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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

15. The Withdrawal of the Volunteers

The whole Popular Front orientation clearly appeared, too, in the problem of the ‘volunteers’, that is to say, of the ‘foreign’ forces fighting in the opposed camps: that of the ‘governmentals’ and that of the ‘rebels’.

About three months before the formation of the International Brigades in July 1936, little by little, revolutionary militants and rank and file workers began to come to fight in Spain from every corner of the earth. They placed themselves at the disposal of all the parties, trade unions and proletarian organisations and, from the very first, joined the columns and the famous ‘militia’.

It was a strong, spontaneous and irresistible movement. “To go and fight in Spain” was the ardent desire of numerous militants from democratic countries like France, Belgium, Switzerland and Holland, and even more so of anti-Fascists from Central Europe who were hunted by all the police forces and who for years had been waiting for the opportunity to join the struggle again.

Volunteers came from literally every corner of the earth. I met volunteers from Indochina and Australia, as well as from South Africa. It was a spontaneous movement, and occasionally unthinking. The slowest sometimes took a few months to decide, but I met volunteers in Spain who had already arrived as early as 1 and 2 July, two or three days after the military uprising. Obviously, there was no lack of adventurers, of embittered and confused people who saw the great drama as a solution for their miseries, but there were also well adjusted and steady people, who had left wives, children and obligations, just to fight against Fascism and for a new world!

They overcame every obstacle, crossed frontiers with or without a passport, and then arrived in this splendid Spain, sunny, fiery, and awakened by the revolution, suffused with the spirit of brotherhood, of kindness [93] and of the finest human values, which only those knew who had the pleasure of going there. They finally arrived in Barcelona or Madrid and soon mingled their blood with that of the Spanish workers at the front. These knights of this greatest of Crusades, came because, happily, the proletariat existed, in other words, a class that was not content to accept and work for capital, but was preparing a great future for mankind.

For the first two and a half months Stalin practised non-intervention. For reasons which we will examine later, the Comintern then began to organise the International Brigades under the leadership of Marty. These International Brigades were made up of different elements, ranging from militants who had passed through bourgeois, Fascist and democratic prisons because of their devotion to the proletariat, to some declassed elements (tramps, old legionaries, etc.).

The International Brigades fought and lost 5,000 of their men. [94] For political reasons of Stalinist favouritism they were better fed, better armed, and kept in better conditions than many other columns and divisions, particularly those of the Anarchists and the POUMists, where there was no lack of foreign volunteers also. I do not, however, wish to enter here into the almost sterile discussions of comparing their courage and participation with those of the other anti-Fascist forces. [95] The International Brigades gave their best and at certain critical moments threw their weight into the balance.

Unfortunately, in spite of their sacrifice, their courage, and their discipline, their blood was shed in the service of the suicidal policy that was called the Popular Front.

Kept in ignorance [96], and only having the Stalinist press, the Communist leadership shut them up like a sealed vessel. Occasionally it would make use of them for the most sordid and repugnant ends. The assassination of several revolutionary militants and some ignoble provocations were the work of several of the political Commissars of the International Brigades. [97] In May 1937 they served as a shock brigade, a reliable force, because they carried out blindly all that was asked of them. Several of the Assault Guards who came from Valencia to Barcelona on 7 May 1937 in order to make ‘order’ prevail there against the CNT and POUM workers, and several of the tank men, spoke Bulgarian, German, Polish or Serbian. I met some good militants in these detachments, who were already known to me from abroad, helping the bourgeoisie and reaction. “And we forgive them their trespasses, as God will forgive ours.” They knew not what they were doing.

This reactionary intervention of the International Brigades merits further analysis in detail, but what interests us now is the problem of the volunteers in its entirety, and its connection with the general orientation of the Popular Front. We have illustrated in a few lines the kind of volunteering in the Republican Army.

Moving to the other side of the barricades, or rather to the other side of the trenches, true volunteers also went with Franco – mad Fascists who were looking for an opportunity to fight against the red plague of ‘Marxism’ in Spain, but these were an tiny minority. That is in the nature of things: can capitalism find many voluntary defenders? It only continues by terror and deception. The majority of the foreign troops who helped Franco, whether as mercenaries or as ‘volunteers’, were sent there against their will.

The importance of effective aid in men, material and money received by Franco from the Fascist dictators as well as from the powerful financial oligarchies of France and Britain is sufficiently well known abroad. Figures are lacking, and it is impossible to say how many ‘volunteers’ there were with Franco. [98]

Nonetheless, I would be close to the truth if I said that for every foreign combatant in the anti-Fascist camp there were five, perhaps eight or more, with Franco.

