In the early 1930s a California teenager named Delmer Berg left home to work as a farmhand for room and board plus seven dollars a month. He later enlisted in the US Army, borrowing money to buy the requisite shoe polish. After his discharge, Berg moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a hotel dishwasher and joined the Young Communist League. In late 1937 he volunteered for what came to be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent of the International Brigades, a volunteer army raised by the Comintern to defend the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic against a right-wing military revolt backed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The revolt, which began in July 1936, turned Spain into a test of the burgeoning strength of European fascism. Its supporters sought to overturn the social and economic reforms made by the Republic’s Popular Front government and to restore the power of the nation’s elite—wealthy landowners, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the monarchy, and reactionary army officers embittered by the loss of the last vestiges of Spain’s empire. The country had an economy largely dominated by latifundios, semifeudal plantations whose owners treated their peasants as racially inferior and almost indistinguishable from property. Captain Gonzalo de Aguilera y Munro, an estate owner and press officer for the fascists, described the Spanish peasantry as “slave stock” to a reporter for the Associated Press. “Only when they are used as slaves are they happy.”1
Berg traveled to New York by bus, then by ocean liner to France; from Paris he made his way with a group of European and North American volunteers to a fortress near the Spanish border. By then, most foreigners were forbidden by their governments from entering Spain, so a smuggler led them on an all-night hike over the Pyrenees. “I thought we’d be discovered,” Berg told me at his California home in 2015. “Every time we went by a farmhouse, the dogs started barking.”
At dawn they managed to cross the border. After rudimentary training, Berg worked at the front laying communications lines for antiaircraft artillery. In August 1938 fascist planes bombed a monastery in Valencia where he was staying. An Italian comrade was killed, and shrapnel penetrated Berg’s liver. Bleeding heavily, he was put on a truck and taken to a nearby hospital, where doctors saved his life. He was repatriated in January 1939. Like the other dozen or so Lincoln veterans I knew, he only regretted that he couldn’t have done more for Spain.
Berg died in 2016, the penultimate survivor of the Lincoln Brigade. Last May, Josep Almudéver Mateu, a French-born Spaniard and the last surviving member of the International Brigades, died at 101. Although more than 15,000 books have been written about the Spanish Civil War, The International Brigades by Giles Tremlett, a longtime Spain correspondent for The Guardian, is the first English-language history of the brigades in several decades. Berg and Almudéver’s deaths, and the vanishing of the brigades from living memory, underscore the timeliness of this book. It offers an implicit reminder of the importance of leftist internationalism as a political force and of its current absence, even as democratic governments around the world, including in Spain, come under attack from neofascist political parties.
Tremlett’s account begins in July 1936 in Barcelona, at the start of the People’s Olympiad, a leftist counterpart to the Nazi-sponsored games in Berlin. Five months earlier, Spain had elected a coalition government whose largest member was the Socialist Party, with its broad base of industrial workers and peasants, but that also included the Communist Party and several liberal Republican parties, which were supported mainly by the professional classes. The games drew political exiles, journalists, and athletes from around the world, including Jewish and Black Olympians who had initially been banned from competing in Germany by Hitler. Just before the games were scheduled to start, a group of generals, including a Galician named Francisco Franco, launched a coup. They quickly took control of the Canary Islands, the Spanish protectorate in Morocco, and parts of Seville. In the streets of Barcelona rebels aligned with the coup—who called themselves Nationalists—battled soldiers and armed workers who remained loyal to the Republic. In the early days of fighting, roughly 100,000 Nationalist soldiers, officers, mercenaries, and paramilitaries took up arms, and thousands were killed on both sides.
The first foreign volunteers to assist the Republicans were people who happened to be in Barcelona for the games, such as Clara Thälmann, a Swiss swimmer and anarchist sympathizer, and Fanny Schoonheyt, a chain-smoking Dutch journalist who patrolled the streets armed with a machine gun. Barcelona was a stronghold for anarchist trade unions, and the coup there was put down quickly. The city was soon transformed into a revolutionary experiment in governance and a mecca for the international left.
In Madrid, however, the rebels nearly overran the indecisive Republic. Three governments formed and collapsed within fourteen hours. One of them decided to distribute arms through the trade unions to worker militias, which attacked military barracks filled with Nationalist officers, soldiers, and their allies in the Falange, a fascist political party. With the assistance of the Republican Air Force and many police units that remained loyal to the government, the coup was defeated.
