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'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin': Ideology and the German International Brigade Volunteers

Author(s): Josie McLellan


Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 2006), pp. 287-304
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Journal
of Contemporary History Copyright
@ 2006 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and
New
Delhi,
Vol
41(2),
287-304. ISSN 0022-0094.
DOI: 10. 177/0022009406062069
Josie
McLellan
'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin':
Ideology
and the German International
Brigade
Volunteers
During
the
Spanish
Civil
War,
about 2800 Germans
signed up
to
fight
in the
International
Brigades.'
The British student
John
Cornford wrote:
'They
are
the finest
people
in some
ways
I've ever met. In a
way they
have lost
every-
thing,
have been
through enough
to break most
people,
and remain
strong
and
cheerful and humorous. If
anything
is
revolutionary
it is these
comrades.'2
As
Cornford
pointed out,
the Germans who
converged
on
Spain
in 1936/7 had
hard times behind them.
Many
of them had been
imprisoned
in
Germany
after
the nazi seizure of
power,
and
subsequently expelled
from the
country
and
stripped
of their
citizenship.
Others had fled to centres of German anti-fascist
resistance like
Paris, Prague
and
Moscow, hoping
to undermine the National
The author would like to thank Daniel
Kowalsky,
Catherine
Merridale,
Leon
Quinn
and the
JCH's anonymous
reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
1 On the German
volunteers,
see the
early
account
by
Arnold
Krammer,
'Germans
Against
Hitler.
The Thalmann
Brigade
in the
Spanish
Civil
War', Journal of Contemporary History, 4,
2
(April
1969),
65-83. Patrik von zur
Mihlen's
Spanien
war
ihre
Hoffnung.
Die
deutsche Linke im
spanis-
chen
Biirgerkrieg
1936 bis 1939
(Bonn 1983)
is the
only book-length study
of the Germans in
Spain.
More recent work has had the
advantage
of access to communist archives: K.-M.
Mallmann,
"'Kreuzritter
des antifaschistischen
Mysteriums":
Zur
Erfahrungsperspektive
des
Spanischen
Biirgerkrieges'
in H.
Grebing
and C. Wickert
(eds),
Das 'andere'
Deutschland
im Widerstand
gegen
den Nationalsozialismus.
Beitriige
zur
politischen (Uberwindung
der
nationalsozialistischen
Diktatur
im Exil und im Dritten
Reich (Essen 1994); J. McLellan, Antifascism
and
Memory
in East
Germany. Remembering
the International
Brigades (Oxford 2004), chap.
1. Michael
Uhl, drawing
on
German, Spanish
and Russian
archives, provides
the most definitive account of the German vol-
unteers
yet:
M.
Uhl,
'Die Internationalen
Brigaden
im
Spiegel
neuer
Dokumente',
Internationale
Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz
zur Geschichte
der
Deutschen
Arbeiterbewegung,
35/4
(1999),
486-518;
and
esp. idem, Mythos Spanien.
Das
Erbe
der internationalen
Brigaden
in der DDR
(Bonn
2004), part
one.
Uhl, probably
for reasons of
space,
is
largely
silent on the volunteers' combat moti-
vation. The exact number of German volunteers in the International
Brigades
is
impossible
to ascer-
tain. Recent research indicates that there were
significantly
fewer than the
often-quoted figure
of
5000. R.
Skoutelsky, L'espoir guidait
leurs
pas.
Les volontaires
frangais
dans les
Brigades
inter-
nationales,
1936-1939
(Paris 1998), 330; Mallmann,
"'Kreuzritter des antifaschistischen
Mysteriums"', op. cit.,
35.
Uhl,
'Die Internationalen
Brigaden
im
Spiegel
neuer
Dokumente', op. cit.,
490. On the Austrian International
Brigade experience
see
Osterreicher
im
Spanischen
Biirgerkrieg.
Interbrigadisten
berichten
iiber
ihre Erlebnisse
1936
bis
1945
(Vienna 1986).
West German veteran
memoirs are collected in M. Schafer (ed.), Spanien
1936
bis
1939.
Erinnerungen
von Inter-
brigadisten
aus der BRD
(Frankfurt
am Main
1976).
2
J.
Cornford to M.
Heinemann,
in V.
Cunningham (ed.),
The
Penguin
Book
of Spanish
Civil
War Verse
(Harmondsworth 1996),
128.
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288
Journal
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Socialist
regime
from without. A
significant
number were
Jewish.3
All con-
tinued to fear the
long
arm of the nazi
security
services and
many fought
under
assumed names. After the International
Brigades
were demobilized in the
summer of
1938, returning
to
Germany
was an
impossibility.