The disproportion was even greater as regards aid in money, supplies, the dispatch of war materials, etc. While Franco received hundreds of aeroplanes, tanks and war materials in great quantity and of the best quality, the ‘governmentals’ only obtained old material on poor payment terms. Even Mexico used its consignments to Spain to modernise the equipment of its own army.

This disproportion can easily be understood. While Franco was helped according to a well conceived and concerted plan by three Fascist states – Germany, Italy and Portugal – and by powerful capitalist groupings, the Republicans were only helped, and that poorly, by Russia, Mexico and a crowd of foreign speculators who sent trash at high prices.

But let us turn to the disproportion as regards the number of foreign fighters in the two camps.

From the fact of this disproportion our democratic wiseacres drew the conclusion that foreign intervention, as well as the coming of the volunteers, was a bad thing for the Republic. Our brave democrats and their Stalinist friends knew how to observe the phenomena, but they did not understand the reasons for these phenomena, and as a result could not find the remedy for them.

International law, the treaties concluded with other states, the juridical position of the Republican government (the ‘legitimate government’ set up in accordance with the constitution and all its clauses), the League of Nations and its Geneva Covenant, and the Briand-Kellogg Pact, which had declared war to be illegal, all of these things ought to have operated officially to the disadvantage of the ‘rebels’ and in favour of the ‘governmentals’.

But didn’t they operate in favour of Abyssinia and the Negus [99] as well? And in Abyssinia there were no Communists, PSUC, POUM, CNT, FAI, etc. – in other words the sort of dishes that Chamberlain did not like for his cooked breakfast.

Our ‘realist’ democrats, however, were not discouraged by so small a matter. Relying on the law, they hoped to obtain from democratic capitalism an intervention in favour of ‘non-intervention’, in other words to obtain the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Spain.

Their reasoning was as follows (and we should recall in passing that it was also that of the Anarchists): if the Italian and German forces are withdrawn from Spain, if the foreign technicians are withdrawn, if the war material is withdrawn, if this intervention, which is in contravention of International Law is prevented, if all the Italians and Germans went back to Rome or Berlin, we will also repatriate our volunteers. If all this totalitarian war-making is prevented, and if all that fairness and treaties demand is done, then we, the Spanish Republicans, would easily be able to put an end to Franco, and we would then create a golden age. You can see that there is logic in this stupidity. There is logic in this reasoning, but it is stupid all the same.

Obviously, if it were possible for the proletariat, in whatever capitalist country, to wipe out Fascism without the capitalists of other countries intervening; if it were possible to have these capitalists, whose interests and profits were threatened in the event of the annihilation of Fascism, leaving things alone and out of the goodness of their hearts writing off millions of pounds, dollars, francs or marks invested, if, as a result of arguments about ‘legality’ capitalism decided to allow itself to be relieved of the positions that it held, if big capital at the present time were not involved by its entire position in supporting Fascism, not only against the proletarian revolution, but even against formal, that is to say, bourgeois democracy, if to sum up, the bourgeoisie had kindly decided to give up its place to the proletariat, then the golden age conceived in the brains of the leaders of the Popular Front could be realised.

To sum up: for the bilateral withdrawal of the volunteers to occur, one small detail that upsets the reasoning of our democratic wiseacres, must not exist. This small detail is called capitalism. So in this case, as in the others, the Popular Front leaders, after the manner of Krylov’s famous Inquirer, did not understand this elephant, but on the contrary saw insects, that is to say could only see the ‘ideological’ struggle between the democrats and Fascism.

Foreign intervention in Spain results from the fact that the Iberian peninsula is not situated on the moon, but on a planet with a very prosaic name: the Earth.

The foreign Fascists – Italian, German and Portuguese – as well as the English and French capitalists, intervened in favour of Franco, not because they were wicked, but because they were bourgeois. Against this inevitable intervention, which will be repeated in every revolution and in any anti-Fascist civil war in whatever country, the world proletariat must oppose an even more active intervention that must paralyse the Fascist and the democratic capitalist states, an intervention that above all in France must take the form of a struggle for power.

In spite of all the legal affirmations, and in spite of all the resolutions of the Non-Intervention Committee [100], Franco continued and continues to receive help in money, materials and men from the Fascist countries. Moreover, Mussolini has declared: “We will withdraw our legions from Spain after Franco’s victory.” This is a frank and revealing declaration. Obviously having read this declaration you can place no trust in the Fascist dictator and believe that he will really withdraw his troops after the victory of Franco. He will try to keep them in the peninsula as long as possible in his own imperialist interests, even after Franco’s victory. But we must believe that Mussolini is sincere in the sense that in any case he was not disposed to withdraw them before Franco’s victory.

