The Other Path: Foreign Volunteers and the Fight for Freedom

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out as elements of the Spanish Army rebelled against the constitutional government of the Spanish Republic.  Fascists from Italy and Germany joined the rebel side, while communists and others “fighting for democracy” joined the governing Republicans. The conflict would rage for three years and many historians portray it as an ominous forebear of the coming Second World War.  The ideological nature of the civil war was a microcosm of Europe's own political turmoil in the years of the Great Depression.  Hitler and Mussolini provided support for the Nationalist rebels while Stalin preferred a proxy war between communism and fascism taking place far from Russian borders. Many communists, pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet, joined the Republican ranks.  Western democratic governments remained cautious about supporting one side over the other.  Canadians too joined the fight, forming the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in honour of Canada's failed rebels of a century prior.  Canadian Norman Bethune, the famous communist Doctor, also pioneered blood transfer techniques in the dusty hillsides of the Iberian Peninsula.

Though the numbers vary, it is estimated that around 36,000 foreigners served in the conflict, most in International Brigades. Five International Brigades fought in the war until they were shut down in September, 1938.  Out of the 36,000, it is estimated they were 25% French, 14% German, 14% British/American/Canadian, 11% Polish, 11% “Balkan,” 25% other nationalities.  The Brigades themselves were 60% Spanish, 40% foreign, and were used a means to train Republican soldiers, as Spain had no Great War veterans like many countries in Europe.  In late fall of 1936, a small force of Nationalists were approaching Madrid and many thought General Franco would take the capitol and end the war.  Two International Brigades, largely consisting of German volunteers, had been deployed around University City, directly in the path of the approaching Nationalist forces.  These disciplined veterans were well trained and reasonably equipped.  Fighting ferociously, they stalled the rebel advance.  As many as one in three had died, but the International Brigades had defended Madrid.  Their heroic defence of the city inspired thousands more to travel to Spain to replace their losses.  The high casualty rates would be repeated in future engagements.

International pressure led the Republican government to withdraw the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades, hoping that the Nationalist rebels would reciprocate.  By 1939, the Nationalist forces triumphed and the rebel General Franco would rule Spain until his death in the 1970s.  If anyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War today, most know very little about the details of the conflict other than as a prelude to the Second World War that started a few months after the civil war ended.  Some may have read accounts of George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, both of whom were in Spain during the war.  Some Canadians or Americans might be able to name the Mackenzie-Papineau or Lincoln Battalion, the units from each nation respectively.  Mostly its volunteers are remembered as important anticipators of the fight against fascism that would engulf Europe, though few could name any of their countrymen who died there. 

Michael W. Jackson's work on the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, from which many of this information is drawn, asks why so many volunteered to fight in a war that seemingly had little to do with them.  Jackson's examination offers a wide variety of motivation from the veterans of the conflict: some were exiles from authoritarian countries, others were displaced from the economic hardships of the Great Depression, others to fight against fascism, and some just as adventurers. Ultimately he concludes that there was not one overriding reason foreigners volunteered as there were many reasons why men volunteered for the International Brigade.  Most found the purity of the cause appealing - “the less one knew about Spain,” Jackson writes, “the more pure the cause and the occasion to concentrate anger and relieve frustrations.

Since the Spanish Civil War, there have many other instances of foreign volunteers joining conflicts (some even against their county).  None have had the same popular enthusiasm, contemporary urgency, or sheer number of participants. Today, few have answered the call that so many found compelling in the 1930s as the Arab Spring brings another cascade of revolutionary action.  A modern example might be the American documentarian, former journalist, and self-described freedom fighter, Matthew VanDyke.

VanDyke has had many adventures, as his website can attest.  From 2007 to 2010, he rode a motorcycle across the Arab world, from Morroco to Turkey, and eventually through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  In 2011, after friends in Libya asked for help early on in their fight against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he decided to join them.  In March, he arrived in Benghazi and joined the rebels.  On March 13, he was ambushed and captured.  He was put in solitary confinement and left there without interrogation. After Gadaffi forces fled the city, he escaped in August after more than five months in captivity.  Instead of returning to the United States, he rejoined the National Libyan Army and continued to fight alongside them.  Only after the death of Gadaffi, and the rebel victory, did he return.  He is now working with Syrian rebels, though only as a filmmaker, not as a combatant.  As one articles notes, he follows an American logic to “bring freedom into the world, to bring the light into the dark corners of the world.” 

Michael W. Jackson's book on the International Brigades is titled Fallen Sparrows.  He explains his title in a chapter on the motivations of the volunteers, linking it to a 1943 film with the same name.  In it, a character says “that in war many sparrows must fall.” Jackson's title is partly recognizing the simply ordinary nature of these men, like sparrows, and also an allusion to the Bible, which states that even the fall of a sparrow is of universal interest.  VanDyke, a modern day sparrow, has not yet fallen like so many of the International Brigade.  He is alone in his crusade, and there are no brigades of volunteers in Libya or Syria. 

It is difficult to understand VanDyke's passion today.  Perhaps a reason is found in the words of Jason Gurney, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War:

The Spanish Civil War seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear.  Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crime and were guilty of permitting its growth. 

In 2013, are we faced with the same dilemma that he saw in Spain?  Is there a moral imperative to support the rebels or be complicit with the dictators they fight against?  Most (including the authors of this blog) ask this question of their governments, but for the veterans of the International Brigades and VanDyke, it's clear that it was a question each individual had to answer for themselves. The answer to the question has far reaching consequences.  The volunteers of the Spanish Civil War were rarely commemorated in their lifetimes, some facing constant scrutiny as potential communists (even up to the 1980s), and their efforts were soon obscured by the enormity of the Second World War.  VanDyke may face a similar life-long struggle.  But their decision was not an easy path to follow, neither then nor now.  In the end, they probably decided that fighting for freedom was worth the cost. 

We know that we would never go to Libya or Syria or Spain to fight these wars, instead we sit in our comfortable chairs and ask questions of our governments.  While there is no shame in that, we must  respect those who choose the other path.