In March 2019, a new war memorial was unveiled on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow. Unlike most memorials in towns and cities across the country, this memorial does not commemorate those who died in the service of the British state. Rather, it celebrates those British sailors who, in open defiance of the British Government’s wishes, risked their lives to run the blockade of Spanish ports to deliver much-needed food supplies to Republican territory during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
This is not the first memorial dedicated to commemorating this particular conflict in Glasgow, or even the first to grace the same stretch of the River Clyde. The iconic ‘La Pasionaria’ statue, a stylised sculpture of the Spanish communist and orator Dolores Ibárruri erected by the City of Glasgow in 1980, holds its arms upraised in a triumphant, hopeful commemoration of the numerous Glaswegians who gave their lives fighting for the Spanish Republic as part of the International Brigades. These units were formed from approximately 32,000 foreign volunteers as well as tens of thousands of Spanish Republican soldiers, and remain one of the largest ever mobilisations of so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in a single conflict. These Brigades went on to play a starring role in the heroic but doomed attempt to preserve Spanish democracy against militarism, dictatorship and fascism in the late 1930s, a struggle famously chronicled by the likes of George Orwell, Robert Capa and Ernest Hemingway. ‘La Pasionaria’ is just one of dozens of memorials dedicated to these volunteers across Scotland alone. To my mind at least, it’s probably the most striking memorial to the International Brigades in Britain.
The story of Glaswegian and other Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War has been the subject of my own research for many years now. I’ve sought to explain the motives of the 500-plus volunteers who departed from Scotland, have explored their experiences in Spain, and questioned their treatment at the hands of the British state on their return. Their story is fascinating on any number of levels – not least the sheer optimism and idealism of the decision to fight against the rising tide of European fascism, for a government and people to which they owed no personal loyalty beyond shared humanity. To a historian’s more jaundiced eye, the ambiguities and contradictions of their time in Spain are even more interesting. The International Brigades were organised by the Comintern, and the British contingent was run by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Negotiating – and in some cases helping to implement – Stalinist political cultures was part and parcel of their service.
The enduring fascination with the International Brigades in Scotland, however, owes little to the historical profession. Unlike virtually every other national grouping in the International Brigades – from the 8,000-10,000 French volunteers to the small handful of New Zealanders – Scottish volunteers were until very recently almost entirely neglected in scholarly history writing. This, as the numerous memorials (not to mention plays, songs, street art, exhibitions and more) make clear, has not been an impediment to grassroots commemoration and the ongoing preservation of their memory. This is reflected further in the only major account of Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War – Daniel Gray’s excellently-titled Homage to Caledonia (2008). This is an unashamedly triumphant and celebratory book that helped cement a fundamentally heroic narrative. It was not, didn’t need to be and made no pretensions of being a scholarly account.
The continued existence – even vibrancy – of the commemorative community surrounding Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War poses awkward questions for historical research such as my own. This, clearly, is not ‘forgotten’ history, or a story that needs to be rescued for posterity. The memory will likely stay alive with or without the involvement of academic researchers. While we may be able to add fresh detail and perspectives on events, it is much less clear how far we should seek to reshape these grand old narratives. One traditional answer might be the recourse to ‘neutrality’, leaning on my status as an ‘outsider’ that can more readily discern ‘truth’ and question comfortable narratives. Yet I have little faith in professions of historical neutrality when it comes to such live, burning history. Stripping this story of its radical content and connotations would be to deliberately misunderstand why the Spanish Civil War could mobilise so many people, from so many places. To my mind, our job is not to ‘fact check’ a popular narrative, but to understand the ethos of the times, an ethos that is still to some extent reflected in this community.
Beyond revealing new details about what volunteering in Spain was like, what I think academic historians can offer to radical history is a widening of the story. Those who still remember the International Brigades in Scotland need no reminding that their involvement in the Spanish Civil War was part of a much larger clash of ideologies that defined the 1930s. Yet there are less obvious ways that these volunteers can help us learn about wider stories. To take just one example, understanding why Spain proved so especially attractive to foreign volunteers from Scotland and elsewhere can shed a great deal of light on the basis of transnational mobilisations in other contexts. What stars needed to align, in other words, to enable such a vast, diffuse movement of people across borders? While there is no equivalency, of course, between the motives of those who sought to fight fascism in Spain with those seeking to support the Islamic State in Syria, structural similarities across contexts hint at new ways to understand why individuals risk everything for people they’ve never met, in countries that they’ve never visited. As recent efforts from the likes of Nir Arielli to embrace a comparative approach to the history of foreign war volunteering seek to show, those from places like Scotland who fought in Spain form a vital chapter in a much longer, fascinating story.