Spanish Civil War talks on the role of seafarers and the dangerous re-writing of history

Post date: 16/08/2022
By Lynda Walker

Belfast hosted two keynote talks on different aspects of the anti-fascist war in Spain on 5 and 6 August as part of the city’s annual Féile an Phobail (Festival of the People).

At the Shankill Library on 5 August IBMT Chair Jim Jump described the role of merchant seafarers in the fight against fascism in Spain. This included the substantial contribution made by the more than 100 individual British and Irish seafarers who joined the International Brigades. Equally significant was the part played by the crews of British ships that beat the blockade of Spanish Republican ports on the Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards.

British ships brought essential food supplies to Spanish cities swollen by refugees and also ferried thousands of refugees from northern Spain to safety in France. In the dying days of the war, two British ships, the African Trader and Stanbrook, took more than 4,000 Spanish Republicans to safety in French Algeria as Mussolini’s troops prepared to march into Alicante, the last Republican-held port on the Mediterranean.

Crews trading with Republican ports faced bombs and torpedoes from the planes and warships sent by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to help General Franco. ‘Britannia may have ruled the waves in those days,’ Jim noted, ‘but when it came to Spain, she preferred to turn a blind eye and appease the fascist powers.’ About 30 British ships were sunk, and scores of seafarers lost their lives.

Jim, who is the former editor of The Seaman, the monthly magazine of the National Union of Seamen (now part of RMT), read out the names of Irish seafarers who had fought in Spain. One of them was Henry McGrath from the Shankill, whose name is on the plaque donated to the Shankill Library in 2014 by Belfast’s International Brigade Commemoration Committee (IBCC).

A short film, ‘Britain Expects’, commissioned in 1938 by seafaring unions and shipowners trading with Spain to protest about the lack of protection provided by the Royal Navy, was screened at the meeting, which was organised by the IBCC and introduced by its chair, Ciaran Crossey.

Afterwards several participants went to Writers’ Square to lay flowers on the International Brigade memorial. The memorial was unveiled in 2007 by Dublin-born Brigader and former merchant seaman Bob Doyle.

On 6 August Jim Jump delivered the Madge Davison Memorial Lecture at the Cultúrlann community centre on the Falls Road. This time the theme was historical revisionism, with the title of the talk being ‘The International Brigades and the re-writing of anti-fascist history’.

Jim examined current attempts to equate communism and fascism. Though with roots in the Cold War, this dangerous credo had now moved from the far right fringe to the political mainstream, as evidenced by the European Parliament’s 2019 resolution on European Remembrance. The resolution drew equivalence between fascism and communism and asserted that the Soviet Union was as much to blame for the Second World War as Hitler’s Germany.

‘The resolution was doubly shocking,’ said Jim, ‘not just for its distortion of history but also for the fact that it garnered overwhelming support, with MEPs of the S&D socialist and social democrat grouping in the parliament, including Labour MEPs, all voting in favour.’

He pointed out that the resolution failed to mention the Spanish Civil War, or Britain’s appeasement of the Axis powers and the Munich Pact, which, after Spain, sacrificed another European country, this time Czechoslovakia, to fascist aggression.

Nor did MEPs acknowledge the often leading role of communists in the 20th century’s long war against fascism, from the conflict in Spain to the struggle of partisan armies in Nazi-occupied Europe. Many also joined in Allied forces which along with the Soviet Union’s Red Army fought and ultimately defeated German and Italian fascism.

The new revisionism also meant that memorials to the International Brigades, most of whom were communists, had been removed in countries such as Croatia, Hungary and Poland. Many monuments to partisan fighters and to the Red Army had also been taken down.

Jim’s talk was illustrated by photographs and a short film about an ‘insurrectionary commemoration’ at Warsaw’s tomb of the unknown warrior. The names of battles in the Spanish Civil War had been erased from its plaques, he explained, but in 2016 a group of young Poles holding replica banners of the Brigades held a defiant wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial.

There followed a lively discussion after the talk, in which one contributor said it was nonsense to equate fascism with communism as fascism was an extension of capitalism.

The event was hosted by the Madge Davison Memorial Committee and chaired by Adam Murray, secretary of the Irish Communist Party. He welcomed audience members, noting that this was the twelfth year that a lecture had taken place in the memory of Madge, a prominent local communist, women’s rights campaigner and civil rights activist.

Lynda Walker is the organiser of the IBMT-affiliated International Brigade Commemoration Committee in Belfast.

Posted on 16 August 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