Cypriots in the International Brigades

Post date: 31/03/2015

‘Spanish Thermopylae: the Cypriot Contribution to the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War’

Talk given by Paul Philippou, University of Cyprus, 19-20 February 2015

Spanish Civil War scholarship has in the main reflected the ideological divisions of the Civil War and of the machinations of Cold War politics. This has been especially true of the period between the end of the Second World War and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, during which time, as George Esenwein has argued the contributions to Civil War historiography by historians both of the Left and Right presented the conflict as ‘a “good fight” of transcendent significance.’ Whilst recent research, especially that drawing upon material in the Russian State Archives of Socio-Political History, such as Boris Volodarsky’s, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, offer more balanced assessments, International Brigades scholarship remains a fiercely contested area of research. A good example of which is provided by two recent articles: Robert Stradling’s anti-communist rhetoric laden ‘English Speaking Units of the International Brigades’ and Richard Baxell’s ‘Myths of the International Brigades’ for which their authors having drawn upon very similar, occasionally identical, primary sources reached bipolar conclusions.

The myriad of contributions on the International Brigades that have been produced as part of the various centenaries of the Spanish Civil War over the last three decades form a sizeable element of current Civil War historiography. Generally written from a Left perspective, these histories include Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia on the Scottish volunteers and my own, Spanish Thermopylae, which was from its inception unashamedly intended to act as a memorial to Cypriot involvement in the International Brigades.

It is that text that provides the locus standi for my paper today – one that will concentrate on a number of features of the Cypriot volunteers as a distinct group. These include the size of the contingent, place of residence, age, military experience, socioeconomic and political background, casualty rates, and motivation. In order to make comparisons with other national groups, I will draw upon research into the British and North American volunteers whose experience shares much in common with the Cypriots.

At the start of the Civil War hastily-formed worker and peasant militias formed the backbone of the initial resistance to the military coup of July 1936. Several international units operated within these militia. A few of the Cypriot volunteers served in militia units.

Venizelos Zannettos, for example, operated for a short time with the Muerte es Maestro centuria. Most served only in the International Brigades and collectively fought in almost every engagement of the Civil War. Cypriot volunteers operated in infantry, medical, transport, engineering, artillery, tank, training, interpretation, and personnel units.

The notion for the establishment of the International Brigades came from the Comintern at an extraordinary meeting of the Politburo of 26 August 1936. Caught between the desire to maintain good relations with the governments of Britain and France whose support was required to contain German expansionism, and the likely rapid collapse of the Spanish Republic, Soviet policy was centred on indirect intervention. The Comintern as an international organisation with constituent national Communist parties was in a very good place to organise volunteer recruitment and logistics for their transport. All told some 35,000 volunteers from 63 countries served in the International Brigades.

Various estimates as to the number of Cypriot volunteers exist in secondary sources – few with supporting evidence. Writing in The Volunteer for Liberty in 1938, the newspaper of the International Brigades, Michael Economides a political commissar7 within the

British Battalion spoke of over 60 Cypriots fighting in Spain. Despite the propaganda role of the newspaper, Economides’s claim must be considered seriously.

Cypriot volunteers served predominantly in the British Battalion and the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Consequently their military records exist primarily in the medium of English as phonetic spellings and nicknames making identification difficult.

Archive materials relating to the Cypriots are maintained at the Marx Memorial Library in London, the National Archives at Kew, the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE, the Working Class Museum Library and the Peoples’ History Museum both in Manchester, the Tamiment Library at New York University, the Archivo General Militar de Avila in Spain, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Russian State Archives in Moscow. It is my assessment based on materials found in these archives that around 57 Cypriots served in the International Brigades. Two Hellenic volunteers, brothers Costas and Hercules Avgherinos – the children of refugees from Constantinople – both of whom served in the British Battalion have generally been placed within the Cypriot contingent thus taking the total of Cypriot volunteers to a level on a par with that of Economides. Details of the Cypriot volunteers are provided as an appendix to this paper.

Cypriot volunteer recruitment was centred around two geographic loci – London and New York – modally key Cypriot Diaspora migration points. Significant Cypriot emigration to Britain occurred in the 1920s and early 1930s – a response to global economic depression and contingent economic and political circumstances in Cyprus. In Britain, Cypriot migrants settled in and around St Pancras, Camden, and the West End of London where jobs were to be found in the hotel, catering, and tailoring industries. Greek emigration to the USA began tentatively in the 1880s and 1890s. A community of 18,000 at the turn of the nineteenth century reached half million by 1940. It is more than understandable that in the USA, Cypriot immigrants found a place within the well established Greek community.