The
majority
ended
up
in internment
camps
in southern France. From
here,
a fortunate
few
managed
to obtain visas to a neutral
country.
The
unlucky
ones were
deported
to
Germany
after the
occupation
of France and faced
years
in
prison
or concentration
camps.
The soldiers of the International
Brigades
were neither
professionals
nor
conscripts,
nor were
they fighting
for their
country.
Not
only
their status as
volunteers,
but also their
political homogeneity
was
relatively
unusual.
Although by
no means the first international
army,
the
35,000
volunteers of
the International
Brigades
have attracted
popular
and
scholarly
attention far
beyond
that which their numbers
might appear
to
warrant.4 To some
commen-
tators,
both at the time and in
retrospect, they
seemed to
embody
the
impulse
to
fight oppression
and
dictatorship.
To
others, they
were a 'Comintern
army'
of
ideologically
blinkered
communists,
there to do the
bidding
of the Soviet
Union.5
Both
interpretations
are
oversimplified,
and neither does much to
illu-
minate the often
complex
motivations of those who volunteered. A
study
of
combat motivation in the International
Brigades
as a whole would be a vast
project
which cannot be
attempted
here. Nor does this article allow
space
for a
meaningful comparison
between national
groups. Instead,
it will focus on the
German
volunteers,
a
fascinating
case
study
not
only
of International
Brigade
soldiers,
but of the role
played by ideology
in combat motivation. How do
soldiers whose
primary
motivation is
ideological
differ from those who are
fighting
for
money,
for their
country,
or for
self-preservation?
This article
examines what drove them to volunteer for a war in
Spain,
and examines how
their combat motivation
changed
over time. Whatever role
ideology played
in
the decision to
volunteer, political
commitment alone was not
enough
to
pre-
pare
men for combat and
keep
them in battle when the
going got tough. And,
of
course,
factors which
inspired
men to
volunteer,
or motivated them
during
3 Arno
Lustiger
estimates their number to have been around 500. A.
Lustiger,
'German and
Austrian
Jews
in the International
Brigade [sic]',
Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XXXV
(1990),
301. Cf. A.
Lustiger,
Schalom Libertad!
Juden
im
spanischen Biirgerkrieg (Berlin 2001),
64.
4 On the International
Brigades
as a
whole,
see K.
Bradley
and M.
Chappell,
International
Brigades
in
Spain
1936-39
(London 1994);
S.
Alvarez,
Historia
politica y
militar de las
Brigadas
Internacionales
(Madrid 1996);
M.
Jackson,
Fallen
Sparrows (Philadelphia,
PA
1994);
R.D.
Richardson,
Comintern
Army.
The International
Brigades
and the
Spanish
Civil War
(Lexington,
KY
1982);
V.
Brome,
The International
Brigades. Spain
1936-1937
(London 1967).
A number of
excellent recent studies of national
groups
have made use of Moscow archives to
great
effect:
J.K.
Hopkins,
Into the Heart
of
the Fire. The British in the
Spanish
Civil War
(Stanford,
CA
1998);
P.
Carroll,
The
Odyssey of
the
Abraham
Lincoln
Brigade (Stanford,
CA
1994);
R.
Baxell,
British
Volunteers in the
Spanish
Civil War
(London 2004).
On the
historiography
and
reception
of the
Brigades
see R.
Stradling, History
and
Legend. Writing
the International
Brigades (Cardiff 2003);
P.
Monteath, Writing
the Good
Fight.
Political Commitment in the International Literature
of
the
Spanish
Civil War
(Westport,
CT
1994).
5
Richardson, op.
cit.
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McLellan: 'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 289
the
early phase
of the
war,
could
change
as the war wore on and the
euphoria
of arrival faded. In
many ways,
the
experiences
of the German volunteers
resembled those of other
twentieth-century
soldiers:
cold, fear, hunger
and
pain
on the one
hand, esprit
de
corps
and a sense of
professional pride
on the other.
This article asks what difference
ideology
made.
For all the fervent internationalism of the
Republican
war
effort,
in retro-
spect
the
history
of the German volunteers
appears
now more
closely
wedded
to events in
Germany
than the broader
sweep
of
Spanish history.
As we shall
see,
the volunteers' motivation stemmed in
large part
from events at home.
Once
they
reached
Spain,
the structure of the
Republican army
and
linguistic
limitations meant that their contact with
Spaniards
was
limited,
and their
grasp
of
Spanish politics
even more so. For
many,
their
political goals
in
Germany
remained much more
tangible
than
vague conceptions
of
Popular
Front
victory
in
Spain. Equally,
when it comes to the sources available to the
historian of this
topic,
the most
enduring
traces of the volunteers'
experiences
are to be found in German archives.
