Between the white and the red; Remembering Canadians in the Spanish Civil War.
George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1942)
OVER 1,700 Canadians volunteered to aid the cause of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a struggle now widely recognized as the tragic first act of World War II. More than 400 died there. George Orwell's fears of revisionist history have been largely validated by Canada's treatment of these soldiers, for they have never been officially recognized as veterans. The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1937 rendered their service illegal. Their names do not appear on our national War Memorial, nor in the Book of Remembrance on Parliament Hill, nor are they recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies. Their story is not told in our National War Museum. In the official story of Canada's fight against fascism, they are what are known in the dystopic world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) as "unpersons."
The "Orwellian" vision made famous by Nineteen Eighty-Four owes much, in fact, to Orwell's brush with totalitarian methods in Spain. One of thousands of foreign volunteers who fought against Franco, Orwell served in the POUM (United Marxist Workers Party) militia between January and June of 1937. His Homage to Catalonia (1938) may be, besides Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), the best-known English-language account of the war. It portrays the Stalinists espousing a policy in Spain of victory first, social revolution later, in the process deeply betraying POUM and other factions deemed to be overzealous or prematurely radical. This deferral, Orwell explains, was calculated to appease conservative allies in the Popular Front whose aid Stalin knew he would need should Hitler turn on Russia. It produced the tensions that exploded in the climax of Orwell's narrative, an account of bloody street-fighting between Stalinist-backed Civil Guards, POUMists and Anarchists at the Barcelona Telephone Exchange in early May 1937 - a showdown the Spanish Government, under Soviet influence, engineered and then exploited to level accusations of conspiracy against the more radical groups. Shortly thereafter, POUM was outlawed, its leader, Andres Nin, among many others, arrested. In the denouement Orwell tells of his furtive last days in Barcelona. Police on his heels, he attempts unsuccessfully to secure the release of a comrade, Georges Kopp, before escaping with his wife Eileen back to Britain.
This treatment of POUM was Orwell's first taste of the totalitarian strategies he would later describe, and he appears to have been disturbed less by the physical violence marshalled against it and its partisans than by the propaganda deployed in the same cause. The anti-fascist left was committed to lofty rhetoric about this war for "Freedom" and "Democracy" and about the "Solidarity" of the volunteers. It would not hear of the ironies subtending those abstractions. It would hear nothing implying criticism of Russia. When Orwell returned to Britain, he had difficulty finding anyone to publish his account of POUM and the repression it suffered. In 1942, after Franco's victory and Britain's official entry into the war against Hitler, and after the Soviet Union's line on fascism had changed two times, (1) Orwell began to wonder how all of the earlier anti-fascist volunteers would be described. In the essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1942), he darkly predicts that most, not just those "denounced" by their own side "as cowards and traitors," will end up as casualties also of history. If fascism prevails, their memory will be erased. Otherwise, their histories will still depend on what account of them best serves the "party line." After those who actually remember the war are dead, some politically motivated version of the conflict will be universally accepted, and "the lie will have become truth."
Orwell's fear that the volunteers would be obscured by propaganda, or even become "unpersons," was prophetic. In Franco's Spain, opportunities for supporters of the Republic to honour their dead with memorials were rare. Monuments honoured Nationalist victims exclusively. The grandest, at the Valle de los Caidos, was constructed largely by Republican prisoners. The same governments that resisted coming to the Republic's aid in the late 1930s - Britain, Canada, the United States - were complicit in the practice of forgetting its defenders. During the Cold War, the narratives celebrating those nations' heroic struggles against fascism in World War II relegated the earlier fighters to the incredible category of "premature anti-fascists." (2) Even today some cling to this terminology.
If these matters appear to validate Orwell's worries about the Republican volunteers - "The Forgotten Men," (3) as they had been called in a poem by one of his contemporaries - he would nonetheless be encouraged by some recent developments affecting the facts of the war. The Spanish Government declared 2006 a "Year of Historical Memory," officially recognizing Republican victims, allowing the exhumation of mass graves, and opening the archives on the war in Catalonia and elsewhere. The Comintern Archives in Moscow, opened up to scholars since the early 1990s, have corroborated much of what Orwell said about the Soviet Union's role in the war. (4) These archives also include upwards of 10,000 pages of material about the Canadian volunteers. The first serious work on those records has recently been published, offering insights that will change the way we remember these men and women. (5)
THE Spanish Republic was a rallying point for left-leaning middle-class writers, artists, and intellectuals - this much is well known. But the popular sense of it as a "poets' war" has distorted our sense of who fought and why. The majority of the volunteers were working-class people with no special literary aspirations. This was certainly true of the Canadians. Thanks to the meticulous research of Michael Petrou, we now have the most comprehensive list to date of the almost 1,700 volunteers making up the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the nominally Canadian wing of the XVth International Brigade, and employment data for about half of them. And we learn that only 32 of the "Mac-Paps" had any form of higher education, a far smaller proportion than their American counterparts. (6) Just 19 of them were writers or journalists. Miners, from communities like Coleman and Blairmore, Alberta, South Porcupine and Kirkland Lake, Ontario, made up the biggest contingent of Canadians by far (136). The rest, in descending order, included lumberjacks, factory and mill workers, drivers, mechanics, construction workers, farmers and farm workers, sailors, painters, cooks, road and railway workers, and manual and skilled labourers of other kinds: a printer from Toronto, an upholsterer from Winnipeg, a masseur from Kingston. A number were craftsmen, including several shoemakers and textile workers. Of these, many suffered unemployment during the Depression. They came from the relief camps and the boxcars. They came from the prairies, where they had seen their opportunities dry up with the Dust Bowl. They included 56 French Canadians, a surprising number, given the widespread assumption that Catholic Quebeckers supported the Nationalist side.
