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2 March 2022

From the NS archive: Heroes in Spain

1 May 1937: Were the foreign fighters who flocked to the Spanish Civil War noble or just more victims of the conflict?

By Stephen Spender

The poet Stephen Spender visited Spain during the Civil War to report on events of a struggle that fixated the world. As a member of the British Communist Party he hoped for a Republican victory as a harbinger to social change. In this piece, written after a six-week tour of the various fronts, he reports on the foreign fighters who had travelled to Spain to take up arms against General Franco. The International Brigades, he said, were given too much credit for their heroism and might expect to be resented by Spanish fighters: not so. He found the Spanish people above such things. What Spender resented, however, was turning the dead – foreign or Spanish – into heroes: “To say that those who happen to be killed are heroes is a wicked attempt to identify the dead with the abstract ideas which have brought them to the front.” For him, “The dead in wars are not heroes: they are freezing or rotting lumps of isolated insanity.”


G—, a driver in the convoy of the unit to which I managed to attach myself from Barcelona to Valencia, was formerly a cellist in a Corner House orchestra. Fat, frank, spectacled and intelligent, he had learned to drive a lorry on the day of his arrival in Barcelona: he drove with too much concentration, leaning over the wheel to fix his attention short-sightedly on the road.

In a moment of emotion when we were driving along the moonlit coastal road between Tarragona and Tortosa, he told me that he had only wept three times in his life: once, at the Wembley Tattoo when the whole crowd was hysterical with imperialist fervour, and looking round he had a sudden vision of what it all meant and was leading to; once, when after playing musical trash for months in the restaurant, he went to Sadler’s Wells, and hearing Figaro performed, realised what music might be and what the standards were by which he earned his living; once, that very morning in Barcelona, when he realised, as he put it, that “the people in this town know they are free”.

All the time I was in Spain I remembered these three occasions on which G— had wept; they seem to me a monument of personal honesty, of the spirit in which the best men have joined the International Brigade. I believe that at certain moments in history a few people – usually unknown ones – are able to live not for themselves but for a principle. One man goes out to Spain because his dislike of the Corner House orchestra and his love of Mozart suddenly becomes a rule of action with which his own life is identified. A young girl, who happens to be an Anglo-Catholic, and who is politically ignorant, goes out to nurse the wounded because she wishes to alleviate human suffering. Her patients, as soon as they are convalescent, bully her for her lack of “ideology”, and she suffers far more than they are able to imagine.

The unity which exists today in Governmental Spain is the unity of a people whose lives are identified with a principle. This unity is real, though it is something far more difficult to put one’s finger on than the obvious differences of the political parties. Talk to people and they are best able to express their differences of opinion, and these differences soon produce various degrees of feeling. Read the editorials of the newspapers in Valencia and the differences which are labelled under such initials as UGT, FAI, CNT, POUM, soon appear very alarming indeed, especially when “unity” is being discussed. As one newspaper correspondent said: “The more they speak of unity, the more they seem to quarrel.”

Yet the unity which was G—’s and my own first impression of Barcelona is a reality which is probably moulding Spanish democracy more quickly than those who deal in journalism and political controversy realise. The attitude of the Spanish people to members of the International Brigade is a good test of their fundamental agreement. In the first place, propaganda about the Brigade has perhaps not been handled as tactfully as it might have been. For example, the Battle of Morata was a turning point in the war because the Spanish troops rallied instead of fleeing at a critical moment. When I went along the lines at Morata, in March, I found that the Spanish Lister battalion was entrenched in positions nearer the enemy lines than any trenches of the Brigade. Yet almost all the credit for Morata has gone to the Brigade. Again, quite apart from the decisive action of the Republican Air Force, which is now 90 per cent Spanish. Spanish troops fought courageously at Guadalajara, yet all the glory went to the Italian Garibaldi battalion.