Very
few
contemporary sources,
such as
letters,
have survived.
Many
of the soldiers were unable or
unwilling
to con-
tact their families in
Germany.
Letters sent to friends and relatives in exile
frequently
went
missing
in the war
years. Likewise,
soldiers who
kept
diaries
often lost them in the chaos that followed demobilization.6 The
Brigade press
and
publications
were
heavily
censored and tend to reflect the
party
line
fairly
assiduously.
The International
Brigade
archives in Moscow are invaluable
sources for the
military history
of the
conflict,
but
inevitably,
the histories
of individual soldiers tend to be
eclipsed by
the broader
sweep
of
military
administration and
discipline.
After German
capitulation
in
1945,
the
majority
of the
surviving
veterans
settled in East
Germany.7
Most of them were
communists,
and either emo-
tional ties or
party discipline
drew them to the new socialist state. After the
West German Communist
Party
was banned in
1956, many
West German
veterans were ordered
by
the
party
to 'retreat' to the East. The East German
state liked to
present
itself as the 'better
Germany', representative
of the
progressive,
anti-fascist German
tradition,
and the
Spanish
Civil War was an
important part
of this
legitimizing
tactic. The International
Brigades
were
often
portrayed
as the
vanguard
of communist anti-fascism and the fore-
runners of the East German armed forces. This official version of events had
an
impact
on individual memories too. Even veterans who had travelled to
Spain
as non-communists often filtered their
experiences through
the
lens
of
6 A few diaries or
diary fragments
did survive in the
archives,
most
notably
those of the writer
Bodo Uhse. Uhse's diaries were held
by
the East German
Academy
of Arts and a
lightly
censored
version was
published
in the 1980s. The use of diaries
published post-1945
is
fraught
with diffi-
culty.
See
J. McLellan,
'The Politics of Communist
Biography.
Alfred Kantorowicz and the
Spanish
Civil
War',
German
History, 22,
4
(2004),
536-62 on the
changes
made to one
diary
in
the
postwar period.
7 See
McLellan, Antifascism
and
Memory, op. cit.,
for more on the veterans' situation in East
Germany.
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290
Journal
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later
political
commitments. One
man, describing
the battle of Teruel to
me,
said 'we were ten comrades
altogether',
before
catching
himself and
adding,
'I
say comrade, although
in those
days
I wasn't a comrade
yet.'8
Published
accounts of the war were often aimed at a
youthful readership,
with the
hope
that the
young
would be
inspired
to make similar sacrifices for the socialist
cause. Writers were
encouraged
to
emphasize
the
political
over the
personal
or
everyday. And,
of
course,
histories of the war and collections of memoirs were
often
heavily
censored to fit the official line on the war.
Given these limited
sources,
and their
partial, retrospective nature,
how can
the historian
hope
to reconstruct the motivation of those who
joined
the
Brigades?
It
goes
almost without
saying
that no
body
of sources is without its
limitations,
and that even unlimited access to
contemporary
letters and diaries
does not
open
a window onto the soldier's mind. As
experience
is related
-
whether five minutes or five decades after the event
-
it is
inevitably
overlaid
with
hindsight, nostalgia,
wishful
thinking,
bravado or bashfulness. All social
historians of war must be alive to the narrative structures used
by
soldiers to
make sense of what
they
have done and seen. In the case of sources available
for this
study,
the narrative
overlay
is often a
thickly ideological
one. But even
the East German archives
preserved fragments
of more
personal memories,
which offer a
glimpse
into the motivations of individual soldiers.
For all their zeal in
implementing
the official line on the
war,
the East
German censors
kept painstaking
records of their
cuts,
which can be used to
reconstruct individual veterans' stories. Letters
exchanged
between veterans
reveal an irreverent
perspective
on the
war,
far from the formulaic heroism of
official histories.
Equally,
veteran memoirs collected
by
East German
archivists were often much franker than
published
accounts. Veterans
proved
particularly prone
to
depart
from the
party
line
during interviews, perhaps
because it is easier to
escape
from the
stylistic
conventions of official histories
while
speaking
than while
writing.
Those interviewed
by party
historians often
used the licence of old
age
to wander
wilfully
off
topic
and
pursue
their own
agendas,
in the
knowledge
that the interview would be transcribed and
archived for
posterity.'
Even those who did not have access to such official
repositories
worked to
preserve
their memories. One
veteran,
who had been
imprisoned
after a Stalinist show trial in
1957,
wrote a
lengthy
memoir cover-
ing
his time both in the International
Brigades
and in
prison.