Unlike their British and American comrades, many of the Canadians were recent immigrants. Of those whose birthplace is known, the largest group by far (239) was Ukrainian, followed by 135 Hungarians, 116 Finns, 100 English, 69 Scots, 63 Croats, 29 Poles, 42 Irish, 35 Slovaks, and 23 Czechs. Some 29 other nationalities made up the rest. Fifty-two of the volunteers were Jewish, a much smaller percentage than that of their American counterparts. This demographic does much to explain the relative scarcity of English-language writing about the war coming from Canada's veterans, compared to the wealth of poems and memoirs we have from the Americans and British.
Why did these Canadians go to Spain? Many went to defend the socialist revolution begun by Spain's Republican government. Of those, some had acquired their socialist leanings through the experience of economic hardship in Depression-era Canada. Others brought a loyalty to the Soviet Union and communism from their homelands. Many of the Ukrainians who had lived under Polish or Romanian rule after the post-WWI division of their territory had suffered ethnic discrimination and had looked to the Soviet Union for liberation. Some Finnish-Canadian volunteers were still working out loyalties forged during their birth country's 1918 civil war between "reds" and "whites." For others, the cause was not about socialism at all, but about standing up to the rising tide of fascism in Europe. Jewish volunteers, Croatians, and others with experience of repression took to heart the rhetoric that this was a war for "Freedom" and "Democracy." And for some, the war may have appeared as an opportunity for adventure, for escaping the doldrums of joblessness, or for pursuing photography or journalism.
Thus, although the Communist Party of Canada recruited and funded passage for almost every one of them, and while 80 percent were party members, not all volunteers were good "reds." According to Petrou, the Comintern files list at least one quarter of the Canadians as non-Communists, and disparaged the level of "political education" achieved by the others. With a few exceptions, such as the machinist and journalist Edward Cecil-Smith, who became commander of the Mac-Paps just before the battle of Teruel, the Canadians did not take on leadership roles. The commanders and commissars of the battalion were, in fact, almost all Americans, younger, better educated, and economically more privileged, and they regarded the Canadians warily, even while admiring their military skills. Perhaps because of their experiences in the relief camps, perhaps because of cultural frictions with those leaders, the Canadians were known to be especially difficult to discipline - and to have "anarchistic tendencies." For their own part, they enjoyed needling their American superiors about their delicacy.
The consequences of insubordination for the Canadians, however, were no laughing matter. Many were labelled "Trotskyist," meaning they were under suspicion of fraternizing with the fascists. In some cases, their infractions took them to disciplinary "labour battalions," charged with dangerous repair work at the front, or to Communist-run prisons where their punishment could include beatings. (7) Even Cecil-Smith was eventually accused of "political weakness," spared execution only because the party recognized his propaganda value back at home.
One Canadian who ran afoul of the party in Spain was Torontonian William Krehm. His experience is especially intriguing because it in many ways corroborates Orwell's. As a student at the University of Toronto, he was a member of a small group of anti-Stalinist Marxists called the League for Revolutionary Workers Party. He went to Barcelona to do translation work for POUM. While there, he met Orwell and witnessed the crackdown described in Homage to Catalonia. Six days before Orwell fled, Krehm was imprisoned. Two months later, after lobbying by the Canadian government and Britain's Independent Labour Party (with which Orwell was associated), he was released and returned to Canada, but his efforts to tell his story were thwarted by forces similar to those encountered by Orwell. The meetings of the left-wing anti-Stalinist groups where he attempted to speak were disrupted, and the Communist hold on lobbying and fundraising organizations for Spain put other potential venues out of reach. (8)
WHILE the Communist Party was erasing the stories of the more radical and more irreverent of its volunteers, the Canadian government, with the avid assistance of the RCMP, was treating many returning veterans as security risks. If the veterans had not always toed the party line while in Spain, even fewer were prepared to adhere blindly to its shifting positions on fascism as the Second World War played out, and yet their participation in an earlier war so closely identified with the party stamped many of them as untrustworthy. Some, such as Arne Knudson and Terence Cunningham, were refused the opportunity to enlist in the war against Hitler. (9) When his Spanish experiences came to light, Cecil-Smith was discharged from the Royal Canadian Engineers after just a few months' service. As late as 1970, an organization of Mac-Paps lobbying for official recognition as Canadian veterans was refused incorporation by the federal government, on the grounds that it might be a front for Communist activities.
