In The Guardian, Giles Tremlett has written a fascinating piece about the international volunteers that fought in the Spanish Civil War, the pedigree it gave them, and the unexpectedly large role many of them played in their countries upon return.
International Brigades veterans went on to serve as iron curtain prime ministers — or equivalent — in East Germany, Hungary and Albania. They provided dozens of ministers, generals, police chiefs and ambassadors across all Europe’s communist regimes (…). In East Germany, former International Brigades volunteers founded and ran the notorious Stasi. Suppressing freedom was part of their job. Little surprise, then, that some countrymen now despise them.
The brigadiers are often held up as heroes, young idealists that came from all corners of the world to fight the rising tide of fascism, and they’re forever immortalized by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. But history, Tremlett writes, “is neither neat nor clean” and the legacy of the brigadiers is full of surprising twists and turns.
I would add that history is a lot more complicated than the narratives we hold up about it. Many of those fighting had gone not just out of idealism but because they were shunned as communists or jews at home. After the Second World War and the “defeat of fascism” in Europe, the very same people were held up as heroes. A convenient storyline is easily co-opted.
Look no further than to one of the most iconic photos of the Civil War:
This picture, showing the young Socialist Marina Ginestà on top of a building overlooking Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona is often show to illustrate the idealism of young people fighting against Franco—although Marina GInestà was actually a reporter and didn’t normally carry a gun.