International Brigades

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International Brigades
Emblem of the International Brigades.svg
Symbol of the International Brigades.
Active18 September 1936 – 23 September 1938
Country France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Albania, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Ireland, China and others
AllegianceFlag of the Soviet Union (reverse).svg Communist International
Flag of Spain 1931 1939.svg Second Spanish Republic
Role Paramilitary
Garrison/HQ Albacete (Castilla-La Mancha)
Motto(s)Por vuestra libertad y la nuestra
("For your freedom and ours")
Engagements Spanish Civil War
Political Commissar André Marty
Manfred Stern, Hans Kahle, Karol Świerczewski, Máté Zalka and Wilhelm Zaisser
Flag of the International Brigades.svg

The International Brigades (Spanish : Brigadas Internacionales) were paramilitary units set up by the Communist International to assist the Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The organisation existed for two years, from 1936 until 1938. It is estimated that during the entire war, between 40,000 and 59,000 members served in the International Brigades, including 15,000 who died in combat. [1]

Spanish language Romance language

Spanish or Castilian, is a Romance language that originated in the Iberian Peninsula and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in Spain and the Americas. It is a global language and the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.

Paramilitary Militarised force or other organization

A paramilitary is a semi-militarized force whose organizational structure, tactics, training, subculture, and (often) function are similar to those of a professional military, but is not formally part of a country's armed forces.

Communist International International political organization

The Communist International (Comintern), known also as the Third International (1919–1943), was an international organization that advocated world communism. The Comintern resolved at its Second Congress to "struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state". The Comintern had been preceded by the 1916 dissolution of the Second International.


The headquarters of the brigade was located at the Gran Hotel, [2] Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha. They participated in the battles of Madrid, Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Aragon and the Ebro. Most of these ended in defeat. For the last year of its existence, the International Brigades were integrated into the Spanish Republican Army as part of the Spanish Foreign Legion. The organisation was dissolved on 23 September 1938 by Spanish Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, in a vain attempt to get more support from the liberal democracies on the Non-Intervention Committee.

Albacete City in Castilla–La Mancha, Spain

Albacete is a city and municipality in the Spanish autonomous community of Castilla–La Mancha, and capital of the province of Albacete. It is in the south-east of the Iberian Peninsula, in the region known as the Meseta Central within the historic region of La Mancha, in the smaller historic region of La Mancha de Montearagón; the area around the city is known as Los Llanos. With a population of 173,050 (2018) in the municipality proper, and 219,121 in the larger metropolitan area, it is the largest city in both the province and the region of Castilla–La Mancha, and indeed one of the largest of inland Spain, being included in the 20 largest urban areas in Spain. The municipality of Albacete is also the seventh largest in Spain by area, being 1,125.91 km2 (434.72 sq mi).

Battle of Jarama part of the Spanish Civil War

The Battle of Jarama was an attempt by General Francisco Franco's Nationalists to dislodge the Republican lines along the river Jarama, just east of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War. Elite Spanish Legionnaires and Moroccan Regulares from the Army of Africa forced back the Republican Army of the Centre, including the International Brigades, but after days of fierce fighting no breakthrough was achieved. Republican counterattacks along the captured ground likewise failed, resulting in heavy casualties to both sides.

Battle of Guadalajara battle

The Battle of Guadalajara saw the People's Republican Army defeat Italian and Nationalist forces attempting to encircle Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces involved in the Battle of Guadalajara were primarily the Italian Corps of Volunteer Troops.

The International Brigades was strongly supported by the Comintern and represented the Soviet Union's commitment to provide assistance to the Spanish Republic (with arms, logistics, military advisers and the NKVD), just as Fascist Italy, Corporatist Portugal and Nazi Germany were providing assistance to the opposing Nationalist insurgency. [3] The largest number of volunteers came from France (where the French Communist Party had many members) and communist exiles from Italy and Germany. A large number of Jews from the English-speaking world and Eastern Europe also participated. [4] Republican volunteers who were opposed to Stalinism did not join the Brigades but instead enlisted in the separate Popular Front, the POUM, formed from Trotskyist, Bukharinist and other anti-Stalinist groups, which did not separate Spaniards and foreign volunteers (such as George Orwell), [5] or anarcho-syndicalist groups such as the Durruti Column, the IWA and the CNT.

Soviet Union 1922–1991 country in Europe and Asia

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a Marxist-Leninist sovereign state in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Other major urban centres were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tashkent, Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk. It spanned over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometres (4,500 mi) north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.

The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, abbreviated NKVD, was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union.

<i>Estado Novo</i> (Portugal) 1933-1974 authoritarian regime in Portugal

The Estado Novo, or the Second Republic, was the corporatist far-right regime installed in Portugal in 1933, which was considered clerical fascist. It evolved from the Ditadura Nacional formed after the coup d'état of 28 May 1926 against the democratic and unstable First Republic. Together, the Ditadura Nacional and the Estado Novo are recognised as the Second Portuguese Republic. The Estado Novo, greatly inspired by conservative and autocratic ideologies, was developed by António de Oliveira Salazar, President of the Council of Ministers of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, when illness forced him out of office. After 1945, his corporatist economic model was less and less useful and it retarded economic modernization.

