The Legacy of the International Brigades in Spain, Finland and Israel


French Mahal Volunteers fighting in the Negev, 1948

My book The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011) provoked numerous letters to me from former Leftists who praised it and did not avoid confronting the reality that Nazi Germany and the USSR were close allies for 22 of the 57 months of total combat time in World War II (ca. 37%, see chapter 17) but quite a few still took exception – that I had stepped on sensitive toes of many who still regard the Spanish Civil War as the ultimate “good fight” The Spanish Civil War has frequently been portrayed as an epic struggle between the forces of the  LEFT (variously identified as progressive, liberal, socialist, internationalist,  democratic and “anti- Fascist”) and the RIGHT (labeled reactionary, conservative, religious, fascist and “anti-democratic”).

In American political discourse, “Fascist!” is the ultimate epithet bandied about and frequently hung around the neck of those who value constitutional  safeguards, parliamentary traditions, have deep seated religious convictions or believe in a strong military stance to defend the United States or RESOLUTELY oppose Communism, and Islamic extremism.

Partisans of the Left who can sing many of the stirring songs of the Spanish Republicans and International Brigade  from the epic Civil War (1936-39) are usually ignorant about the two other more noble examples of international brigades, the 12,000 volunteers who defied monumental odds to make their way to Finland to help defend the country from the invasion by Stalin’s Red army during the short “Winter War” from  November 1939 to March 1940 and the 4,000 (both Jewish and non-Jewish) volunteers who helped defend the nascent state of Israel from the invasion of seven regular Arab armies and a large force of Palestinian irregulars pledged to its destruction in 1948-49. Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (many of them communists) put a full page ad on Christmas Day, 1939, in The New York Times (where else?) pledging to the embattled Finns that “The Yanks Are NOT COMING” – explicitly supporting Soviet aggression and denying any parallels with their service in Spain.

Of course, the only reluctance to use the term “Fascist” by a large segment of Left-Liberal opinion in America today is where it is most strikingly accurate – Islamo-Fascism, a term that describes the enemies we, Western civilization, Israel, Spain, Denmark and democracies from India to Australia and even moderate Arab/Muslim states such as Jordan, the Gulf States and Egypt currently face. China and Russia face this same threat as well, but prefer to ignore it and pretend that it is only directed against Israel or the Western and capitalist societies.

The great attraction of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War was that the “enemy” was superficially easy to identify as the “Far Right” even though it was a coalition made of diverse elements including the Church, supporters of two divergent wings of the monarchy, ultra-conservative land owners and the Falange,  a party always referred to as “Fascist”,  even though it attracted a significant number of Spanish workers and was hostile towards the Catholic Church.  During the latter part of General Franco’s long 35-year rule, more and more speculation revolved around the question of who, or exactly what type of regime would succeed him. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Franco survived World War II as well as the isolation of his country by the Allies. They first considered him a remnant of the Fascist states aligned with the Axis powers. Franco, however, was a military man whose career in the army and arch-conservative views propelled him to lead the uprising against the Republic, but he did not establish a political party nor did he express open support for any of the various Catholic, conservative, monarchist and fascist parties who rallied to his cause. In order to understand both what happened during and after the Spanish Civil War, it is necessary to distinguish between the alliance of parties and forces that supported both sides in the conflict.

The Fascist but anti-monarchist forces of the Falange Española (Spanish Phalanx), had been founded by the extremely popular (and handsome) “martyred leader” (executed by the Republican forces) Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the dictator who ruled the country following World War I), who wanted a republic modeled after Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and claimed to be the hero of Spain’s poor and dispossessed. He appealed to the working class and stressed that they had his full sympathy and understanding of the oppressive role played by the monarchy and landed aristocracy. Many conservative supporters of the church, military and monarchy were concerned as much by the leader of the Falange (For a thorough analysis of the Falange and its different basis of support than Franco’s see Stanley G. Payne Falange A History of Spanish Fascism Stanford University Press, 1961).

Jose Antonio, (always referred to by his admirers and followers by his first names only) as by the Marxists and their myriad anarchist and socialist parties. The moderate conservative right, monarchist and centrist par ties that opposed the Leftist “Popular Front” in the elections in 1936 refused to enter into an electoral alliance with the Falange which stood isolated. Jose Antonio had stepped on too many toes by his justifiable criticism of scandal and corruption among parties of all shades. His calls for social justice for the Spanish working class, small farmers and agricultural workers led to charges by the Catholic and conservative Right Wing Press that he was a “Bolshevik” to which he responded that all those wealthy Spaniards who valued luxuries and their petty whims more than the hunger of the people were the real Bolsheviks –“The Bolshevism of the Privileged”.

He added oil to the fire by proclaiming “In the depths of our souls there vibrates a sympathy  toward many people of the Left who have arrived at hatred by the same path which has led us to love – criticism of a sad mediocre, miserable and melancholy Spain.”  Instead, he called for a ‘happier Spain in a mini-skirt.’ Following his only visit to Nazi Germany, Jose Antonio wrote in his memoires that he found the country rancorous and depressing and that his high estimation of National Socialism had been badly damaged.