But weeks before they staged their revolt, the Spanish Nationalist generals had lined up the support of Mussolini, who promised to deliver more than two hundred tons of bombs and dozens of Italian aircraft. Even more crucial was the support of Hitler, who was approached by Franco’s representatives on July 25, after a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried at the Bayreuth Festival. Hitler agreed to help and called the mission “Operation Magic Fire,” after the ring of fire through which Siegfried passes to awaken Brünnhilde. The rebel forces came largely from the Army of Africa, which was based in Morocco and comprised the Spanish Legion and mercenary Moroccan troops called Regulares. Just days after pledging his support, Hitler sent twenty large transport planes and German warships to protect rebel boats for an operation that ferried some 15,000 soldiers by air and sea across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. The attempted coup became a full-scale civil war.
In addition to the assistance of Mussolini and Hitler, the Nationalists had another advantage: appeasement by the Western democracies. In mid-August, Nationalists massacred some two thousand people in the bullring of the town of Badajoz. Three weeks later, the British government called the first meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee in London, which was designed to enforce a nonintervention agreement signed by twenty-seven countries, including France, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Hitler and Mussolini also signed the agreement, even as they brazenly defied it.
“The Non-Intervention Committee was a shameless sham, cynically dishonest,” Claude Bowers, the American ambassador to Spain, wrote in a memoir. “Germany and Italy were constantly sending soldiers, planes, tanks, artillery, and ammunition into Spain without an interference or real protest from the signatories of the pact.” Despite Bowers’s sympathies for the Republic, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearful of alienating Catholic voters and mindful of support for isolationism in Congress, adhered to nonintervention, too. It was the first time in American history that the US refused to sell arms to a legally elected government.
A week after the London meeting, the Comintern agreed to recruit international volunteers to aid the Republic. Recruitment varied widely between countries; in the US it was done secretly, largely by word of mouth through local and national Communist Party networks. In late September the Soviet Union, in response to Hitler and Mussolini openly aiding the rebels, agreed to sell arms to the Republic. (Mexico was the only other country to support it.) That October, the first volunteers in the International Brigades arrived in Spain. Though some had served in World War I, the majority had no previous military service. After minimal training at a base in Albacete, they were sent to help defend Madrid. Their weapons—mostly a smattering of antiquated firearms purchased on the global arms market at exorbitant cost—sometimes did not fire at all. Yet the brigaders were better disciplined than most of the Republican troops.
The International Brigades eventually comprised some 35,000 men and women from sixty countries and more than two dozen colonies, protectorates, and other nonsovereign nations, along with roughly 7,000 Spaniards. The largest contingent came from France, followed by Italy, Germany, Poland, the United States, Great Britain, and the Balkans, but volunteers came from as far away as China, Indonesia, and Chile. The brigades were ideologically diverse, an outgrowth of the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress in 1935, when the Soviet Union, alarmed by the rise of far-right governments across Europe, encouraged Communists to form alliances with other antifascist parties.
The brigades attracted idealistic recruits from prominent families, like Winston Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly and John Cornford, a Cambridge-educated poet and great-grandson of Charles Darwin. But the vast majority of the volunteers, as many as 90 percent, were working class. Tremlett focuses mainly on these lesser-known combatants—Giovanni Pesce, an Italian coal miner; Leo Kari, a Danish apprentice; Piet Akkerman, a Flemish Jewish diamond worker—weaving together a narrative from first-person accounts, archival research in a dozen countries, and decades of reporting on Spain’s past and present.
Many of the volunteers were political exiles or came from the trade union movement, as did Delmer Berg. “I felt a certain amount of responsibility as a worker to help the Spanish people,” he said. As many as 20 percent, according to some estimates, were Jewish, a poignant response to rising anti-Semitism across Europe. “I grew up in a society rife with injustice and oppression,” Akkerman wrote to his mother in October 1936, asking forgiveness for his decision to join the International Brigades with his brother, Emiel:
I have suffered both as a worker and as a Jew….