Twenty-seven volunteers have been identified as residing in Britain prior to their passage to Spain. Twenty-two in the USA and four from Canada of which three – Toula Ioannou, Maria Nicolaou, and Eleni Nikiphorou – served as nurses in Spain. The political situation in Cyprus especially in regard to the difficulties faced by the Communist Party of Cyprus at that time meant that direct volunteering and/or travel from Cyprus was very difficult. Had it not been so, it is worth suggesting that the size of the Cypriot volunteer contingent in Spain might have been much higher.

All members of the Cypriot contingent were Greek-Cypriots. No evidence of Turkish-Cypriot involvement has as yet come to life. This is perhaps a reflection of the then size of the Turkish-Cypriot community in Cyprus, Britain, and the USA. This is not to say that there may not have been Turkish-Cypriot volunteers within the small Turkish volunteer contingent.

The average age of the Cypriot volunteers was 28.3. This was within the preferred Comintern volunteer range of 25 to 35. It was however lower than the average for the British and French volunteers of 29 and 29.75 respectively. The median age of the American volunteers was 27 which is slightly higher than the median Cypriot age of 26.

With the rider that the statistical significance of these results has not been tested, these averages suggest the Cypriot volunteers were generally younger than their counterparts. It needs to be added that there were, nonetheless, as in the British and North American battalions a small number of either much older or much younger volunteers. Serghios Rossides, for example, was just 17 years old.

Baxell has measured the level of previous military experience among the British Battalion as 45 per cent. Peter Carroll has claimed 34 per cent for the US volunteers. For the Cypriots few cases of previous military experience have come to light – Panayiotis Katsaronas who had fought in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 stands out as an exception.

It is not surprising given the role of the Comintern in the organisation of the International Brigades that the majority of its volunteers were Communist Party members. Baxell has calculated that around 70 per cent of the British Battalion were members of the Communist Party. Carroll has offered a range of 67-75 per cent for the American volunteers. Communist Party membership amongst the Cypriots exceeded 75 per cent.

The UK-based Cypriot volunteers were in the main active members of the Communist Party of Great Britain operating within a ‘Cypriot section’ and producing their own Greek language propaganda. Several including Yiacoumis Georgiou had been members of the Communist Party in Cyprus. Key to the political and social development of the UK-based Cypriot volunteers was the Cypriot Political & Cultural Club in London’s Soho. At least eight Cypriot volunteers gave the club as their contact address in their International Brigades records. This ‘kafenia’ operated as a cultural and political workers’ centre from which Communist literature, activity, and ideas disseminated among the Cypriot community in London.

The US-based Cypriot volunteers were politically active in the Communist Party of the USA and in Pankypriaki the main Cypriot cultural organisation in the USA during the 1930s. A number of the Cypriot volunteers including Georgios Pantazis, Antonis Thomas, Jacovos Koumoullos, Jimis Joannou, Panayiotis Katsaronas, Vasilis Pattikis, and Christos Christodoulou were part of the Pankypriaki leadership. Cypriots in the US also came within the orbit and influence of the political and cultural organisations of the substantial Greek-American community including Spartacus, which as Dan Georgakas and Paul Buhle have argued was ‘the organizing hub of what emerged as the largest and most important radical current in Greek America.’ Spartacus operated a club close to the ‘Greek tavern scene of Eighth Avenue’ and the fur and garment districts of New York, the latter of which maintained heavily unionised Greek employment. Empros, its Communist newspaper, ran from 1923 to 1938.

As expected the occupational profile of the Cypriot volunteers was a reflection of their immigrant status and the types of job available to them and so any comparison with the bulk of British and North American volunteers is difficult. The same goes for trade union membership especially as few Cypriots declared trade union membership in their records.

The question of volunteer motivation is central to Spanish Civil War scholarship and debate. Francoist claims at the time of the Civil War advanced the idea that the International Brigades were filled by drunkards, criminals, and those press-ganged into service. These claims have long been dismissed as propaganda. Volunteers in the English speaking units of the International Brigades were in almost all cases politically active or politicised individuals – the adventurer or dilettante whilst not unknown, was a rare beast.

Gray has placed economic depression centre-stage as a motivating factor for volunteering arguing that high levels of unemployment and poverty coupled with government indifference in the 1920s and 1930s led many future British volunteers to become active in Communist and Socialist organisations. There is clear evidence of the involvement of many of the Cypriot volunteers in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement of the 1930s in Britain. Nicholas Vasiliou, for example, interviewed by the Imperial War Museum testified to his radicalisation by the Hunger Marches of 1932 and 1934. Similar evidence exists to confirm Cypriot activity within the US labour movement and the great unemployed marches of the 1930s especially those of 1933 and 1934 when US unemployment ran at over 20 per cent.

Whilst Hywel Francis in his study of the Welsh volunteers has shown a high degree of correlation between volunteering and involvement in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, unemployment was not a primary factor in Cypriot volunteer recruitment. The majority of whom gave up jobs to travel to Spain.

