging from total obscurity to international prominence. That Guaido is a puppet is not a figment of my imagination. Guiado apparently had no support even in the opposition-controlled Congress , which is why he declared himself ‘president’ in a public square in Caracas and not within the confines of the chamber of Congress. He has often been pictured being accompanied by a senior member of the CIA. Washington is said to have forced him to cut short his international travel when it was realised that his colour revolution was waning.
The international working class, and the people of South Africa in particular, must take the lead in giving political, moral and material support to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. We as South Africans owe a great debt of gratitude to the international community given the role of international solidarity in our own liberation struggle. It is incumbent on all progressive formations in our country, including those outside of the Tripartite Alliance led by the African National Congress, to rally around the Venezuelan people in their hour of need. Therefore it is incumbent on Cde Irvin Jim of Numsa , Cde Zwelinzima Vavi of SAFTU, Cde Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters , Cde Themba Godi of the African Peoples Convention, and our comrades in the Pan Africanist Congress to rally in support of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Failure to do so would amount to a betrayal of the memory of the men and women of the International Brigade. Mere visits by representatives of our fraternal organisations and letters of support shall not be sufficient to help our Venezuelan comrades repel the threat of imperialist aggression.
Proper articulation of the situation in Venezuela by both the progressive movement in South Africa is also of paramount importance if we are to effectively combat the propaganda, disinformation and misinformation which is prevalent in western mainstream media regarding the situation in Venezuela. I was particularly impressed by the manner in which two South African anchors, one from Independent Newspapers whose name I can unfortunately not recall , and Karima Brown of eNCA, who gave the most objective presentation of the situation in Venezuela , and the role of the US in the destabilisation of that country. I am yet to see a member of our own Tripartite Alliance matching the brilliant articulation of the Venezuelan crisis which was presented by these two anchors.
Christians and Jews also played a heroic role in the combat of fascism and Nazism in Spain. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is underpinned by the rejection of injustice and the promotion of the promotion of values at the core of which is the protection of the marginalised, the down-trodden, and the oppressed. For both faith formations, real justice can only emerge when all of the people of God are liberated from all forms of tyranny, racism, and oppression. It is within the context of this reality that I seek the indulgence of our readers to end my article with the paraphrase of Psalm 5, which, if I have got my facts correct, was penned by the leftist Nicaraguan Catholic priest, Fr Ernesto Cardenal, who later joined the Sandinista government and served as its minister of education:
“HEAR MY PROTEST
Hear my words , Oh Lord, give ear to my groaning.
Listen to my protest.
For you are not a God who is friendly with oppressors,
nor do you support their devious ways,
nor are you influenced by their propaganda,
nor are you a cohort with gangsters.
One cannot believe anything they say,
nor have confidence in their pronouncements.
They talk of peace while they increase their production of arms.
They make gestures towards understanding at Peace Conferences ,
but in secret they prepare for war.
Punish them , Oh God,
bring to naught their machinations (17)
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth’ ( Revelation 21: 1 )
- Andy Durgan , ‘Freedom Fighters or Comintern Army? The International Brigades in Spain .‘ Issue 84 of International Socialism Journal , Autumn 1999.
- Richard Baxell ‘Charlie Hutchinson: the only black Briton in the International Brigades.’ Retrieved from richardbaxell_info/tag/international .brigades /
- Canute Frankson, ‘Letter to His Parents’, 6th July 1937. Retrieved from ‘spartacus-educational’.
- Grover Furr, ‘Anatomy of Anti-Communist Fabrication: The Death of Oliver Law , An Historiographical Investigation.’ Retrieved from ‘Reconstruction 8.1 (2008)’. reconstruction-eserver.org
- Andy Durgan ( Ibid )
- Bessie, ‘Men in Battle’ (New York) p343 . Retrieved from Andy Durgan ( Ibid ).
- Frederico Lopez-Terra, ’80 years on from the Guernica bombing and Spain still struggling to honour historical memory’. 26 April 2017. Retrieved from theconversation.com
- George Steer ,’The Tragedy of Guernica Town Destroyed in an Air Attack: Eyewitness Account from news report of George Steer’, “The Times” 28 April 1937.
- Andy Durgan ( Ibid ).
- Richard Baxell. ( Ibid ).
- Ernest Hemingway ‘On The American Dead In Spain’, ( New Masses) ,14 February 1939.
- South Front,’ John Bolton Defends Monroe Doctrine As Juan Guaido Lobs New Threats at Venezuelan Government’, 4 March 2019 , mintpress.com ; CNN, 3 March 2019.
- Julian Borges & Alex Bellos, ‘US Gave The Nod To Venezuelan Coup’,The Guardian, London. Retrieved from theguardian.com /world/2002/cyber/usa.venezuela.
- (a) Ricardo Vaz ‘Venezuela Suffers Major Power Outages After Alleged Cyber Attack’, venezuelanalysis.com ; 10 March 2019.
(b) Naveen Goud ,’Venezuela power outages caused by US cyber attack, www.cybersecurity-insiders.com /Venezuela-power-outage-caused-by-us-cyber-attack/
(c) ‘Venezuela Denounces US Participation in Electric Sabotage’, www.telesurenglish.net /news /Venezuela-Denounces –US-Participation-in-Electric-Sabotage-20190308-0021.
- Max Bluementhal, “US –Regime Change Blueprint Proposed Venezuela Electricity Blackout as ‘watershed event’ For Galvanising Public Interest”.
- March 2019. teleshurenglish.net
- Remarks by Venezuelan ambassador to South on the programme “The Fix” , DStv Chanel 403 co-anchored by Karima Brown and Peter Bruce.
- Enrique Dussel, ‘A History of The Church in Latin America-colonialism to liberation (1492-1979)’, (WM.B. Erdmans Publishing) 1981 , p v ( Retrieved from http://bibliotecavirtual.clasco.org.ar/clasco/otros/20120223111419/historia.pdf
For Further Reading concerning the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade:
- Andy Durgan, ‘Bookwatch: Civil War and Revolution in Spain’, Winter 1995, marxists.org;
- Paul Preston ,’The Spanish Holocaust’, ( Harper Press) London , 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-255634-7.
For further reading regarding the Venezuelan situation:
- Cira Pascual Marquina, ‘Confront Imperialism And Don’t Make Concessions: A Conversation With Nestor Kohan , ( Part 1 ) , venezuelanalysis.com; 23 February 2019.
- Cira Pascual Marquina, ‘The Worldwide Struggle Against Fascism: A Conversation With Nestor Kohan. ( Part 2 ) , venezuelanalysis.com ;
- Cira Pascual Marquina, ‘Either Washington or Venezuela, Savage Capitalism or Socialism: A Conversation With Luis Britto Garcia’, venezuelanalysis.com
Greg Alexander Mashaba is regular contributor to ‘Uncensored Opinion’ and a member of the African National Congress , Ellen Khuzwayo Branch in Ekurhuleni. He writes in his personal capacity.