Red Aid in the Spanish Civil War

Post date: 07/09/2022

Nancy Phillips, IBMT member and contributor to the Friends & Families of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade group, provides a short history of Socorro Rojo Internacional (International Red Aid) and its extensive aid work during the Spanish Civil War.

Over the years, in readings about the Second Spanish Republic, I kept running into the term Socorro Rojo Internacional (SRI) but in connection with such disparate items that I couldn’t make any sense of it. So, during the pandemic, when I had nothing but time, I sat down at the computer to try to solve the mystery. Although there seemed surprisingly little written about SRI even in Spanish, I was able to discover at least the outlines of the story. But, what a story: Internationalism! Anti-fascist solidarity! Women’s transformation! It’s all there. 

Why did I want to learn more about SRI? There was the challenge, of course, because so little had been written about it, and I can rarely resist a challenge. But once I began, I quickly came to understand that SRI had been a major provider of aid to the Republic during the civil war. From that point on, because I always wish to understand more about the Republic, especially during the civil war, I went on with my research until I felt I had unearthed at least the broad outlines of the fascinating, but little known, SRI story. It is set out below.


'International Red Aid. It is where it is needed', c.1937. (Photo: Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection)

International Red Aid (IRA) was created by the Communist International in 1922. Its purpose was twofold: first, to provide relief and support to incarcerated revolutionaries and their families, and second, to organise and mobilise working people outside of the Communist Party into the revolutionary movement. By the end of 1923, IRA had begun to form a network of national sections that would eventually extend to 73 countries. By 1937, membership in the national sections totaled more than 10 million. Each of the national sections was designated under a different name: in Germany, Rote Hilfe, in France, Secours Rouge; and in Spain, Socorro Rojo.

During the 1920's and 30's, IRA initiated and conducted protest demonstrations and campaigns on behalf of the most celebrated causes of the time: Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Reichstag Fire Trial, Ernst Thaelmann, Antonio Gramsci. Its aid work included the collection of food and clothing for political prisoners and their families, prison visits, legal counselling for political prisoners, children’s homes and support for political refugees. 

From its very beginning, women played important roles in both management and practice of IRA. Its leading women, such as Clara Zetkin, set the tone, asking that women members should not only be given tasks that were traditionally female. Instead, 'they should be brought into all activities according to their interests and skills, with equal rights and responsibilities [consistent with] the idea that they are capable of good revolutionary work for IRA Organisations.'

Before the civil war

Although the date is controversial, SRI, as the Spanish-section of International Red Aid, likely made its first appearance in Spain in 1923 as a tiny, clandestine organisation subject to the same harsh repression as the Communist Party. By about 1927, SRI's various regional organisations came to be organised throughout Spain and its members increasingly were those without party affiliation and of different political views. Towards 1934, but before the October Revolution, SRI's main purposes were propaganda and political opposition.

Then came the October Revolution of 1934 when miners in Asturias took up arms against the Spanish army in response to the 1933 election which had shifted political power from the left to the conservatives. The miners were defeated, hundreds were killed, thousands injured. A brutal repression followed in which thousands of miners were killed or taken prisoner or lost their jobs. Those sent to prison were tortured. Many were executed without trial. 

It was the events of October 1934 that triggered the metamorphosis of SRI into a broad-based organisation primarily devoted to aid for political detainees and their families but now also devoted to political work on behalf of the people of Asturias. That work, and the conditions in Asturias after the October 1934 Revolution, are vividly described below: 

'I spent the whole of 1935 touring prisons to comfort imprisoned comrades, working on the Committees that formed to help the families of the dead and of prisoners, to ensure that the accused had proper defence in court, and to facilitate the escape abroad of the persecuted... with thousands of men dead, imprisoned or expatriated, women were forced to bear the burdens and responsibilities that were customarily carried by men…'

While SRI continued its hands-on work of assistance to prisoners, their families and to refugees, increasingly it sought to achieve political objectives through the creation of broad-based committees. One example, the National Committee for Aid to the Victims of October which advocated for those imprisoned and sentenced to death. Another example, the Committee for Workers’ Children, founded immediately after the October Revolution of 1934, ‘when the sound of the firing squads was still ringing in Oviedo’ and children were wandering the streets alone. The committee raised money for housing and other necessities for these children. SRI also created an organization of anti-fascist lawyers. Its aims included the release of prisoners, ending of the the death penalty and amnesty for political prisoners. 

SRI was also involved in the creation of escape networks that proved effective in sending political refugees from Asturias to France and the Soviet Union.