The great majority of volunteers for the International Brigade numbering 35,000 were largely ignorant of the Spanish language, history and culture,  especially Spanish politics,  the rivalries between the pro-Moscow communists, Trotskyites, anarchists, the POUM  and the regional and linguistic issues that the local nationalist parties in Catalonia, and the Basque Country considered more important than economic matters.

Jose Antonio created a movement in cooperation with the more proletarian-based syndicalist movement and appealed to the Spanish working class by attacking what he called “the social bankruptcy of capitalism.” He explained that a socialist victory at the polls and a Socialist regime in Spain would be “the equivalent of a foreign invasion.” To avoid this, employers and workers must be united in a system without exploitation or class struggle. The new state would draw its inspiration from traditional Spanish values, morality, the guiding spirit of the Church (to which he paid lip service), but most of all, strive to regain Spain’s imperial destiny and its old “soul” – heroic, sober, austere yet generous, knightly (but not aristocratic!) and Castilian.

Neither Jose Antonio nor Franco used any antisemitic rhetoric in their propaganda, although some of their followers did, as the Nationalist forces came to rely more and more on military aid from Nazi Germany and a Mussolini who had forced himself to go along with the racist anti-Jewish ideology of Hitler in order to cement the Axis alliance. The Falange had successes too during the war. They succeeded in welcoming into the party ranks tens of thousands of Spanish workers from the factories, shipyards and mines of the industrial areas of the country that had previously been the major centers of Communist and Socialist strength. Nothing better illustrates the appeal of the Falange to the same working class electorate as the Far Left.

Jose Antonio represented the more human face of the Spanish “Right” and had come to deeply regret the scourge of Civil War that was tearing Spanish society apart. He had supported the coup of the generals to replace what he believed was a failed chaotic Republic but he had begun to weigh more and more the possibility that only a compromise with the forces of the Left would save Spain from savagery and destruction.

The leveling and simplistic tendencies of modern journalism and many historians continue to speak of Franco, Fascism and the Falange and conservative Catholic traditionalists in one breath as “The RIGHT”  as if they were all the same thing and easy to differentiate from their “enemies” on the idealized “democratic,” egalitarian, collectivist, Marxist and communitarian “LEFT” of the Popular Front.

The Volunteers for Finland – A Cause Much Easier to Understand

No other conflict in history excited such world-wide admiration as the Finnish resistance to the soviet invasion in the Winter War.  A small minority of a few hundred individuals were ethnic Finns living in the United State and Canada. The others were drawn primarily from the Nordic countries that strongly believed the Scandinavian democracies were all equally threatened by the Nazis and the Communists, They came from a wide variety of national origins and social classes.

For the organized hard Stalinist Left, the volunteers for Finland could not be called Nazis because Germany was an ally of the Soviet Union. They had to be labeled as adventurers, bandits, criminals, mercenaries and outcasts. While the Spanish Civil War took three and a half years, the fighting in Finland barely lasted four months. In spite of all the difficulties, 11,500 foreigners volunteered for service in Finland but not all managed to arrive, very few saw combat action and the number of killed and wounded can be counted in the dozens. This does not detract from their courage and determination.

The full extent of willingness to help the heroic Finns taxed the resources and imagination of many tens of thousands of individuals and organizations all trying to express their solidarity. Many private organizations sent medical and humanitarian aid. Thousands of workers in the Scandinavian countries volunteered to work in Finland to replace those who had been drafted but had to make their way and arrangements privately without government assistance. For the non- Communist press, this was not an issue of Left vs. Right but of Right vs. Wrong.

At a press conference in Washington, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that since there had been no official declaration of war, the United States did not consider Finland to be a country at war, and American volunteers would therefore retain their citizenship. Brazilian President Getulio Vargas announced that Brazil would send Finland a gift of 10,000 sacks of coffee. The International Labor Office expelled the Soviet Union  the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Probably no other conflict elicited so much popular appeal from so many people from so many countries and of such diverse social and economic classes. In no other war was there such a recognition and revulsion of the single nature of the two extremes of Right and Left, Germany under the Nazis and Hitler, and the Communist USSR under Stalin. Never has the term “international community” been more justified than in condemnation of the Soviet attack on Finland in 1939.

MAHAL – Jews >From Abroad With Considerable Military Experience Help Israel Survive

With regards to the three International brigades, the most effective one without a doubt was Mahal – Mitnadvei Hutz la’Aretz (Volunteers from Outside the Country) who helped turned the tide of battle and constituted a major segment of the Israeli Airforce. American Jewish military veterans, pilots and merchant seamen in the volunteer force were under supervision by orders of the State Department and the FBI to make sure that they were not carrying illegal immigrants or arms and more than once they were stopped,  and their cargoes seized remote from the knowledge or wishes of President Truman.

