They came from Dundee, Hull and Glasgow; from the mines of the South Wales valleys, from Northumberland and Dumfries: over 2,000 from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. They left the comforts of peace, the love of their families and friends for the horror, tedium and carnage of war, because they knew that Spain’s fight was Europe’s fight and they knew it was humanity’s fight as well.
The boot of fascism was stamping on the neck of democracy across our continent of Europe. In Italy, a decade before, Benito Mussolini’s fascist bands had roamed the countryside, pouring castor oil down the necks of peasants who organised for justice, and crushing trade unionists at the behest of big business, before finally seizing Rome.
In Germany, three years before, the most powerful labour movement on earth had been crushed virtually overnight, Hitler’s Nazis already unleashing a campaign of terror against Jews, socialists, communists and trade unionists.
Two years before Spain erupted in civil war, the fascists had marched on France’s national assembly and rioted, conspiring to overthrow democracy and freedom.
The lights were going out across Europe – and then the generals rose against the democratically elected government of Spain.
Those who fought in Spain didn’t just have courage, they had foresight as well. The contemptible appeasers of London and Paris wanted a deal with Hitler to drive the Nazis eastward to the Soviet Union. But these wise, courageous Brits knew that war was coming, and not just any war: a war of annihilation and destruction unprecedented in the history of humanity.
While the appeasers did nothing, which paved the way to that murderous calamity, the Brigaders wanted to stop fascism while there was still time on the clock. But the Western democracies abandoned Spain to its fate. They let the fascist flames of Germany and Italy unleash terror against the people of Spain. They stood back as Guernica was razed to the ground.
While the British and the French governments betrayed the Spanish people and the cause of democracy, these brave British people did not. They were there for Spain in its time of need, over 500 of them never returning to the families and lovers they had left behind. Those fallen heroes died not just for democracy and freedom. They died not just for those in Spain – but died for all of us.
Like Alfred Lichfield from Gateshead who died at Gandesa, James Walsh from Liverpool killed at Jarama, James Bentley from Hull at Calaceite and Thomas Flynn from Glasgow at Chimorra – these young men never made it back.
They remain heroes for all of us here today. The roar of those lions echoes through the generations. They are the giants on whose shoulders we all stand. And they are an example to us all today.
They teach that democracy and all the freedoms our ancestors fought for at such cost and at such sacrifice must never be taken away from us; that we must never give in to those who peddle hatred and those who tell us to hate and to despise. And whether it be the Kurds who defend Kobani from the terror of Isis, whether it be the Greeks who today confront the fascism of the Golden Dawn, the spirit of those young men lives on today.
It is our duty and our responsibility not just to remember what they fought against but also what they fought for. We owe it to them to build a different world, a world free of the oppression, injustice and poverty that scar the world in which we live. We owe it to them to build a different sort of society based on equality and justice and free from these scourges.
That should be the great legacy in part that they left behind, that they bequeathed to all of us. Let’s keep that struggle alive. Let’s keep the flame burning that they so proudly lit all those generations ago.
In the words of WH Auden:
What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.
Solidarity. No pasarán!
Jubilee Gardens, London, 4 July 2015
For a video of the speech go to: