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Comintern Army

Comintern Army: The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War

R. Dan Richardson
Copyright Date: 1982
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Comintern Army
    Book Description:

    When Spain exploded into civil war in July 1936, a conflict whose roots were deep in the Spanish past became the arena for the violent political passions that divided Europe north of the Pyrenees. Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union intervened actively in the war, using Spain as a testing ground for their military equipment and techniques and their political ideologies.

    In this first in-depth study of the politics of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, R. Dan Richardson views the Brigades in the wider context of both the complex political-military alignments of Loyalist Spain and the broader Soviet-Comintern strategy during the Popular Front era. While not denying the generous impulse that led many young men the world over to enlist in the cause of the Spanish Republic, he sees the Brigades primarily as instruments of communist policy. He argues that the directing force behind the enlistment, training, and deployment of the Brigades was the international communist organization -- a compelling example of how the ends of propaganda and politics took precedence over military objectives.

    Using a wide array of sources in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German, and a thorough analysis of the Brigades' own voluminous literary output, Richardson clearly shows that the Brigades were a significant political, ideological, and propaganda instrument, which was used effectively by the Comintern for its own purposes, not only in Spain but on the larger world stage.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6437-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    When the first units of the International Brigades marched through the wind-swept and sparsely peopled streets of besieged Madrid in the early morning hours of November 8, 1936, a myth was born. This myth focused on the appealing idea that the men of those first International contingents, and the thousands who were to follow them into the whirlwind of civil war in Spain, represented the response of world democracy to the threat of fascism. These International volunteers were, so the theme ran, a band of modem Lafayettes and Garibaldis, the “cream of the progressive youth of the age” and “premature...

  4. 1 Spanish Politics and Comintern Strategy
    (pp. 3-15)

    On July 17, 1936, elements of the Spanish army raised the banner of revolt against the government of the Republic. Thepronunciamiento,however, was not a complete success. Had it been so, the ministry would have resigned and a military junta would have assumed governmental powers.¹ What happened instead was the detonation of dual revolutions and a full-scale civil war in which each side sought not only the destruction of the other but the destruction of the Spanish Republic and the abortive experiment in “bourgeois democracy” which it represented.

    The government against which the Spanish army rebelled was dependent upon...

  5. 2 Popular Front Militias
    (pp. 16-30)

    Since the bulk of the army and heavy police forces of Spain either sided with the military revolt of July 1936 or were swamped in the proletarian revolution that followed hard on its heels, the only effective armed opposition to thepronunciamientocame from militia units that were organized and controlled by the various Popular Front political parties and labor unions. The Socialist and Communist parties had in fact been organizing workers and peasant militias for some time prior to 1936. Enrique Lister, after a three-year sojourn in the Soviet Union where he attended both the Lenin Institute and a...

  6. 3 The Comintern Raises an Army
    (pp. 31-46)

    In conformity with the Kremlin’s decisions on its Spanish policy in September 1936, the Comintern launched a full-scale drive to recruit an international army to fight in Spain. Within the framework of the Comintern the major direct responsibility and role in the operation went to the Communist party of France. France’s contiguous border with Spain, as well as the convenient fact that France had, at that time, a sympathetic Popular Front government and a large Communist party with members sitting in the Chamber of Deputies made that country the obvious choice for the concentration of recruits and their transportation into...

  7. 4 The Defense of Madrid
    (pp. 47-67)

    The inexorable advance of the Nationalist columns toward Madrid throughout the month of October created widespread pessimism among Loyalist supporters. The fight seemed to have gone from the militia. Most observers agreed with Pravda correspondent Koltsov who lamented to his diary, “How is it possible with such troops, and with such commanders ... to defend Madrid.”¹

    And yet, not all the advantages lay with the Nationalists. Their military position was, in fact, extremely vulnerable. Not only were they numerically weak and physically exhausted from the rigors of their long campaign from the south, but their long and exposed flanks presented...