With
absolutely
no
prospect
of
publication,
and
given
that his
family
was under constant secret
police surveillance,
this was a
risky activity.
There would have been severe
repercussions
had the
manuscript
been discovered. His wife
typed
three
copies
and
gave
one each to their
daughter
and
son, spreading
the burden of conceal-
ing
the
manuscript."
None of the
copies
was ever discovered and his memoirs
were
published
in full in
1991,
after the fall of the Berlin
Wall."11
8 Interview with Alfred
Katzenstein,
5
February
1999.
9 Cf.
McLellan, Antifascism
and
Memory, op. cit.,
98-9.
10 Interview with Charlotte
Janka,
11
April
2000.
11 W.
Janka, Spuren
eines Lebens
(Hamburg 1991).
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McLellan: ' Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 29 I1
The
collapse
of communism also
played
an
important
role in the interviews
carried out for this
project
in the late 1990s. All the veterans I interviewed had
been members of the East German Communist
Party.
The end of the East
German state affected their narratives of
Spain
in different
ways.
A few had
started to reassess the
period
and flesh out their own
experiences
with
newly
available information on anarchist and
Trotskyist groups.
Others
clung
even
more
tightly
to the certainties of
party dogma.
Both
groups, however, pre-
ferred
talking
about the war to
talking
about what
happened
afterwards.
Despite
the failures of state
socialism, many
felt that
Spain
held the
key
to
today's political questions,
and contrasted their
political
commitment with the
lack of interest of their
grandchildren's generation.
Their
nostalgia
for
Spain
was
partly political,
but it also contained wistfulness for the adventure and
romance of their
youth.
This article follows the volunteers from their decision to
volunteer, through
their arrival in
Spain,
their first
exposure
to combat and the
experience
of
pro-
longed
mobilization. Volunteers'
perceptions
of what
they
were
fighting
for
changed radically
as
they experienced Spain
at first hand and as
they
entered
combat. The decision to volunteer was not identical with the motivation to
fight.
Nor can
any
soldier be said to have
fought
for one reason alone
-
what
kept
men in battle was
complex
and shifted over time. For some
men,
an ini-
tially
abstract commitment to anti-fascism
may
have evolved into
loyalty
to
their fellow soldiers. In other
cases,
lust for adventure and action
may
have
been
complemented by
a
growing political
awareness. What follows is an
attempt
to
separate
out the strands of combat
motivation,
and examine the
ways
in which
they
interacted and
overlapped.
The most
commonly
voiced
hope amongst
those
travelling
to
Spain
was for
the defeat of fascism. German anti-fascists were keen to defend the
Spanish
Popular Front,
but
they
were also
quick
to see the connection with their own
political predicament.
While the volunteers condemned Franco's
regime
as
dangerous
and
illegitimate,
but the situation in
Germany
was
rarely
far from
their minds either.
By
1936 it looked as if Hitler's
dictatorship
was there to
stay. Opportunities
for
political
action within
Germany
were
very
limited
indeed,
but
striking
a blow
against Spanish
fascism
could,
the volunteers
hoped,
mark the
beginning
of the end for German fascism too.
And,
of
course,
the involvement of the Condor
Legion strengthened
their conviction
that,
once
Madrid
fell,
Berlin would soon follow. The civil war was both a
displaced
fight against
Hitler and a chance to strike a blow
against
international fascism.
As 'The Ballad of the Eleventh
Brigade' put
it:
And even if we have to
fight
For seven more
years,
Every
war's over sometime.
We're
going
to see
Germany again!
Then we'll march in the
gates,
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292
Journal
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Vol 41 No 2
With a
cry
of 'Pasaremos'.
We'll chuck whatever's left of the swastika
Into old Father Rhine.12
Hew Strachan writes: 'Men need to be hardened in
peace
if
they
are to be
tough enough
for
war.'13 Despite
their lack of formal
military training,
the
German volunteers had been
toughened by
their
experiences
since the nazi
seizure of
power.
Those who had suffered
police
or concentration
camp
imprisonment
in
Germany
had first-hand
experience
of the brutal nature of
the
regime
and the isolated
position
of German anti-fascists. As one veteran
put
it:
'...
most of the
political emigrants
had
already
done time in
Germany.
They
had been
imprisoned,
beaten. It
[Spain]
was an
opportunity
to face the
nazis with a
gun
in
your
hand. That
played
a
huge
role.'14
Again
and
again,
veterans cited the
opportunity
to
fight
'with a
gun
in
your
hand' as a central
part
of the war's
appeal.
