In one hurrying day, eighty years ago, in Albacete, a center of Spain’s La Mancha region, a few officers somehow created quarters for five hundred men arriving the following day, then five hundred more, and more. Soon three or four thousand, somehow organized in units despite a mad variety of languages, were issued a motley array of uniforms and dated weapons, taught to fire and reload them and little else, and sent after a few weeks into a murderously bloody, last-ditch battle to save Madrid, the capital, from well-armed, trained, murderously marauding attackers. They succeeded. But very many, Poles, Germans, French, Italians, and others died next to their new Spanish comrades.
Four full centuries ago, in April 1616, a man died in Madrid quite peacefully, who had made the name of Albacete’s region immortal. The fictional creation of Miguel de Cervantes’, who titled himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, was a rather mad fantast, whose misadventures with his page and servant Sancho Panza still fascinate readers of what is reverently honored as “Spain’s Bible.”
About 150 of us marked the anniversary of October 1936 with a tour commemorating the founding of the International Brigades, made up of men and women volunteers who came to join in a mortal struggle against fascism. As some of those welcoming us in Albacete remarked; not only dates and geography echoed the fabled La Mancha story of the 1500s in the torn Spain of the 1930s.
The scrawny self-titled “Don” with his lean nag Rosinante, a helmet made of a shaving basin, and a skimpy lance, accompanied by squat Sancho on a donkey, was sadly unfit for the coming encounters.
The weapons inadequacy of the 40,000 volunteers from over 50 countries was almost as pitiful but truly tragic — and sinister. Even those weapons and supplies that the legitimate, elected Spanish government could obtain from its only two allies, Mexico and the USSR, were largely shut out by Italian cruisers in the south and British blockade vessels in the north. A tight French vise shut rail and road entries, forcing many volunteers to steal over narrow, dangerous mountain trails to reach the besieged land. Fascist German and Italian men, planes and weapons, American trucks and fuel could, untroubled, get to Francisco Franco’s well-stocked forces. The supreme hypocrisy involved, managed by Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, acceded to by the weak French Popular Front Socialist Leon Blum, permitted by Franklin Roosevelt, was exalted with the title “non-intervention.”
Perhaps a bond across the centuries was the rather mad but determined idealism of Quixote, setting forth into the world to “redress all manner of wrongs” to “the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed.” Cervantes balanced this with down-to-earth Sancho, illiterate, not altruistic, but close to common working people like himself. His dream was to become governor of an island; when he achieved this (only a village in reality) his reign, despite some blunders, was yet a valiant attempt to achieve justice with common sense. All too soon it “ended, perished, dissolved and vanished into smoke and a shadow.” The mighty duke and duchess took over again. Alas, the many parallels!
Menacing windmills, “evil giants” for the Don, triumphed again in 1939. In our group only one had fought in the International Brigades, one of their many Spanish members, and now one of perhaps three survivors. Josep Almudéver, 97, is amazingly vital and as wrathful as ever about the forces of Hitler and Mussolini who, he is convinced, steered Franco, making it no genuine “civil war” but a defense against foreign adversaries, not excluding those “western democracies” which betrayed it. When not expanding on this, part of his life story, the old man joined lustily in singing the songs of the Spanish War and patiently agreed to pose for photos, including one with the tiny, 95 years younger son of Almudena Cros, who arranged the tour.
Who else was in the group? Fine, often fascinating people, most were children or relatives of the Brigaders. The father of one, a German Communist miner, volunteered early, fought to save Madrid and became a captain in the Thälmann Battalion. His wife took a Red Cross nursing course to follow him and tried to meet briefly between the battles. In Albacete, always headquarters city for the Brigades, he was born — three months after his father had died in the battle of Belchite.
One woman, Anastasia Tsackos, told of another brief interlude of love and marriage in the midst of war, of her Spanish mother and a Greek volunteer. Neither she nor her mother could ever learn his fate — on a battlefield, in a Franco prison, or as a guerrilla fighting in his homeland against the conquerors who, after Spain was subjugated, could then move on to bomb, occupy, enslave, and wreck all Europe as far as Stalingrad.
Another white-haired, dignified and friendly group member was Claire Rol-Tanguy, president of the “Association des Amis des Combattants en Espagne Républicaine” (ACER). Her mother, Cécile, 97, is the widow of Henri Rol-Tanguy, who fought in the Brigades, then in the French Résistance, then led the Paris uprising and received the surrender of the German commander. She, too, was a resistance fighter and, like him, an active Communist in post-war France. In Paris, our first stop, the little old lady with the heroic past unveiled a monument to the foreign volunteers at Austerlitz Station, where most of them departed on their way to the battlefields. This late but moving monument was finally achieved with the help of Anne Hidalgo, Socialist mayor of Paris, herself born in Spain where her grandfather was sentenced to death by the Franco courts (and then pardoned to life imprisonment).