Formation and recruitment

A unit of the Bulgarian International Brigade, 1937 Bulgarian interbrigadiers in 1937.jpg
A unit of the Bulgarian International Brigade, 1937
Flag of the Hungarian International Brigades. International brigades hungary flag.svg
Flag of the Hungarian International Brigades.

Using foreign Communist Parties to recruit volunteers for Spain was first proposed in the Soviet Union in September 1936—apparently at the suggestion of Maurice Thorez [6] —by Willi Münzenberg, chief of Comintern propaganda for Western Europe. As a security measure, non-Communist volunteers would first be interviewed by an NKVD agent.

In political science, a communist party is a political party that seeks to realize the social and economic goals of Communism through revolution and state policy. The term communist party was popularized by the title of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As a vanguard party, the communist party guides the political education and development of the working class (proletariat); as the ruling party, the communist party exercises power through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin developed the role of the communist party as the revolutionary vanguard, when social democracy in Imperial Russia was divided into ideologically opposed factions, the Bolshevik faction and the Menshevik faction. To be politically effective, Lenin proposed a small vanguard party managed with democratic centralism, which allowed centralized command of a disciplined cadre of professional revolutionaries; once policy was agreed upon, realizing political goals required every Bolshevik's total commitment to the agreed-upon policy.

Maurice Thorez French politician

Maurice Thorez was a French politician and longtime leader of the French Communist Party (PCF) from 1930 until his death. He also served as Deputy Prime Minister of France from 1946 to 1947.

Willi Münzenberg German politician

Wilhelm "Willi" Münzenberg was a German Communist political activist. Münzenberg was the first head of the Young Communist International in 1919–20 and established the famine-relief and propaganda organization Workers International Relief in 1921. He was a leading propagandist for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during the Weimar Era, but later grew disenchanted with Communism due to Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s. Condemned by Stalin to be purged and arrested for treason, Münzenberg left the KPD and in Paris became a leader of the German émigré anti-fascism and anti-Stalinist community until forced to flee the Nazi advance into France in 1940. Arrested and imprisoned by the Daladier government in France, he escaped prison camp only to be found dead a few months later in a forest near the commune of Saint-Marcellin, France.

By the end of September, the Italian and French Communist Parties had decided to set up a column. Luigi Longo, ex-leader of the Italian Communist Youth, was charged to make the necessary arrangements with the Spanish government. The Soviet Ministry of Defense also helped, since they had experience of dealing with corps of international volunteers during the Russian Civil War. The idea was initially opposed by Largo Caballero, but after the first setbacks of the war, he changed his mind, and finally agreed to the operation on 22 October. However, the Soviet Union did not withdraw from the Non-Intervention Committee, probably to avoid diplomatic conflict with France and the United Kingdom.

Luigi Longo Italian politician

Luigi Longo, also known as Gallo, was an Italian communist politician and secretary of the Italian Communist Party from 1964 to 1972.

Russian Civil War multi-party war in the former Russian Empire, November 1917-October 1922

The Russian Civil War was a multi-party civil war in the former Russian Empire immediately after the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, as many factions vied to determine Russia's political future. The two largest combatant groups were the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik form of socialism led by Vladimir Lenin, and the loosely allied forces known as the White Army, which included diverse interests favouring political monarchism, economic capitalism and alternative forms of socialism, each with democratic and anti-democratic variants. In addition, rival militant socialists and non-ideological Green armies fought against both the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Eight foreign nations intervened against the Red Army, notably the former Allied military forces from the World War and the pro-German armies. The Red Army eventually defeated the White Armed Forces of South Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Admiral Alexander Kolchak to the east in Siberia in 1919. The remains of the White forces commanded by Pyotr Wrangel were beaten in Crimea and evacuated in late 1920. Lesser battles of the war continued on the periphery for two more years, and minor skirmishes with the remnants of the White forces in the Far East continued well into 1923. The war ended in 1923 in the sense that Bolshevik communist control of the newly formed Soviet Union was now assured, although armed national resistance in Central Asia was not completely crushed until 1934. There were an estimated 7,000,000–12,000,000 casualties during the war, mostly civilians.

The main recruitment centre was in Paris, under the supervision of Soviet colonel Karol "Walter" Świerczewski. On 17 October 1936, an open letter by Joseph Stalin to José Díaz was published in Mundo Obrero, arguing that victory for the Spanish second republic was a matter not only for Spaniards, but also for the whole of "progressive humanity"; in short order, communist activists joined with moderate socialist and liberal groups to form anti-fascist “popular front” militias in several countries, most of them under the control of or influenced by the Comintern. [7]

Karol Świerczewski Polish general

Karol Wacław Świerczewski was an ethnic Pole serving as the Red Army general. He was a Bolshevik party member and Soviet officer in the wars fought abroad by the Soviet Union including the one against Polish as well as Ukrainian Republics and in Republican Spain. In 1939 he participated in the Soviet invasion of Poland again. At the end of World War II in Europe he was installed as one of leaders of the Soviet-sponsored Polish Provisional Government of National Unity. Soon later, Świerczewski died in a country-road ambush shot by the militants from OUN-UPA. He was an icon of communist propaganda for the following several decades.