Have not 99 per cent of the pogroms in the world been organised to distract attention from the misery of the people by provoking hatred towards the Jews, while those who are really responsible, the authors of misery, laugh in secret because instead of attacking their power, people slaughter the Jews? Your children, however, have not tolerated this, have not stooped, have not stayed silent.
Within three months, Piet and Emiel were killed in combat.
By early November 1936 Franco, now the leader of the rebellion, had gained control of several of Madrid’s suburbs. Largo Caballero, the Republic’s prime minister, fled the city along with most of the government. The headline in the London Times—“Last Hours of Madrid”—summed up the general view of the Republic’s prospects.
The battle for Madrid, which makes for one of the most riveting sections of Tremlett’s book, was decided in lecture halls, laboratories, and classrooms at the sprawling campus of University City. Soldiers strafed classrooms with machine-gun fire. They pulled the pins of grenades and sent them up in elevators. Brigaders stacked books in the windows as shields from snipers; bullets usually did not penetrate past the 350th page, so they sought out the thickest tomes of German philosophy and Indian metaphysics. “They were better than sand-bags,” Jan Kurzke, a German volunteer, wrote. “They protected us well; those old, wise men, with their long beards and busy pens.” At tremendous cost—one battalion lost 280 out of 420 men—Franco’s professional army was pushed back.
While the main architect of Madrid’s miraculous defense was Vicente Rojo, a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish Republican Army, the International Brigades were also crucial, holding a mile-long stretch of the front and setting an important example. “I saw them lying in the rain night and day, completely silent, just waiting for the enemy,” José Mera, a Spanish schoolteacher attached to the brigades, said. “All of us who had suffered from the lack of discipline on our side and from the ghastly assassinations, who had become convinced that a war couldn’t be won like that, saw in the Brigaders what a real army should be like.” The victory turned Madrid into an international rallying cry—“No Pasarán”; “Madrid Will Be the Tomb of Fascism”—and support for the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades surged. Volunteers, including the first Americans, began pouring into Spain.
Some of Tremlett’s most moving passages document the war’s toll on civilians. In April 1937 the Nazi bombing of Guernica drew international outrage, but two months earlier German and Italian bombers had carried out an equally gruesome attack on a column of as many as 300,000 people fleeing Málaga after it was captured by Nationalists: “A dead young woman was found propped upright against a roadside tree, a child still trying to suckle at her breast; a desperate father was seen to shoot his two children and wife before turning the gun on himself.”
Despite Tremlett’s impressive research and precise prose, the book’s barrage of detail can render battle scenes confusing, and its overly narrow focus on military history at times diminishes what was at stake in the war. There is no mention, for example, of the emancipatory effect of the Republic’s social revolution on women or of the deeply misogynist culture of the rebels, who shaved the heads of female prisoners and encouraged systematic rape. Nor is there enough attention devoted to the economic aid provided to Franco by American corporations such as Ford and Texaco; the latter supplied him, on credit, with indispensable oil in violation of US neutrality law.2
Tremlett discusses the Lincoln Brigade’s pioneering commitment to racial justice—it was the first integrated American military unit and the first to have a Black officer lead white soldiers in battle—yet he overlooks the particular solidarity many African American volunteers experienced in Spain. “The [Spanish] peasants had been psychologically just as imprisoned, had accepted the belief that nothing could be done about their situation as had the Harlem nurses earlier accepted racial discrimination in their dining room,” Salaria Kea, an African American nurse who had helped desegregate Harlem Hospital’s staff dining room, wrote in a memoir. “Like the Harlem nurses, too, the peasants were now learning that something could be done about it.”3 James Yates, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, had a similar view. “In the fields peasants went about their harvesting,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Darken their faces and they could have been picking cotton and pulling corn in Mississippi.”4
Tremlett is unsparing in his treatment of the sectarian infighting and Soviet malfeasance that undermined the Republican effort. The French Communist André Marty, installed by the Comintern as the political commissar of the brigades, imagined Trotskyite spies everywhere and oversaw a prison for deserters and suspected traitors in the Catalonian town of Castelldefels, where hundreds of volunteers were incarcerated and in some cases tortured. Yet Marty failed to notice that his own quartermaster-general, Henri Dupré, was a fascist spy.
