‘Here Lies Half Of Spain, Killed By The Other Half’ – Traditional.

There are masses of MI5 files that cover radicals, including George Orwell, that British intelligence suspected of intending to fight in Spain during the Civil War.

The recent release of MI5’s records on British volunteers during the Spanish civil war is a fascinating new source and an invaluable addition to the available archival information. However, claims in the mainstream media that these figures show that many more Britons volunteered than had previously been thought should be treated with caution. (Nothing new there then eh?)

The new sources apparently suggest that some 4,000 Britons departed for Spain (compared with the standard figure of 2,500 or less) – a number that even exceeds the 2,762 that emerged from research in the Spanish archives during the 1960s and 70s (at a time when the Franco regime, which had always sought to inflate the number of foreigners fighting in Spain, was still in power). At first sight, therefore, it seems unlikely that there was a phantom regiment of some 1,500 additional British volunteers in Spain.

This new source essentially records those radicals that British intelligence suspected of going to Spain (albeit often with later corroboration provided). Therefore, the list includes those who did not go to Spain to fight (such as the writer Valentine Ackland and the journalist John Langdon-Davies), as well as Eric Blair/George Orwell, who fought for the much smaller ILP contingent.

We have to bear in mind that some of those listed may well not have made it to Spain.

One point that does emerge strongly, however, is what a close eye British intelligence kept on the potential volunteers at the ports, and how unwilling they were to prevent their departure. The British government was reluctant to use the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act, fearing that if a case came to court it could not secure a conviction, and would face political embarrassment.

How will this new material affect our understanding of the British volunteers? The general story of the volunteers is already well known. Although some of the best known were middle class, Oxbridge-educated intellectuals, they were overwhelmingly drawn from the working class, and came predominantly from London and the industrial regions of Britain. They were motivated by anti-fascism and saw the defence of the democratically elected Spanish Republic (under attack by Franco’s military rebels, assisted by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) as a means to defeat the Europe-wide threat of fascism. However, one aspect that remains highly controversial is the role of the Communist party, despite the release of international communist movement archives in Moscow during the 1990s.

The Communist party of Great Britain took responsibility for organising the recruitment of volunteers in Britain, and leading communists held positions as officers and “political commissars” with the British battalion in Spain. While historians have tended to see the members of the British battalion as genuine volunteers rather than as communist “dupes”, the rhetoric that the communists used in the civil war (defending “democracy” against fascism) sits uncomfortably with the excesses of Stalin’s Russia at the height of the terror. The degree of political control exercised by the communist leadership of the battalion, and especially the treatment of those volunteers who fell out with the political commissars for political reasons, has attracted particular debate.

These new records will doubtless not conclude that debate, but they will provide valuable new evidence on the radical milieu in which the volunteers moved. In particular, the file cards which are also being released (a selection are available online) , provide evidence not only on volunteers’ movements, but also on their political activities during the civil war and long after their return from Spain. Most importantly, once checked against other records such as the valuable collection at the Marx Memorial Library in London, the new material will allow an even fuller picture of the volunteers to be built up, and it is quite possible that some new names will come to light.

This will facilitate the task of producing a genuinely rounded collective biography of the British volunteers.

Auto de Fe

“Last night I met my uncle in the rain
And he told me he’d been dead for fifty years.
My parents told me he’d been shot in Spain
Serving with the Irish volunteers..
But in this dream we huddled round a brazier
And passed the night in argument.
‘El sueño de la razón…’ and on it went.
And as he spoke he rolled a cigarette
And picked a straw and held it to an ember.
The shape his hand made sheltering the flame
Was itself a kind of understanding.
But it would never help me to explain
Why my uncle went to fight for Spain,
For Christ, for Caudillo, for the King.”

Michael Donaghy