From the Spanish Civil War to WWII

From the Spanish Civil War to World War II. Trajectories of transnational antifascist volunteers

School of History, University of Leeds, Michael Sadler Building, room 3.11

29 June 2017

9:30 – 16:00

Between 1936 and 1939 around 40,000 antifascists fought in Spain and most of these volunteers were Europeans. The aim of this workshop is to reflect on a still under-investigated theme: the post-Spanish Civil War trajectories of former transnational antifascist volunteers during WWII. Did they participate in resistance movements? If so, was the Spanish experience useful from a military point of view? Did they enlist in Allied armies? If so, did their association with the Leftist International Brigades hinder their integration or promotion? Did the informal networks built up by volunteers from different countries in Spain survive during WWII? The participants in this workshop, proceeding from all around Europe, will try to analyse the contribution of veterans of Spain during WWII in its transnational dimension.




9:30 – 12:00: Panel I

·       Nir Arielli and Enrico Acciai (University of Leeds) – Introduction

·       Richard Baxell (London School of Economics) – “Changing the fronts and the weapons; former British and Irish International Brigaders in the Second World War”

·       Fraser Raeburn (University of Edinburgh) – “An enemy within? The boundaries of International Brigade veterans’ participation in the British war effort”

·       Jorge Marco (University of Bath) – “I want your ideas: US International Brigaders in the OSS during WWII”

Chair: Nir Arielli (University of Leeds)


12:00 – 13:00 Lunch break


13:00 – 14:00: Panel II

·       Enrico Acciai (University of Leeds) – “Albanian antifascist fighters: from the Spanish Civil War to the European resistance movements”

·       Erica Grossi and Andrea Torre (Insmli – Aicvas) – “Oggi in Spagna, domani in Italia. Italian antifascists between the Spanish Civil War and the European Resistance. A digital database”

Chair: Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom (University of Leeds)


14:00 – 14:15 Coffee break


14:15 – 16:00: Panel III

·       Morten Heiberg (University of Copenhagen) – “Nordic visions of the Spanish Civil War: Why Scandinavians sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Second Spanish Republic”

·       Samuel Kruzinga (University of Amsterdam) – “The First Resisters? Dutch trajectories from the Spanish Civil War to Occupation and Resistance, 1936-1945”

·       Jens Spath (Universitat des Saarlandes) – “The Spanish experience and resistance: German antifascists 1939-1945”

Chair: Peter Anderson (University of Leeds)


In collaboration with:





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Changing the fronts and the weapons; former British & Irish International Brigaders in the Second World War”.

Richard Baxell (London School of Economics)

Between 1936 and 1938 some two and a half thousand men and women from Britain and Ireland volunteered to join the Spanish Republic in its fight against the insurgent forces of General Franco and his German and Italian allies. Despite their sacrificial efforts, which saw the death of more than 500 of them, the Spanish Republic was defeated. Nevertheless, the surviving volunteers vowed to continue their fight.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, a number of veterans took their opportunity and volunteered for the British armed forces, despite the Communist Party’s opposition to the conflict as an ‘imperialist war’. However, many complained that they were denied admission into the armed forces.

Others, however, were accepted without problems, particularly those with medical training and experience. And when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, causing Communist Parties around the world to drop their opposition to the war, increasing numbers of veterans were accepted, even if some still complained of prejudice and persecution.

This paper will examine to what extent the veterans’ feelings of being discriminated against were based in reality. If this was the case, was there consistency in the War Office’s and Security Service’s responses to veterans? And to what extent did the behaviour of the former brigaders themselves justify suspicions?

An examination of the experiences in uniform of a number of former British and Irish volunteers – particularly those of several senior figures in Spain – will attempt to provide answers to these questions.


