On the Frontline: British Volunteers in the Spanish and Syrian Civil Wars

On the Frontline: British Volunteers in the Spanish and Syrian Civil Wars

Richard Baxell (LSE)


‘Spanish Civil War metaphors get thrown around pretty casually’, observed Walrus Magazine editor, Jonathan Kay, recently. Yet despite the problems involved in drawing comparisons between current and past events, they don’t seem to stop people trying. Ever since the ‘Arab Spring’ first erupted in North Africa four years ago, numerous commentators have referenced earlier uprisings. The revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989 were initially cited, but since the uprising in Syria descended into vicious civil war, it seems to be the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 that has become most common. Clearly, ‘the Spanish cockpit’ remains an important touchstone for discussions – and heated arguments – about civil wars in general and the intervention of foreign powers. How helpful many of the comparisons actually are, however, is a matter of debate.

On first sight, it is not hard to see why comparisons get drawn. In both Spain and Syria it’s possible to view the wars as between the military and supporters, on one side, and a seemingly disparate opposition on the other. Both conflicts saw the active intervention of foreign powers, with thousands of foreign volunteers from around the world joining the fight. But in almost every other aspect the events are poles apart; certainly the volunteers for the International Brigades and the Jihadis fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq bear little if any resemblance to one other.

Despite claims to the contrary, the 35 000 foreign volunteers in the International Brigades (of whom some 2500 were from Britain and Ireland) were not ‘adventurers’. They were, in fact, overwhelmingly normal working class men and women from around the world who recognised the threat of European fascism and chose to do something about it. If they shared any political philosophy it would be that they were anti-fascists or ‘progressives’ (that is, of the political left); roughly three-quarters were Communists, but there were also Socialists, Labourites and Trade Unionists. Most came from urban backgrounds, they were actually older than is widely believed and more than a few of them were married.

The background of the 11 000 (of whom some 500 are British) foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, however, is rather different. They are much younger than the volunteers for Spain; most are their late teens or early twenties. Most are reasonably well-educated children of immigrants and while a large number do come from major conurbations such as London and Greater Manchester, others come from towns such as Brighton, Crawley and Portsmouth in the south-east of England. It may well be true that, albeit initially, ‘many of these young men are driven by what, in their minds, are humanitarian concerns for their co-religionists and the Syrian people.’ However, once in Syria or Iraq, most appear to end up joining Islamic Jihadist organisations such as Islamic State (IS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, where they become radicalised and end up fighting ‘to redress local and regional grievances in the Muslim world’. Posts on social media would also suggest that machismo concerns such as a thirst for adventure, the chance to carry an AK47, and, perhaps, even the opportunity to claim a wife, might also have attractions for some. As the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)’s Shiraz Maher points out, the appeal of slick IS videos, ‘filled with balaclava-wearing boys in smocks offering the promise of making history’, expertly and rapidly disseminated around the world via the Internet, certainly play their part. And, as the war has increasingly become a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, this rivalry has itself become one of the drivers.

It is almost a truism to state that the motivations of those who went to Spain in the 1930s were very different. While some commentators have argued that the volunteers in Stalin’s ‘Comintern Army’ were also fighting to establish a state – a Communist satellite state – this is not the case, despite the undoubted Russian influence and the murderous actions of the NKVD in Spain. In fact, Stalin’s main fear was German expansionism and his support for the Spanish Republic was, at its most basic, a riposte to the intervention of the fascist powers. The Brigades were less about Russian imperialism than Soviet caution, ‘part of Stalin’s emergency planning’ to avert disaster in Spain. And while most of the volunteers in the International Brigades were members of the Communist Party and some of these were undoubtedly devout Stalinists, others were less doctrinaire anti-fascists. It was threat of European fascism which spurred them to volunteer, even if it was the Comintern which enabled them to do so.

In a letter home, one volunteer from Stockport explained why he went to Spain: “Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.” (Letter, George Green to Mother, 1938. IBA, Marx Memorial Library)

The International Brigades were, of course, ultimately unsuccessful and it would take six years of world war to achieve what they had been unable to do in Spain. When, in October 1938, the gamble was taken to withdraw the International Brigades (in the vain hope that Hitler and Mussolini would similarly withdraw their soldiers) the survivors returned, where they could, to their homes. However, it is often forgotten that they were not always welcomed with open arms. For example, while the returning British veterans received a tumultuous reception from friends, families and supporters, they faced grave suspicion from many within the government and security services who suspected that the veterans had been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’.

Although it was recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting any volunteers under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked, or encountered discrimination in their workplaces for many years to come. It is here, perhaps, that there is a meaningful parallel. Clearly the thorny issue of how to deal with returning fighters is a major current concern, in Britain and elsewhere.

On 10 February 2014, George Monbiot wrote a piece for The Guardian on exactly this issue, which drew an explicit link between those returning from Syria today and from Spain in the 1930s. Complaining that ‘[George] Orwell was hailed a hero for fighting in Spain. Today he’d be guilty of terrorism’, the article criticised the application of the 2006 Terrorism Act to the British fighting with IS, which threatened anyone returning from the conflict with imprisonment. Monbiot’s point was that it was a mistake to ‘tar all the volunteers with the same brush’; while many were determined Jihadists fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Syria (and beyond) or willing to die trying, some of the volunteers had come to regret becoming involved and wished to return home. Not all agreed with him, though. Responses to reports that a British jihadi was being killed every three weeks in Iraq and Syria suggested that many were vehemently opposed to allowing any IS veterans to return, arguing that it would be better if they were all killed in the fighting. More considered responses came from former MI6 director of global counter-terrorism operations Richard Barrett and Peter Neuman of the ICSR. They argued that the potential to make use of repentant volunteers to persuade others not to follow in their footsteps, let alone the intelligence that they could provide, outweighed the fears and that it would be Britain’s interests to allow them to return.

How many will return and how useful their intelligence will be is not clear, but the security services obviously view the prospect of the return of hundreds of radicalised, hardened fighters with considerable alarm; probably more so even than the veterans of the International Brigades. In the end, this marks out what many consider to be the crucial distinction. When the question ‘How different are the young men going off to fight in Syria from those who went to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War?’ was posed on social media recently, one commentator was quick to provide a clear, concise answer that many agreed with: ‘The International Brigades were fighting fascism, these Jihadis are fighting FOR fascism’.


Richard Baxell is a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. He is the author of a number of books and articles on British volunteers for the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. His latest book, Unlikely Warriors, an ‘authoritative’ oral history of the British fighters against fascism from 1932 to 1945, was published by Aurum Press in September 2012.