Joseph Stalin Soviet leader

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was a Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1953) and Premier (1941–1953). Initially presiding over a collective leadership as first among equals, by the 1930s he was the country's de facto dictator. A communist ideologically committed to the Leninist interpretation of Marxism, Stalin formalised these ideas as Marxism–Leninism, while his own policies are known as Stalinism.

José Díaz (politician) Spanish politician

José Díaz Ramos was a Spanish trade unionist and communist politician. He was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Entry to Spain was arranged for volunteers: for instance, a Yugoslav, Josip Broz, who would become famous as Marshal Josip Broz Tito, was in Paris to provide assistance, money and passports for volunteers from Eastern Europe. Volunteers were sent by train or ship from France to Spain, and sent to the base at Albacete. However, many of them also went by themselves to Spain. The volunteers were under no contract, nor defined engagement period, which would later prove a problem.

Also many Italians, Germans, and people from other countries joined the movement, with the idea that combat in Spain was a first step to restore democracy or advance a revolutionary cause in their own country. There were also many unemployed workers (especially from France), and adventurers. Finally, some 500 communists who had been exiled to Russia were sent to Spain (among them, experienced military leaders from the First World War like "Kléber" Stern, "Gomez" Zaisser, "Lukacs" Zalka and "Gal" Galicz, who would prove invaluable in combat).

The operation was met with enthusiasm by communists, but by anarchists with skepticism, at best.[ citation needed ] At first, the anarchists, who controlled the borders with France, were told to refuse communist volunteers, but reluctantly allowed their passage after protests.[ citation needed ] A group of 500 volunteers (mainly French, with a few exiled Poles and Germans) arrived in Albacete on 14 October 1936. They were met by international volunteers who had already been fighting in Spain: Germans from the Thälmann Battalion, Italians from Centuria Gastone Sozzi and French from Commune de Paris Battalion. Among them was British poet John Cornford. Men were sorted according to their experience and origin, and dispatched to units.

On 30 May 1937, the Spanish liner Ciudad de Barcelona , carrying 200–250 volunteers from Marseille to Spain, was torpedoed by a Nationalist submarine off the coast of Malgrat de Mar. The ship sunk and up to 65 volunteers are estimated to have drowned. [8]

Albacete soon became the International Brigades headquarters and its main depot. It was run by a troika of Comintern heavyweights: André Marty was commander; Luigi Longo (Gallo) was Inspector-General; and Giuseppe Di Vittorio (Nicoletti) was chief political commissar. [9]

The French Communist Party provided uniforms for the Brigades. They were organized into mixed brigades, the basic military unit of the Republican People's Army. [10] Discipline was extreme. For several weeks, the Brigades were locked in their base while their strict military training was under way.


First engagements: Siege of Madrid

The flag of the International Brigades was the Spanish Republican flag with the three-pointed star of the Popular Front in the center Flag of the International Brigades.svg
The flag of the International Brigades was the Spanish Republican flag with the three-pointed star of the Popular Front in the center

The Battle of Madrid was a major success for the Republic. It staved off the prospect of a rapid defeat at the hands of Francisco Franco's forces. The role of the International Brigades in this victory was generally recognised, but was exaggerated by Comintern propaganda, so that the outside world heard only of their victories, and not those of Spanish units. So successful was such propaganda that the British Ambassador, Sir Henry Chilton, declared that there were no Spaniards in the army which had defended Madrid. The International Brigade forces that fought in Madrid arrived after other successful Republican fighting. Of the 40,000 Republican troops in the city, the foreign troops numbered less than 3,000. [11] Even though the International Brigades did not win the battle by themselves, nor significantly change the situation, they certainly did provide an example by their determined fighting, and improved the morale of the population by demonstrating the concern of other nations in the fight. Many of the older members of the International Brigades provided valuable combat experience, having fought during the First World War (Spain remained neutral in 1914–18) and the Irish War of Independence (Some had fought in the British Army while others had fought in the IRA).

One of the strategic positions in Madrid was the Casa de Campo. There the Nationalist troops were Moroccans, commanded by General José Enrique Varela. They were stopped by III and IV Brigades of the Spanish Republican Army.

On 9 November 1936, the XI International Brigade comprising 1,900 men from the Edgar André Battalion, the Commune de Paris Battalion and the Dabrowski Battalion, together with a British machine-gun company — took up position at the Casa de Campo. In the evening, its commander, General Kléber, launched an assault on the Nationalist positions. This lasted for the whole night and part of the next morning. At the end of the fight, the Nationalist troops had been forced to retreat, abandoning all hopes of a direct assault on Madrid by Casa de Campo, while the XIth Brigade had lost a third of its personnel. [12]

On 13 November, the 1,550-man strong XII International Brigade, made up of the Thälmann Battalion, the Garibaldi Battalion and the André Marty Battalion, deployed. Commanded by General "Lukacs", they assaulted Nationalist positions on the high ground of Cerro de los Angeles. As a result of language and communication problems, command issues, lack of rest, poor coordination with armoured units, and insufficient artillery support, the attack failed.

