On 17 and 18 July 1936 Spanish generals, soon to be under the command of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975), staged a coup against the Republican government, which had become strongly left wing after the Popular Front's legitimate electoral victory the previous February. The Soviet Union quickly decided to help the Spanish Republicans do battle against Francoism, which was widely viewed as a Spanish brand of fascism; but it acted cautiously, in consideration of English neutrality and French hesitation. Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) decided to supply the Spanish government with limited military aid—weapons, pilots, tank drivers, and military advisors (to total two thousand men for the entire war)—while entrusting to the Communist International (Comintern) the task of forming an international volunteer army. On 18 September 1936 the Communist International's executive committee met and decided, according to terms in the transcript, "to proceed with the recruitment, among workers of all countries, of volunteers with military experience, in preparation for their deployment in Spain." But the Comintern did not wish to be recognized as initiating the formation of foreign brigades, which only became official on 22 October 1936 by decree of the Spanish government.
A total of almost 32,000 foreigners from nearly fifty countries enrolled in the brigades. Among them were nearly 9,000 French; 3,000 Poles; 3,000 Italians; 2,300 Americans; 2,200 Germans; and 2,100 citizens from the various Balkan countries. There were 1,800 British; 1,700 Belgians; 1,000 Czechoslovakians; 900 from the Baltic region; and 900 from Austria. Scandinavian countries accounted for 800; 600 came from the Netherlands, 500 from Hungary, 500 from Canada, 400 from Switzerland, and 100 from Portugal. Jewish volunteers had a special presence. They numbered some 5,000, many of them Polish volunteers with the Botwin Company of the 13th Dombrowsky brigade, which published its own Yiddish newspaper.
Generally, the term International Brigades designated all the anti-Francoist foreign fighters, and it should be noted that other foreign units, and Spanish units that included foreigners, participated outside the international brigades formation. About two thousand such foreigners enrolled in the regular Spanish army. In addition, about one thousand non-Spanish fighters fought with various militias, whether anarchist, anarchist-syndicalist, or part of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). This brought the total number of foreign fighters to thirty-five thousand or about one-third of the foreign contingent (composed of Portugese, Italian, and Germans) enlisted by the pro-Franco nationalists. Of those thirty-five thousand, about five thousand were killed. Finally, the International Brigades were not limited to foreigners; from December 1936, they were open to Spanish volunteers and draftees, and by the autumn of 1937 they represented the bulk of brigade combatants.
Essentially, although modifications of the scheme were numerous, there were five International Brigades. Each brigade was divided into four to six battalions and each of these, usually into five companies. None was homogenous in national or linguistic composition. German was the prevailing language spoken in Thaelmann Brigade; Italian predominated in the Garibaldi Brigade. The Dombrwoski Brigade was largely Polish; the Marseillaise Brigade, French; the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was predominantly English, even though its commanders were in succession Yugoslavian, German, Spanish, and Brazilian.
A sociological profile of recruits can be sketched from the largest contingent, from France. The average age of a volunteer was twenty-nine years, nine months; the modal age was thirty. More than half the combatants were young men between twenty-six and thirty-four years old. Unmarried men were overrepresented, but the most striking statistic concerned the overwhelming participation of the working class. They represented 65 percent of the French volunteers, to which can be added some 17 percent manual and unskilled laborers. Politically, two-thirds of the French volunteers were communists or declared fellow-travelers, the proportion was even higher in the other national contingents. In addition, proportionally more communists filled positions in the higher ranks of command. Some 52 percent of French combatants were card-carrying members of the Communist Party; that figure jumped to 68 percent for lower-grade officers, 79 percent of junior officers, and virtually all of the commanders and political commissars. In Spain, the French-Belgian communist André Marty (1886–1956) was appointed organizational leader of the International Brigades, assisted by Palmiro Togliatti (1893–1964), a member, like Marty, of the executive of the Comintern.
In the end, although communist participation in the Brigades was essential, the Comintern's appeal had reached beyond the communist sphere to touch a highly popular antifascist sensibility. In the 1920s Italian fascism could seem to be an historical exception. But this view changed during the 1930s with the rise of authoritarian regimes in Western and Central Europe, and with the development of protofascist movements in the European democracies. Most important, of course, were Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Franco. Carlo Rosselli, fighting in Spain in a unit independent of the International Brigades, encapsulated the antifascist sentiment with his slogan: "Today in Spain, tomorrow in Italy." Posterity offers the best evidence of the success of the International Brigades on a symbolic level. While their existence was proof of the success of the communist strategy, their archetypical antifascism was sustained by literary and cinematic creations not strictly communist, such as André Malraux's novel L'espoir (1937; Man's Hope), JorisIvens'sfilm Terre d'Espagne (1937; Spanish Earth), Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938).
But neither political nor symbolic successes were sufficient on the battlefield. While acquitting themselves well despite high casualties, in Madrid in November 1936 and on the Ebre River in July 1938, the International Brigades were, like the regular Spanish army, eventually defeated. On 25 September 1938 they were withdrawn from the front, then dissolved. Brigadists gradually left the country, but more than five thousand former volunteers from countries with authoritarian or fascist regimes were incarcerated by the French government. Several years later, a considerable number of these fighters would enter the anti-Nazi Resistance.
Castells, Andreu. Las brigadas internacionales de la guerra de España. Barcelona, 1974.
Ranzato, Gabriele. "Brigate internazionali." In Dizionario del fascismo, edited by Victoria De Grazia and Sergio Luzzatto, vol. 1, 198–199. Turin, Italy, 2002.
Skoutelsky, Rémi. L'espoir guidait leurs pas: Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936–1939. Paris, 1998.
Zaagsma, Gerben. "'Red Devils': The Botwin Company in the Spanish Civil War." East European Jewish Affairs 33, no. 1 (2003): 83–99.