Volunteers from countries foreign to Spain rushed from around the world to aid the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1938). Contrary to popular literature’s view, the Brigades were not packed full of European and American playwrights, intellectuals and novelists. Most volunteers came from the working classes. Ernest Hemingway came, but as a war correspondent. Stephen Spender and George Orwell came, but were kept as far away from the front as possible, because the propaganda value of their possible capture to the Nationalist forces would have been great. Poets W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood watched from a safe distance, as indeed they did again, this time from California, during the Second World War.
The Brigades were organised by the Comintern in Russia, though they included volunteers of many different political persuasions. It became very dangerous indeed to belong to the Brigades, because Franco’s soldiers understood why foreigners should want to come to Spain to die a violent death, and assisted the volunteers in this wish whenever they caught one.
No less than fifty-three countries supplied around 60,000 volunteers, mostly civilians who hardly knew one end of a rifle from the other, though they were eager to learn. The entirely Communist control of the Brigades made them seem suspicious to many serving in them. They thought that they were aiding a legally elected republican government to fight off a right-wing threat. Perhaps they did not know that Spain had stood a very good chance of joining the Soviet Socialist Republics during her own 2nd Republic. By no means all volunteers were communist or even socialist in outlook.
The Brigades took part in the defence of Madrid in November, 1936. The capital of Spain had naturally declared for the 2nd Republic, and the Nationalist generals fully understood the importance of securing the capital. In the frightful battles at Guadalajara and Jarama the Internationales played a crucial role. Guadalajara was a fascinating fight for historians, even for those without much sense of humour, because the brunt of the fighting took place between the ‘Garibaldi Battalion’ (Italy) and Mussolini’s Blackshirts (Italy) so an Italian civil war was being fought – in Spain. This was early 1937.
It meant almost certain death to be in the Brigades; by June 1937 nearly seventy percent of volunteers in Madrid were either dead or in hospital awaiting death. They suffered enormous losses in the horrible battle at Teruel (1937/38), and in the last big offensive launched by the failing Republic in the Battle of the Ebro in July/ August, 1938. By September of that year the Republic’s last President, Canary Islander Juan Negrín declared that the International Brigades must and would be withdrawn from Spain. General Franco did not take any notice, and neither did his backers Germany and Italy. They failed to reciprocate and kept up the killing. History has rarely seen such an international disaster as the International Brigades.