But our ‘realist’ leaders of the Popular Front always hoped that Chamberlain and Daladier would force Franco to withdraw his legionnaires. Wasn’t this an offence against democracy and international law? In the meantime, therefore, we must not supply a ‘pretext’ (as if capitalism needed a pretext for deceiving and oppressing the workers) to the Fascists and the democrats:

We are going to withdraw the International Brigades and all the foreigners who are in our army. We will ask the League of Nations to control this withdrawal. We will supply the International Control Commission of the League of Nations with all the facilities and guarantees to prove to international public opinion that our withdrawal of volunteers is complete, total and sincere. We will even withdraw Spanish nationality from foreign fighters who acquired it after 19 July. [101] By thus giving proofs of goodwill we will play a trump card in our diplomatic game and place Franco in a difficult position.

Such was the calculation of Alvarez del Vayo, of Negrín, of José Díaz, as well as of several ‘Anarchist’ leaders that lay at the basis of the unilateral withdrawal operated by the Republican government. It did indeed testify to the Negrín government’s goodwill and its good intentions with regard to international capitalism, but as a means of obtaining the withdrawal of the foreign forces in the service of Franco (who should have followed this good example!) it was pitiful. The leaders of the Popular Front wanted to strike a good bargain: the withdrawal of the volunteers on both sides. But there have to be two to make a deal. For if our democrats did have goodwill with regard to Chamberlain, that is, with regard to the City of London, the latter could only have affection for Franco.

The Republicans carried out the withdrawal of the foreign volunteers on all fronts. They thereby lost some good and tested brigades. When the Fascists were approaching Barcelona, the volunteers could still have rendered service at the last moment in the defence of the Catalan capital. More than 8,000 ex-volunteers were awaiting their repatriation in several concentration camps. These mostly originated from countries with a reactionary or Fascist regime: Italians, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, etc. If they had not as yet been repatriated, that was not the fault of the Republican government, whose goodwill was unquestionable in this instance, but stemmed from the fact that no country in the world, the Soviet Union included, could be persuaded to take them.

The entire world bourgeoisie can never forgive these fighters who had dared to struggle against Fascism, arms in hand. We may well marvel that those of this type had not all encountered a death in Spain of the sort that is generally described as heroic. For them too the earth is just a planet without a visa. And as far as French democracy is concerned, it would not even allow them passage through its territory in order to make for Mexico. [102] Even the passing through of these monsters in a sealed carriage might upset the tranquil digestion of the bourgeoisie of the country. So when the Fascists approached Barcelona the idea seized these ex-volunteers (or rather, a certain number of them): go for help, reform some of the brigades, and accomplish once more the glorious epic of Madrid. A few thousand combatants inspired by a revolutionary flame who are intent on fighting can reverse the trend in certain situations by provoking a psychological shock, restoring its confidence to a town, and accomplishing a miracle.

These were the discussions that were being held in the volunteer camps. I am not making this up – I well recall: “The situation is lost. What can a few thousand fighters do when the position is hopeless? What can we do against a well-equipped army like that of Franco?”, said some out loud, whilst adding deep inside: “The essential thing is to save our skins.”

“It is not a matter of a few thousands of fighters”, replied an Austrian battalion commander, a Stalinist, but inspired by a revolutionary faith: “It is a question of the moral effect it would have upon the proletariat of Barcelona.” He told himself: “The international proletariat is coming to help us! And it will arise, as in Madrid! No Pasaran!”

The argument was cut short by a Colonel Alvarez, a 100 per cent Stalinist of Mexican origin, who in a speech addressed to the ex-volunteers said in these exact words:

“Attention! We have enemies in our camp. They want to split us and break up our unity! You should know what methods they are using to split us: they make propaganda for a return to the front to reform the battalions without any order having arrived from the legal and legitimate government of Spain. That is obvious. It is always the same agents of the Fifth Column, the provocateurs, the Trotskyists! When you discover a specimen of this type, one of the provocateurs who is carrying on such a campaign to go to the front, expose him, bring him to me, and I personally will put two bullets in his hide.” Alvarez patted his revolver, and he received some slight applause.

But two battalions of International Brigaders, more than a thousand German and Austrian ex-volunteers, left for Barcelona on the night of 24-25 January, the day before the capture of the Catalan capital, and offered their lives to the Negrín government. They were turned back. There was no need for them. For would not bringing them back to the front be contrary to the solemn promises given by the Republican government at Geneva?

“It is better to die according to the rules than to live contrary to the rules”, said the doctor in Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire [103], and this meant that it was better to die in accordance with the medical prescription than to live contrary to the opinion of the Faculty of Medicine. The Negrín government wanted to say that it was better to die respecting the agreements concluded with Chamberlain than to live against the prescriptions of the doctors of the Popular Front. That is one point of view.

