A note on the International Brigades /// Simone Weil in Spain

Back in April, it was announced that ‘The Wire creator David Simon plans series based on Spanish civil war’, one which will follow the adventures of the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington battalions and their contributions to the International Brigades. Then last month I discovered that French philosopher Simone Weil actually journeyed to Spain in 1936 to join the Durruti Column. So … below is an extract from Anatole Dolgoff’s biography of his father, Sam Dolgoff, on the International Brigades; a letter Weil wrote to French writer George Bernanos in 1938 regarding her experiences in Spain with anarchist militias and; some other bits and pieces.



This is not an “objective” account. I have warned you of that from the beginning. So, bear with me while I ventilate on a subject dear to my spleen: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I have seen its veterans over the years taking credit as the brave antifascists, lone defenders of the Spanish Republic. I have seen them hijack public meetings, basking in the applause of an ignorant audience. I have seen the documentaries, the panels, the symposiums. Their exploits have passed into myth. And please do not misread my intentions. Many of these men were indeed brave and idealistic. Why, after all, would one go? Nor do I object to an old-timer, so few of them left, getting his moment in the sun. At some place, at some time, however, reality must enter the picture. The Lincoln Brigade was part of the International Brigades, an organisation funded, controlled, and dominated by the Soviet Union. This passage, taken from “The Spanish Revolution: A brief introduction” by Charlatan Stew, describes matters well.

In addition, the daily experiences of the Lincoln Brigade participants generally differed significantly from both those of Spanish and non-Spanish fighters in the popular militias. Jason Gurney, in Crusade in Spain…, who critically discusses the International Brigades from the point of view of the British volunteers, notes that the International Brigades claimed to be a “people’s army.” Nevertheless, it more closely resembled a professional military because of its openly hierarchical, authoritarian military officer structure. Gurney gives many examples of participants’ reports of officers demanding absolute obedience and openly resenting questions from the ranks. Gurney also notes that the officers at company and platoon level were chosen for their political views and connections. Only Communist Party members were trusted to hold senior positions.

Cecil Eby in Between the Bullet and the Lie: American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War…found that some volunteers had been affiliated with non-Communist socialist or anarchist organizations, such as the Wobblies, and others were not affiliated with any group. However, they generally reported that the Lincoln Brigade, as part of the International Brigades, was always under the management of the Communists.

Those in the Lincoln Brigades who did not submit to discipline were severely published. And punished is a kind word. Many were hunted down and assassinated; the GPU was relentless. The victim need not have been a Wobbly or a Socialist. Some were simply men of goodwill who came to Spain to fight fascists. My colleague, Harold Lipson, was one of these. “It was a reign of terror,” he said, and he fled from the Brigade — alone, knowing little Spanish, and broke. He believed to the day of his death years later in New York, that he owed his life to a brave Spanish lady, who, understanding his desperation hid him out until he could escape. So spare me the Lincoln Brigades! As for their parent outfit, the International Brigades, I mention again Russell Blackwell’s account that “The Stalinist International Brigades were taken into Aragon to smash the peasant collectives by force of arms.” A Brigade capable of that is capable of anything.

I find galling the praise afforded the communists by “liberals,” “objective scholars,” and various media types.

They, the communists, are presented as the true antifascists who fought for democracy! We should be grateful! It is a form of collective brain-lock of the same type that continues to venerate Mao and that bogus folk hero Che. And while I am in the combative mood, I will say a few words about the esteem afforded Ernest Hemmingway, champion of the Spanish Republic! Spain was the ideal stage for him to prove that the hair on his chest was indeed real and not pasted, as Max Eastman suggested. Hemmingway was held in universal low regard by those anarchists and Wobblies who knew him in Spain. Holed up in the best Madrid hotels, in tight with Stalinist operatives, commandeering the best wines, his favorite maneuver was to befriend some poor devil removed from the front, ply him with wine and maybe a hot meal, and file his story as a dispatch. Although Sam respected the Hemingway of the Nick Adams stories, and The Sun Also Rises, he called his Spain opus, For Whom the Bell Tolls, “sentimental drivel.” Federico Arcos for his part regarded the book with a detached contempt. “Can you imagine the Spanish anarchists (!) need a guy come all the way from Montana to teach us how to use explosives!” he spat out in rapid spanglish. Taken that way the plot does seem a touch implausible — and patronizing.

