We gathered, the other day, at the International Brigadesâ€™ Memorial in Jubilee Park beside the Thames in London. It was warm with no breeze, â€œa Spanish dayâ€, one of the Brigaders said. Like the others, all in their eighties and older, he took shelter in the shade and rested on his walking stick. He wore his red beret. Twenty yards away, tourists waiting to board the London Eye looked bemused at the elderly men in their berets, and the rest of us, without knowing who we were, what the men had done and why we were celebrating them.
Between 1936 and 1939, the International Brigade fought in Spain on the side of the republican government against the fascist forces of General Franco. They were British and other Europeans, Americans and Australians. They were very young and volunteers, determined to stop fascism in its tracks. Although the republican government eventually fell, in February 1937 the 600-strong British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade stopped Francoâ€™s advance on Madrid. Four hundred were killed, wounded or captured in four daysâ€™ bloody battle.
There were many battles like that. Sam Russell, a Brigader, described eloquently how on the Sierra del Pandols, â€œthere was not enough soil to bury the dead, so we covered them with stonesâ€. The poet Martin Green, whose father, George Green, was killed when Martin was four years old, stood at the edge of the crowd. For his father, he had written:
You had no funeral nor hearse
No grave except the place you fell
. . . I was a boy too young
To take the blow that felled
The tree that was your man.
Now, 67 years on, we sang, to the tune of â€œRed River Valleyâ€, the rousing song of the Battle of Madrid. Jack Jones, the president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, read out the names of his comrades who had died since their last reunion a year ago: Charlie Matthews (who had been reported killed on the battlefield in 1939 and whose obituary had appeared in his local paper) and Cyril Sexton, who was wounded at Jarama and went on to fight at Aragon, Belchite, Gandesa and Ebro where he was wounded again. Last April, he died in Tenerife at the age of 91.
A Brigader and poet, David Campbell, had nominated me for the honour of describing the meaning of their heroism today. This is what I said:
I first understood the importance of the struggle in Spain from Martha Gellhorn. Martha, who was one of my oldest friends, is remembered as one of the greatest war correspondents and especially for her dispatches from Spain during the Civil War. In November 1938, she wrote this:
â€œIn Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather. The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded. There was nothing much to drink: a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out, enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come for at least two hours. The flower stalls look bright and pretty along the promenade. â€˜The flowers are all sold, Senores. For the funerals of those killed in the eleven oâ€™clock bombing, poor soulsâ€™. It had been a clear and cold day all yesterday â€¦ â€˜What beautiful weatherâ€™, a woman said, and she stood, holding her shawl around her, staring at the sky. A catastrophe,â€™ she said. Eeryone listened for the sirens all the time, and when we saw the bombers, they were like tiny silver bullets, moving forever up, across the sky.â€
How familiar that sounds. Barcelona. Guernica. Hiroshima. Vietnam. Cambodia. Palestine. Afghanistan. Iraq. All those â€œtiny silver bulletsâ€ moving across the sky and bombing to death tens of thousands of men, women and children. Martha Gellhorn wrote of the International Brigade: â€œWhatever their nationality, whether they were Communists, anarchists, socialists, poets, plumbers, middle-class professional men, or the one Abyssinian prince . . . they were fighting for us all in Spain.â€
The enemy then was fascism, out-and-out fascism. Armband wearing, strutting, ranting fascism.
The enemy then was a great world power, adventurous, rapacious, with plans of domination, of capturing the worldâ€™s natural resources: the oil fields of the Caspian and the Middle East, the mineral riches of Africa. They seemed invincible.
The enemy then was also lies. Deceit. News dressed up as propaganda. Appeasement. A large section of the British establishment saw fascism as its friend. Their voice was heard in a section of the British press: the Times, the Daily Mail.
To the propagandists, the real threat was from ordinary people, who were dreamers, many of them, who imagined a new world in which the dignity of ordinary life was respected and celebrated. Some were wise dreamers and some were foolish dreamers, but they understood the nature of fascism, and they saw through the lies and appeasement.
They knew that the true enemy did not always wear armbands, and strut, and command great rallies, but were impeccable English gentlemen, who sold out their country to rampant power behind a smokescreen of propaganda that appropriated noble concepts like â€œdemocracyâ€, â€œfreedomâ€ and â€œhuman rightsâ€ and â€œour way of lifeâ€ and â€œour valuesâ€. Their words were echoed by courtier journalists and justified by pseudo-historians, who feared the publicâ€™s ability to reason why.
Does all this sound familiar?
I ask that question, because when I read the aims of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I was struck by a reference to â€œthe historical legacy of the men and women who fought with the International Brigades against fascism â€¦â€
The â€œhistorical legacyâ€ of the International Brigade, as Martha Gellhorn wrote, is that they were fighting for us all. That means, for me, a legacy of truth â€“ a way of seeing through the illusions and lies and deceit, notably the propaganda of our own governments. It means confronting murderous power in whatever form it appears.
That legacy is needed today more than ever. Impeccable gentlemen now invade defenceless countries in our name, destroying hospitals, shooting doctors, rounding up thousands and writing a number on their forehead or forearm, then imprisoning and torturing them. They speak of freedom and democracy, and our way of life and our values, and they deride those who reason why. They do not wear armbands and they do not strut. They are different from fascists. But their goals are not different: conquest, domination, the theft and control of vital resources.
When the judges at Nuremberg laid down the ground rules of international law following the Second World War, they described an unprovoked invasion of a defenceless country as â€œthe paramount crime against humanity â€¦ from which all other war crimes followâ€. The judges also pointed out the obvious: that violent invasion would beckon violent reaction, which compounded the original crime.
The world is a very different place from the Sierra del Pandols, and the Valley of Jarama in 1937, where the best of men lie beneath the stones, but the legacy of those who understood and confronted fascism then endures as a warning to us all today.
It is a warning about sinister ambitions behind democratic facades: about messianic politicians, apparently touched by God, and their denial of the consequences of their violence, and it is a warning about those who shout down the reasons why in the name of a fake patriotism. It is also about moral courage: about speaking out, breaking a silence. I salute those of you International Brigaders who are here today, who did more than speak out. I thank you and your fallen comrades for what you did for us all, and for your legacy of truth and moral courage. La Lucha continua.
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