At this point, a word about the role of women in SRI. Beginning in 1935, we see women in leadership roles in SRI in Asturias (often the same women who held leadership roles in the Asturias Communist Party) and elsewhere in Spain. They also became the organisers, members and leaders of international antifascist organisations such as the Women's International Committee Against War and Fascism. This committee was organised by women from across the left side of the political spectrum. The head of the Spanish delegation was Dolores Ibárruri. The honorary presidency was given to Clara Zetkin, the German Communist, and Jean Jaurès, the Socialist Deputy. A place of honour was reserved for the vice president of the SRI executive, Elena Stasova. 

To summarise, prior to the civil war, SRI had become an active anti-fascist organization that had spread through Spain. It had developed international solidarity with other anti-fascists. It continued to work on behalf of political prisoners and their families but was increasingly committed to political work. Its work, including leadership tasks, was increasingly done by women. Its membership increased, bringing in people from many political backgrounds.

During the civil war

A childrens' home founded by Socorro Rojo Internacional during the civil war.

After the early stages of the civil war, Spaniards were urging 'men to the front, women to work'. This led to a dramatic increase of women in the workforce as well as expansion of their roles. Nowhere was this more true than for SRI. Thousands of women now took a leading role in the management and execution of a broad range of its welfare activities. With the tremendous influx of new members and collaborators, SRI became a mass organisation; its expansion was facilitated by its organisational flexibility, which centred on local committees, and its antifascist and inter-class nature, which dovetailed with the strategy of the Popular Front. 

As SRI grew, it became a fundamental pillar of the Republic’s military health system. After the fascist coup, the Republican state apparatus was broken. As a report of the SRI explained: 'most of the members of the military health service and the quartermaster's office were monarchists and fascists'. SRI now had the organisational strength and commitment of its members to be able to give life to a new, well-structured military health system by managing to create 275 hospitals throughout the Republican zone, setting up stretcher and artillery factories, building transportation networks between its hospital network and the fronts, providing the military health system with ambulances and x-rays and dealing with wartime emergencies until the successive and gradual centralization of the management of the health system from 1937 onwards. 

From the early days of the attacks on Madrid, SRI was in charge of meeting the needs of the militiamen and the civilian population: collecting food and clothing, transporting the wounded and organising five front-line hospitals. The first hospital was installed by the SRI in an old convent with 150 beds, an operating room, treatment rooms, emergency kits, etc. 

SRI was also involved in organising food and shelter for evacuees in Madrid: 'Before, uninhabited houses were used, then reception centres were created.' The largest was the one located in the City University pavilions. 

Many of SRI's programs – as well as the food and aid collected – were focused on providing aid for children. SRI founded the National School for Mentally Disabled Children in Madrid and a Children's Park on the outskirts of Madrid. The need to take care of children and widows of combatants became another one of the priorities of SRI. In the first months of the war, a home for recovering militiamen occupied a building that had been seized by the Fifth Regiment and shortly afterwards became a home for children of combatants.

The continuation of the war gave SRI new priorities, including the reception of refugees coming from the occupied territories. For this purpose, a National Supply Commission of SRI was created in Madrid and tasked with coordinating and redistributing the food and clothing which, for the most part, came from eastern Spain and Catalonia. 

As SRI gained importance, it was Matilde Landa and Tina Modotti who were its real leaders and who determined its direction. They were the ones who, together with better and lesser known women, not only did SRI’s organisational work, but also the hard and urgent work of aid and relief that the war presented to them. Among these women: Encarnacion Fuyola, Elisa Risco, Maria Luisa Lafita, Mary Bingham Urquidi, Flor Cernuda, Amelia Alvarez Diaz and Elvira Fernandez-Almoguerra.


As best I can tell, after the civil war, many of SRI's leaders became refugees, were imprisoned, or died in prison. IRA ceased to exist during the Second World War. Still, the SRI story, little known today, resonates. This was a time when Spanish women became active anti-fascists, and in doing so, they broke with their traditional isolation from public and political life and developed their potential in ways that their society had never allowed them to do. It was their efforts and energy that contributed greatly to the Republic's war effort and to the functioning of the civil society. 

SRI was one of the places where women made these contributions. There, they collected the wounded and saw that they were transported to frontline hospitals, arranged for food and clothing for the combatants, organised the supply of ambulances and stretchers, organised the frontline hospitals and were the ones entrusted with the evacuation of the cities. As Laura Branciforte wrote, it was during this time that SRI took charge of meeting the prevailing needs of the militias and the civilian population, and it was then that the history of SRI became a history of women. And, in their work with SRI, women became the embodiment of international antifascist solidarity on the battlefields and behind the lines.

Posted on 7 September 2022.

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram