This is an article by Bill Alexander reprinted from the March 1989 newsletter of the International Brigade Association. It appeared under the title ‘At home but not to rest: 50 years of the International Brigade Association’. The article is featured in the latest issue of ¡NO PASARÁN!, the magazine of the IBMT, which is sent exclusively to members.
Sam Wild set the scene in December 1938 when, with the arrival in Britain of the main group, he said: ‘We have changed the front but our fight continues.’
The welcome meetings, packed and enthusiastic, were mobilising meetings. The Spanish people fought on for another three months while the British Tory government extended its criminal appeasement policies – so-called ‘non-intervention’ – recognising Franco one month before his military victory. Brigaders went out on exhausting tours of meetings rousing opposition to the government and urging support for the Spanish Republic.
We and the Lincolns were lucky and could return home to comparative safety. But the Germans, Italians and Brigaders from reactionary states were interned in savage conditions in French concentration camps. Help to ease their conditions and to get some out began at once, with Winifred Bates and Lon Elliott organising help. Thousands of Spanish families had fled over the Pyrenees, thinking better the bare sands of the French camps than a fascist bullet. When Mexico offered them visas, Wogan Philipps chartered a ship. Nan Green fed the babies of 5,000, on their way to freedom but exile.
Of course we found time to be united with our families, get married, find jobs. But it was in this background of activity for Spain that the International Brigade Association was set up at the very end of February 1939.
A number of far-sighted, wise decisions were made. The name International Brigade Association had no connotation of military organisation and gave a welcoming place to all who had served in Spain, no matter their nationality or birthplace. The agreed sole aim of the association was to ‘fight in our own country to help the Spanish people in their struggle to restore liberty and democracy in Spain’. This provided unity of purpose while the volunteers, as individuals, were free to take part in other activity.
There is no record of the number who linked up with the association; it must have been under 1,500.
Today there are 114 members, only two under 70 years, members of all political parties, many of none. We are united only in our common pride that at a turning point in history we stood together to fight for civilisation, freedom and peace. The long, proud record of the association must be seen against this picture of ageing and falling membership.
It was accepted that we had to integrate once again in the popular, progressive class organisations from which we came. The Dependants’ Aid Fund was wound up, with all possible help being given to our disabled, grants to widows and jobs and apprenticeships for children. A proposal that we should campaign for International Brigade pensions was turned down, so that today Brigaders are prominent fighters at local and national level for adequate pensions for all. There was to be no special social club, so the local pub or workingmen’s club was used. Above all, as our members got jobs, they worked in their factories and trade unions, not only for the general interests of all, but to use them to keep up the fight against Franco fascism. The efforts to black work for Franco, the resolution at nearly every TUC and Labour Party conference, usually had their origin in the activity and initiative of our members.
With the outbreak of World War II, which we tried to prevent, there were some difficulties. Was it a continuation of the war against fascism, or was the discrimination against International Brigaders a sign of the continuation of ‘non-intervention’ and appeasement? But soon there was acceptance that there could be no freedom for the Spanish people without defeat of the main pillars of fascism – Hitler and Mussolini.
Spain had gone off the front pages of the papers. Members were in the forces or working 12 hours a day, every day, in the war industry. But Jack Brent, despite severe wounds from Jarama which kept him in lasting pain, kept the campaign of the association to the fore. He was the first of the group of outstanding leaders of the IBA: Nan Green, Alec Digges, Alan Gilchrist, Lon Elliott, Jim Ruskin and others, who never forgot their pledge to aid Spain.
Our paper, The Volunteer for Liberty, carried articles on how to fight the war, some written by Hans Kahle, commander of the XI Brigade. Campaigns were waged to save Luigi Longo, Rau and others from death at the hands of the fascists. Great efforts were made to secure the release of Frank Ryan, Tom Jones and Jim Cameron, still in Franco’s prisons. Despite problems of contact, funds were got to International Brigade prisoners still in Miranda de Ebro. With the Allied advances in Europe and North Africa, Spanish Republicans and Brigaders managed to get to London and the IBA helped many to find their place with their ‘free government’.
