Fighters of Fascism Return to Spain, This Time as Heroes
Civil War's international vets gather to receive honorary citizenship, thanks
For Reg Saxton, the decision to volunteer in a war in which he had no personal ambition or relatives at risk was a simple one.
"I felt something must be done to stop the advance of the Hitler empire," says the retired physician from West Sussex, England, who went to Spain to fight dictator Francisco Franco.
The International Brigades of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War pulled 40,000 people from across the globe to fight fascism. Thousands fell on the battleground and their effort failed.
But last week Mr. Saxton, along with hundreds of others from 29 countries, returned to Spain as heroes to commemorate the Brigades' participation 60 years ago in some of the century's fiercest civil combat.
Six decades and 21 years since the victorious Franco died, about 350 veterans of the Brigades have been granted honorary Spanish citizenship and have come to Spain to help the country - and themselves - put that chapter of history into perspective.
With Adolph Hitler in power in Germany, and Benito Mussolini ruling Italy, many people saw Spain as one more notch in the fascist belt. So they volunteered.
While the German and Italian governments supported Franco, thousands of volunteers from those countries joined the Brigades in the war, which pitted the "Brigadistas International" and the supporters of Spain's republic against Franco's army and wealthy landowners. The Soviet Union also sent volunteers, and the Soviets were responsible for most of the military supplies and nearly all of the volunteer organizing against Franco.
"I'm not a Communist, but I am an antifascist," says Robert Peters, originally of Wales, of his spur for joining the volunteers. His entrance into the war was typical: Sneak into Spain from France, get two weeks of training - "not enough for all we had to go through" - and then into battle. Mr. Peters was shot in the back one day during a battle at Brunete.
The Brigades lost nearly every battle in which they fought, a result of a combination of poor training, inexperienced leadership, and lack of equipment. International treaties kept most nations from selling arms to either side, but Franco was given military superiority by German and Italian armaments, planes, and troops. Despite his own reliance on foreign aid, Franco despised the Brigades, and most soldiers captured got a field execution instead of a trip to a POW camp.
Peters, who has been a merchant marine, described living conditions on the front as "shocking, terrible." Food was scarce and primitive, with a hearty meal consisting of salt-dried fish and chick peas. Clarence Kailin, recruited to the Brigades by Communists in Wisconsin, says that eventually troops were reduced to bread and whatever water they could find. His diet improved only after he was hospitalized from a sniper's bullet. Despite the bad food, disease, and an enemy eager to kill, Mr. Kailin says he never wavered in his commitment to the war.
"That never occurred to me," he says, despite the fact that nearly half of the 3,200 Americans were killed in combat. Many of the American volunteers were Communists, like Kailin, or Communist sympathizers, and all firmly believed Spain was the place to make a stand against fascism and for the people, regardless of the odds.
"We did what we could to help," says New Yorker Irving Gold. There was something important happening, and I wanted to be a part of it."
Mr. Gold was a union organizer. In 1937, in the throes of the Depression, there was a good deal of labor organizing, and Communists found this fertile recruiting grounds. Another New Yorker, Jack Shafran, says he was one of the 11 organizers at a department store who went to Spain.
"Had we prevailed in Spain," World War II probably wouldn't have happened, Mr. Shafran says. He later served in the US Army in World War II, but many of his comrades from Spain were labeled as unsuitable because they were "premature antifascists."
Like many other US members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Shafran says FBI agents routinely called on him after the war to ask whom he had met at Communist cell meetings. He says they arranged to have him fired from several jobs when he wouldn't cooperate, and recalled that the Internal Revenue Service audited his tax returns for 20 years after the war, never finding a mistake.
Brigade members from other nations didn't report widespread government surveillance, and Peters, for instance, says he had no problem joining the British Army during World War II.
Despite the misery and suffering, wartime Spain spawned a few romances. Irene Goldin was a young nurse from Connecticut who belonged to no political party but wanted to help people. One of her patients was Harry Spiegel, an Austrian fighter whom she helped recuperate from severe wounds and then married in Spain. After the Brigades were pulled out of Spain in late 1938, the Spiegels moved to France and fought in the Resistance there before returning to Austria to raise a family.
Juan vaan Eyk's mother was a Spanish nurse and his father a Dutch fighter who married in Spain. On this trip back they were accompanied by three of their children.
"I have more respect for them, now that I see" what they did 50 years go, says their son Juan.
Spain seems to have more respect, too. At the ceremony in Madrid, the vets were showered with flowers as they marched, as powerfully as they could on ancient legs, into a sports stadium that was so crowded it turned away spectators. Milton Wolff, a Californian who was the last commander of the Lincoln Brigade that so entranced writer Earnest Hemingway, said that on a trip to the reunion hotel a cab driver found out who he was and refused to accept any money.
In Madrid, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war, the vets toured battle sites and cemeteries where fallen comrades lie. Then they fanned out to Barcelona and Albacete, a base for the Brigades, to meet the public and government officials.
Some Brigade members occasionally sneaked back into Spain for a look at the country where they had fought, and in 1986 had an official reunion. This likely marks the last hurrah for them. Mr. Wolff is more optimistic, however, saying he's already looking forward to the 75th reunion.