Madrid remembers the International Brigades, 80 years on

Post date: 07/11/2016

By Denis Rogatyuk

The end of October brought an end to the deadlock within Spanish congress with the re-election of Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP) as the Prime Minister, with the support of the neo-liberal Citizens (Ciudadanos) and the abstention of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). And while the political and economic elites breathed a temporary sigh of relief in Madrid and Brussels, almost 100,000 opponents of the new right-wing government gathered to protest in Puerta del Sol, in the heart of the capital. 

However, at the same time as the formation of this new government, an event just as significant was taking place elsewhere in Madrid. 

On 28 and 29 October, the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI) commemorated the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the first groups of International Brigades to the Spanish capital, with events and gatherings in places significant to the battles against Franco’s fascists. Over 150 participants arrived from 14 different countries, representing organisations such as the Friends and Family of Abraham Lincoln Brigade (US), Kämpfer und Freunde der Spanischen Republik (Germany), ACER (France), AICVAS (Italy) and others. Almudena Cros, the President of AABI, led the proceedings through Madrid following a number of successful events commemorating the International Brigades in Albacete and Benicássim.

On 28 October the delegations arrived at the Fuencarral Cemetery, in the northern part of Madrid, where the remains of some 451 International Brigaders are buried, with commemorative and memorial plaques placed from their countries of origin. A new plaque, commemorating 80 years since their arrival, was placed alongside the flags of the ‘Compaña Naftali Botwin’ of the Palafox Battalion of Polish volunteers. Following the greetings and acknowledgments of the Italian, French and German delegations, the participants sang the ‘Die Moorsoldaten’ song, popular among German Brigaders at that time. 

Following the visit to Fuencarral, the delegations arrived at Ciudad Universitaria, the site of one of the most important battles of the initial stages of the civil war. In November 1936 the Francoist military suffered one of their first serious defeats at the hands of the combined military forces of the Second Spanish Republic, the newly-arrived International Brigades and the anarchists of the Durruti Column. 

A monument to commemorate the defence of city by the Brigades was erected in October 2011 on the university grounds, although it has come under attack and vandalism by a number of neo-fascist groups. Almudena Cros explained the history of the monument and the funding efforts of the International Brigade groups around the world to maintain and sustain it. These efforts have also come from Ana Hidalgo, the socialist Mayor of Paris, the foreign ministries of France and Italy and 55 members of the British House of Commons. 

The following day, 29 October, the international delegations gathered for one of the most important acts of commemoration in Vicálvaro, a south-eastern district of Madrid. The public green space in front of the University of Juan Carlos III was renamed the ‘Garden of the International Brigades’ at an official ceremony, following the proclamations of each of the 14 international delegations. 

The Italian delegation, headed by Marco Puppini, explained how the 5,000 volunteers came to fight in the International Brigades and alongside the Republican militias. Puppini explained that these volunteers arrived to fight for democracy and social justice, and to demonstrate that, apart from the fascism of Mussolini, there also existed an anti-fascist Italy, the ideals of which the International Brigaders embodied. Nearly one in four of the volunteers lost their lives on the various battlefields across Spain.

Zuzanna Ziółkowska, grand-daughter of a member of the Polish Dombrowski Battalion, spoke on behalf of the Polish delegation: 

‘In Poland, many came to Spain, not to take part in the civil war, but to fight the military coup of General Franco,’ she said. ‘As the Dombrowskis wrote in their manifesto, “When Madrid falls, Warsaw will fall too.” In the current geo-political situation, it is important to not only bring back and retain the memory of them, but also defend the ideas which they fought for.”

Nadia Incu from Romania recalled the memory of her father, a young leftist medic who left for Spain in April 1937, to help the Spanish people fight to regain their freedom and to combat the rapid rise of fascist groups within his home country, actively supported by the government at that time.

Alexander Bogdanovsky, grandson of a Soviet volunteer and member of the Russian Association of the Memory of Volunteers in Spain, recalled that over 3,000 Soviet citizens came to fight for freedom in Spain, 198 of whom did not return. 

The Swedish delegation was headed by prominent Swedish folk singer, Jan Hammarlund, and Patrick Helgeson, who said: ‘Six hundred Swedes volunteered for Spain. They knew that the cause of Spain was also their cause. In these times, when big business and political demagogues want you to blame your immigrant neighbour or look the other way, let us remember how the Brigaders acted. The name of the Brigaders lives on and they will keep inspiring people fight for justice and dignity!’ 

Also attending the event was the Cuban ambassador to Spain, Eugenio Martínez Enríquez, who recognised the effort of 400 Cuban volunteers who went to fight fascism in Spain. He noted that internationalism had been at the heart of the Cuban nation, which also sent over 300,000 volunteers to fight for the liberation of Angola and Mozambique during the 1980s. 

José Almudéver Mateu, one of the last surviving members of the International Brigades, who fought alongside the Italian brigades and the Republican Army, unveiled the new street sign of ‘Jardin de las Brigadas Internacionales’. Speaking of his experience nearly 80 years ago, he recalled the war was a deliberate attempt by the world imperialist powers to crush the Second Spanish Republic, with French and British ‘non-intervention’ effectively being a betrayal of democracy in the country. 

‘Spain was the first battle of Second World War, and one in which Franco only triumphed thanks to the foreign invasion by Hitler’s and Mussolini’s armies,’ he added.

The ceremony was closed by Almudena Cros, who read out the names of over 34 countries across the world where the Brigaders hailed from – from Australia to Austria, France to Finland, Syria to the Soviet Union, and many others. 

On the night of the same day, with nearly a 100,000 anti-austerity protesters converging on Puerta del Sol, the flags of the Spanish Republic were flown in every corner of the crowds. 

The chants ‘Madrid será la tumba del fascismo’ (Madrid will be the tomb of fascism) filled the air as the heirs of Franco’s dictatorship, the Popular Party, took the reins of political power on the crutches of their allies in PSOE and Ciudadanos. 

Posted on 7 November 2016.

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