Where are the International Brigades?


Jeremia Schrock  /  Sun Star Columnist
March 15, 2011

Ask a group of historians what moves history and you will be often be told a variety of answers: religion, economics, the environment, politics. Less often will one hear the response “ideas.” Ideas, and a peoples’ willingness to defend them, are oftentimes overlooked in historical commentary. Even when ideas are at the forefront of discussion, how often does one see the international community spontaneously take part in them?

The answer is rarely. However, there are several instances within the past one hundred and fifty years when individuals from one country felt moved to defend the ideals at stake in another. In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi organized the International Legion, a military unit composed of British, French, Swiss, German and Polish citizen-soldiers who desired to liberate Italy before carrying the fight to their own homelands. In 1916, before any official involvement in WWI, American volunteers joined Allied units in France in order to fight against imperialist Germany. I am not referring to “Country A” sending regular government troops into “Country B,” but am instead casting a light on the individual citizens of one country who felt the need to protect the citizens of another.

The best example comes during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when tens of thousands of volunteers joined the Spanish Republic in an effort to quell the Fascist coup led by Francisco Franco. Thousands of these soldiers came from outside of Spain, pouring into the country from places as far east as the Soviet Union and as far west as the United States. These soldiers made up what were called the “International Brigades” and fought not for land, wealth or power, but for the defense of a threatened republic.

In an interview with the BBC in 2010, Sam Lesser, a British veteran of the International Brigades, recalled why he chose to fight in Spain. “The legally elected government of the republic was being attacked by Fascist forces in Spain. My attitude [was that] ‘If they are doing this today and getting away with it in Spain, can you guarantee that it won’t happen in England, too?’”

Lesser lived and fought during an extremely volatile time in humanity’s history, a time when disparate ideologies were waging global conflicts not just through the pen and on the soapbox, but with the rifle and bayonet. Now, 75 years later, the world again finds itself in the midst of global revolution.

The past decade has seen global change brought on by global conflict. While World War III has yet to be declared, the advent of globalization and the inter-connectivity it has brought with it means warfare somewhere will have ramifications everywhere. The uprisings in Egypt may influence the long-standing, albeit tenuous, peace between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. The civil war in Libya has directly affected the price we pay at the pump. A revolution in Iran could just as easily stabilize the Middle East as it could throw it into turmoil. Even Syria has seen anti-government protests.

Politically, America sits in the middle of it all. But America is a fickle and evolving nation. Past are the halcyon days of democracy when war was fought to preserve a republic, rather then install one. From the proxy wars fought during the twentieth century, to the advent of the Bush Doctrine in the twenty-first, the U.S. has decided to wage war not for the sake of preserving democracy, but for the sake of national defense (whether national defense was threatened or not).

A Reuters poll from February 2011 stated that 58 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should be cautious of backing burgeoning democracies in the Middle East because said democracies could elect an anti-American Islamist government. America, land of the free and home of the brave, is fearful of defending democracies that are at this moment fighting for their very survival. Why? Because someone America doesn’t like might be elected.

America has a self-image problem. In 2001, we saw ourselves as the guardians of democracy, defending ourselves by waging preemptive war. Now, when democracies are actually springing up of their own accord, in a region long dominated by totalitarianism and fascism, we find ourselves impotent. We don’t want to fight for democracy because it might not be the democracy we like.

America also has a global image problem. For a handful of months after 9/11, the world grieved along with the rest of us. The French newspaper Le Monde, soon after the attack, ran a headline that read “We Are All Americans.” Even with the election of Barack Obama, America is still viewed with great disdain across the world. Why shouldn’t the world think ill of us? We talk freedom and democracy but only when it is convenient to us.

So, what happened during the Spanish Civil War? Who won? Surely, democracy and “the good guys” (including the International Brigades) were victorious?

The answer is a regrettable “no.” By 1938, Britain and France were fearful of the civil war in Spain escalating into a larger European conflict. In an effort to appease Italy and Germany, both of whom were actively supporting Franco with troops and supplies, a European non-intervention committee was established to prevent materials from reaching either side of the conflict. Since Germany and Italy did not halt their aide to Franco, the policy of non-involvement only affected the democratic Spanish Republic. Democracy in Spain was defeated because the democracies in Europe failed to act.

Where are today’s International Brigades? Where is the mobilization in defense of democracy in other countries? While it is counter-intuitive to impose democracy, is it not right to defend it where it already exists? Right now much of the Middle East is experiencing (hopefully) democratic revolution. If they fail to succeed, it is only because the democratic and freedom-loving nations of the First World stood idly by.


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