On 19 November, the anarchist militias were forced to retreat, and Nationalist troops — Moroccans and Spanish Foreign Legionnaires, covered by the Nazi Condor Legion  — captured a foothold in the University City. The 11th Brigade was sent to drive the Nationalists out of the University City. The battle was extremely bloody, a mix of artillery and aerial bombardment, with bayonet and grenade fights, room by room. Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti was shot there on 19 November 1936, and died the next day. The battle in the University went on until three quarters of the University City was under Nationalist control. Both sides then started setting up trenches and fortifications. It was then clear that any assault from either side would be far too costly; the nationalist leaders had to renounce the idea of a direct assault on Madrid, and prepare for a siege of the capital.

On 13 December 1936, 18,000 nationalist troops attempted an attack to close the encirclement of Madrid at Guadarrama  — an engagement known as the Battle of the Corunna Road. The Republicans sent in a Soviet armoured unit, under General Dmitry Pavlov, and both XI and XII International Brigades. Violent combat followed, and they stopped the Nationalist advance.

An attack was then launched by the Republic on the Córdoba front. The battle ended in a form of stalemate; a communique was issued, saying: "During the day the advance continued without the loss of any territory." Poets Ralph Winston Fox and John Cornford were killed. Eventually, the Nationalists advanced, taking the hydroelectric station at El Campo. André Marty accused the commander of the Marseillaise Battalion, Gaston Delasalle, of espionage and treason and had him executed. (It is doubtful that Delasalle would have been a spy for Francisco Franco; he was denounced by his own second-in-command, André Heussler, who was subsequently executed for treason during World War II by the French Resistance.)

Further Nationalist attempts after Christmas to encircle Madrid met with failure, but not without extremely violent combat. On 6 January 1937, the Thälmann Battalion arrived at Las Rozas, and held its positions until it was destroyed as a fighting force. On 9 January, only 10 km had been lost to the Nationalists, when the XIII International Brigade and XIV International Brigade and the 1st British Company, arrived in Madrid. Violent Republican assaults were launched in attempt to retake the land, with little success. On 15 January, trenches and fortifications were built by both sides, resulting in a stalemate.

The Nationalists did not take Madrid until the very end of the war, in March 1939, when they marched in unopposed. There were some pockets of resistance during the subsequent months.

Battle of Jarama

On 6 February 1937, following the fall of Málaga, the nationalists launched an attack on the Madrid Andalusia road, south of Madrid. The Nationalists quickly advanced on the little town Ciempozuelos, held by the XV International Brigade, which was composed of the British Battalion (British Commonwealth and Irish), the Dimitrov Battalion (miscellaneous Balkan nationalities), the 6 Février Battalion (Belgians and French), the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Americans, including African-American). An independent 80-men-strong (mainly) Irish unit, known as the Connolly Column, made up of people from both sides of the Irish border also fought. Several histories of the Irish in Spain record that they included an ex-Catholic Christian Brother and an ordained Church of Ireland (Anglican Protestant) Clergyman, fighting and dying on the same side. [ citation needed ] (These battalions were not composed entirely of one nationality or another, rather they were for the most part a mix of many)

On 11 February 1937, a Nationalist brigade launched a surprise attack on the André Marty Battalion (XIV International Brigade), stabbing its sentries and crossing the Jarama. The Garibaldi Battalion stopped the advance with heavy fire. At another point, the same tactic allowed the Nationalists to move their troops across the river.

On 12 February, the British Battalion, XV International Brigade took the brunt of the attack, remaining under heavy fire for seven hours. The position became known as "Suicide Hill". At the end of the day, only 225 of the 600 members of the British battalion remained. One company was captured by ruse, when Nationalists advanced among their ranks singing The Internationale .

On 17 February, the Republican Army counter-attacked. On 23 and 27 February, the International Brigades were engaged, but with little success. The Lincoln Battalion was put under great pressure, with no artillery support. It suffered 120 killed and 175 wounded. Amongst the dead was the Irish poet Charles Donnelly and Leo Greene. [13]

There were heavy casualties on both sides, and although "both claimed victory ... both suffered defeats". [14] It resulted in a stalemate, with both sides digging in, creating elaborate trench systems.

On 22 February 1937 the League of Nations Non-Intervention Committee ban on foreign volunteers went into effect.

Battle of Guadalajara

Flag of Giustizia e Liberta, an Italian anti-fascist resistance movement led by Carlo Rosselli. Rosselli took part in the war, uniting a mix of Italian anti-fascist political forces, including socialists, anarchists, communists, and liberals together to support the Republican cause and took part in the fighting. Rosselli was assassinated by a French fascist in 1937. Flag of Giustizia e Liberta.svg
Flag of Giustizia e Libertà , an Italian anti-fascist resistance movement led by Carlo Rosselli. Rosselli took part in the war, uniting a mix of Italian anti-fascist political forces, including socialists, anarchists, communists, and liberals together to support the Republican cause and took part in the fighting. Rosselli was assassinated by a French fascist in 1937.