Among those I met was Miriam Peet, daughter of the East-Berlin-based English journalist John Peet, who was wounded twice in the Ebro battle. She also discovered that an uncle on her Bulgarian mother’s side fought at Guadalajara, a site we visited, one of the Republic’s few big victories, possible thanks to good coordination between Spanish and foreign battalions (French, German, and especially Italian, most important against the Mussolini troops) and units with Communist, Anarchist, and other backgrounds — and here closely united. But Miriam Peet’s uncle had died in the battle.
One young group member was especially respected. Zuza Ziolkowska/Hercberg from Warsaw, whose grandfather fought in Spain, had defied efforts by the clerical right-wingers dominating her country to wipe out recollections of the large Polish participation in Spain. She and several others, mostly students, carried a large flag of the Polish Dabrowski Battalion in Spain and one of the largely Jewish Naftali Botwin Company to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider on the largest square in Warsaw. They read a poem, stood briefly in silence and laid a wreath near the monument to fallen Polish heroes, where mention of those who died in Spain had been erased. Now the group, already larger, is fighting to keep street names honoring the Dabrowski Battalion from being altered. It was moving to see Yiddish-Hebrew letters on the same flag she showed eye-catchingly at all the sites we visited.
There were many, many people with interesting backgrounds, like the daughter of Steve Nelson, a top officer in the Abraham Lincoln battalion, wounded at Belchite. Or Len and Nancy Tsou of California, who have dug up the facts about a dozen or so Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Indonesian volunteers in Spain. Pleasant notes were offered in informal song sessions by a jolly Welsh woman and the beautiful singing with guitar of a Swedish man who worked for years with the American songwriter Malvina Reynolds. He often sang his favorite, the “Last Will” song by the Swedish-American songwriter and martyr Joe Hill.
The welcomes in each place we visited were always heart-warming and often displayed growing interest in Spain’s previously hushed-up past and the courageous role of men and women who came and risked their lives to support the Spanish people against fascism — and miserable poverty, illiteracy, and undernourishment — despite those out to crush their attempts. We helped unveil the Paris monument, a new plaque in Albacete, information signs in Benicássim, where the wounded were treated, and in Vicálvaro (Madrid) with the start on a new “Garden of the International Brigades.”
Of course, with sixteen nationalities, our many languages were a problem. Listening to two or three translations of one more warmly welcoming speech was not always easy. For some, doing without a translation was certainly no more enjoyable. But with either English, French, German, Italian, or especially Spanish, personal meetings offered countless opportunities to learn about other lands.
I had read (and written in a book about the Spanish War) about the fall of Malaga in February 1937. The resulting murder of anti-fascists had been devastating; most of the population fled, with neither supplies nor protection, along a narrow coastal road. The conquerors, mostly Mussolini-Italians, shot the men and incessantly machine-gunned and bombed the hungry women, children, and elderly from sea and air. Now, speaking in my labored French to a woman on one of our buses, I learned that she had been a little girl on that horrible trek.
In past years, with more than just one lonely Brigader, talk of the Spanish War had been a frequent theme, with recollections of victories and defeats, of fear and of heroism. With the changing generations conversation now turned to current fears — and current menacing windmills. The ugly, malevolent knights of hatred are no more illusions today than they were in 1936. An Austrian woman told of the likelihood that her country would soon have a proto-fascist president. Those from Scandinavia already had racists in their governments. France and the Netherlands faced similar dangers in coming months. In Germany as well, the foreigner-hating, Islamophobic, extremely right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has developed alarming roots in nearly all the country.
There are too many parallels. In Spain, a Swiss volunteer I quote in my book saw neighbors carrying a wildly traumatized mother when her little daughter was killed by bullets from a low-flying German fighter plane. “What have we ever done to the Germans?” the farmers ask. I recall reading of 12-year-old Ali in Iraq, who dreamt of becoming a doctor until an air attack robbed him of both arms — and both parents. “What have we done to the Americans?” he asked. And are the thousands of men, women with children, even babies, still risking their lives in the Mediterranean, so very different from those who fled across the Pyrenees and were herded onto bare, cold French beaches in 1939?
When our passionately anti-fascist organizer Almudena called the names of all the countries represented — she was cheered when she added Syria to the list, calling for solidarity — needed as much today as 80 years ago.
“The responsibility of knights errant,” Don Quixote insisted, was not “to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succor them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings. . . .” In words so relevant today, if not to be taken exactly literally, he cried: “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).