Interview with Giles Tremlett: A global history of the International Brigades

Post date: 09/11/2020

IBMT Historical Consultant Richard Baxell interviews Giles Tremlett, best-selling author of ‘Ghosts of Spain’ and ‘Isabella of Castile’ about his new book, which offers a rare and comprehensive account of the International Brigades from a global perspective. This interview originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020.

Giles Tremlett (left) with Richard Baxell at the IBMT's Len Crome Memorial Conference 2017.

What led you to write another book on the International Brigades? Why do you think they are still relevant and/or important?

I have been interested in the International Brigades for longer than I can remember, and in 1996 worked as a volunteer when the survivors came to Madrid for the last major reunion. As a journalist based in Spain, I had also been meeting them on and off for almost three decades. I was especially glad to have one of the last survivors – the Mexican-Spaniard Virgilio Fernández del Real, who had been an 18-year-old anaesthetist – stay with me not long before he died, aged 100, last year. Virgilio still wore the Brigade's triangular symbol on his beret, and was much in demand on his visits to Spain, where he travelled around explaining the Brigades' history to those Spaniards fascinated by the foreign volunteers who came to defend, and die for, the Republic. 

As a historian, however, I found the existing overarching histories of the International Brigades disappointing. There are splendid volumes on Brigaders from individual countries, like your ‘Unlikely Warriors’ on the British, Remi Skoutelsky's study of the French, Peter Carroll's book on the Americans and Michael Petrou's on the Canadians (and other books on everyone from Croatians and Cypriots to the Chinese volunteers), but no lengthy global history of the Brigades has been written in English since 1982. That was R. Dan Richardson's ‘Comintern Army’ which, just by its title, suggests a particular slant – and relied on relatively scant archival resources.

The Brigaders’ importance is multiple, and not just because they fought (usually well, but not always) and died. To many people, they remain an example of ideological selflessness at a time when only our elder generations have a memory of the sacrifice involved in defeating fascism.

They also have a fascinating, and important, after-life (post Spanish Civil War) as everything from spies and partisan leaders to elected politicians, union leaders, members of Communist block governments and as both the purged and the purgers in Iron Curtain countries. Finally, they live on in literature – from Hemingway's ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ to German writer Peter Weiss' major work, ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance’. 

Memorials now exist all across the world, but perhaps the most poignant is on the Norwegian island of Utoya – where right-wing gunman Anders Breivik massacred 69 young socialists in 2011. Two days earlier they had unveiled a plaque to four young Norwegian socialists who had joined the Brigade and died in Spain.

Perhaps the most novel thing about this book is the source material that I have been able to use in order to add depth, detail and breadth to an otherwise patchy story. The (vast) section of the International Brigade’s own archive that was conserved in Moscow by Comintern became available online a decade ago. I have been very fortunate, in this respect, since no other global history has had such a wealth of source material. I have also visited a dozen other archives, from Poland to California, and cajoled acquaintances into translating memoirs written in other languages, some of which are truly excellent, including those of Red Army advisors. I can read the romance languages, but Finnish, Russian, German, Bulgarian and Danish – to mention just a few from the Tower of Babel of sources – are beyond me. A lot of groundwork is also being done in Spain, often by volunteers who find and publish archive material or who – like the wonderful Isabel Esteve – set about translating the entire archive of contemporary (if ‘official’) East German memoirs stored at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin.

Unlike other historians, I am not heavily invested in the issue of whether the brigades were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – which is how the debate is framed here in Spain and in much of central and eastern Europe. An army of 35,000 men, in any case, is unlikely to be populated entirely by saints. My hope is that younger readers will notice that the Brigaders – unfashionably for their time – believed in many of the issues that are important to them today, including race, colonialism or women's rights. Communism has a lot to do with that, and only the most senior communists (some of whom, admittedly, were in Spain) understood the nature of the horrors that Stalin was perpetrating in their name. 

I am not interested in whitewashing bad behaviour, however, or pretending that all Brigaders always stuck to those values. They did not. What I am interested in, however, is showing how the Brigades fitted into the wider currents of anti-fascism and to the disintegrating politics of the 1930s. These are incredibly complex and make our times seem like an ocean of peace, despite the manoeuvring of American presidents, British prime ministers or the new authoritarians of Eastern Europe and Latin America. 

Finally, I think it is important to highlight the variety of nationalities in the Brigades (much more than the 52 usually cited – I count more than 80, if we look at the world map as it is today, including places like Pakistan, India, Indonesia or Ethiopia) and the role of the Spaniards who eventually became a majority. In our globalised times, it seems less remarkable that people of such different origins would work together on a common project of any kind, but at the time it was truly unique.

How do Spaniards feel about the International Brigade today? Is there any sense that the focus on the Brigade and the internationalisation of the war detracts from it being seen as an overwhelmingly Spanish experience?

Unfortunately, knowledge of the International Brigades is still poor – and the old divisions remain. Some unquestioningly think Brigaders were all heroes, others think the opposite. This book is being published simultaneously in Spanish (by the Debate publishing house), and my hope is that it will help people reach more considered opinions and base debate on facts rather than preconceptions. 

I would like Spaniards, especially, to understand that – while this was, first and foremost, their war – it was also part of something much larger and global. 

What have you learnt from writing this book? Has it led you to re-evaluate any assumptions that you or the wider population have held? 

I realised when I started this book that I did not have a clear answer to the basic question: ‘Who were the Brigaders?’. My simplistic image was of a group of uniformly altruistic heroes. The answer is, of course, far more complex than that, and in the end I have settled for a hierarchy of definitions, which makes it easier to think about them. First and foremost, the Brigaders were anti-fascists – that is how they saw themselves and framed their mission. Secondly, they were volunteer soldiers in the Republican Army, who followed the orders given by the rightful government of Spain (and were subject to its military code of discipline), which had emerged in response to a military coup against a democratically-elected government. Thirdly, they were largely organised and recruited by the Comintern, without which they would not have existed. 

I also think the bulk of the Brigaders fit two other, often overlapping, categories which I call ‘the devout’ (politically, especially the most convinced communists) and ‘the displaced’ (since so many were exiles, migrants or from migrant families)

This has been a long but immensely satisfying task. A previous historian of the International Brigades, Michael Jackson, called them the ‘kind of mystery where no one really knows the answers to the naïve questions posed’. My aim is to take readers closer to those answers, and to ensure the Brigades have a global history that reflects both their significance in Spain and their considerable impact beyond it. My work is done. I am now more interested in seeing how others respond to it. I expect, and desire, lively debate.

‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’ by Giles Tremlett (Bloomsbury, 2019).


Posted on 9 November 2020.

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