This July will see the eightieth anniversary of one of the most defining military and political events of the last century. On 18 July 1936 in colonial Morocco, and in mainland Spain the day after, Generals opposed to the republican government staged a military coup with the intention of its overthrow. Tensions had been building in Spain since the election that February of a progressive Popular Front government, intent on reviving the democratising programme of the 1931-33 government, including reform of land, education, aspects of gender equality and regional autonomy. By May 1936, armed groups representing elements of both left and right were openly assassinating members of the other side in the streets. Conservative politicians were able to stir up fears about stability and openly called for the government’s overthrow, encouraging plans for the coup to be developed by leading figures in the military, including General Francisco Franco who would later become its leading figure.
The nationalist coup was immediately supported by military units in places like Morocco, Pamplona, Burgos, Zaragoza, Valladolid, Cádiz, Córdoba and Seville. However, rebelling units in important cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Malaga were unable to capture their objectives, primarily due to workers’ militias taking to barricades and fighting the insurgents in the streets. These were heady days, captured vividly in black and white archive film, showing cars and lorries, some with quickly improvised armour, crammed with clenched fist saluting militia, heading out from the loyalist cities to take on the insurgency.
Virtually from the outset, Hitler and Mussolini agreed to help the nationalists, particularly with the important airlift of the experienced Army of Africa over to the Spanish mainland, from where they began their advance which would eventually lead to the outskirts of Madrid in November.
For the ‘democracies’, France outdid Britain in its eagerness for a Non-Intervention Agreement, which was signed within 3 weeks of the outbreak of hostilities. Their desire to appease fascism, rather than defend Spanish democracy, saw the Madrid government denied the right to even purchase weapons to defend itself. Though Germany, Italy and Portugal became signatories they had no qualms about blatantly supporting their fascist allies in Spain. The Soviets also signed and provided important military aid to the Government side but this became less sustainable as the conflict progressed. In the final analysis, the impact of non-intervention on the Republican forces, as opposed to the nationalist side, proved the crucial factor in the eventual outcome of the civil war.
The conflict soon became internationalised. Some of the first to take up arms alongside Spaniards were overseas competitors in Barcelona in July for the Workers’ Olympiad, being held in opposition to the Berlin Olympics. The first from Britain to fall was sculptor and Communist Party member, Felicia Brown, also in Barcelona ahead of the coup. She volunteered to join the PSUC (Catalan communist) militia, the Karl Marx, heading for Aragon to defend the republic. She fell on 22 August attempting to sabotage a nationalist train.
The first of the International Brigades were formed in October 1936, an event whose eightieth anniversary will be marked this year with an IBMT/Philosophy Football social event in London on the first of that month, followed later by a week of events at the Marx Memorial Library and the unveiling of a special memorial at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. The British Battalion wasn’t formed until just after Christmas 1936 and best wishes will surely be sent to its last survivor, Stan Hilton, now living in Australia. Further events in Spain will also be held, with ambitious plans taking shape for the traditional Jarama weekend in February 2017 and subsequent eightieth battle commemorations will include Brunete in July and no doubt the Ebro the following year. Those who might contemplate less strenuous opportunities to remember might like to order in some Brigadista Spanish Civil War Ale from the Blackhill Brewery in County Durham, with proceeds going to the IBMT.
In the last ten years, a number of places have renewed or begun the practice of holding an annual commemoration at their local International Brigade memorial like Dundee, Edinburgh, Renton, Motherwell and Glasgow. There are also groups planning new memorials in their areas such as Inverness with the memorial to British Merchant Navy casualties of the war to be sited in Glasgow. If you have a local memorial, why not use the eightieth anniversary as a focus for launching an annual commemoration? To keep tabs on events coming up, check the IBMT website, or the Scotland and the Spanish Civil War Facebook page.
Mike Arnott is the Scotland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust