September 10, 2015 –
Aleksey Blyuminov, PolitNavigator –
Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski
“International brigades: How it was in Spain, and how it is in Donbass”
British writer and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the public under the pseudonym of George Orwell, not only wrote the dystopian “1984” and “Animal Farm” novels, but also introduced into common speech the term “Cold War”, which become a substantial part of public and political discourse in the second half of the 20th century.
George Orwell as a volunteer
However, there is yet another page in the biography of Orwell: his involvement as a volunteer in the Civil war in Spain on the side of the Republic.
In 1936, just six months after his wedding, he, together with his wife, went to the Aragon front in the civil war.
He spent almost half a year fighting in the ranks of the Trotskyist POUM militia until he was wounded in the throat by a fascist sniper. Memories of these events formed the basis of several of his works — the documentary novel “Homage to Catalonia” and the essay “Remembering the War in Spain.”
Many thousands of such volunteers as Orwell were in Spain at the time. And they came to fight against fascism from all over Europe and even from America. They were mostly left-wing people: Communists, socialists, and anarchists. However, liberals and even nationalists also happened to be among them. The Republican government in Madrid formed armed units of the Republican army called the international brigades out of them. For example, there were the French brigades — there were more French than anyone else in the war — which made up almost a quarter. Besides them, Italians, Poles, Germans, Americans, and citizens of the USSR defended the Republic.
The decision to form international brigades was adopted by the Comintern Executive Committee on 18 September 1936. The first group of volunteers arrived in Spain on October 13. And on the 2nd of October of the same year, the Republican government officially declared the international brigades to belong to its armed forces.
There they sway in saddles and sing “Grenada”
The current war in Donbass reminds us of the events in Spain 80 years ago. The analogy of the Donbass militia with the international brigades begs attention. In Donbass, as in Spain, it all started with the spontaneous arrival of volunteers from different countries. They went to Spain singing the famous Soviet song “To give the land back to the peasants in Grenada”. They went to Donbass to protect the barely formed peoples republics which promised to end the reign of nationalists and oligarchs.
Volunteers united in those times and these around an anti-fascist ideological attitude. Except that the Spanish fascists declared a rebellion against the legitimate government in Madrid, and the Ukrainian far-right managed to overthrow the legitimate government in Kiev. Hence the apparent difference between “those” [Spanish] international brigades, defending the central government, and the current [Donbass] militia who are formally recognized as “separatists”.
The romance of armed struggle against fascism led people who would later become famous to join the Spanish international brigades, such as the future German Chancellor, Social Democrat Willy Brandt, the German actor and singer Ernst Busch, American writer Hemingway, singer Paul Robeson, the philosopher Simone Weil, the Mexican artist and future murderer of Trotsky, Siqueiros, Hungarian writer Mate Zalka and the Soviet writer and journalist Mikhail Koltsov.
Among the militia of Donbass we also see a lot of creative individuals, from the famous St. Petersburg historian Igor Pyhalov who fought last summer in the ranks of the Lugansk battalion “Zarya”, to the science fiction writer Fyodor Berezin, who fought in the DPR. Assisting the militia and civilians of Donbass are the well-known writer Zakhar Prilepin, and the Englishman Graham Phillips, who makes reports from the front lines.
Certainly, among the current militia of Donbass are many people with serious combat military experience. Speaking of so-called “vacationers” in the past Spanish example, we had men like Manfred Stern, commander of one of the first Spanish brigades, a Soviet spy according to legend, who fought under the pseudonym “General Kleber”.
From a militia to a regular army
Without much difficulty one can find parallels in the history of the growth and formation of the international brigades in Spain and the militias in the Donbass. For example, the fact that the majority of volunteers in both cases, people without combat experience or, so to say, “civilians.”
Here is what leader of a [Spanish] international brigade, Andre Marty, wrote about his soldiers:”the majority of volunteers are from Italy, Germany, France, the Balkan countries and Poland. 80% are Communists and socialists. A third has no military training. The number of commanding staff is negligible, and combat experience is insufficient”.
Combat experience came to these people, as to IT workers, humanitarian workers, journalists, small businessmen, miners and representatives of other professions that formed the core of the militia in the Donbass, with the first rights themselves.
