Books: Further Spanish lessons: the muddle between right and left

Brother Against Brother, Experiences of a British Volunteer in the Spanish Civil War by Frank Thomas, Edited by Robert Stradling, Sutton pounds 16.99
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For most people on the Left the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was a defining movement. Here at last was a cause whose truth and justice could not be denied. Here was fascism in all its tawdry panoply, and only the Communist Party seemed willing to do anything about it. Small wonder that idealistic young men throughout the world volunteered to serve in the five International Brigades recruited to stiffen Republican resistance to Franco. The diary of Sidney Hamm, a young Welsh communist, written in a terse telegraphese - "Sick. Lounged about. Wrote home" - is a typical leftist document, made more poignant by Hamm's death at 20 in his very first hour of combat in the battle of Brunete in 1937.

Robert Stradling has elected to publish the Hamm diary alongside that of a fellow Cardiffian, also born at Pontypridd and also a grammar-school product. The difference is that Frank Thomas, two year's Hamm's senior, fought on Franco's side, survived eight months of combat and is still alive today. The Thomas diary, a self-consciously literary production, is far more interesting to the historian, both because it gives clues to the motivations of Franco's mercenaries and because it goes so much against the trend of British opinion in the thirties. After all, a 1937 poll of British writers found only three (including Evelyn Waugh) in favour of Franco and the nationalists while over 100 supported the Republic). So, is this simply the journal of a dyed-in-the-wool fascist and, if so, what turned a Welshman towards the far Right?

Part of the problem is that "fascism" is such a broad-brush concept with which to unravel the complexities of the Spanish Right. There were Spanish fascists - in the Falange - but there were also Carlists, Catholic zealots, romantic reactionaries, oligarchs opposed to social change and men who believed in the authoritarian rule of the Army. That the triumph of such people in the Spanish Civil War was a great boost to Hitler and Mussolini cannot be doubted, but in many ways their project was light years away from the ambitions of the Axis powers, as Franco's adamantine neutrality in the Second World War made clear. Hitler loathed Franco and, after his one and only meeting with him in 1940, said that he would rather have all his teeth extracted than repeat the experience.

The motives that led Frank Thomas to serve with the notorious Spanish Legion - Franco's elite corps - were various. He was bored by his job as a salesman, saw a chance to become a professional soldier, was influenced by Beau Geste-type fantasies about being a legionnaire, disliked communism and was attracted to something he calls (without further explanation) "the sacredness of Franco's cause." He found his fellow recruits to be a mixture: petty criminals, penniless adventurers, Catholic fanatics and fascist ideologues. After eight months hard fighting - mainly around Madrid's University City, where the International Brigades finally halted the victorious progress of Franco's armies - Thomas became disillusioned. Apparently he could stomach the bloodshed, the many atrocities and the shooting of prisoners, but was angry that his comrades had abandoned him in a machine gun nest when surrounded by enemies, contrary to the code of the Spanish Legion. Other factors were the declining calibre of the legion itself, as all its best officers and men were killed off in a war that would eventually claim 60,000 lives, and the rabidly anti-British propaganda of the Francoist press.

With the help of "General" Eoin O'Duffy, head of the ultramontane Irish Catholic force the Blueshirts, who similarly became disillusioned with Franco, Thomas deserted and made his way back home via Portugal. Thomas's original intention was to publish a book to rival Orwell's reminiscences of the Civil War but he seems eventually to have regretted his partisanship on Franco's side, especially when the outbreak of the Second World War conclusively indicated that the Republicans had been fighting the right enemy. The Spanish legion was in any case an absurd body, difficult to take pride in on sombre reflection. In the 1930s the Legion still drilled its recruits with whips, and its founder, the crazed General Millan Astray coined the crackpot slogan Viva la Muerte (Long live Death).

Although Thomas's is by far the more valuable record, there is confirmation in Hamm's diary of the more depressing conclusions historians have come to both on the International Brigades themselves and on the cause of the Left in general. Contrary to the legend, morale in the five brigades was not especially high. But above all there is clear evidence of the besetting sin of the Left: mindless factionalism. Many will remember Neil Kinnock's feverish determination to purge the hard left from the Labour Party in the 1980s as a kind of "compensation' for his total inability to put a dent in Thatcherite triumphalism. It seems it is ever thus on the Left. The Republic had right and justice on its side in the struggle with Franco, but in the end it deserved to lose because it could never concentrate on the common enemy. It was far more important for Communists to purge Trotskyists and for both to denounce the anarchists than to form a common front against Franco. On many critical occasions during 1936-39, there was civil war within the Civil War as different sects of republicans fought each other.

Robert Stradling believes that by publishing these two diaries together, he can help in the process of healing old wounds from the Civil War. Some of those who served with Sidney Hamm make it clear they do not want reconciliation, but is this not the way of Nelson Mandela and, more relevantly, of Juan Carlos, Franco's heir who subverted the evil legacy of the caudillo and made it possible for Spain to emerge as a modern nation? Stradling's edition is a worthy enterprise which makes available historical testimony of enduring value.