A superb International Brigades history, sadly gift wrapped in anti-communism

Post date: 19/01/2021

IBMT Ireland Secretary Manus O’Riordan reviews ‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’ by Giles Tremlett (October 2020). He takes issue with the portrayal of International Brigaders Frank Ryan and Jack Jones in the book's final chapter. It was originally published in the January 2021 issue of Irish Political Review.

‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’ has also been reviewed by IBMT Chair Jim Jump in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2021, which went out to members in early January. To ensure you receive the latest issue of the magazine on time, join or renew your membership here.

International Brigader Micheál O’Riordan, father of the reviewer, with a portrait of Frank Ryan gifted to him by the Communist Party of Ireland, November 2005.

In 2007 Giles Tremlett, Madrid-based contributing editor of The Guardian, authored 'Ghosts of Spain - Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past', a wonderful portrait and insight into post-Franco Spain. All the more reason, then, to have looked forward to the publication this October of his 700 page history, 'The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War'. The book's cover carries the following endorsement from the doyen of Spanish Civil War historians and biographers, and founding patron of the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), Paul Preston: ‘The bravery and sacrifices of the volunteers from all over the world who fought fascism in Spain keep alive interest in the civil war. Many of the tens of thousands of books about the conflict are about the International Brigades but there has never been one like Giles Tremlett's deeply moving account.’ I quite agree.

Tremlett further received particularly enthusiastic reviews in both the London Times and the Irish Times. Tremlett's own Guardian was, however, too keen to be first out of the box with excessively enthusiastic reviews from a duo with observations sharply at variance with some of the facts in Tremlett's own narrative, which would be obvious to anybody who had read the book with due care. On Saturday 3 October, the Guardian review by Dan Hancox gave the following misleading impression: ‘The Brigades drew an astonishing array of international literary figures – Orwell, Hemingway, Spender, Auden.’ None of these were International Brigaders. Only one of them was at all in combat, but it was with the quasi-Trotskyist POUM that George Orwell had enlisted. In fairness, the Hancox review was well intentioned, and he had the good grace to remove a first line howler that it had initially carried: ‘This article was amended on 3 October 2020 to remove a reference to the Spanish Communist La Pasionaria also being an opera singer.’

I would nonetheless concur with Hancox’s summarising paragraph: ‘Tremlett has created a dazzling mosaic of vignettes and sources, of lives lived and lost, of acts of heroism, solidarity, betrayal and futility, that builds to a grand picture of a conflict that drew idealists from across the world. The war left many of them in despair, injured or dead – but also hardened many more in their determination to defeat fascism. This book is as close to a definitive history as we are likely to get.’

The following day however, on 4 October, in The Guardian’s sister publication, The Observer, the review was a rather different affair, where its ignorance was but one component in a particularly nasty anti-communist diatribe. Paul Mason wrote of the February 1937 Battle of Jarama: ‘For the English Speaking Battalion, so named to assuage the former IRA men who were among its few skilled fighters, the baptism of fire was to be brutal... After a three-day retreat, in which all but 80 were either killed or wounded, a Red Army colonel persuaded the stragglers to march back towards the enemy, singing the Internationale.’ There was no such entity entitled ‘the English Speaking Battalion’. There were indeed several English-speaking (lower case) battalions, respectively named the British Battalion, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (US) and the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion (Canada), with IRA veterans fighting in all three. And the Irish International Brigade leader, Major Frank Ryan, was no Red Army colonel!

Ryan's great rally had been powerfully inspirational as a deed in its own right. But it was no less inspirational in the way that he himself went on to recount it in 1938 in 'The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade'. In fairness to Tremlett on this score, he quoted Ryan's account in detail, but Mason proved incapable of absorbing what was before his eyes.

What was particularly insufferable about Mason’s review was the arrogance of his invincible ignorance. ‘The Mason's Apron’ is a traditional Irish fiddle tune. Well might its name be applied to Guardian newspapers. In the week that followed, IBMT Chair Jim Jump sought to address the overriding distorted character of Mason's review with the following letter to The Observer, which unsurprisingly was denied publication. It can be read here.