Finally, another detail. As you know, in addition to the fighters of the international brigades in the line of the Comintern, military advisers and experts from the Soviet Union (military commanders of the Red Army Colonel level, division commanders, lieutenant-majors, various arms operators, tank drivers, pilots, sailors, gunners, political officers, security officers, etc.) and civilian personnel (interpreters, physicians) also participated in the civil war in Spain. These Soviet advisers and specialists were not included in the composition of brigades, and served under the command of the Republican army.
Continuing our analogy, let’s say that today in the Donbass, Russian military advisers from among the so-called “vacationers” are certainly present, as evidenced by the entire Internet. And the fact that the disparate militias, recruited from random people, in just a year has become a capable regular army with command and discipline — certainly the merit of military experts played a role here. Without such a “rear”, i.e., the Russian civil experts who helped the Donbass republics to establish effective civilian governance, the militias would have collapsed last fall.
There are other similar developments in the activities of the brigades of today and those of eighty years ago. As is known, in 1937, the international brigades began to enlist Spanish conscripts, and soon they made up the majority (90 %) of personnel.
Here’s what the division commander Voroshilov Meretskov and Colonel Simonov wrote in August 1937: “11th international brigade. German-Austrian. 3rd battalion. In the membership of the brigade, only 8-10 % are internationalists (about 200 people); the rest are Spaniards. In fact, the brigade is no longer international. The 12th international brigade. Italian. 3rd battalion. Italians make up little more than 200, while the rest are Spaniards. 13th international brigade (“Dombrowski”). Polish. 4th battalion. In the 1st battalion are 200 poles. 50th international brigade. Mixed composition. 4th battalion. In the 1st battalion (“Chapaev”) 90 internationalists from Central Europe and 300 Spanish conscripts. In the 2nd battalion 40 are French. 3rd and 4th
battalions are Spanish”.
A similar pattern is observed today in Donbass. According to the confessions of witnesses, last year, at the initial stage in a number of the militia units, especially Cossack ones, the ratio of local and visiting volunteers was not in favor of the former. However, since fall of last year, the picture slowly began to change and today most of the militia are natives. Moreover, the people’s militia units in the LPR transitioned to a contract basis, with fighters receiving a cash allowance that enables them to support their families.
Speaking of the activities of the [Spanish] international brigades, one should consider the fact that a lot of their fighters were shot by their own command for various crimes that disgraced the reputation of the Republican army. The purge in fall 2014-spring 2015 of the Donbass militias of all sorts of random criminal elements, “disrupters” and “muggers” as well as simple delinquents who did not want to obey central command can be considered in the same vein. The disarming and dismantling of such “wild” militias also played a role in raising the level of combat readiness, which was manifested during the operation of closing the Debaltsevo “cauldron.”
From the old Comintern to a new “Comintern”
Note that, as in the case of the war in Donbass, the then pro-fascist press of Europe trumped about mythical hordes, perhaps hundreds of thousands of communists, sent by Moscow to fight on the side of the Republic. Today we hear and read about tens of thousands of “Russian terrorists”. But now and then, volunteers from abroad made up only a small percentage of the total mass of those defending the republics, whether Spain, Donetsk and Lugansk.
According to archival documents [from the Spanish Civil War], the number of internationalists in combat units at the same time never exceeded 6 – 8,5 thousand, and the maximum simultaneous number was 20 thousand. Interestingly, according to the documents of the international brigades, 340 “Russians” passed through their ranks. Among the Russians were included a few dozen who came from Palestine, as well as volunteers from Canada, USA, Argentina, Poland, and Lithuania. That is, the questionnaire concerned their replies regarding knowledge of the Russian language.
Today we see among the Donbass militias people from Israel, Serbia, Spain, USA, and from as far as Brazil. The Serbian brigade has become the best known, which fought in Donbass in the past year, as well as the Communist company in the “Ghost” brigade. And volunteers from the Russian movement “Other Russia,” writer Eduard Limonov directly emphasized, represent a continuity between the Spanish international brigades and those who today call themselves “international brigades”.
It is noteworthy that the opponents of Russia also appeal to analogies from the thirties of the last century. Recently in the Western press, the Czech intelligence services received a huge response to the revelation that Russia is building, don’t be surprised, a new Comintern in Europe! “Russia is creating ideological structures in Europe which can be perceived by all of the European political spectrum as a return to the concept of the Comintern, which was created and operated by the Soviet Union”, — the text of the report from RIA Novosti reads.
How can one not remember that it was precisely the “old” Comintern which adopted the decision on the creation of the international brigades and began the recruitment of anti-fascist volunteers for the civil war in Spain.
History repeats itself.