“An enemy within? The boundaries of International Brigade veterans’ participation in the British war effort”

Fraser Raeburn (University of Edinburgh)

Ever since the early days of the Second World War, there have been competing narratives surrounding the participation of ex-International Brigade volunteers in the British war effort. On one hand, their involvement in this new conflict represented an important continuity with their previous struggles in Spain, and acted to cement their reputation as dedicated anti-fascist fighters willing to go wherever fascism needed to be confronted. On the other hand, however, the boundaries placed on their involvement in the war effort soon became a source of friction with the British state. Many of the returned volunteers felt that their hard-won experience of modern warfare should have been highly-valued by the British state, but found that they were given few opportunities to put their expertise into practise. Worse, the British state appeared to be actively impeding their participation in the war effort, either curtailing their role or outright rejecting their offers of service. Their previous role as transnational fighters had supposedly led to their being considered unfit to participate in the new, national struggle.

While this narrative has been questioned to some extent in an American context, in Britain it remains uncontroversial to maintain the state adopted an unfair and short-sighted policy in restricting volunteers’ participation in the conflict. However, recently-declassified material suggests that such blanket conclusions are problematic. While the British state certainly monitored ex-volunteers on a broad scale, direct intervention was carried out in a far more targeted and nuanced fashion that took into account evidence and context beyond an individual’s status as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and generally adopted a pragmatic approach to their integration into the war effort.

However, although the extent of blanket restrictions has been overstated, ex-volunteers in the British armed forces often still faced numerous official and unofficial barriers during their service. Their parent units were generally informed of their previous political activities, and they were often watched for signs of engaging in political or subversive activity. Depending on their unit and its composition, volunteers were also occasionally harassed by both fellow soldiers and their superiors. Despite this, many ex-volunteers found ways to challenge and adapt to such constraints during the war.


I want your ideas: US International Brigaders in the OSS during WWII”  

Jorge Marco (University of Bath)

The International Brigades are a symbol of anti-fascist transnational resistance and for this reason have received the general interest of both civil society and academics. Most of the studies on the International Brigades focus on their experiences during the Spanish Civil War, although there are also some works that have gone further by analysing their role in building national resistance in Europe during World War II or its memory from the European post-war to the present day. In this text my purpose is to analyse their role as transnational agents of transmission and instruction of guerrilla warfare from their experience in the Spanish Civil War to the Second World War. To do this, I will concentrate on the role of two American international brigaders, Bill Aalto and Irving Goff, in three fundamental scenarios: the training school in Benimánet and the battlefield in Spain, the OSS Area B training school in the United States and OSS training schools in North Africa.


“Albanian antifascist fighters: from the Spanish Civil War to the European resistance movements”

Enrico Acciai (University of Leeds)

In early October 1943, just outside Tirana, an entire unit of the Italian Army joined the Albanian Resistance. The man who spoke to the Italian soldiers on that occasion was a well-known veteran of the International Brigades: the Albanian communist Mehmet Shehu. Shehu persuaded the Italians to create the Gramsci Brigade and to join the Albanian resistance, invoking his participation in the Garibaldi Battalion during the Spanish Civil War.

This paper examines the trajectories of Albanian veterans of the International Brigades between 1939 and 1943. Most of the studies on the International Brigades focus on the major national groups (e.g. French, Italians, British, Germans, Polish or Americans). In our opinion, a focus on the trajectories of a smaller national group helps elucidate the transnational dimension of the antifascist struggle between 1936 and 1945.


Oggi in Spagna, domani in Italia. Italian antifascists between the Spanish Civil War and the European Resistance. A digital database”

Erica Grossi and Andrea Torre (Insmli – Aicvas)

In 2010, the Italian Association of Antifascists Combatants and Volunteers in Spain (AICVAS) entrusted its archives to the National Institute for the History of the Liberation Movement in Italy in Milan (INSMLI) for their conservation and partial digitalization. At first, the goal of the two institutions was limited to the creation of a basic biographical database of the about 4500 Italian volunteers using the AICVAS archives. The possible interconnections and horizontal navigation – through profiles, events, locations, pictures etc. – allowed by the digital device suggested extending the research perimeter including documents and archives from other Italian institutions, particularly those of fascist repressive organisms, as well as the sources produced by similar international projects. Other than revealing itself as a precious tool for developing macrohistorical, statistical and quantitative researches, the database, with its user-friendly architecture, allows the general public to engage with the trajectories of the volunteers, surfing between history and personal memories.