Vengeance also marred the Brigades’ efforts, both tactically and morally. During the Battle of Belchite in August 1937, Republicans recaptured the town of Quinto. In the fighting, a rebel sniper killed a beloved comrade of General Karol Świerczewski, a Polish Red Army general known as General Walter. (To conceal their participation, Soviet officers fought under assumed names.) Walter vowed to avenge the death. When a group of fascist prisoners was brought before him, he ordered them executed. “The condemned prisoners, either of their own accord or ordered by the corporal in charge of the execution, turned their backs,” recalled Aleksander Szurek, a Polish volunteer and aide-de-camp to General Walter. “One prisoner raised his fist in the Republican salute…. I could not reconcile myself to what happened, nor could many others.”
During the cold war, these crimes helped fuel revisionist myths that the Republic was little more than a Soviet satellite and that the volunteers were fighting in Spain to install a Stalinist regime rather than to defend democracy. Correcting these myths is one of the strengths of Tremlett’s book. “Volunteers did not pledge allegiance to the communist cause,” he writes. “Nor should they be called an exclusively ‘Comintern army,’ with the implication that they were run directly from Moscow by the Communist International.” Though more than half the brigaders were Communists, their ranks also included socialists, anarchists, and liberals.
Moreover, Tremlett notes, Germany contributed at least 19,000 troops and Italy more than 75,000 on the other side, whereas the Soviet Union sent only about 2,000 in the course of the war. And while Hitler and Mussolini gave Franco arms largely on credit, Stalin required payment from the Republic’s gold reserves. Tremlett also makes clear that the brigades were always under the command of the Spanish Republican Army. The punishment of deserters, for example, which included prison sentences or, very rarely, executions, was determined by the Republican Army, not the Comintern. (Other Western democracies, as well as the Nationalists, executed deserters, too.)
Much of the perception of Soviet domination of the Republic stems from George Orwell’s classic 1938 memoir, Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had volunteered with a militia organized by the POUM, a political party with Trotskyite leanings loosely aligned with the anarchists. Both groups believed, in opposition to the Soviet Union and the Republican government, that a political revolution should be staged simultaneously with the war effort. In May 1937 violent street fighting broke out in Barcelona between POUMists and their anarchist allies on one side and Communists, government forces, and Soviet advisers on the other. More than two hundred people were killed. The NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, tortured and executed Andreu Nin, the leader of the POUM, who had drawn the ire of Stalin for criticizing the Moscow show trials and political repression in the Soviet Union. Orwell barely escaped. He claimed that the events paved the way for Franco’s victory and that if the Republic had won, its postwar government was “bound to be Fascistic.”
But as Tremlett points out, the Soviet Union’s influence on the Republic has been vastly overstated. The NKVD killed perhaps twenty people in Spain, not thousands, as some revisionist historians claim. The Republican government eventually released most of Orwell’s POUM comrades and tried the leadership in court. It found them not guilty of espionage and resisted Communist pressure for death sentences. Orwell, who did not read Spanish or Catalan, was unaware of the sectarian tensions between the government and the anarchists, which existed prior to Soviet involvement in Spain. Those tensions were exacerbated after several hundred Catalan anarchists abandoned the front in March 1937, taking their weapons with them back to Barcelona.
Orwell cautioned against reading too much into his account. “Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events,” he wrote at the end of his book. In 1942 he repudiated his conclusions further. “The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false,” he wrote in an essay looking back at the war. “The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.”
Tremlett’s exhaustive recounting of the brigades’ shortcomings makes his moral elevation of them somehow more moving. “All fought,” he writes, “against the most destructive and malevolent force unleashed by twentieth-century Europe’s violent politics and history.”
Even as it became clear that the Spanish Republic was doomed, the brigaders fought on. Their fight for democracy had resonated far beyond Europe, perhaps nowhere more than among Indians, who saw the antifascist and anticolonialist struggles as kindred. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s future prime minister, visited Barcelona in June 1938 as German bombs fell. “There, in the midst of want and destruction and ever-impending disaster, I felt more at peace with myself than anywhere else in Europe,” he wrote in his autobiography.