The new information we have about the difficulties the Canadians encountered in the International Brigades points to a certain irony in the way anti-communism worked to discourage their recognition. Orwell seems to have anticipated the way some volunteers would be disowned by both sides at once. His concern with securing their memory inspired one of his very few poems, an elegy for an Italian militiaman he had encountered at the Lenin Barracks on first arriving in Barcelona, published at the end of his essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War." Here, he praises this working-class comrade, whose name he never knew, for the authenticity of his commitment: "he was born knowing what I had learned / Out of books and slowly." But he also broods about the forces conspiring to obscure his memory:
Your name and your deeds were forgotten Before your bones were dry, And the lie that slew you is buried Under a deeper lie.
"Between the white and the red," he asks his lost comrade, who lies somewhere in an unmarked grave, "Where would you hide your head?"
Orwell was right that the overlapping interests of "white" and "red" political forces would obscure the memory of the volunteers. He would have been encouraged, though, by some recent Canadian efforts at restoring it. A plaque and a statue recognizing Spanish Civil War veterans have appeared in Toronto (1995) and Victoria (2000). The volunteers are among those honoured for serving in wars for "freedom and democracy" at the Royal Canadian Legion memorial in Port Maitland, Nova Scotia (1991). In 2001 a monument bearing the names of 1,546 of them was unveiled on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, at a ceremony including a tribute from Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Such efforts are paralleled by worthy additions to scholarship such as Petrou's, and compelling literary non-fiction, based on eyewitness accounts, like Mark Zuehlke's The Gallant Cause (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). And the Canadians are beginning to receive much more attention from international scholars on the war. Angela Jackson, for example, has even located a rare memorial stone naming one of them, the Finnish-Canadian Niilo Makela, high in the Spanish mountains. (10)
GIVEN these efforts, it is worth reflecting on how best to write Canada's Spanish Civil War volunteers back into history. Not everyone, particularly non-Canadian scholars, will welcome the facts emerging about the treatment the Canadians received in the International Brigades. Nor will the story of the fighters in POUM seem to everyone worth emphasizing, in the light of the way the antifascist volunteers in general have been effaced. There is a tendency among those on the left even today to brook no criticism of the "gallant cause," or of its rhetoric of "Freedom," "Solidarity," and "Democracy," just as there remains a tendency on the right to diminish a cause that was both illegal and "red." In attempting to redress the ways in which the volunteers have been obscured, we must be careful not to replicate the extremes of rhetoric that hid them in the first place.
To borrow one more phrase from Orwell, who explained his own principles in the 1946 essay "Why I Write," what is required is that we restore their memory while also "facing unpleasant facts" about what they endured, before, during, and after the Spanish war.
(1) By this time, the "line" on fascism had shifted twice since the Spanish Civil War ended: first, with the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, and then again with Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
(2) Bernard Knox discusses this widely used term in the lecture "Premature Antifascists," delivered as part of the Bill Susman Lecture Series, King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, New York University, 1991.
(3) The title of a poem about the International Brigade by "Sagittarius" (Mrs Hugh Miller), in the New Statesman and Nation (5 December 1942).
(4) See especially the documents compiled in Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (Yale University Press, 2001) edited by Ronald Radosh, Maty R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov.
(5) See Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War (UBC Press, 2008). I am indebted to Petrou for the research on the Canadians in this essay.
(6) Compare the 500 Americans out of approximately 3,000 who were students or recent graduates. See Petrou and Michael Alpert, A New International History of the Spanish Civil War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The proportion of working-class volunteers is comparable to that of the British contingent, of whose 2,300 volunteers, approximately 80 percent came from the manual trades. See the analysis of the British Brigaders' occupations in Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (Routledge, 2004).
(7) According to Petrou, some 150 Canadian volunteers were charged with punishable offences. Of the 354 returning veterans, 55 earned an official rating of "bad" from their commanders in the International Brigades; more than half of those held as prisoners of war by Franco's forces earned the same label. Some 22 Canadian volunteers were interned at the prison at Castillo de Fels.
(8) As the cause of the International Brigaders began to fail, their official publication for International Brigade volunteers, The Volunteer for Liberty, set about seeking photographs, poems, and memoirs that would record the memory of those lost in Spain, but it characterized those who fought with POUM only as "Trotskyist Traitors." See, for example, an article with that title by ]. A. Franford, The Volunteer for Liberty (13 September 1937).
(9) Knudson was successful only when he hid the fact of his experience. As Petrou observes, the policy on the veterans was inconsistent, with some being allowed to serve.
(10) See Angela Jackson, At the Margins of Mayhem: Prologue and Epilogue to the Last Great Battle of the Spanish Civil War (Warren & Pell, 2008). Another memorial to Makela, in the village of Capcanes, was destroyed by Franco's forces when they entered that village in January 1939.
PATRICIA RAE is a professor of English at Queen's University. Her publications include a study of pragmatism and modern poetry called The Practical Muse and an essay collection entitled Modernism and Mourning. She is currently writing a book on George Orwell and literary modernism.
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|Title Annotation:||PATRICIA AEA|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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