Mason's ignorance of history cannot be blamed on Tremlett, but it can be blamed on the prevailing liberal anti-communist ethos of Guardian Newspapers, for which Tremlett himself has also demonstrably signed up. Now, I myself have not been a communist true believer for a good four decades. Yet I am also an ex-communist who is nonetheless very proud of having been one. And I am immensely and immeasurably proud that my communist father was a 20-year-old ‘premature anti-fascist’ who volunteered for the International Brigades and fought in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. 

But what of the ideological prejudices of a proclaimed anti-communist such as Tremlett? In and of themselves, these prejudices do not constitute a barrier to him being a good historian honestly chronicling the roles played by both communist and non-communist International Brigaders during the course of that War. In actual fact, Tremlett has pioneered the extensive use of the Moscow Archives of the International Brigades, and one can ignore his constant pejorative use of the terms 'communist' and 'Stalinist', as long as, in his ‘warts and all’ narrative, he presents all the evidence to be freely weighed up by the reader, who can then, at times, come to different judgements than the author himself. Tremlett unquestionably achieves this in respect of that 1936-39 war, resulting in a superb and gripping narrative. However, very different standards come to the fore in how Tremlett writes up the post-civil war years in the concluding chapter of his book.

In Chapter 25 Giles Tremlett writes of ‘the Great Rally’ at the February 1937 battle of Jarama: ‘Frank Ryan was amongst those who heard a rumour that the entire front line had been ordered to retreat... Ryan shouted “Sing up, ye son o' guns!” It was, he said, the sort of thing he had previously shouted to raise morale before banned Irish Republican demonstrations. Slowly the men began to sing a tune whose English words may not have been intelligible to everyone but whose melody was instantly recognisable... This was 'The Internationale’, the anthem of leftists across the world. For those present, it was one of the most remarkable moments of the war. “Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks”, recalled Ryan.’

Tremlett writes of Ryan as ‘the guiding spirit of the Irish volunteers’, and of how, in March 1938, he became ‘the most senior International Brigade prisoner’, before going on to write of him in Chapter 46:

‘The senior prisoner, along with the Mackenzie-Papineau commissar Carl Geiser, was the charismatic Frank Ryan... When asked (on capture) who was in command, Ryan stepped forward immediately - despite the fact that officers were more likely to be shot... When they were taken to Zaragoza, they were ordered to give the fascist salute... “I call upon all my fellow soldiers to refuse”, said Ryan... Frank Ryan was eventually recognised by all (in San Pedro concentration camp) as the natural leader. After they were visited by foreign journalists, news that he was being held reached Ireland and Prime Minister Éamon de Valera himself tried to arrange his release. Ryan felt free to upbraid the New York Times' William Carney for his pro-Francoist articles. He was eventually removed from San Pedro and subjected to a trial that saw him sentenced to be executed, though this was later commuted to thirty years in jail. Ryan would, in any case, remain in Spanish prisons until after the end of the war.’

I found no problems with Tremlett's ‘warts and all’ narrative in those first 51 chapters. What is written there of heroes and villains, courage and cowardice, is all based on evidence, and it makes for a superb must-read of thoroughgoing historical research of the highest order. Indeed, Tremlett's particularly well rounded and balanced narrative of the May 1937 events in Barcelona serves as a wake up call to readers who have hitherto had their judgements shaped by an uncritical reading of Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia'.

What, however, Tremlett introduces to readers in his final chapter are not just warts. They amount, in fact, to malignant tumours of character assassination, which disregard any sense of obligation to weigh up the evidence, both pro and con, against the accused. Tremlett here ceases to be a serious historian and opts instead to play the game of sensationalist journalism. He now proceeds to write:

‘One of the most curious figures was Frank Ryan, the bold, left-leaning IRA man who had been captured during the retreats... He was eventually freed by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) who organised a mock 'escape' for him in July 1940, and spirited him away to Berlin. There he seems to have worked with other Irish Republicans who thought that the war offered a unique opportunity to bring about a reunification of Ireland – especially if Hitler should invade Britain. There is still bitter debate over whether this meant the avowed anti-fascist who had persuaded XV Brigade to return to the line at Jarama became a Nazi collaborator, placing Irish nationalism above all else and losing the right to be considered a socialist. With his health failing, Ryan tried to return to Ireland, but was refused permission as his country did not wish to jeopardise its position of neutrality. He suffered a stroke, and died in a German sanatorium in June 1944.’

Frank Ryan pictured in Spain, circa 1936.