For
people
who had felt
powerless
since
1933,
this
was a chance to face their
enemy
on
equal
terms.
Although
the communist
movement had
recently
thrown its
weight
behind
attempts
to form a German
Popular Front, many
saw the International
Brigades
as
part
of a militant
socialist tradition. Another veteran recounted:
What I had dreamt as a
child,
when
my
father told me stories about the
struggle
of the work-
ing
class for a decent existence
-
Spartacus, Berlin,
Leuna on the
Ruhr,
the victorious Soviet
army
-
wasn't a dream
any more,
it had become
reality.
I was a soldier of the
working
class."
Another remembered a comrade
saying:
'I wanted to be a little
Lenin'.16
A
large majority
of the
volunteers, probably
about 70
per cent,
were communist
or
sympathetic
to the Communist
Party.17
Like the International
Brigades
as a
whole,
the German volunteers were an
unusually politically homogeneous
group
of soldiers. Some came from the Soviet
Union,
others had been
politi-
cally
active in French or Czechoslovakian exile. Once the international com-
munist movement
gave
national
parties
the
go-ahead
to start
sending
men to
Spain, many
felt it was their
duty
as communists to volunteer for the
Brigades.
Nevertheless, political
conviction was not the
only
motivation for
fighting.
12 Ernst
Busch,
Lieder der
Arbeiterklasse
& Lieder aus dem
spanischen Buirgerkrieg (CD)
(Dortmund n.d.).
13 See Hew Strachan's article in this issue on
training
and combat motivation.
14 Interview with Roman
Rubinstein,
4
January
1999.
15
Stiftung
Archiv der Parteien und
Massenorganisationen
der DDR im Bundesarchiv
(hence-
forth
SAPMO-BArch), SgY 11/V237/13/206,
85.
Erlebnisbericht Willy Grunert,
22
May
1968.
Leuna is a reference to the BASF chemical
works,
the site of conflict between workers and state
security
forces in March
1921, leading
to the deaths of 145 and the arrest of over
34,000.
See E.
Weitz, Creating
German Communism 1890-1990
(Princeton, NJ 1997),
106. As Leuna lies on the
Saale,
I assume that the reference to the Ruhr is the result of the author's conflation of Weimar-era
communist
militancy.
16
SAPMO-BArch,
DY 55 V
241/113,
76.
Report by
Hans Schubert.
17
Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit.,
58.
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McLellan:
'
Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 293
For some
volunteers, being
on the
spot
was an
important
factor. A number of
Germans who were in
Spain
when the war broke
out,
either as
emigr6s
or as
participants
in the Workers'
Olympiad, planned
as an alternative to the Berlin
Olympics
in Barcelona in summer
1936,
were
amongst
the first volunteers to
fight
for the
Spanish Republic, pre-dating
the International
Brigades by
a
number of
months."'
Clearly, ideology played
a
role,
but there was also an
element of
impulse
and
opportunity.
Germans in exile elsewhere saw
Spain
as
a chance to
escape
from the
boredom,
loneliness and
poverty
of their
uprooted
lives. German
emigres
were often cut off from their
professional
lives and net-
works of friends and
family.
Unable to
speak
the
language
and
living
on the
breadline,
their
opportunities
for
meaningful political
work were limited. One
man I
interviewed, recalling
his time in exile in
Prague,
felt that his
political
work there was
trivial,
'too
conventional,
too
small'.19
Veteran memoirs often
convey
a real sense of adventure and excitement -
finally
it was
possible
to
use
one's
initiative and do
something significant.20
Given that few of those
Germans who
fought
in the International
Brigades experienced anything
approaching
a normal civilian life until 1945 at the
earliest,
it is
unsurprising
that
they
remember life in the International
Brigades
as a short window of
freedom. For those in their late teens or
early
to mid-twenties when
they
travelled to
Spain,
it was their
only opportunity
to
experience anything
approaching
the
autonomy
of
young adulthood,
for all the restrictions of
army
discipline.
For
others,
the International
Brigades
offered an
escape
from communist
infighting.
The novelist Gustav
Regler
saw the war as a liberation from the
claustrophobic atmosphere
of Moscow at the time of the show trials. 'In
Spain,
I felt sure of
it,
I would breathe a different air.
There,
death was a
pro-
tection
against treachery
and
judges;
one died at the hands of the
enemy.
