A short comparison and exposition on the American Civil War and Spanish Civil War

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The Spanish Civil War took place in Spain between and How did it all start? Spain quickly erupted into civil war. On the other side were the Nationalists , the rebel part of the army, the bourgeoisie, the landlords, and, generally, the upper classes. Although it was a civil war, several foreign entities also joined the conflict.

For different reasons closely linked to the European context of the time, the Republican side was supported by the Soviet Union and the European democracies, while the Nationalist side had the support of fascist Germany and Italy, which meant that the latter was better armed. The war was one of the hardest Spain has ever faced. After the Nationalist victory , a dictatorship ruled the country for almost 40 years, from to , when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died. The only support Spain sent to Germany was a small group of volunteers.

It is also the case that both conflicts have seen some individuals driven by a desire for adventure. Other similarities can be found with regard to the far fewer volunteers who fought for Franco. Many fighting in Syria are driven by a sense of outrage at the causes and consequences of western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, like the volunteers for Franco, are motivated by sectarian religious considerations. Others still are driven by the linked issues of inter-Muslim Sunni versus Shia conflict. Inevitably, therefore, the bulk of foreign volunteers are from other Arab countries or, if from the western countries, from Muslim immigrant families.

In the Spanish war, in so far as there was uniformity of the volunteers, it was ideological rather than ethnic. Those volunteering for Franco were ostensibly religious and anti-communist. Estimates vary wildly, although it seems clear that in Syria more foreign Sunnis are fighting with the rebels than there are foreign Shias fighting in defence of the Assad regime. Franco made an absurd claim that there were no foreigners among his troops. Despite being described as volunteers, all of the 20, Germans, and many of the 80, Italians and 8, Portuguese who fought with the rebels were properly trained regular soldiers on full pay whose service in Spain counted in their military record back home.

Article: Salvaging the Revolution – Anarchist Historiography on the Spanish Civil War

However, there were between 1, and 1, genuine volunteers on the Francoist side. There were White Russians who had fought against the Bolsheviks in their own civil war. There was also a motley crew of Poles, Belgians, Rumanians and other extreme rightists, Catholics, fascists and anti-semites from all over Europe. In Spain, volunteers from the world over flocked to fight for the Republic. Some were unemployed, others were adventurers, but the majority had a clear idea of why they had come: to fight fascism. For the victims of the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, it was a chance to fight back against an enemy whose bestiality they knew only too well.

Forced out of their own countries, they had nothing to lose but their exile and were fighting to go back to their homes. One of the battalions which saw its first action in Madrid, and which was to suffer enormous casualties, was the Thaelmann, consisting mainly of German, and some British, Communists. Esmond Romilly was a British member of the Thaelmann Battalion. He later wrote of his comrades-in-arms:. Indeed, when the Republic finally fell in , many German, as well as Italian, anti-fascists were still fighting in Spain.

They ended up in French camps, and many fell into the hands of the SS and died in the gas chambers. Again, we find here a significant difference in terms of what most of the foreign jihadists can expect when they return to France and Britain. For British, French and American volunteers, the need to fight in Spain was somewhat different. They made more of a conscious choice. The hazardous journey to Spain was undertaken out of the awful presentiment of what defeat for the Spanish Republic might mean for the rest of the world. They believed that, by combating fascism in Spain, they would be fighting against the threat of fascism in their own countries.

Recruitment was largely organised by the Communist Party. Not all volunteers were Communists, although many were. Political affiliation did not affect the idealism and heroism of those who sacrificed their comfort, their security and often their lives in the anti-fascist struggle. Perhaps the most obvious area of comparison is the reception awaiting surviving volunteers as they attempt to return to their home.

As is increasingly the case with jihadists returning to western countries, the volunteers of the International Brigades faced suspicion and outright hostility from the British Foreign Office and the security services.

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The equivalent today for western governments is the worry about radicalised Muslim volunteers returning to radicalise Muslim youth at home. The British government made major efforts to prevent veterans joining the armed forces in the Second World War although many did so and served with distinction. Many others later described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. How many of the British and French Muslims fighting in Syria will ever be able to return to their homes is unclear.

What seems extremely likely — and the imprisonment of Flavien Moureau confirms — is that those who do will be viewed by the British and French security services with at least the same and probably greater suspicion than were the volunteers of the International Brigades. After all, from September onwards, despite the class prejudices of the ruling class and senior military officers, the fight of the volunteers in Spain had become was the fight of the majority of British and French citizens. There will be no equivalent whatever the result of the war in Syria.


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People always fight for one ideology or other. I am sure that many expected the reaction of the right when they returned home. The French treated the European brigadistas much more harshly, interning them for years at Gurs and the other camps and then turning them over to the Nazis to die at Malthusen and Auschwitz.

Talkernate History - Spanish Civil War

Pardon if you cover this also in your most recent book which, I confess, I have not read. Any young person going to Syria to fight for ISIL should not expect that their return home will be any more welcoming than the Brigades received. Their decision-making process is as complicated personally for them as it was for the Brigades. I have a lot of respect for Paul Preston.


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  6. I even rescued a copy of his biography of Franco that had fallen on to the railway track at the local station once. However, I feel the reverse is the case with respect to Syria. Certainly without asking them.

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    He went to Syria to help the Free Syrian Army. Al-Qaeda linked groups are involved — but many people believe that the conflict is closer in character to the civil war in Bosnia. Some compare it to the Spanish Civil War in which international brigades of young men fought against General Franco.

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    He claims the group attacks opposition forces, not the Assad regime. Many who participate in these activities are British. His expertise on Spain, does not imply accurate comparisons without corresponding expertise on Syria. Spain before Franco was only ever a semi democracy, governed by a land owning and business elite backed by the Catholic Church. Preston knows better than anyone the lack of control the new Popular Front Government of had over the state.

    Franco was actually protecting the interests of a very well established Spanish elite, just as Assad does in Syria. Preston recognizes the similarities about foreign dictatorships, Franco had Italy and Germany, Assad has Iran and Russia. There is no great difference. Then as now to a few people it was also about democracy. Sidestepping the emphasis about comparing the motivations of volunteers in Spain and Syria.

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