After the failed assault on the Jarama, the Nationalists attempted another assault on Madrid, from the North-East this time. The objective was the town of Guadalajara, 50 km from Madrid. The whole Italian expeditionary corps — 35,000 men, with 80 battle tanks and 200 field artillery — was deployed, as Benito Mussolini wanted the victory to be credited to Italy. On 9 March 1937, the Italians made a breach in the Republican lines, but did not properly exploit the advance. However, the rest of the Nationalist army was advancing, and the situation appeared critical for the Republicans. A formation drawn from the best available units of the Republican army, including the XI and XII International Brigades, was quickly assembled.

At dawn on 10 March, the Nationalists closed in, and by noon, the Garibaldi Battalion counterattacked. Some confusion arose from the fact that the sides were not aware of each other's movements, and that both sides spoke Italian; this resulted in scouts from both sides exchanging information without realising they were enemies. [15] The Republican lines advanced and made contact with XI International Brigade. Nationalist tanks were shot at and infantry patrols came into action.

On 11 March, the Nationalist army broke the front of the Republican army. The Thälmann Battalion suffered heavy losses, but succeeded in holding the Trijueque Torija road. The Garibaldi also held its positions. On 12 March, Republican planes and tanks attacked. The Thälmann Battalion attacked Trijuete in a bayonet charge and re-took the town, capturing numerous prisoners.

The International Brigades also saw combat in the Battle of Teruel in January 1938. The 35th International Division suffered heavily in this battle from aerial bombardment as well as shortages of food, winter clothing and ammunition. The XIV International Brigade fought in the Battle of Ebro in July 1938, the last Republican offensive of the war.


Although exact figures are not available, an estimated 5,857 to 25,229 brigadiers died in Spain, of an estimated 23,670 to 59,380 who served, with estimated death rates of 16.7% to 29.2%. These high casualty rates are blamed on lack of training, poor leadership and use as shock troops. [16]


Bronze plaque honoring the British soldiers of the International Brigades who died defending the Spanish Republic at the monument on Hill 705, Serra de Pandols. Britishv-cota705.JPG
Bronze plaque honoring the British soldiers of the International Brigades who died defending the Spanish Republic at the monument on Hill 705, Serra de Pàndols.

In October 1938, at the height of the Battle of the Ebro, the Non-Intervention Committee ordered the withdrawal of the International Brigades which were fighting on the Republican side. [17] The Republican government of Juan Negrín announced the decision in the League of Nations on 21 September 1938. The disbandment was part of an ill-advised effort to get the Nationalists' foreign backers to withdraw their troops and to persuade the Western democracies such as France and Britain to end their arms embargo on the Republic.

By this time there were about an estimated 10,000 foreign volunteers still serving in Spain for the Republican side, and about 50,000 foreign conscripts for the Nationalists (excluding another 30,000 Moroccans). [18] Perhaps half of the International Brigadists were exiles or refugees from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or other countries, such as Hungary, which had authoritarian right-wing governments at the time. These men could not safely return home and some were instead given honorary Spanish citizenship and integrated into Spanish units of the Popular Army. The remainder were repatriated to their own countries. The Belgian and Dutch volunteers lost their citizenship because they had served in a foreign army. [19]



The first brigades were composed mostly of French, Belgian, Italian, and German volunteers, backed by a sizeable contingent of Polish miners from Northern France and Belgium. The XIth, XIIth and XIIIth were the first brigades formed. Later, the XIVth and XVth Brigades were raised, mixing experienced soldiers with new volunteers. Smaller Brigades — the 86th, 129th and 150th - were formed in late 1937 and 1938, mostly for temporary tactical reasons.

About 32,000 [3] people volunteered to defend the Spanish Republic. Many were veterans of World War I. Their early engagements in 1936 during the Siege of Madrid amply demonstrated their military and propaganda value.

The international volunteers were mainly socialists, communists, or under communist authority, and a high proportion were Jewish. Some were involved in the fighting in Barcelona against Republican opponents of the Communists: the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party) and anarchists. These more libertarian groups like the POUM fought together on the front with the anarchist federations of the CNT (CNT, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and the FAI (FAI, Iberian Anarchist Federation) who had large support in the area of Catalonia. However, overseas volunteers from anarchist, socialist, liberal and other political positions also served with the international brigades.

To simplify communication, the battalions usually concentrated people of the same nationality or language group. The battalions were often (formally, at least) named after inspirational people or events. From Spring 1937 onwards, many battalions contained one Spanish volunteer company (about 150 men).

Later in the war, military discipline tightened and learning Spanish became mandatory. By decree of 23 September 1937, the International Brigades formally became units of the Spanish Foreign Legion. [20] This made them subject to the Spanish Code of Military Justice. However the Spanish Foreign Legion itself sided with the Nationalists throughout the coup and the civil war. [20] The same decree also specified that non-Spanish officers in the Brigades should not exceed Spanish ones by more than 50 per cent [21]

MKVD created in 1937 ‘Control and Security Service’.[ clarification needed ]

Non-Spanish battalions

Spanish Civil War Medal awarded to the International Brigades Medal of the International Brigades.jpg
Spanish Civil War Medal awarded to the International Brigades