How
good
it was to think of
death!'21
To
Regler, Spain represented
a second chance
for
communism,
an
opportunity
to cast off the shackles of Stalinism and
fight
and
possibly
die for a
worthy
cause. He wrote
this, however,
after his break
with the communist movement
following
the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Like another
later ex-communist Alfred
Kantorowicz,
he tended to recast his decision to
go
to
Spain
in
retrospect,
as a defence of
'good'
communism
against
'bad'
Stalinism. In a
passage
written in
1959,
two
years
after his defection from
East
Germany,
Kantorowicz wrote of
Spain:
'Some of us fled from the
desper-
ate
doubts,
which
gave
us headaches and
homesickness,
fled to the
front,
where,
in the face of the
enemy
who
lay
before
us,
we could
forget
our inner
18
E.g.
G.
Wohlrath,
'Als
Arbeitersportler
zur
Volksolympiade
nach Barcelona' in H. Maassen
(ed.), Brigade
International ist unser
Ehrennahme.
Erlebnisse
ehemaliger
deutscher
Spanien-
kiimpfer,
2 vols
(3rd edn,
Berlin
1983),
44-7.
19 Interview with Max
Kahane,
22
February
1999.
20 One social democrat volunteer claimed that he and a
Spanish
comrade had
disguised
them-
selves as
peasants
and worked their
way along
the Mediterranean
coast, blowing up bridges
as
they
went to halt the Nationalist advance.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 20/1706,
13.
Erinnerungen
Alfred
Berger.
21 G.
Regler,
The Owl
of
Minerva
(London 1959),
266.
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294
Journal
of
Contemporary History
Vol
41
No 2
desperation
and
get things straight
with ourselves
again.'22 Regler
and
Kantorowicz felt that the war offered an identifiable
enemy
and a chance to
reclaim the tarnished
ideology
of communism
by risking
one's
life. But in
Kantorowicz's case at
least,
this was not the
only
motivation for
travelling
to
Spain.
His diaries
dating
from this
period
describe his desire to overcome his
middle-class,
bookish
background
and
slight bespectacled appearance
and
prove
himself in combat
-
as a communist and as a man. 'I must be there at
the
front',
he wrote.23 Whatever
Regler
and Kantorowicz's motives for volun-
teering,
what is
interesting
is the fact that neither of them renounced his deci-
sion to
go
to
Spain
after his break with the
party
-
both remained adamant
that it had been the
right thing
to do. In
retrospect, however,
their break with
communism
may
have
put
a
slightly
different cast on events. Kantorowicz cer-
tainly
went out of his
way
to
give
the
impression
that he had been an
ordinary
foot
soldier,
rather than admit his
membership
of the
functionary
caste.24
Unlike soldiers who were
uprooted
from their homes to
join
the
army,
the
German volunteers
generally
remembered their first weeks in the
Brigades
as
a
positive experience
rather than an
unpleasant
shock. Sometimes
being
a
soldier,
for all its
dangers
and
privations,
could be
preferable
to the alterna-
tives. For those who travelled to
Spain
out of a sense of
political conviction,
their immediate
experiences upon
arrival tended to reinforce their sense of
purpose.
Men who had been involved in
underground, illegal political
work
relished
being
able to
'fight
with an
open visor'.25
One veteran recalled his
metamorphosis
from 'an
illegal'
to 'a
person again,
a comrade'.
Fighting
in
Spain brought
its own
dangers,
but it was
preferable
on
every
level to the
isolation and
paranoia
of the
underground,
which forced its members to be
'secretive and aloof'.26
But even once the volunteers reached
Spain, primary groups
could be slow
to form. One man noted how
easily
the French and British volunteers mixed
with one
another,
while the Germans remained
quiet,
reserved and mistrustful.
'The
suspicion
that
somebody
could be a nazi
spy hung
in the air.'27
For
many,
the
turning point
was when
they
first held a
gun.
Fritz
Rettmann,
who acted
as a
political
commissar in
Spain,
remembered a dramatic
improvement
in
morale when
weapons
arrived: the
petty quarrels
and
poor discipline
which
had characterized the
waiting period disappeared.28
One soldier wrote to his
22 A.
Kantorowicz, Deutsches
Tagebuch.
Erster Teil
(Berlin 1980),
49.
23 A.
Kantorowicz, Nachtbiicher. Aufzeichnungen
im
franzbsischen
Exil
(Hamburg 1995),
184.
24 See
McLellan,
'The Politics of Communist
Biography', op. cit.,
547.
25 E.
Gliickauf,
Begegnung
und
Signale: Erinnerungen
eines Revolutioniirs
(Berlin 1976), 292;
G. Szinda, 'Behiutet
von
guten Christen', Wochenpost,
53
(1986),
19.
26
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1244/2,
126.
Erinnerungen
Karl Mewis.
27
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1821/2,
283-4.
Erinnerungen
Rudolf
Engel.