The Queen's University Belfast site is the sole source provided by Tremlett for his drumhead court martial and ‘conviction’ of Ryan on the ‘Nazi collaborator’ charge, with particular reference to “Frank Ryan: a revolutionary life", the site's 2012 essay authored by Fearghal McGarry, who had first levelled that charge a decade previously in his 2002 biography.

My two reviews of McGarry’s 90 page biography of Frank, reproduced on the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website, refuted, point by point, the charge that Ryan should be regarded as a Nazi collaborator.

Readers interested in an even more detailed examination of Frank Ryan's role and record can freely download a series of three articles I wrote for the March, June and September 2012 issues of Irish Foreign Affairs here. They make clear that the only Irish Republican that Ryan was working for in Berlin was de Valera himself, pledging total wartime allegiance to him, firmly upholding Dev's policy of neutrality, protesting to the Germans for their bombing of Belfast, and bluntly telling them that their war was lost with their invasion of the USSR.

British intelligence files containing the January 1946 interrogation of Madrid Abwehr agent Wolfgang Blaum record: ‘In May 1940 Blaum was instructed to contact Frank Ryan…who had commanded an Irish volunteer brigade with the Loyalist (Republican) forces in the Spanish Civil War until his capture and imprisonment…With the aid of Ryan’s lawyer, Blaum was able to see Ryan in the prison and he persuaded Ryan to go to Germany if he were released. Blaum agreed to Ryan’s stipulation that he go to Germany as a free man, and not as a paid German agent.’ Ryan was then hoping to go from Germany to the USA to campaign in support of Irish wartime neutrality. Frank Ryan in Germany was neither the anti-fascist conspirator and martyr of Socialist Republican iconography nor the collaborator with the Nazis portrayed by McGarry. Even Abwehr officer Kurt Haller's British intelligence interrogator at one point observed of Ryan: ‘Regarding himself as an Irish patriot and not a creature of the Germans, he refused to associate himself in any way with Hartmann's Irish broadcasts’.

‘Patriot’ might well indeed have been the appropriate chapter heading used in respect to the final four years of Ryan's life, rather than the heading of ‘Collaborator’ chosen by McGarry. Patriotism can, of course, also be the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Ryan was no scoundrel. Undoubtedly he fails to pass the Stalinist test of unconditional loyalty to the interests of the Soviet Union, as he also fails to pass the Churchillian test of loyalty to the British Empire. He would have been a prime candidate for a show trial under either regime. But perhaps an admittedly more insular standard of patriotism will allow us to acknowledge the integrity of the role he played.

It is difficult to imagine how Tremlett avoided being aware of my two critical reviews of McGarry's biography, as they are clearly listed on the International Brigade contents page of the Ireland and the Spanish Civil War website referenced by Tremlett elsewhere. Two other online sources researched and referenced by Tremlett were the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives blog The Volunteer, and the IBMT Newsletter. In the January 2015 issue of both, I drew attention to my earlier review of McGarry. Moreover, the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of the IBMT Newsletter carried my review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan, a film for which McGarry was the historical consultant, and where I cited my original review refuting McGarry’s thesis.

Most damning of all, however, is the fact that two 300 page biographies, sourced and referenced by Tremlett in respect of Ryan's earlier years, are not even mentioned in his final chapter. In his 1980 biography, 'Frank Ryan – The Search for the Republic', Seán Cronin pioneered the use of Irish National Archives in exonerating Ryan of the ‘collaborator’ charge. And in his 2004 biography, 'In Green and Red – The Lives of Frank Ryan', Adrian Hoar also made extensive use of British Intelligence files in the UK National Archives to arrive at the same conclusion as both Cronin and myself. The least that can be said of Tremlett's character assassination of Ryan is that his ‘research’ here was unconscionable.

From left: daughter of la Pasionaria Amaya Ruiz Ibárruri, IBMT President Jack Jones, ICTU President Patricia McKeown and the reviewer; singing ‘The Internationale’ at the IBMT’s AGM in Belfast, October 2007.

But Frank Ryan is not the only International Brigader to have his character smeared by Tremlett in that concluding chapter. He further writes:

‘Jack Jones who survived the Ebro battle, became head of Britain’s mighty Transport and General Workers Union. It has been suggested that he may even have been a Soviet informer, though this was something he vigorously denied. If it were true, however, Jones would have been just one of at least a dozen Brigade veterans in Western Europe who served communist Moscow's spy machine. The most famous, or infamous, of these was Morris Cohen, who recruited a scientist at the Los Alamos testing centre in New Mexico to pass on blueprints of the first American nuclear weapons in 1945.’

