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Communist centenary events salute the volunteers

Message from Communist Party of Britain General Secretary Rob Griffiths, which was read out at the events held around the country on 17 October to remember the role of communists in the International Brigades. These were held as part of the CPB’s programme of activities to mark its centenary this year. Gatherings took place at Cambridge, Cardiff, Crewe, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Oxfoird, Sheffield, Southampton and Taunton.

 

Britain’s Communist Party salutes the memory of those volunteers who went from England, Scotland and Wales to Spain in defence of democracy against fascism.

 

They played a heroic part in the struggle to expose and resist the Nazi and fascist threat to the peoples of Europe and beyond.

 

Today, as the scourge of racism, fascism and imperialist war walks the earth with renewed vigour, we must ensure that the sacrifices of the International Brigaders and their medical units were not in vain.

 

Those volunteers for freedom call beyond the grave for unity, courage and determination to build a society in which people live in peace, cooperation and solidarity.

 

¡No pasarán! The fascists and racists shall not pass! ¡Venceremos! We will win!

 

 

 

Javier Moreno Díaz from Madrid’s Domingo Malagón Foundation, which campaigns for the recovery of historical memory in Spain, sent these greetings to be relayed at the events across Britain…

 

In our memory are those precious anti-fascists whose memory still teaches us.

 

Yes, the British internationalists who came to fight the coup were fundamentally workers. Our war was never an internal conflict, our war was the first battle, long, very long, against Hitler and what his regime meant.

 

The International Brigaders knew how to stand alongside the legitimate government on the Spanish battlefield, because the British Communist Party immediately anticipated that the defence of democracy in Europe would begin in Madrid.

 

That's how it went: from that 7 November 1936, defending the capital of the Republic, the heroine of Spanish democracy. ¡No pasarán!

 

Those first British volunteers marched, together with their French comrades, towards Ciudad Universitaria to defend, and perhaps to die, for freedom – for our freedom, for yours, for everyone’s, in return for nothing.

 

Thanks to the British Communist Party for having sent its members to save Spain from reaction and, from that example, the force that advances towards equality and socialism continues to flow.

 

 

Young Spaniards at the commemoration in Manchester.

 

 

Words spoken by IBMT Chair Jim Jump at the wreath-laying ceremony held at the International Brigade memorial in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank…

 

It’s an honour to be speaking here today to remember the leading role played by communists, and indeed the Communist Party, in the formation of the International Brigades and the recruitment of volunteers to Spain.

 

It’s especially important to remember them today, when we’re seeing disgraceful and dangerous attempts to rewrite 20th century history.

 

In order to rehabilitate fascists and Nazi-collaborators of the 1930s and 40s, some reactionary political parties and movements in Europe are equating communism with fascism…

 

In other words placing on an equal footing those who liberated Auschwitz with the perpetrators of the Holocaust…

 

Or likening those International Brigaders who fought fascism in Spain and who defended an elected government with those who firebombed Guernica and who unleashed Franco’s reign of terror on the Spanish people.

 

Of the 2,500 International Brigade volunteers from Britain and Ireland, more than 520 gave their lives, as this memorial records.

 

These are the statistics. But who were they, these men and women prepared to sacrifice everything for the cause of Spain?

 

There’s an iconic image of a group of seven volunteers in Barcelona in September 1936, a few weeks after the fascist-backed military uprising against the Spanish government. 

 

They’re standing in front of a banner emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, calling themselves the ‘English Anti-Fascist Tom Mann Centuria’, after the veteran British trade unionist. 

 

The banner declares: ‘Disciplina proletaria vencera al fascismo’ – not hard to translate: ‘Proletarian discipline will defeat fascism’.

 

That was what communists did in Spain: they got on with fighting the enemy. They knew that Franco, Hitler and Mussolini could only be defeated on the battlefield and by a disciplined army.

 

The group pictured outside the Carlos Marx Barracks in Barcelona weren’t all British, let alone English – but I’ll single out three who were, and who were all members of the Communist Party.

 

Nat Cohen, a Jewish textile worker from the East End. He’d fought Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts in London and was in Barcelona to attend the People’s Olympiad. This was being organised by the Spanish Republic as a boycott of Hitler’s notorious Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936. 

 

Like the scores of Jewish communists from the East End, or from Manchester or Leeds, who volunteered for the International Brigades, Nat knew the special danger that fascism posed for him. In Spain, here was a chance to fight back.

 

Then there was Tom Wintringham, of Lincolnshire farming stock, a graduate of Balliol College and a founder member of the British Communist Party…

 

A man who was gaoled in 1925 for sedition and who in Spain was commander of the British Battalion at Jarama.

 

He was later a military correspondent for the Picture Post and Daily Mirror – and as such persuaded Churchill to let him set up the Home Guard, better known as Dad’s Army, to fight the Nazis as a guerrilla army should they invade.

 

He was also a fine poet and wrote these lines during the war in Spain. They speak of the absolute commitment, political and emotional, felt by many of the volunteers:

 

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets,
Thoughts simple as death,
You have won victory,
People of Spain,
You will remember the free men who fought beside you, 

Enduring and dying with you, the strangers 

Whose breath was your breath. 

 

Finally, I want to mention David Marshall, whom I had the pleasure of knowing before he died in 2005, as he was one of the founding Trustees of the International Brigade Memorial Trust.

 

Aged only 20 in Spain, but, as a dole office clerk, David had already seen enough poverty on his native Teesside to know that a better world was worth fighting for. 

 

He was a poet too, and these lines of his remind us the volunteers didn’t just fight against something, in this case fascism, but they fought too for the values of the Spanish Republic, for that better world that was so desperately needed:

 

Madrid the magnet that drew us all
Along slow roads to Spain – at last a star
For desperate men, sensing the gathering storm 

And we that fought to warn a watching world Were called false prophets by appeasers
Yet we fought for the poor of the world. 

 

As a registered charity, the International Brigade Memorial Trust is required to be politically neutral, and indeed we are. 

 

But we are happy to be associated with this commemoration because we are dealing here, not with party politics, but with historical facts.

 

Historians have calculated that nearly three-quarters of the British and Irish volunteers in Spain were Communist Party or YCL members. 

 

Many of these brave men and women joined because it was the Communist Party and its sister party in France who organised their clandestine journey to Spain.

 

They joined because the Communist Party, unlike others, was not fooled by the appeasers in the National government of the time who concocted the cynical non-intervention policy that deprived the Spanish government of arms, oil and other essentials.

 

They joined because communists were in the vanguard of the fight against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.

 

I’ve mentioned just three of the volunteers today. But we salute all those who went, all those whose example, in the words inscribed on this memorial, inspired, and indeed continues to inspire, the world.  

 

¡No pasarán! ¡Viva la República!

 

 

From left: Rosie Spencer (YCL), Steve Johnson (CPB) and Alex Gordon, IBMT Trustee, at the memorial in London’s Jubilee Gardens.

 


Posted on 18 October 2020.