28
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/23/204,
F.
Rettmann,
'Erlebnisse als
Polit.-Kom.
der II.
Komp.
des
Edgar-Andre-Battl.',
16.
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McLellan: ' Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 295
wife
shortly
before his death in December 1936: 'How well I
felt,
when I had
the shooter in
my
hand for the first time ... I had missed
feeling
so
healthy.
Life has such a
deep meaning
here.'29
Many
volunteers shared his
feeling
that
Spain
returned
meaning
and order to their
lives;
it was now
possible
to see
their defeat in
Germany
as one lost battle in a much
longer
war. Not
only
did
arrival in
Spain give
the volunteers a new sense of
purpose,
it also seemed to
counteract the
physical
and mental scars of nazi
brutality. Weapons, army
training,
and the homosocial bonds of
army
life restored soldiers' sense of
masculinity,
and left them
feeling physically
transformed. As one account
put
it: 'You couldn't see the
years
in
prisons
and concentration
camps any
more.
Joy
and the confidence of
victory
were written on their
faces.'3o
Key
to the soldiers' sense of
pride
and confidence in their abilities was the
enthusiastic welcome of the
Spanish people.
From their
reception
in Madrid in
1936 to their farewell
parade
in Barcelona in October
1938,
the volunteers
sensed that
they
had the full
support
of the local
population.
Veterans remem-
bered
feeling
'as if we were at
home,
with
friends,
with
comrades',31
as local
farmers
pushed oranges,
bread and wine onto the train which was
taking
the
soldiers to the front.32 This often led to a
lasting
emotional attachment to
Spain,
and a sense that it had become their new Heimat or homeland. For
German communists embittered
by
the defeat of
1933,
this kind of
popular
enthusiasm formed a
poignant
contrast to the indifference and
betrayal
of the
German masses. 'The
people
of Madrid are
heroes,
not
us',
wrote one soldier
to a friend back home in the
Sudetenland.33
While
many
of the volunteers
may
have felt a
strong
abstract commitment to the
Spanish Republic
at the moment
of
volunteering,
this became much more
tangible,
emotional and concrete as
they
came into contact with the
Spanish people.
The fact that such contact was
necessarily
limited
by
the lack of a common
language
and the efforts of the
Brigade leadership
to
keep
their soldiers unaware of the
complexities
of the
political
situation meant that the volunteers often came
away
with an idealized
view of the
country
for which
they
were
fighting.
It was easier to love a
fuzzily-defined,
romanticized
Spain
than the
Germany they
had left behind.34
Many
volunteers ended
up feeling
as if
they
were
fighting
for two
causes,
but
must have found it difficult to avoid the conclusion that
Spain
was
altogether
the more
straightforward
of the two. The
song 'Forwards,
International
29
SAPMO-BArch,
NY
4316/19,
99.
30
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/207,
K.
Hofer,
F.
Baumgirten,
W.
Kinzel, 'Feuertaufe
an
der
Jarama-Front',
52.
31
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1411,
5.
Erinnerungen
Ewald Munschke.
32 F.
Miuller,
Da kamen
sie
aus aller
Welt, m/s, n.d.,
no
pagination.
33
SAPMO-BArch,
DY
55/V241/113,
85.
34
See,
for
example,
Erich
Arendt's Spanish
Civil
War-inspired poetry, Bergwindballade.
Gedichte
des
spanischen Freibeitskampfes (Berlin 1952);
Eduard Claudius' Grune Oliven und
nackte
Bergen (Berlin 1952)
and Hans Maassen's Die Messe des Barcelo
(Halle 1956).
Willi
Bredel's
Begegnung
am Ebro
(Paris 1939) gives
a less
rosy picture
of relations between the
Spanish
and the International Volunteers.
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296
Journal
of
Contemporary History
Vol
41
No 2
Brigades',
one of the most famous of the
war, encapsulated
this bittersweet
outlook:
Born in the
far-away fatherland,
We
brought nothing
with us but the hate in our hearts.
But we haven't
forgotten
our homeland
Today
our homeland's in front of Madrid.35
In a
sense, however, fighting
in
Spain
allowed the volunteers to rediscover
their
pride
in
being
German. One volunteer noted that in the
early days
of the
war, 'there
were
very
few who declared themselves to be
"German", they
were
Bavarians, Rheinlanders, Upper
Silesians or
Saxons.'36
But
membership
of a
German
company
or
battalion,
and the
approval
of both the
Spanish popula-
tion and international
observers, gave
the men the confidence
openly
to
declare their
nationality.
One volunteer wrote to his
girlfriend:
'A comrade has
written
"Germany" very beautifully
in front of the tents of the German
section.
