Academic journal article Flinders Journal of History and Politics

Australian Participation in the Spanish Civil War

Academic journal article Flinders Journal of History and Politics

Australian Participation in the Spanish Civil War

Article excerpt


A small number of Australians participated directly in the Spanish Civil War without the sanction of their Government. A few lost their lives. This article discusses some of the motivating factors that encouraged these people, both educated and uneducated, to become willing participants in a war that did not directly concern Australia. It will be shown that there was a complexity of reasons for their participation dependent upon the point in which their personal lives had reached.

This paper has been peer reviewed

Spain, a country many thousands of miles from Australia attracted at least 66 Australian men and women to become directly involved in the Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Their roles varied from front line duties to humanitarian aid. This essay proposes to investigate what motivated these men and women to risk their lives in a war in which Australia was not officially involved. It will be contended that Australian writer Nettie Palmer's assertion that they went "because they saw a fight between freedom and tyranny" is simplistic with the real reasons far more complex.1 Certainly, historian George Esenwein believes foreigners had little knowledge of the complexities of the causal factors for the war, and therefore depicted the war as Communism against Fascism.2 Judith Keene believes for some it was a "juncture" in their personal lives that motivated them.3 The task of gaining an insight into their individual personalities and motivations is not easy, and will require reference to more recent literature on motivational studies. Difficulties also arise owing to a lack of official records because of secrecy at the time associated with the Communist Party and the formation of the International Brigades. In addition, many volunteers were born overseas but lived in Australia prior to the commencement of the Spanish Civil War. They volunteered in Australia, and were therefore considered 'Australian'. There will also be a brief overview of the Spanish Civil War, and a précis of the International Brigades and the Spanish Foreign Legion.

The failed military coup or pronunciamiento that took place in Spanish Morocco (17-18 July 1936) was the catalyst that set Spain on the path of a civil war which lasted for nearly three years.4 The coup was an attempt to oust the Republican, government seen as Leftwing, and was widely reported in the popular press.5 General Francisco Franco subsequently became leader of the Nationalists and utilized the Fascists, in particular the aid of Germany and Italy, to achieve the establishment of a dictatorship.

While the pronunciamiento heralded the War, George Esenwein states the War's origins "had sprung from deeply rooted domestic issues".6 Esenwein adds that these were a complexity of "social, economic and political circumstances".7 Author Ronald Fraser agreed, believing "the weakness of capitalist development" was a contributing factor as Spain had once been a powerful nation but entered the twentieth century industrially backward.8 This had additional ramifications as the Spanish Government, unable to manufacture its own armaments, required the assistance from Russia for the supply of arms.9 In Fraser's opinion, the burgeoning proletariat during the period of industrialization created additional political pressure and an associated "socio-political crisis" which could only be solved by a civil war.10 Martin Blinkhorn also asserts the "gross maldistribution of wealth", and the powers of the "Church, army and monarchy" were contributing factors that created additional social tensions.11

However, while composed of foreigners from various countries of the world, the International Brigade, according to R. Dan Richardson, represented a "great crusade" of the "response of world democracy to the threat of fascism".12 Richardson added that they were a "propaganda instrument ... used by the Comintern for its own purposes".13 Indeed British sculptor and Spanish War participant, Jason Gurney believed, in hindsight, the volunteers "were the victims of a vast propaganda conspiracy". …

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