The Spanish anarchists who draw occasional mention from the liberal media and “objective” scholars are too often depicted as impractical church burners: Violent dreamers. If only they had listened to the dictates of Stalin and obliterated their revolution to his specifications. This was the opinion of Sir Raymond Carr, historian and practical guy, who seems oblivious, for all his wisdom, that Stalin signed his pact with Hitler three months after the defeat of the Republic.

~ Anatole Dolgoff, Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff, AK Press, 2016, pp.178–180; see also Chapters 24, 25, 26, 28

See also : Forgotten Fighters: American Anarchist Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Kenyon Zimmer, The Volunteer, August 30, 2017 | “I saw the bright ones arrive”: Idealism, alienation, and persistence in the personal legacies of Australian involvement in the Spanish Civil War, danielhp, libcom, September 21, 2017 [2015] | Contested memories: Unearthing tensions from the Spanish Civil War, Up Close (podcast), University of Melbourne, October 3, 2014 | Spanish civil war monument must be pulled down, court rules, Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, June 6, 2013.


Harvey Buttonshaw (via takver)

The story of Australian volunteer Harvey Buttonshaw was an outstanding case of both Communist repression and the interaction of pro-Republican Australians with the international dimensions of the war. Buttonshaw joined a Sydney radical group based at a Kings Cross bookshop (Buttonshaw); working as a poster artist he lived a bohemian life in Paris and London, joined Britain’s Independent Labour Party (ILP), then went to Spain and fought in an ILP affiliated POUM militia. Again, Communist authorities denied his militia weapons and Buttonshaw went to the front without a rifle (Inglis 138). At Saragossa, Buttonshaw’s unit was intentionally and sacrificially left behind by the Communist command in a general withdrawal and suffered the brunt of Francoist fire.

Buttonshaw’s unit lieutenant was George Orwell (Buttonshaw; Orwell 2000: 266). Eileen Blair, Orwell’s wife, sent Buttonshaw sketch pads on which he drew battle scenes, and when Orwell was shot through the neck Buttonshaw was beside him – moments earlier he had warned Orwell to keep his head down (Buttonshaw to Inglis). Like Orwell, Buttonshaw was an avowed anti-Communist. He told Amirah Inglis ‘We fought the Commies in the streets of Barcelona’ in the ‘May Days’ to ‘halt the commie take over.’ But Buttonshaw quickly recognised that the euphoric time of the Spanish Republic was over: ‘This was the end of the revolution; once more force reigned’. The Spanish struggle was traduced, and ‘a free revolution’ became ‘a junta of [Communist] officers and guards’ (qtd Inglis 154; Buttonshaw). Buttonshaw, who had fought on the Aragon front, at Heusca and from Lérida, was finally arrested in a Barcelona cafe and interrogated at the notorious Prefectura di Policía. In many respects, his personal story typified the plight of non-Communist soldiers in Spain: volunteers, including many Australians, who offered their lives for the Republic but found themselves wedged between fascism and Soviet subversion.

~ Brian Beasley, ‘Death Charged Missives’: Australian Literary Responses to the Spanish Civil War, PhD Thesis, University of Southern Queensland (2006)


Letter to George Bernanos (1938)


However silly it may be to write to an author, since his profession must always involve him in a flood of correspondence, I cannot refrain from doing so after having read Les Grands cimetières sous la lune. Not that it is the first book of yours to touch me. The Journal d’un curé de campagne is in my opinion the best of them, at least of those that I have read, and really a great book. But the fact that I have liked other books of yours gave me no reason to intrude upon you to say so. This last one, however, is a different matter. I have had an experience which corresponds to yours, although it was much shorter and was less profound; and although it was apparently — and only apparently — embraced in a different spirit.