Tactless propaganda about the International Brigade might appear humiliating to the Spanish people, so it is sometimes suggested that the Brigade is rather resented in Spain. Yet during my six weeks of travelling in Spain I was almost invariably mistaken for a member of the Brigade and treated with extraordinary generosity on that account. Again, it is suggested that the Anarchists are afraid of what the Brigade may do after the war is won. But in practice, Anarchists and members of the Brigade work and fight side by side and the boundaries between political movements are broken down at the front.

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I went to Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Morata, Alabacete and Tortosa (where the entire population had camped out on the hills at night for fear of an air raid); and I travelled a good deal between these places, going in trains, lorries and private cars. My first and last impressions were not the struggle for power amongst the head of committees in the large towns nor of inefficiency and bureaucracy, common as they are during a revolution which is also a war; but the courage of the people in Madrid, the enthusiasm of 80 per cent of the people everywhere for the social revolution, the generosity of the workers wherever I met them, in the streets, in trains, in lorries; the marked difference between the awakening younger generation of Spanish workers and the stupefied older ones.

Every observer who stays in Republican Spain comes back again and again to a realisation that it is the people of Spain who count. At first the war strengthened and unified the social revolution, but in the long run war demands its own measures which threaten to engulf the whole social system. I set beside the story of G—, the lorry driver, the story of H—, a member of the International Brigade, who first came out as correspondent for one of the most reactionary English newspapers. H— fought in the Battle of Morata, where there were 400 casualties in three days out of a battalion of 600 men. The worst part of this battle was fought without trenches or other protection, except olive trees, in hilly country amongst the fields and olive groves.

[see also: George Orwell and the road to revolution]

On the first day of the battle a friend of H— died of a stomach wound, bleeding to death. H— stayed by him, under fire, until he died. That night H— disturbed his comrades, who were trying to sleep, by walking along the lines shouting out that he was thirsty and must have water… The next morning he happened to be fighting next to a friend of mine in the olive grove. He said repeatedly to my friend: “You see that wall over there? How far do you think it is?” My friend answered, “One hundred yards.” “Well, you take a range of 120 and I’ll try one of 100,” etc… That evening he appeared in the lines holding a bundle of telegraph wires which he waved above his head. He said, “Look, I’ve cut Franco’s communications.” He had gone mad.

I tell this story in order to counteract the propaganda about heroes in wars. The final horror of war is the complete isolation of a man dying alone in a world whose reality is violence. The dead in wars are not heroes: they are freezing or rotting lumps of isolated insanity. People try to escape from a realisation of the violence to which abstract ideas and high ideals have led them by saying either that individuals do not matter or else that the dead are heroes. It may be true that at certain times the lives of individuals are unimportant in relation to the whole of future history – although the violent death of many individuals may modify the consciousness of a whole generation as much as a work of art or a philosophical treatise. But to say that those who happen to be killed are heroes is a wicked attempt to identify the dead with the abstract ideas which have brought them to the front, thus adding prestige to those ideas, which are used to lead the living on to similar “heroic” deaths.

Perhaps soldiers suspect this, for they do not like heroic propaganda. When I was at the Morata front several men complained of the heroics in left-wing papers. Some praised very highly the report of the Battle of Moran, written by Philip Jordan, which appeared in the News Chronicle: but they complained that even that, restrained as it was, was too heroic. I had the impression that soldiers in a war have an almost pathetic longing to know the truth.

I returned from Spain feeling more strongly than I have ever felt before that I support the Spanish social revolution. Since the war must be won if the revolution is to be retained, there is nothing to do but accept it as a terrible necessity. Shortly before he died, the poet García Lorca is reported to have said that he would write in time of war the poetry of those who hate war; and when the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand asked the soldiers fighting in the trenches at Madrid what message they would send to the Indian peasants and workers, they answered: “Tell our Indian comrades that we hope that when the time comes, they will not have to fight for their freedom as we are doing.”

I like the Spanish people because it seems to me that they are emotionally honester than any other people. There are few heroics, no White Feathers, and genuine hatred for the necessity of war, in Spain. A war such as the present one may be necessary, but it seems to me that the left-wing movement in this country can never afford to forget how terrible war is; and that not the least of its crimes is the propaganda which turns men into heroes.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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