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

By Mclynn, Frank | The Independent (London, England), September 13, 1998 | Go to article overview
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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


Mclynn, Frank, The Independent (London, England)


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.

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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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