I am not a Catholic, although — and this must no doubt appear presumptuous to any Catholic, coming from a non-Catholic — nothing that is Catholic, nothing that is Christian, has ever seemed alien to me. I have sometimes told myself that if only there was a notice on church doors forbidding entry to anyone with an income above a certain figure, and that a low one, I would be converted at once. From my childhood onwards I sympathized with those organizations which spring from the lowest and least regarded social strata, until the time when I realized that such organizations are of a kind to discourage all sympathy. The last one in which I felt some confidence was the Spanish C.N.T. I had traveled a little in Spain before the Civil War; only a little, but enough to feel the affection which it is hard not to feel for the Spanish people. I had seen the anarchist movement as the natural expression of that people’s greatness and of its flaws, of its worthiest aspirations and of its unworthiest. The C.N.T. and F.A.I. were an extraordinary mixture, to which anybody at all was admitted and in which, consequently, one found immorality, cynicism, fanaticism and cruelty, but also love and fraternal spirit and, above all, that concern for honour which is so beautiful in the humiliated. It seemed to me that the idealists preponderated over the elements of violence and disorder. In July 1936 I was in Paris. I do not love war; but what has always seemed to me most horrible in war is the position of those in the rear. When I realized that, try as I would, I could not prevent myself from participating morally in that war — in other words, from hoping all day and every day for the victory of one side and the defeat of the other — I decided that, for me, Paris was the rear and I took the train to Barcelona, with the intention of enlisting. This was at the beginning of August 1936.

My stay in Spain was brought to a compulsory end by an accident. I was a few days in Barcelona, and then in the remote Aragonese countryside on the banks of the Ebro, about ten miles from Saragossa, at the very place where the river was recently crossed by Yagüe’s troops; then I was at Sitges, in the palace converted into a hospital, and then again in Barcelona. A stay of about two months in all. I left Spain against my will and with the intention of returning; but later I decided voluntarily not to do so. I no longer felt any inner compulsion to participate in a war which, instead of being what it had appeared when it began — a war of famished peasants against landed proprietors and their clerical supporters — had become a war between Russia on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other.

I recognize the smell of civil war, the smell of blood and terror, which exhales from your book; I have breathed it too. I must admit that I neither saw nor heard of anything which quite equalled the ignominy of certain facts you relate, such as the murder of elderly peasants or the Balllillas chasing old people and beating them with truncheons. But for all that, I heard quite enough. I was very nearly present at the execution of a priest. In the minutes of suspense I was asking myself whether I should simply look on or whether I should try to intervene and get myself shot as well. I still don’t know which I would have done if a lucky chance had not prevented the execution.

So many incidents come crowding … but they would take too long to tell; and to what purpose? Let one suffice. I was at Sitges when the militiamen returned, defeated, from the expedition to Majorca. They had been decimated. Out of forty young boys from Sitges nine were dead, as was learnt when the remaining thirty-one came back. The very next night there were nine revenge operations. In that little town, in which nothing at all had happened in July, they killed nine so-called fascists. Among the nine was a baker, aged about thirty, whose crime, so I was told, was that he had not joined the ‘Somaten’ militia. His old father, whose only child and only support he was, went mad. One more incident: in a light engagement a small international party of militiamen from various countries captured a boy of fifteen who was a member of the Falange. As soon as he was captured, and still trembling from the sight of his comrades being killed alongside him, he said he had been enrolled compulsorily. He was searched and a medal of the Virgin and a Falange card were found on him. Then he was sent to Durruti, the leader of the column, who lectured him for an hour on the beauties of the anarchist ideal and gave him the choice between death and enrolling immediately in the ranks of his captors, against his comrades of yesterday. Durruti gave this child twenty-four hours to think it over, and when the time was up he said no and was shot. Yet Durruti was in some ways an admirable man. Although I only heard of it afterwards, the death of this little hero has never ceased to weigh on my conscience. another incident: A village was finally captured by the red militia after having been taken and re-taken over and over again. In the cellars there were found a handful of haggard, terrified, famished creatures and among them three or four young men. The militiamen reasoned as follows: If these young men stayed behind and waited for the fascists the last time we retired from here it means that they must be fascists too. They therefore shot them immediately, but gave some food to the others and thought themselves very humane. Finally, here is an incident from the rear: Two anarchists once told me how they and some comrades captured two priests. They killed one of them on the spot with a revolver, in front of the other, and then told the survivor that he could go. When he was twenty yards away they shot him down. The man who told me this story was much surprised when I didn’t laugh.