Michael Petrou writing of Canadian volunteer motivation has noted the prominence of the role of the Popular Front’s call to defend democracy against Fascism. The politically active were more likely to be, though not exclusively, receptive to the stories coming from Madrid and the anti-Fascist message of the Popular Front and European Left. The London-based volunteers, Antonis Theodoulou, Michael Economides, and Ezekias Papaioannou have all testified to their involvement in pro-Republican rallies and demonstrations against the British Union of Fascists prior to volunteering.

Cypriot volunteer motivation, as we have just seen, resonated to a certain degree with their comrades in the English-speaking units. Unlike the majority of those volunteers who served in these units, Irish ‘Republican’ volunteers being the exception, Cypriot volunteer motivation also included resistance to an imperialism experienced firsthand, specifically, it included a linkage between the struggle against Fascism and the achievement of ‘national independence’ for Cyprus.

Britain in the 1930s was still very much an Imperial power, one that had held Cyprus as a protectorate/colony since 1878 and one whose governance in the 1930s became increasingly despotic. Michael Economides in the Volunteer for Liberty article mentioned earlier drew heavily on the Cypriot colonial experience under British rule: The fight of the Spanish people for the defence of their democratic liberties and their national independence is at the same time the struggle of all the oppressed colonial peoples and oppressed national minorities.

In Britain, the most important anti-colonial organisation of the late 1920s and early 1930s was the League Against Imperialism & for National Independence – an international body established under the guidance of the Comintern in 1926. The League whose archives are found amongst the papers of its General Secretary Reginald Bridgeman – held at the University of Hull – maintained a branch in St Pancras close to the heart of the Cypriot community in London. These archives provide evidence of significant Cypriot involvement and the existence of a separate Cypriot section (est. December 1931). It is from the League that the Committee for Cyprus Affairs (est. 1943) draws its lineage.

Thirty-eight Cypriot volunteers were either wounded or killed in Spain, a casualty rate of 68 per cent. Of these about a third of the total were killed. Both these figures were significantly higher than the equivalent rates for the British Battalion for which casualty rates were around 50 and 25 per cent respectively.

Capture in Spain was fraught with difficulties and the ‘Rebel’ forces executed a high proportion of captured International Brigades volunteers especially political commissars, other officers, and machine-gunners. Carroll estimates that 173 of the 287 American volunteers captured during the Civil War were executed.

Despite its name and the ‘internationalist’ intentions of the International Brigades, ‘minority groupings’ of volunteers did experience some degree of xenophobia and racism in Spain. Eugene Downing a volunteer in the British Battalion, for example, has recounted in interview the story of a Cypriot who was called a ‘greasy Greek’ by a fellow volunteer. The Cypriot complained to his political commissar – Michael Economides – who spoke to the offending soldier – an apology was forthcoming. The issue of racism within the International Brigades has been little documented and so it is difficult to assess how prevalent such attitudes were.

On 21 September 1938, Juan Negrin, the Spanish Prime Minister, announced the withdrawal of the International Brigades. British Empire citizens – amongst them many Cypriots – were camped at Ripoll in the Pyrenees before repatriation to Britain. Other volunteers crossed over to France where they were initially interned. Not all Cypriot volunteer repatriation went smoothly. For example, the British Consul in Spain was determined that Nicholas Vasiliou be sent to Cyprus. Intervention by the International Brigades Commission in Paris secured his return to Britain. Evanthis Nicolaides, on the other hand, was prevented by the British Consulate in France to travel to Cyprus. Most surviving US-based Cypriots found little difficulty returning to New York. However, in common with the other ‘American’ volunteers their difficulties began in the decades after the Civil War as a result of increasing anti-Communist attitudes within the American state apparatus.

The words of Simonides of Ceos quoted in the title of this paper were chosen to offer an analogy between the 1,400 Spartans, Thebans, and Thespians who defended the pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army in 480 BC and the Cypriots that travelled to Spain to hold the passes of that country against reaction and Fascism. The Persian army were victorious at Thermopylae – Franco captured Madrid on 28 March 1939.Ultimately, Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece was defeated. Fascism too was defeated in Europe. The claim that the defeat of Fascism during the Civil War might have prevented the Second World War is though oft-repeated (and I have done so myself) is nonetheless ill-founded. That world war like its predecessor arose from contradictions within Capital to become a battle between the economies of antagonistic states for the control of resources and between modes of production. A Republican victory in Spain would not have altered that fact. This does not belittle the legacy of the Cypriot volunteers – they were truly ‘Volunteers for Liberty’ of whom Cyprus must be proud.

Pictured: Paul Philippou and his book 'Spanish Thermopylae'


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