Brigadiers by country of origin

Flag of France (1794-1815, 1830-1958).svg France 8,962 [25] –9,000 [3] [26]
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italy 3,000 [25] [26] –3,350 [27]
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Germany
Incl. Flag of Austria (state).svg Austria, annexed in 1938
3,000 [3] –5,000 [26] Beevor quotes 2,217 Germans and 872 Austrians. [25] Austrian Resistance documents name 1400 AustriansSee Thälmann Battalion
Flag of Poland (1928-1980).svg Poland 3,000 [3] [26] –3,113 [25]
Flag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States 2,341 [25] –2,800 [26] [27] See Abraham Lincoln brigade.
Balkan countries2,095 [25] See Dimitrov Battalion
Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg  Soviet Union 2,000-3,000 [3] Though "never more than 800 present at any one time". [28]
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom 2,500 [29]
Flag of Belgium (civil).svg  Belgium 1,600 [26] –1,722 [25] See Sixth of February Battalion
Canadian Red Ensign (1921-1957).svg  Canada 1,546–2,000 [26] Thomas estimates 1,000. [27] See Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion
Flag of Yugoslavia (1918-1943).svg Yugoslavia 1,500 [3] –1,660 [26] See Yugoslav volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
Flag of Cuba sky blue.svg Cuba 1,101 [30] [31]
Flag of the Czech Republic.svg Czechoslovakia 1,006 [25] –1,500 [3] [26]
Baltic states892 [25]
Flag of Argentina.svg  Argentina 740 [32]
Flag of the Netherlands.svg  Netherlands 628 [25]
Flag of Denmark.svg  Denmark 550220 died.
Flag of Hungary (1915-1918, 1919-1946).svg Hungary 528 [25] –1,500 [3]
Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden 500 [33] Est. 799 [25] –1,000 [27] from Scandinavia (of whom 500 were Swedes. [33] )
Flag of Romania.svg Romania 500Even some Romanian communist leaders like Petre Borilă and Emil Bodnăraș
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Bulgaria 462
Flag of Switzerland.svg   Switzerland 408 [25] –800 [34]
Flag of Lithuania 1918-1940.svg  Lithuania 300-600 [35]
Flag of Ireland.svg Ireland 250Split between the British Battalion and the Lincoln Battalion which included the famed Connolly Column
Flag of Norway.svg  Norway 225100 died. [36] [37] [38]
Flag of Finland.svg  Finland 225Including 78 Finnish Americans and 73 Finnish Canadians, ca. 70 died. [39]
Flag of Estonia.svg Estonia 200 [40]
State flag of Greece (1863-1924;1935-73).svg Greece 290–400 [41]
Flag of Portugal.svg Portugal 134 [25]
Flag of Luxembourg.svg  Luxembourg 103Livre historiographic d'Henri Wehenkel: D'Spueniekämfer (1997)
Flag of the Republic of China.svg China 100 [42] Organised by the Chinese Communist Party, members were mostly overseas Chinese led by Xie Weijin. [43]
Flag of Mexico (1934-1968).svg  Mexico 90
Blue Ensign of Cyprus (1922).svg Cyprus 60 [41]
Flag of Australia (converted).svg  Australia 60 [44] Of whom 16 killed. [44]
Flag of the Philippines (navy blue).svg Philippines 50 [45] [46]
Flag of Albania (1934-1939).svg Albania 43Organised in the "Garibaldi Battalion" together with Italians. They were led by the kosovar revolutionary Asim Vokshi
Flag of Costa Rica (state).svg  Costa Rica 24 [3]
Flag of New Zealand.svg New Zealand "Perhaps 20" [47] Mixed into British units
Others1,122 [25]

Status after the war

East German stamp honoring Hans Beimler with a fight scene of the International Brigades in the background Stamps of Germany (DDR) 1966, MiNr 1198.jpg
East German stamp honoring Hans Beimler with a fight scene of the International Brigades in the background

Since the Civil War was eventually won by the Nationalists, the Brigadiers were initially on the "wrong side" of history, especially since most of their home countries had a right-wing government (in France, for instance, the Popular Front was not in power any more).

However, since most of these countries found themselves at war with the very powers which had been supporting the Nationalists, the Brigadists gained some prestige as the first guard of the democracies, having fought a prophetical combat. Retrospectively, it was clear that the war in Spain was as much a precursor of the Second World War as a Spanish civil war.

Some glory therefore accrued to the volunteers (a great many of the survivors also fought during World War II), but this soon faded in the fear that it would promote (by association) communism.

An exception is among groups to the left of the Communist Parties, for example anarchists. Among these groups the Brigades, or at least their leadership, are criticised for their alleged role in suppressing the Spanish Revolution. An example of a modern work which promotes this view is Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom . A well-known contemporary account of the Spanish Civil War which also takes this view is George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia .

East Germany

Germany was undivided until after the Second World War. At that time, the new German Democratic Republic began to create a national identity which was separate from and antithetical to the former Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War, and especially the role of the International Brigades, became a substantial part of East Germany's memorial rituals because of the substantial numbers of German communists who had served in the brigades. These showcased a commitment by many Germans to antifascism at a time when Germany and Nazism were often conflated together. [48]


Survivors of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion were often investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and denied employment when they returned to Canada. Some were prevented from serving in the military during the Second World War due to "political unreliability".