But you, workers of the whole world, who want to live, and live in a human fashion, can only do so by overthrowing the capitalist system. Do not follow the rules of the doctors of the Popular Front!

If the policy of ‘Republican order’ and the famous slogan “Win the war first, and make the revolution afterwards!” demoralised the proletariat of Spain, the narrow nationalist orientation of the Popular Front, as regards the volunteers and foreign intervention among other things, demoralised both the Spanish proletariat and the workers of other countries. This petit-bourgeois nationalism destroyed the links between the exploited of Spain and the exploited of other countries. It also annihilated the active internationalism of the proletariat.

The press of the Popular Front always says: “Yes! If the Spaniards were left to themselves, it would have been over long ago!” And the French worker reading this tells himself: “Since we ought to leave the Spaniards alone, it is enough for me to give a few francs to send milk for the children of Spain. I am French myself, and I must first concern myself with my own fair country.”

“Everybody for himself!” This is the idea that reformism has infiltrated into the proletariat for decades, and since it launched the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’, so has Stalinism.

There is a pattern here. The rotten policies of the Popular Front are the legitimate offspring of the fundamentally nationalist-reformist and conservative conceptions of the Stalinist bureaucracy and Stalinism, just like the theory of ‘Social-Fascism’ 10 years ago.

Yes, there is a pattern here. The policy of the Popular Front in Spain is an uninterrupted chain of crimes against the proletariat. One of the links in this chain of crime is the policy of deception and suicide in the matter of the volunteers.



93. The atmosphere of 19 July! One little fact illustrates it. After the Control Patrols had requisitioned the home of one of my comrades which they needed to take over in Barcelona, they opened a birdcage in his house and freed a little canary. It was the day of freedom! You no longer had the right even to imprison birds. [Author’s note]

94. That is the official figure for all the Internationals who fell in Spain, not only those from the International Brigades. But did the governmental and international commissions have the leisure to visit all the cemeteries and count the common graves? This figure is smaller than the real one. [Author’s note]

95. Whenever you meet a militiaman of whatever formation, he always explains that the ‘heaviest blows’ were reserved for his unit, in other words, his party. But the ‘heaviest blows’ were really for everybody. [Author’s note]

96. I met one foreign volunteer, who was genuinely convinced that the there had been a Fascist revolt in Barcelona in May. As far as his knowledge of the political life of Spain went, he had never even heard of the name of Durruti. In the sphere of distortion and of stultifying the brain, the Stalinists are as much masters as Göbbels. [Author’s note]

97. This was the case, for example, with the murder of Andrés Nin. When Orlov failed to break him down by torture, a fake attack was staged by 10 German International Brigaders on his prison in Alcala de Henares, to pretend that he had been rescued by Nazis. They spoke their language loudly and left some German train tickets. This was almost certainly meant to put investigation off the scent whilst he was being smuggled into the Soviet Union.

98. Hugh Thomas in the Spanish Civil War gives a total for the foreigners who fought for the Fascists of 16,000 Germans, 50,000 Italians of whom 6,000 died, and 20,000 Portuguese of whom 8,000 died. There were also 600 Irish under O’Duffy and a few hundred dedicated Fascists from elsewhere. In all it cannot have reached 90,000. The numbers who fought for the Republic were about half that, including 40,000 in the International Brigades and, says Thomas, perhaps 5,000 others. Maybe a third to a quarter of all these Republican volunteers were killed in Spain. The numbers present at any one time in Spain were very much less. See note 94 above.

99. Abyssinia/Ethiopia, whose Emperor at the time was Haile Selassie, was invaded by Mussolini in 1935-36. Italy was a member of the League of Nations and had signed its Geneva Covenant, as well as the Briand-Kellogg pact of 1927 that outlawed war as an instrument of foreign policy. None of these were of the slightest assistance to the Abyssinians.

100. The Non-Intervention Committee was set up by the British and French governments on 6 September 1936; Germany and Italy also joined later, without the slightest intention of abiding by its provisions.

101. I know of some instances where Spaniards born in South America who had spent their entire lives in Spain were considered as foreigners, and were reminded of their nationality as an Argentine or a Cuban when that permitted their withdrawal from the front in October 1938. Moroccans from the Spanish protectorate were also considered as foreigners. Here our democrats were even forgetting their international obligations because they wanted to prove that the Republican army was composed of pure Spaniards, and in this way they hoped to secure the withdrawal of the Moroccans in Franco’s service. This was truly being ‘realist’. [Author’s note]

102. The Mexican government promised to accept all the ex-volunteers of the Spanish Republican army. We do not know whether it will keep its promise. [Author’s note] It did. [Translator’s note]

103. Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière (1622-1673) was France’s leading author of comedy in the seventeenth century.

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Last updated on 27.7.2003