So, on balance, Tremlett comes down on the side of the ‘probability’ that MI5 was correct in alleging that Jack Jones had indeed been a paid KGB informant, whom he accordingly consigns to a rogues’ gallery of those he calls servants of ‘communist Moscow's spy machine’. Once again, a refusal on Tremlett's part to go to the bother of investigating any supposed evidence. See for example my booklet on Jack Jones, available here via Athol Books, where I refuted the charges made by MI5 professor Christopher Andrew in his 2009 book ‘Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5’.

In his concluding chapter, Tremlett also proceeds to write:

‘Nowhere were the Brigaders more powerful than in Eastern the Soviets struggled to find people they could trust who could help them construct a narrative of historic anti-fascism, cleansed of Hitler's Nazi legacy...The new German state also needed armed forces and police, often to repress its own people. Brigaders took prominent positions ... providing seventeen generals, forty colonels and numerous other officers. Considering that there were barely more than a thousand veterans in East Germany, their importance is outstanding. Some German Brigaders became notorious oppressors, with veterans providing more than a dozen senior members of the feared Stasi secret police, while a hundred more joined the ranks of various police forces. The infamous Stasi, indeed, was founded by Wilhelm Zaisser (aka General Gómez in Spain) with the help of Brigader Karl Heinz Hoffmann. The 85,000-strong Stasi 'People's Police' force...was led by Brigade veterans for all but four years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. By that time it had become East Germany's most notorious and hated tool of state repression... At one stage, veterans were in charge of all three branches of the security services – including the army, the interior ministry's police and the Stasi.’

I myself am far from having been an apologist for the GDR. In the March 2020 issue of Irish Foreign Affairs I cited two books published in 1977 that informed my critique of the GDR, ‘Jonathan Steele’s ‘Socialism with a German Face’ and Stefan Heym’s novel ‘Five Days in June’, both set against the background of the East Berlin workers’ revolt of June 1953. In the December 1978 issue of The Communist I quoted Brecht’s ironic lines about the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s attitude to the revolt:

‘Would it not have been simpler 

If the Government had dissolved the people 

And elected another?’ 

But Tremlett sets no store on the fact that, unlike Hungary and Czechoslovakia, there had been no International Brigade ‘Show Trials’ in the GDR. What Tremlett went on to write on this subject in The Guardian on 22 October was something else again, showing that he wears his anti-communism on his sleeve. The opening lines of the article read:

‘In the 1930s, thousands of men and women around the world enlisted to fight fascism in Spain. Many survivors went on to play a key role in the fight against the Nazis – but, in some cases, later became powerful servants of brutal regimes...Some were noble and brave in their actions, others were cruel, cowardly or callous. Some fought for an ideal, others for adventure. And, for some, those ideals would take them on a journey of oppression that placed them closer, in their behaviour and blind defence of Stalinist communism, to the fascists whom they declared as their enemies than to the democratic Republic that they defended.’

In the concluding chapter of his own book, Tremlett had indeed cited Paul Preston's 2012 book 'The Spanish Holocaust' when writing that Franco's Spain was a place where ‘tens of thousands were placed before firing squads...Some 150,000 people were killed by Franco's own firing squads and associated right-wing death squads alone.’ 

As Helen Graham had pointed out in her review of 'The Spanish Holocaust' for the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of the IBMT Newsletter

‘After Franco achieved victory in spring 1939, the mass murdering dimension inherent in war-forged Francoism became fully apparent, as the final section of Preston’s study explores. Of the baseline figure of 150,000 extra- and quasi-judicial killings for which it was responsible in the territory under direct military control between 1936 and the late 1940s, at least 20,000 were committed after the Republican military surrender in late March 1939.’

For Tremlett to compare GDR repression to the Spanish Holocaust, placing International Brigade veterans involved in that repression ‘closer to the fascists’ was an obscenity. As already stated, I have no hesitation in recommending 51 chapters of 'The International Brigades' as a superb history of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. Pity about Tremlett's final chapter and its Guardian newspaper gift wrapping.


Posted on 19 January 2021.

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