  8. 5 The XIII, XIV, and XV Brigades
    (pp. 68-80)

    While the first two International Brigades fought on the Madrid front, new recruits continued to stream into Albacete at the rate of 500 to 1,000 a week. Because of the heavy casualties sustained by the XI and XII Brigades at Madrid, the Albacete staff posted many of the new recruits to those two Brigades as reinforcements during November and December. At the same time, they organized new battalions slated for a third (XIII) International Brigade. One battalion, composed primarily of French and Belgians, trained at Mahora; another, also predominantly French, at Villanueva de la Jara and Quentinar de la Orden;...

  9. 6 A Military Overview
    (pp. 81-89)

    The entry of the XI Brigade into combat on November 8, 1936, opened a five-month period in which the Internationals played a crucial, perhaps decisive, military role in the Spanish war. While a detailed treatment of the campaigns of the International Brigades is beyond the scope of this study, a brief synopsis and overview of the military developments in the Madrid area and the role played by the Internationals in them will serve to illustrate a number of factors of importance in understanding the politics of the Brigades, both then and subsequently.

    The battles in and around Madrid lasting from...

  10. 7 Comintern Politics
    (pp. 90-118)

    While the purely military role of the International Brigades became of progressively less consequence after the spring and summer of 1937, the political significance of the Brigades as an element in the Comintern’s overall operation in Spain (and in the wider Popular Front strategy) continued to be seen as of the greatest importance. Thus the Communists sought to maintain the Brigades as a viable and reliable Comintern-controlled force within the framework of the Loyalist political-military structure.

    To succeed in this objective over the long run presented a greater challenge than it had during the earlier period when the Brigades had...

  11. 8 The Political Commissar
    (pp. 119-135)

    The International Brigade political commissariat maintained its absolute dominance over the internal affairs of the Brigades through a variety of means including control of the Brigade press, censorship, control of appointments to military and political posts, and, ultimately, the Brigade police apparatus, which carried with it the power to imprison and execute without recourse to or review by higher authority. But within the spectrum of the commissariat’s control mechanisms, nothing was more important than the political commissar system.

    A political commissar system functioned throughout the Loyalist People’s Army from the date of its origins in late 1936 to the end...

  12. 9 Comintern Propaganda Instrument
    (pp. 136-158)

    Among the most important roles played by the International Brigades within the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy during the Spanish war was that of an extremely potent propaganda instrument: both as source and as symbol. As source, the voluminous propaganda output of the Brigades themselves consistently adhered to and reinforced Comintern policy in its specifically Spanish and in its larger international aspects. As symbol, the very existence of the Internationals in Spain made them a tremendously attractive propaganda vehicle that could be, and was, exploited to appeal to a number of different audiences.

    Within the Brigades themselves the commissariat’s control of...

  13. 10 Dissidence, Desertion, and the Terror
    (pp. 159-176)

    The mentality of political suspicion, hatred, terror, and murder that was then running its grotesque and bloody course in the Soviet Union and that cast its spell throughout the Comintern spilled over into Spain and the International Brigades. An NKVD contingent arrived with the Soviet diplomatic and military missions in September 1936, under the control of the veteran NKVD officer known as Alexander Orlov. The NKVD, or “Cheka” as it was commonly called, became notorious in Spain due to its widespread campaign of terror which included the jailing, torture, and physical liquidation of numerous elements of the political left, most...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 177-180)

    On September 21, 1938, Prime Minister Negrín announced in a speech to the League of Nations that his government had decided upon the complete withdrawal of all non-Spanish combatants from its armed forces. He asked that the League create a commission to oversee the demobilization and repatriation process.

    The League complied with Negrín’s request and its commission arrived in Spain on October 14. This signaled the official demise of the International Brigades as participants in the Spanish Civil War and their passing into history. But their historical image has been a particularly fuzzy one. This has been true, in part,...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 181-216)
  16. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 217-223)

    Since I have used a wide variety of primary sources in this study, especially the official Comintern press and the press of the International Brigades themselves, my chapter notes provide a better and more thorough indication of this type of material than could any formal bibliography. In this essay, therefore, I will discuss only the more important books and documentary sources that I found to be valuable in this study of the International Brigades.

    The standard· general work in English on the civil war in Spain as a whole, both military and political, is Hugh Thomas,The Spanish Civil War...

  17. Index
    (pp. 224-232)