Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
The conflict that is considered the precursor to World War II began on July 17, 1936 and lasted almost three years. It would pit fascists against communists, nationalists against republicans, monarchists against anarchists.
The Spanish Civil War started as an uprising by the Spanish army, along with right-wing groups such as the fascist Falange, against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. At least half a million Spaniards were killed in the conflict that Gen. Francisco Franco began after raising a rebel army in Spanish Morocco, and which saw the forces of the elected Republican government defeated with the fall of Madrid on March 28, 1939. A final surrender came four days later.
It became an international cause and would eventually also draw in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Portugal on behalf of Franco, and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union and Mexico for the republic.
Italy’s Benito Mussolini provided the Nationalist side with 100,000 troops, while neighbouring Portugal provided some 20,000 “volunteers.” Members of the Condor Legion, a unit composed of volunteers from the German army and air force, also provided critical support for the fascists.
Troops from Spanish Morocco, known as Moors, played a significant role in the war. About 136,000 fought for Franco’s Army of Africa, the feared vanguard of a force that Franco portrayed as a Christian crusade against “godless communists.” It is more than a little ironic that the side claiming to represent Roman Catholic Spain employed Muslim troops, the very descendants of the people expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the lengthy Reconquista that regained the country from the sultans who had ruled Spain for almost 800 years.
The Moors were known to be especially formidable. Former Moorish soldiers recalled the terror they inflicted on Spanish villagers on behalf of Franco. “We spared nothing and no one,” one recounted. “We uprooted everything and killed everyone we encountered… Horrified Spaniards attempted to flee as soon as they heard the words of our prayer.”
With Hitler and Mussolini supporting Franco, those with deep anti-fascist convictions, especially communists, were drawn to defend the Republic. Some 40,000 foreign nationals fought with the International Brigades; they claimed to represent 53 nations. There were seven brigades in all, each divided into battalions by nationality, their names those of revolutionary heroes. A very high proportion of the volunteers were communists.
American and Irish volunteers fought in the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington battalions; Britons in the British Battalion; Bulgarians and Yugoslavs in the Dimitrov Battalion; Canadians in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion; Czechs in Masaryk Battalion; Hungarians in the Rakosi Battalion; Germans in the Thaelmann Battalion; and Poles in the Dombrowski and Mickiewicz battalions. The two American battalions were integrated, at a time when the U.S. military was still segregated.
It has been estimated that almost 8,000 of the volunteers were Jewish. Most fought within their national units. As many as 40 per cent of the 3,000 American volunteers were Jews. There was also one all-Jewish group, the Naftali Botwin Company, comprising at least 200 Yiddish-speaking east European Jews, which served as part of the Dombrowski unit.
The brigades battled heroically against great odds, and casualties were very heavy. They were killed at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the Republican army. More than 2,300 Britons fought in Spain and more than 500 were killed. Of the Americans who volunteered, about 800 perished. A total of 1,448 Canadians went to Spain to fight; just 729 returned.
When the brigades were disbanded in the autumn of 1938, the political activist Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionara, made a farewell address on Nov. 1 concluding with the words “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is co-editor of A Vanished Ideology: Essays on the Jewish Communist Movement in the English-Speaking World in the Twentieth Century, published this year by the State University of New York Press.