Suspicions of American Intelligence

American intelligence continued to buy the myth from 1947 to 1951 that the new Israeli state might be pro-Soviet because of the large presence of the Socialist-Zionist political parties and the proven success in combat of the Hagana and Palmach, units with a large participation of leftwing kibbutz members. Taking (as always) their lead from Moscow, the (hitherto anti-Zionist) Palestinian communist organizations merged their separate Arab and Jewish divisions in October, 1948, giving unconditional support to the Israeli war effort and urging the Israel Defense Forces to “Drive on toward the Suez Canal and hand British Imperialism a stinging defeat!” This alarmed the State Department that had been warned by British intelligence of possible Soviet infiltration or influence among the Israeli forces.

More than a few volunteers were adventurers with little commitment to Zionism, non-Jews or individuals who had had previous problems with a rigid, disciplined hierarchy. Some of the non-Jews were also deserters from the British Mandatory forces of largely Irish origin.

Czech Weapons and Airplanes

It was also a source of concern to the British and Americans that the Jews were receiving aircraft and heavy weapons from the east Bloc countries with Soviet support. In the summer of 1947, the leaders of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine), intended to purchase arms and sent Dr. Moshe Sneh (the Chief of the European Branch of the Jewish Agency, a leading member of the centrist General Zionist Party who later moved far leftward and became head of the Israeli Communist Party) to Prague in order to improve Jewish defenses. He was surprised by the sympathy towards Zionism and by the interest in arms export on the side of the Czech Government. Sneh met with the Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Clementis, who succeeded the non-Communist and definitely pro-Zionist Prime Minister Jan Masaryk. Sneh and Clementis discussed the possibility of Czech arms provisions for the Jewish state and the Czechs gave their approval.

The volunteers for Israel (Mahalniks) were mostly World War II veterans from American and British armed forces. In various circumstances, they were invited, or heard of the Jewish state’s struggle for independence and volunteered. In some cases those who enlisted had no prior military experience. They included both ideological supporters of Zionism and mercenaries.

The Ha’apala movement, also called “Aliyah Bet”, which attempted to evade the 1939 and 1948 British naval blockade restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, was assisted by 236 Mahal former servicemen of the Allied navies as crews of ten clandestine Jewish refugee ships, out of the sixty-six participating vessels.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War saw approximately 4,000 foreign volunteers from 58 countries among the Jewish forces. A total of 123 Mahalniks were killed in battle (119 men and 4 women). The most prominent senior Machal officer was Mickey Marcus, a Jewish United States Army colonel who assisted Israeli forces during the war and became Israel’s first Brigadier General.

Mahal cargo flights transported vital weapons and supplies to Palestine from Europe, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and the East Block countries. These newly arrived Jewish immigrants were vital reinforcement help for the outnumbered Israeli forces and made up for manpower in the civilian economy. During the Egyptian Army siege of the Negev region in 1948, Mahal pilots airlifted thousands of tons of supplies to Jewish settlements behind enemy lines. They often made night landings of converted airliners on makeshift, unpaved sand runways, hand-lit by oil lamps.

Logistic support for IAF was provided by various diaspora groups which procured planes in the critical months of 1948-9. The IAF scored an impressive victory just hours before the final cease-fire on January 7 1949. A flight of four British RAF Spitfires on a reconnaissance flight over the Israeli border were attacked by a pair of Israeli Air Force Spitfires, resulting in three of the British planes being shot down. The Israeli Spitfires were flown by Mahal volunteers “Slick” Goodlin (USA) and John McElroy (Canada). Both were former US Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots, veterans of World War II.

George F. “Buzz” Beurling, of the Royal Canadian Air Force was the top Canadian combat air ace in World War II, with 31 Nazi planes to his credit. He was one of 34 Christian pilots from the U.S. and Canada to volunteer for the IAF. Beurling, only 26, at the time of his death, and his Jewish co-pilot, Leonard Cohen of England, were both killed while attempting to ferry a plane from Italy to Israel on May 20, 1948. Rudy Augarten, an American combat pilot and Harvard graduate had shot down downed two German ME-109s while flying a P-47 during World War II. In Israel’s War of independence, he downed four Egyptian aircraft while flying a Czech ME-109 (former World War II German aircraft), a British Spitfire and an American P-51.

All three International Brigades were the product of a noble idealism, the desire of free men to defend the values of civilization against tyranny. The major difference is that for many among the Spanish Civil War Veterans, their devotion was tarnished by the excesses and lies of Stalin’s henchmen and the Far Left that served him across the globe. For those who tried to aid Finland, there remains the fond memories of world solidarity but for the veterans of Mahal, there is the enormous satisfaction of knowing they made a decisive contribution in helping Israel survive, prevail and endure.  A museum is dedicated to their efforts and is located in the Hillel House on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Comments are closed.