In 1995 a monument to veterans of the war was built near Ontario's provincial parliament. [49] [50] On 12 February 2000, a bronze statue "The Spirit of the Republic" based on an original poster from the Spanish Republic, by sculptor Jack Harman, was placed on the grounds of the BC Legislature. [51] And in 2001, the few remaining Canadian veterans of the Spanish Civil War dedicated a monument to Canadian members of the International Brigades in Ottawa's Green Island Park.


In Switzerland, public sympathy was high for the Republican cause, but the federal government banned all fundraising and recruiting activities a month after the start of the war so as to preserve Swiss neutrality. [34] Around 800 Swiss volunteers joined the International Brigades, among them a small number of women. [34] Sixty percent of Swiss volunteers identified as communists, while the others included socialists, anarchists and antifascists. [34]

Some 170 Swiss volunteers were killed in the war. [34] The survivors were tried by military courts upon their return to Switzerland for violating the criminal prohibition on foreign military service. [34] [52] The courts pronounced 420 sentences which ranged from around two weeks to four years in prison, and often also stripped the convicts of their political rights. In the judgment of Swiss historian Mauro Cerutti, volunteers were punished more harshly in Switzerland than in any other democratic country. [34]

Motions to pardon the Swiss brigadists on the account that they fought for a just cause have been repeatedly introduced in the Swiss federal parliament. A first such proposal was defeated in 1939 on neutrality grounds. [34] In 2002, Parliament again rejected a pardon of the Swiss war volunteers, with a majority arguing that they did break a law that remains in effect to this day. [53] In March 2009, Parliament adopted a third bill of pardon, retroactively rehabilitating Swiss brigadists, only a handful of whom were still alive. [54]

United Kingdom

On disbandment, 305 British volunteers left Spain. [55] They arrived at Victoria Station on 7 December, to be met by a crowd of supporters including Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps, Willie Gallacher, and Will Lawther.

The last surviving British member of the International Brigades, Geoffrey Servante, died in April 2019 aged 99. [56]

United States

In the United States, the returned volunteers were labeled "premature anti-fascists" [ dubious ] by the FBI, denied promotion during service in the US military during World War II, and pursued by Congressional committees during the Red Scare of 1947-1957. [57] [58] However, threats of loss of citizenship were not carried out.



On 26 January 1996, the Spanish government gave Spanish citizenship to the Brigadists. At the time, roughly 600 remained. At the end of 1938, Prime Minister Juan Negrín had promised Spanish citizenship to the Brigadists, which was of course not recognized by the Nationalists who were about to take over the entire country.


In 1996, Jacques Chirac, then French President, granted the former French members of the International Brigades the legal status of former service personnel ("anciens combattants") following the request of two French communist Members of Parliament, Lefort and Asensi, both children of volunteers. Before 1996, the same request was turned down several times including by François Mitterrand, the former Socialist President.


There is a full list of British and Irish monuments - with some international additions - on the International Brigade Memorial Trust's website.

Symbolism and heraldry

The Internationalist star, a three-pointed red star used as emblem by International Brigades Internationalist Star.svg
The Internationalist star, a three-pointed red star used as emblem by International Brigades

The International Brigades were inheritors of a socialist aesthetic.

The flags featured the colours of the Spanish Republic: red, yellow and purple, often along with socialist symbols (red flags, hammer and sickle, fist). The emblem of the brigades themselves was the three-pointed red star, which is often featured.

Notable associated people

Note: not all the following were International Brigade members.

See also

Related Research Articles

Connolly Column

The Connolly Column is a phrase retroactively applied to a group of Irish republican socialist volunteers who fought for the Second Spanish Republic in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. They were named after James Connolly, the executed leader of the Irish Citizen Army. They were a company-strength unit of the American Lincoln Battalion of the XV International Brigade, formed from Irishmen who were earlier part of the British Battalion of the same Brigade.

The Durruti Column, with about 6,000 people, was the largest anarchist column formed during the Spanish Civil War. During the first months of the war, it became the most recognized and popular military organisation fighting against Franco, and it is a symbol of the Spanish anarchist movement and its struggle to create an egalitarian society with elements of individualism and collectivism. The column included people from all over the world. Philosopher Simone Weil fought alongside Buenaventura Durruti in the Durruti Column, and her memories and experiences from the war can be found in her book, Écrits historiques et politiques. The Durruti Column was militarised in 1937, becoming part of the 26th Division on 28 April.

Battle of Brunete

The Battle of Brunete, fought 24 kilometres (15 mi) west of Madrid, was a Republican attempt to alleviate the pressure exerted by the Nationalists on the capital and on the north during the Spanish Civil War. Although initially successful, the Republicans were forced to retreat from Brunete and suffered devastating casualties from the battle.

The Second Battle of the Corunna Road was a battle of the Spanish Civil War that took place from 13 December 1936 to 15 January 1937, northwest of Madrid. In December 1936, the Nationalists launched an offensive in order to cut the Corunna Road and isolate Madrid, but a Republican counter-offensive stopped the Nationalist advance. The Nationalists cut the Corunna road but failed to encircle Madrid.