“Nordic visions of the Spanish Civil War: Why Scandinavians sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Second Spanish Republic”

Morten Heiberg (University of Copenhagen)

This paper examines the role of the approximately 1500 Scandinavian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Why did they enrol? What were their visions of the war that was being fought on the Iberian Peninsula – during and after the conflict had ended in 1939? Finally, the paper scrutinises their different military engagements in WW2 and the reasons for their subsequent marginalisation in Scandinavian society despite having constituted – at least in the Danish case – the backbone of the Resistance Movement.


“The First Resisters? Dutch trajectories from the Spanish Civil War to Occupation and Resistance, 1936-1945”

Samuel Kruizinga (Univeristy of Amsterdam).

Dutch Spanish Civil War volunteers are hailed nowadays as the country’s first resistance fighters. The first to recognise the dangers of Fascism and Nazism and the first to take up weapons to fight them in Spain, they are widely held to have continued their fight after the May 1940 German invasion of the Netherlands. This paper argues, however, that the trajectories from war to armed resistance against the German occupier, either as part of a Dutch resistance movement or as part of the Dutch armed forces operating out of Britain, were far from linear, but featured uncomfortably jagged edges.

This paper will delve first into the Dutch Spanish Civil War volunteers themselves, revealing that rather than consisting of a single group, there were two very separate waves of volunteers from Holland, with quite distinct characteristics. Then, it will consider the trajectories of Spanish Civil War veterans who remained in the Netherlands during the German occupation, arguing that a combination of Communist politics, German repressive measures and Dutch bureaucratic ineptness made it nearly impossible for these veterans to play the prominent role the CP had set out for them after their return from Spain. Simultaneously, Dutch POWs captured during the Ebro offensive (1938) found their way to Britain, but not because of any real enthusiasm on the Dutch Government’s or Army’s part. Moreover, diplomatic bungling and an unfortunate and unexpected meeting with Prince Bernhard, the consort of Dutch Queen Julian, further eroded their fighting capabilities.

After 1945, these different Spanish Civil War and Second World War experiences were neatly folded into two, mutually exclusive narratives, in which the Spanish veterans were cast as either heroic anti-Fascists or incurable Stalinist hardliners.


“The Spanish experience and resistance: German antifascists 1939-1945”

Jens Spath (Universitat des Saarlandes)

Mostly, we know very little about what happened to the German volunteers fighting along with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War after their Spanish engagement had finished in 1939. The information gap concerning the biographies becomes even bigger after the period of internment in French camps and before Nazi Germany occupied France. One possible explanation for this lack of knowledge might be found in historiography and memory. While the other German-speaking countries Austria and Switzerland presented manuals and encyclopedias already in 2003 and 2009, it took until 2015/16 before a two-volume biographical lexicon on Germans in the Spanish Civil War was published. Compared to international historiography, one might even talk about a German anomaly after World War II due to the country’s political division into two separate states. However, the GDR with its antifascist founding myth was not capable either to commemorate the contribution of Germans fighting against fascism in Spain, 1936-1939, as the antifascist paradigm would have suggested. It seems less astonishing that the old and the new Federal German Republic have never honored the transnational volunteers up until now.

The paper aims at giving some preliminary answers to the question what happened to former German volunteers after the Spanish Civil War. It combines findings of the older and the most recent historiography, which has seen some more detailed regional studies, with own archival research about personalities such as Peter Blachstein, Willy Brandt or Rolf Reventlow. Wherever possible, it focuses on individual motivations by including personal documents and memories of the protagonists who were all excellent examples of transnational antifascist volunteers during and after the Spanish Civil War. Certainly, many of the former German volunteers were arrested or even murdered; but despite manifold boundaries and difficulties, a considerable number of them continued to fight fascism during World War II by participating in resistance movements, collaborating with allied secret services or acting as journalists.