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The disturbing parallels between Syria's civil war and Spain in the 1930s

Britons are joining in a foreign war just as they did 80 years ago

The rumbling row about British Muslims going to fight for the rebels in the Syrian civil war has a surprisingly exact precedent. About 2,500 British citizens fought in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Most of them joined the Republican armies that were attempting to repel General Franco’s nationalists, and they found themselves on the losing side. In the Syrian case, a similar outcome remains entirely possible. Even the threat made this week by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to strip terror suspects of UK citizenship had a parallel 80 years ago.

However gruesome the campaigns, civil wars are nonetheless founded upon great causes. Alfred Sherman, later a speechwriter for Mrs Thatcher, volunteered to fight in Spain when he was a young communist. He said: “My politics were driven by emotion. That’s how you see the world at 17. It’s all black and white, painted in broad brushstrokes. I was appalled by the rise of fascism, followed the civil war in the papers and wanted to do my bit.” Referring to General Franco’s Nationalists, the 34‑year‑old George Orwell told a friend: “This fascism, somebody’s got to stop it”.

No less deeply held are the beliefs of young British Muslims tempted to participate in the Syrian conflict. A 23-year-old man told the BBC why he is fighting for a group linked to al-Qa’ida: he said it was his “duty” because Muslims were “being slaughtered”. “We are trying to establish the law of God, the law of Allah,” he added. “This is the duty on me... all these people are suffering.”

Less moved by these high-flown sentiments, the great world powers are players in the Syrian crisis as they were in Spain. The Syrian government has the backing of Iran, Russia and China. General Franco’s big supporters were Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Syrian rebels get help from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the Spanish Civil War the Republican side had only the Communist Soviet Union as support.

Frequent atrocities have marked both civil wars. The bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica in 1937 by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe was a particular shock because it demonstrated a new and terrifying aspect of war. And it inspired one of the most famous paintings in the world, Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Historians now believe that the mass executions that took place behind Nationalist lines were organised and approved by the Nationalists’ rebel authorities, while the executions behind the Republican lines were the result of the breakdown of government and the consequent anarchy.

The politics of starvation: Syria's civilians go hungry after months of sieges
Hospitals fill up with wounded soldiers as civil war drags on
Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the siege of Adra as Islamist rebels are accused of massacre

Another similarity is the fear that idealistic, naïve young volunteers are easily indoctrinated with dangerous ideas. In Syria the concern is that British combatants are being trained as “jihadists” and then encouraged to return to the UK to launch attacks on home soil. There were equally plausible worries voiced during the Spanish Civil War. Young Britons fighting the fascists joined what was known as the British Battalion of the International Brigades, a fighting force entirely under the control of communists and thus ultimately of Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union. As the historian Tom Buchanan relates, in Britain, as elsewhere, “the Communist Party made the Spanish Civil War uniquely its own… Through political campaigning, fundraising, and, above all, the organisation of the International Brigades, the party established itself by 1939 as the embodiment of anti‑fascism.”

The parallel with Ms May’s warning over loss of citizenship was, in the Spanish case, the threat of using the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. It remains on the Statute Book to this day. It forbids any British citizen accepting “any commission or engagement in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with a friendly state”. In practice, in what may prove to be a further repeating pattern, this legislation was never used.

I have left the most disturbing point of comparison to the last. The Spanish Civil War turned out to have been a dress rehearsal for what was to begin just a few months later, the Second World War. From 1939 onwards, the great powers, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, fought each other directly – and the German air force quickly made use of what it had learned in Spain. In the same way, is the Syrian civil war a dress rehearsal for a general conflagration in the Middle East? And, as with the bombing of cities in Spain, will the use of chemical weapons become a theme in a greater conflict?