Jewish Volunteers, the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury 2018) pp264
By Gerben Zaagsma
Of the 35,000 who served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, at least 10% were Jews – a vastly disproportionate fraction. ‘Why the Jews?’ is Gerben Zaagsma’s central question in his fascinating book. Was it an early example of Jewish resistance to Nazism, a precursor to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? But did they serve because of their Jewishness? The author posits the answer in the murkiness of Jewish identity during the inter-war years. Many left wing Jews buried their Jewishness beneath layers of universalism. Yet standing firm against Hitler and Mussolini undoubtedly brought together these different components of identity. Zaagsma rightly points out that there was a plethora of reasons for dying at Jarama and Brunete in defending the Spanish republic – including refuting the fascist claim that Jews were ‘cowards and deserters’. Franco’s nationalists further propagated the idea of a ‘Judeo-Bolshevik-Freemason’ conspiracy designed to besmirch Catholic Spain.
It was only after the Holocaust that many Jewish Brigaders began to acknowledge Jewish reasons for fighting in Spain. The trauma caused by Nazi atrocities helped to resolve the contradictions between Jewish and socialist universalist identities. The Nazi-Soviet pact (1939), the Slansky trial (1952) and the Doctors Plot (1953) all dissolved the dream of Communism amidst a wave of Kremlin-sponsored anti-Semitism and led to an exodus from local Communist parties.
In 1968 Jewish Brigaders who had stayed to build the new Poland were deluged by anti-Semitic inuendo – a product of a power struggle at the top of the party such that ‘Zionists’ became a convenient political scapegoat. Previously regarding themselves as patriotic Poles, many Brigaders were subsequently forced out of the country – as Jews – and stripped of their citizenship and pensions.
Another factor in sensitising Jewish Brigaders was the rise of Israel in 1948 – especially since Jews and Arabs from pre-war Palestine had served in Spain. In 1936 in the midst of the Arab Revolt against British control and the Zionist presence, Jewish volunteers for Spain argued that (kibbutz) ‘Hanita takes precedence over Madrid’. It was only in the 1970s that Jews from both Israel and the Diaspora began to retroactively assess the Jewish factors – real or imaginary – that led them to Spain. In 1986 Israeli President Chaim Herzog publicly acknowledged the Jewish Brigaders and a few years later a monument to their struggle was unveiled in Barcelona.
Zaagma’s book unpeels and analyses the complex motivations, both political and psychological, for this belated recognition. Such revelations strengthen the meaning of La Pasionaria’s words to them on leaving Spain: ‘You are legend. You are history.’
Times Literary Supplement 4 January 2019