Siege of Madrid Siege that was part of the Spanish Civil War

The Siege of Madrid was a two and a half year siege of the Spanish capital city of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The city, besieged from October 1936, eventually fell to the Francoist armies on 28 March 1939. Madrid was held by various forces loyal to the Spanish Republic and was besieged and subject to aerial bombardment by the rebel faction under General Francisco Franco. The Battle of Madrid in November 1936 saw the most intense fighting in and around the city when the Nationalists made their most determined attempt to take the Republican capital.

The British Battalion (1936–1938) was the 16th battalion of the XV International Brigade, one of the mixed brigades of the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War.

Thälmann Battalion

The Thälmann Battalion was a battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. It was named after the imprisoned German communist leader Ernst Thälmann and included approximately 1,500 people, mainly Germans, Austrians, Swiss and Scandinavians. The battalion fought in the defence of Madrid. Amongst the commanders of the battalion were the German writer, historian and World War I officer Ludwig Renn and Prussian World War I officer Hans Kahle, later promoted to lead the Republican 45th division for a time. The battalion, like the International Brigades in general, also attracted its share of intellectuals, such as the well-known writer Willi Bredel who became its commissar.

The Spanish Civil War had large numbers of non-Spanish citizens participating in combat and advisory positions. The governments of Germany, Italy—and to a lesser extent Portugal—contributed money, munitions, manpower and support to Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco. The government of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent France and Mexico, likewise aided the Republicans (Loyalists) of the Second Spanish Republic. The aid came even after all the European powers had signed a Non-Intervention Agreement in 1936. While individual sympathy for the plight of the Spanish Republic was widespread in the liberal democracies, pacifism and the fear of another world war prevented them from selling or giving arms. The Nationalist pleas meanwhile were answered within days by Hitler and Mussolini.

The Aragon Offensive it was an important military campaign during the Spanish Civil War, which began after the Battle of Teruel. The offensive, which ran from March 7, 1938, to April 19, 1938, smashed the Republican forces, overran Aragon, and conquered parts of Catalonia and the Levante.

International Brigades order of battle

The International Brigades (IB) were volunteer military units of foreigners who fought on the side of the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The number of combatant volunteers has been estimated at between 32,000–35,000, though with no more than about 20,000 active at any one time. A further 10,000 people probably participated in non-combatant roles and about 3,000–5,000 foreigners were members of CNT or POUM. They came from a claimed "53 nations" to fight against the Spanish Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco and assisted by German and Italian forces.

XII International Brigade Military unit

The XII International Brigade was mustered on 7 November 1936 at Albacete, Spain. It was formerly named the Garibaldi Brigade, after the most famous and inspiring leader in the Italian Independence Wars, General Giuseppe Garibaldi.

XI International Brigade

The XI International Brigade fought for the Spanish Second Republic in the Spanish Civil War.

Jewish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War refers to Jews who joined International Brigades and fought in the Spanish Civil War, which erupted on July 17, 1936 and ended on April 1, 1939.

Spanish Civil War War between the Republicans and the Nationalists in Spain from 1936 to 1939

The Spanish Civil War was a civil war in Spain fought from 1936 to 1939. Republicans loyal to the elected, left-leaning Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with anarchists, fought against a revolt by the Nationalists, an alliance of Falangists, monarchists, Carlists, conservatives and Catholics, led by a military group among whom General Francisco Franco soon achieved a preponderant role. Due to the international political climate at the time, the war had many facets, and was variously viewed as class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counterrevolution, between fascism and communism. It has been frequently called the "dress rehearsal" for World War II.

Republican faction (Spanish Civil War)

The Republican faction, also known as the Loyalist faction, was the side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 that supported the elected government of the Second Spanish Republic against the far-right Nationalist or rebel faction of the military rebellion. The name Republicans was mainly used by its members and supporters, while its opponents used the term Rojos (reds) to refer to this faction due to its left-leaning ideology, including communist and anarchist groups, and was supported by the Soviet Union.

Battle of Seseña battle

The Battle of Seseña was an ill-fated Republican-Soviet assault on the Nationalist stronghold of Seseña, near Toledo, 30 km south of Madrid in October 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. After the fall of Talavera de la Reina and Toledo in September 1936, the Nationalist troops pushed towards Madrid and in October they were 30 km from Madrid. Then the Republican government which had received new Soviet weapons decided to launch a counteroffensive in order to stop the Nationalist offensive at Seseña. The attack failed and the Nationalists resumed their advance towards Madrid. The battle is notable for being the first time that tank warfare was seen in the Spanish War and for the use by Nationalist troops of Molotov cocktails against Soviet T-26 tanks.

The Huesca Offensive was an ill-fated Republican army thrust toward Huesca between 12 and 19 June 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Hungarian writer and communist commander Máté Zalka was killed in the course of the battle.

Milicianas fought in the Spanish Civil War. They came from a culture with iconic fighters, and where women had been recently empowered through direct political engagement in political organizations and labor unions. The Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera saw women take more to the streets to protest and riot, though their actions were dismissed by male political leaders. The creation of the Second Spanish Republic led to an environment encouraging active political participation in broader Spanish society, and ultimately served to assist many women in their decision to head to the front, as the Government expanded rights for women, including the right to vote, divorce, go to school and stand for election.


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Further reading