In 1944 the IBA members decided to turn their main efforts to make sure the imminent defeat of Hitler and Mussolini was followed by the defeat of Franco. Our journal, renamed Spain Today, campaigned for economic sanctions, no trade or aid for Franco. But, despite the election of a Labour government and a big campaign, the arguments of the Cold War prevailed.
Franco carried on for another 30 years his reign of terror against the Spanish people, all who resisted in any way his savage dictatorial power. He was supported by economic and military aid from the US and British governments.
We kept up a continuous campaign trying to change this, exposing the treatment of Spanish democrats and the threat to peace and freedom everywhere while Franco’s infection centre remained.
Bill Alexander (left) and Sam Wild. Marx Memorial Library
For 39 years, until Franco’s unlamented death, the association acted as a catalyst, inspiring the Aid Spain movement, the trade unions and Labour Party, Appeal for Amnesty in Spain, Youth Aid for Spain and other organisations, and also helped the organisations of Spanish workers in Britain, exiles, immigrants and the grown-up ‘Basque children’.
Franco’s reign of terror continued – indeed, there were executions for political ‘crimes’ until 1975 – arrests, torture, near summary trials in a military court, execution or long terms of prison. We tried to help all – communists, socialists, anarchists, freemasons, students. There was almost a pattern – news of an important trial, approach to an MP, lawyer or prominent individual, frantic efforts to raise the fare, then a campaign of exposure, leaflets, meetings and protests. These efforts gave hope, as a socialist put it to an observer from Britain: ‘We know we are not forgotten.’ Will Paynter went to find out about Camacho and the Carabanchel Ten, imprisoned for building the illegal workers’ commissions. When we met Camacho in 1981 he told us of the added strength they derived from his visit.
Things were difficult for the IBA in the Cold War period. Spain was not in the lime-light. Members and friends became involved in other urgent campaigns and organisations. Reactionaries and the right-wing were emboldened to attack and denigrate the fight in Spain and the association. Old slanders were dusted off: the effect of the vino; the military incompetence; the dupes of Stalin and so on. Money was very short, the office and full-time secretary had to go, Spain Today went bi-monthly and then had to close. Alec Digges, determined to send a lawyer to a trial, borrowed the fare on his personal guarantee. But even so, activity was kept up.
Money was collected to help Republicans still in France; funds were smuggled out to help the underground trade unions in Spain.
Franco was never accepted by the British people. Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Minister of Information, was chased all round London when he tried to justify the execution of Julián Grimau.
With Franco’s death and the quite firm steps towards democracy in Spain, the Spanish people will now be able to sort out their own problems – there are plenty – by their own forces, experiences and organisations.
The contribution of the British Volunteers for Liberty fighting in Spain and the campaign of aid and international solidarity with the Spanish people is part of the history of democratic, progressive struggles of our peoples. The ruling class still attempts to denigrate our role and ‘write us out of history’. But the successful campaign of meetings, exhibitions and demonstrations, the 34 local memorials – statues, plaques and buildings – for their ‘own’ Brigaders show that the International Brigade has deep roots among the people. There is still great interest in our experiences and their impact on events at home and in the world.
As individuals our members continue to play their part in widely differing organisations of their choice. After 50 years the International Brigade Association can say with pride, tempered with humility, we have done our best to fulfill our pledge to help the Spanish people achieve democracy. We have made a contribution to bring peace and freedom to people.
Bill Alexander (1910-2000) was the commander of the British Battalion at the Battle of Teruel early in 1938 and the author of ‘British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-39’ (1982) and ‘No to Franco: The Struggle Never Stopped 1939-1975’ (1992). He was the Secretary of the IBA from 1984 until his death.
Posted on 14 March 2018.