At Barcelona an average of fifty people were killed every night in punitive raids. This is proportionately much less than in Majorca, because Barcelona is a town of nearly a million inhabitants; moreover, it had been the scene of a three-day battle of sanguinary street-fighting. But statistics are probably not to the point in such a matter. The point is the attitude towards murder. Never once, either among Spaniards or even among the French who were in Spain as combatants or as visitors — the latter being usually dim and harmless intellectuals — never once did I hear anyone express, even in private intimacy, any repulsion or disgust or even disapproval of useless bloodshed. You speak about fear. Yes, it is true that fear played some part in all this butchery; but where I was it did not appear to play the large part that you assign to it. Men who seemed to be brave — there was at least one whose courage I personally witnessed — would retail with cheery fraternal chuckles at convivial meal-times how many priests they had murdered, or how many ‘fascists’, the latter being a very elastic term. My own feeling was that when once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder. As soon as men know that they can kill without fear of punishment or blame, they kill; or at least they encourage killers with approving smiles. If anyone happens to feel a slight distaste to begin with, he keeps quiet and he soon begins to suppress it for fear of seeming unmanly. People get carried away by a sort of intoxication which is irresistible without a fortitude of soul which I am bound to consider exceptional, since I have met with it nowhere. On the other hand, I met peaceable Frenchmen, for whom I had never before felt contempt and who would never have dreamed of doing any killing themselves, but who savoured that blood-polluted atmosphere with visible pleasure. For them I shall never again be able to feel any esteem.

The very purpose of the whole struggle is soon lost in an atmosphere of this sort. For the purpose can only be defined in terms of the public good, of the welfare of men — and men have become valueless. In a country where the great majority of the poor are peasants the essential aim of every extreme-left party should be an improvement of the peasants’ condition; and perhaps the main issue of this war, at the beginning, was the redistribution of land. But those peasants of Aragon, so poor and so splendid in the pride they have cherished through all their humiliations — one cannot say that they were even so much an object of curiosity to the militiamen. Although there was no insolance, no injury, no brutality — at least I saw none and I know that theft and rape were capital crimes in the anarchist militias — nevertheless, between the armed forces and the civilian population there was an abyss, exactly like the abyss between the rich and the poor. One felt it in the attitude of the two groups, one always rather humble, submissive, and timid, the other confident, off-hand and condescending.

One sets out as a volunteer, with the idea of sacrifice, and finds oneself in a war which resembles a war of mercenaries, only with much more cruelty and with less human respect for the enemy.

I could say much more on the same lines, but I must limit myself. Having been in Spain, I now continually listen to and read all sorts of observations about Spain, but I could not point to a single person, except you alone, who has been exposed to the atmosphere of the Civil War and has resisted it. What do I care that you are a royalist, a disciple of Drumont? You are incomparably nearer to me than my comrades of the Aragon militias — and yet I loved them.

What you say about nationalism, the war, and French foreign policy after the war is equally sympathetic to me. I was ten years old at the time of Versailles, and up to then I had been patriotically thrilled as children are at war-time. But the will to humiliate the defeated enemy which revealed itself so loathsomely everywhere at that time (and in the following years) was enough to cure me once for all of that naïve sort of patriotism, I suffer more from the humiliations inflicted by my country than from those inflicted on her.

I am afraid I have bothered you with a very long letter. I will only add an expression of my keen admiration.

S. Weil


See also :

Clapton CFC’s away shirt goes viral in Spain because of anti-fascist message, BBC, August 29, 2018 | Spanish Civil War veteran Jose Almudéver remembers the International Brigades, anti-fascist fight, Denis Rogatyuk, Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2017 | Stan Hilton, the last British International Brigader who fought fascism in Spain, dies aged 98, Denis Rogatyuk, Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2016 | ‘Salut Comarada’’ An Australian experience of the Spanish Civil War, University of Melbourne Archives, July 19, 2016 | Memorial International Brigades Australia.

• Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (WW Norton, 2012/2013) | Michael Seidman and “The Spanish Holocaust”, Stuart Christie, anarkismo, September 23, 2012 | The Spanish Holocaust (interview with author), Late Night Live, ABC, May 31, 2012 | Process of Extermination: ‘The Spanish Holocaust,’ by Paul Preston, Adam Hochschild, The New York Times, May 11, 2012 | The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston – review, Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, March 9, 2012.

Christie Books | Robert Graham on Spanish Revolution | libcom on Spanish civil war (especially the reading guide) | Interviewing Salvador Torrents (1950/1975/2012) : Spanish anarchist exiled to Australia (July 27, 2012).

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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One Response to A note on the International Brigades /// Simone Weil in Spain

  1. NJ says:

    Thanks for this. You’ve an extra, extraneous ‘l’ in ‘Ballillas’.

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