In the fall of 1938 the Republic sent home the remaining brigaders, who numbered only about 12,000—nearly five thousand had been killed, and thousands more were wounded or missing—unilaterally acceding to a demand by the Non-Intervention Committee in a desperate attempt to get Italian and German troops to leave. Before departing, they marched through Barcelona in a parade called La Despedida (the Farewell), which included a famous address by Dolores Ibárruri, the Basque Communist leader known as La Pasionaria. “You can go proudly,” she told the volunteers. “You are history. You are legend.” Many joined the hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees who fled to France, where they were interned in concentration camps.
Franco’s final victory came on April 1, 1939, but the brigades’ influence didn’t end with the Republic’s defeat. In France, the brigader Henri Tanguy became Colonel Rol-Tanguy; one of the most decorated leaders of the French Resistance, he organized a mass uprising against the Nazi occupation in Paris a week before the Allied liberation. All four of Marshal Tito’s partisan armies in Yugoslavia were led by brigaders. Half of the veterans of the brigades’ Garibaldi battalion who returned to Italy joined the partisan movement, and a brigader was one of three partisans who executed Mussolini on April 28, 1945. Josep Almudéver, the teenage brigader who died last year at 101, was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Spain until 1942, then continued his fight against Franco until 1947 as part of a guerrilla movement in northeast Spain.
With Franco’s encouragement, Hitler sent many Republican exiles and International Brigades veterans in France to German concentration camps, where as many as 10,000 died. But the defiance of the brigaders continued even there. In Mauthausen, a group of seven Romanian Jewish brigaders, required to wear the red triangle of political prisoners in addition to the yellow star, told a group of Spanish prisoners, “If any one of you survives this hell, tell our people where and how we died.” The next day, the Romanians marched toward one of the guard towers singing “The Internationale” until the guards opened fire on them.
In 1959 Franco inaugurated the Valley of the Fallen, a monument to the Nationalists killed in the civil war. Capped by a five-hundred-foot-high cross, it was built by 20,000 Republican slave laborers. The site is the largest mass grave in Spain, holding the remains of more than 30,000 from both sides. “Our war was evidently not just another civil war, but a true Crusade, as the Pope called it at the time,” Franco said during the benediction ceremony. “The anti-Spain”—his name for the Republic and its supporters—“was conquered and defeated but it hasn’t died yet.”5
Executions, torture, and political repression against the “anti-Spain” continued until Franco died in 1975 and was buried in the Valley of the Fallen. Three years later, Spain became a constitutional monarchy after parties on the left and right embraced an unspoken agreement known as the pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting), which led to the granting of legal amnesty for all crimes, Republican and Nationalist, from the civil war and the four-decade-long dictatorship that followed. The agreement repressed the nation’s collective memory in exchange for a transition to democracy.
In the past two decades, however, a movement challenging the pact has gathered strength. Mass graves filled with the bodies of Franco’s victims have been excavated, and Spanish historians and journalists have exposed vestiges of Francoism in state institutions and corporations. In 2019 the Spanish government exhumed Franco’s corpse and reburied him in a municipal cemetery. Meanwhile, nostalgia for his regime has grown on the right, especially since the exhumation ceremony. “Life was better under Franco,” Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, a far-right party, said in a parliamentary session last year. Vox is currently the third-largest party in Spain.
While Spain’s Francoist past retains a pernicious hold on the country, events closer to home reminded me how far the Spanish Civil War’s legacy reaches. It seemed ominous that Donald Trump was elected months after Delmer Berg died; Trump supporters scrawled a swastika on a monument to the International Brigades in Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2017. But I also remember another image from that summer: the red, yellow, and purple flag of the brigades, a peerless symbol of solidarity and antifascism that had been all but forgotten in this country, unfurled by protesters facing off against a crowd of neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Norton, 2006), revised edition, p. 219. ↩
For a detailed history of Texaco’s support of Franco, see Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). ↩
Salaria Kea, While Passing Through, unpublished manuscript, p. 19. Kea, who was motivated to go to Spain by Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, was one of only two women among the nearly one hundred African Americans who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. While in Spain, she married one of her patients, John O’Reilly, an Irish ambulance driver. The wedding was noted by Langston Hughes in a dispatch for the Baltimore Afro-American. ↩
James Yates, Mississippi to Madrid: Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Open Hand, 1989), p. 117. ↩
Sebastiaan Faber, Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition (Vanderbilt University Press, 2021), p. 5. ↩