Tschapaiew: the battalion of 21 nations

Post date: 04/01/2024

Nancy Phillips writes…

It was at the Battle of Jarama commemoration of 2022 that I first heard about a battalion of the Dombrowski Brigade that was composed of Brigaders from 21 nations. I was floored. Here was a battalion of the International Brigades that actually embodied its international ideals. Could such a battalion actually have existed? And functioned?

As I learned, it did exist and it did function, superbly. It was called the Tschapaiew Battalion and there was actually a book about it: ‘Tschapaiew: Das Bataillon der 21 Nationen' edited by a man named Alfred Kantorowicz. Over the months, I came to learn quite a bit about these Tschapaiews. What I learned is set out below.

The battalion

The story of the Tschapaiew Battalion began in November 1936, when it was founded at the headquarters of the International Brigades in Albacete as part of the XIII Brigade. The battalion was named after the legendary Bolshevik guerrilla killed during the Russian civil war. The Tschapiew Battalion fought in the Spanish Republican Army through the places of fiercest fighting up to the Battle of Brunete, when it was essentially wiped out and then disbanded. 

The history of the XIII Brigade is unique and different from the histories of the other International Brigades, according to Kantorowicz, first, because the XIII Brigade fought on isolated fronts since its foundation. All the other International Brigades had, until August 1937, been engaged in the defence of Madrid, but the XIII Brigade was engaged in offensive fights on other important fronts: Teruel, Málaga, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, Granada, Pozoblanco, until, with the other International Brigades, it participated in the Brunete offensive. 

Secondly, the other brigades were, leaving aside the first months of the war, basically formed by two or three dominant nationalities. But, the XIII Brigade, from the beginning until its dissolution, contained 25 nationalities in all. And, one of its battalions, the Tschapaiew, was the most international battalion of the entire Spanish Republican Army.  

In the Tschapaiew Battalion normally there were 20 nationalities, although at times there were more. Until the end there was a very strong Polish contingent, which at some point became equal to that of the Germans; specifically the 2nd Company of the battalion, which was always a Polish company, whose officers were mostly Polish and whose newspaper was written in Polish. The Machine-Gun Company was made up mostly of Austrians and Spaniards.

But the most international company of all was the 3rd Company. With the Spaniards and Germans, many Hungarians, Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Yugoslavs, Luxembourgers, Swiss, Norwegians and some Italians, French and Ukrainians were present. In the 1st Company, Germans, Swiss and Spanish predominated, and with them were groups of Czechs and Palestinians. This extraordinary internationality is what made the Tschapaiew Battalion unique.

For example, in June 1937, the composition of the Tschapaiew Battalion was as follows: German 79; Polish 67; Spanish 59; Austrian 41; Swiss 20; Palestinian 20; Dutch 14; Czech 13; Hungarian 11; Swedish 10; Yugoslavian 9; Danes 9; French 8; Norwegian 7; Italian 7; Luxembourg 5; Ukrainian 4; Belgian 2; Russian 2; Greek 1; Brazilian 1. 

The Tschapaiew’s Battle Commissar, Ewald Fischer, didn’t try to minimise the difficulties in welding together this ‘language Babylon’ into a functioning military unit: translating orders from one language to another three or four times, balancing out national differences. But, Fischer maintained that these difficulties were overcome by Brigaders’ consideration of one another’s differences and by exemplary comradeship; as a result, all agree that the Tschapiews fought with great success on various fronts up until its dissolution after Brunete.

During the eight months of its existence, the battalion was always at the front, without relief or rest and, during this eight month front-line service, battalion members endured great hardships: the deaths of comrades, long transports from one front to another, supply difficulties, scorching heat of the south and freezing cold on the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada. 

The book

So, now, to the origin of ‘Tschapaiew: Das Batallion der 21 Nationen’. Alfred Kantorowicz, its editor, came to the Spanish front from exile in Paris; he had had to flee Germany as a Communist Party member in March 1933. In Paris, he had worked with others on ‘The Brown Book on the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s Terror’. In Spain, he was instrumental in founding the front-line magazine of the International Brigades, Le Volontaire de la Liberté, which was published in German, French and English. While still editor of the magazine, he was sent to the Córdoba front as information officer to the Tschapaiew Battalion. He found increasing dissatisfaction in the battalion with its continuous deployment to the front without leave or hope of relief. By the time Kantorowicz arrived, the volunteers’ spirits had reached a low point.

Kantorowicz listened to the Tschapaiews and understood that it wasn’t the difficulties, the losses or the deprivations that were the source of their discontent. They felt forgotten, unacknowledged. He came to believe that they had to be convinced through black and white evidence that their sacrifice, their sufferings, were remembered, that their victories were not erased, that their dead were not forgotten. He began to plan for a book that would provide the evidence in the form of authentic documents and a body of narrative texts. All nationalities would be involved.

In putting the book together, Kantorowicz selected and assembled testimonies from 78 Brigaders of 13 nationalities into ‘Tschapaiew: Das Bataillon der 21 Nationen’. The book contained around 200 articles, accompanied by photographs, portraits, maps, caricatures from the wall and battalion newspapers and drawings. The Brigaders’ writings were unedited, and it is this that makes them so interesting and so moving. 

‘Tschapaiew: Das Bataillon der 21 Nationen’ was first published in Madrid in February 1938. It was not intended for a large number of readers but rather for the narrow circle of the surviving comrades of the Tschapaiew Battalion, so that, thanks to this compilation of their testimonies, they and their comrades would be remembered. 

Kantorowicz also wanted the book to convey to the German-speaking comrades of the other international units the achievements and sacrifices of this ‘forgotten’ XIII Brigade, which had distinguished itself since its foundation. Over the years he came to believe, and I must agree, that the history of Tschapaiew Battalion is really the history of all the fighters of the International Brigades and part of anti-fascist history. It is, also, a wonderful book of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of the Republican fighters. 

A sample of entries in chronological order from ‘Tschapaiew: Das Bataillon der 21 Nationen’ can be found in the attachment. You can scroll through from the first weeks of the battalion until its end at Brunete. The entries that were written by battalion members during these eight months of combat show a commitment to one another and to the defeat of fascism that is, from this reader’s perspective, deeply moving.  

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