(The
real
Germany
is
here.)'37
The volunteers were able to feel that
they
were
rebuilding
a
'good'
national
identity
in the
eyes
of the
world, keep-
ing
alive the traditions of the 'true'
Germany,
which had been obscured
by
nazism.3
For those who had been committed communists before their arrival in
Spain,
the war was in
many ways
a reinforcement of their
political identity,
which had been weakened and undermined
by
the
experiences
of 1933 and
after. Arrival in the International
Brigades
was an
opportunity
to reclaim the
verve and
dynamism
of
political
action and turn German communism into a
success
story
once
again.
For German
communists,
the
party provided
the
only
point
of
permanence during
their
years
of exile. Like soldiers
everywhere,
the
German volunteers
longed
to return home. But
they
could not while the nazis
remained in
power.
The
party provided
networks of
support
for exiled com-
munists,
and for those who ended
up
in German concentration
camps
it was
often the clandestine
party
networks within the
camps
which enabled them to
survive until the end of the second world war. It is therefore
unsurprising that,
for communist
volunteers,
their
political identity
was central to the
way they
experienced
and remembered the war.
Those who were not communists at the
time,
but
joined
the
party later,
tended to remember
Spain
in terms of
political enlightenment
or revelation.
Their time in the
Brigades
often
appears
as a crucial
phase
in the
emergence
of
35 Erich
Weinert,
Cameradas. Ein
Spanienbuch (Berlin 1956),
23.
36
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1821/2,
283-4.
Erinnerungen
Rudolf
Engel.
37 A.
Katzenstein, Einblicke, Berichte, Bilder, Briefe,
3
vols,
ms
(Berlin 1995), ii,
79.
38
See,
for
example,
Ernest
Hemingway's description
of the volunteers as
'true, worthy
Germans. Germans as we love
them.'
E.
Hemingway,
'An das wirkliche
Deutschland'
in
Pasaremos.
Deutsche Antifaschisten
im national-revolutioniiren
Krieg
des
spanischen
Volkes
(2nd
edn,
Berlin
1970),
276. The idea of the German volunteers as
representative
of the
'good Germany'
was central to the war's commemoration in East
Germany.
See
McLellan, Antifascism
and
Memory, op. cit.,
80-1.
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McLellan: 'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 297
their communist
identity.
One veteran wrote how he was 'filled with
pride'
to
'be allowed to
help'
as an International
Brigades
volunteer. 'I have never
forgotten
the trust the
party gave
me.'39
For
him, political
action was some-
thing inextricably
linked to the communist
movement, participation
some-
thing
which could
only
be
granted by
the
party. Indeed,
the International
Brigades
were a
politicized army
on
any
terms.
Every unit,
from
brigade
down
to
platoon,
had its own
political
commissar who was also
responsible
for the
content of front
newspapers
and
any brigade publications.40 Reports
written
after the war on the German volunteers assessed them on both
military
and
political
criteria.41
It was not unusual for a volunteer to be described as a
'brave and
disciplined
soldier' but
'politically primitive,
not
active,
not
always
comradely'.42
Political
instruction took
place
on a
voluntary basis,
but it is fair
to
say
that the
daily
life of the
brigades
was
relatively ideologically
saturated.
Perhaps
the most
striking
indication of the effect this
may
have had on the
volunteers is their attitude towards other
political groups
on the Left.
Reading
veteran
memoirs,
one can
only
conclude that the divisions
among
the soldiers
of the Left were
greater
than those between
opposing
armies. Anarchists and
Trotskyists appear
in veteran memoirs
as,
at
best, undisciplined,
unreliable
soldiers,
and at
worst,
traitors to the
Spanish Republic. Many
communists
were convinced that anarchists and other non-communists were
being
used
by
enemy intelligence
to infiltrate the ranks. The
danger
of
enemy agents
was a
common
preoccupation
in
Spain,
reflected in the line in the
Song
of the
International
Brigades,
'No
mercy
to the
dog
who
betrays
us!'.43
The
willing-
ness of the volunteers
actively
to
persecute
other Leftists should also not be
underestimated: a number of German soldiers transferred to the
Republican
military police
and were involved with the
interrogation
of
politically 'suspect'
prisoners."
But this
animosity
was not founded
purely
on
ideological
differ-
ences. Dislike or hatred of anarchists and
Trotskyists
was often
coupled
with
the belief that their
military irresponsibility
was
responsible
for International
Brigade
losses. It was claimed that anarchist soldiers deserted at the
prospect
of
combat,41
and in one case
they
were said to have surrendered
territory
'soaked with the blood of our
comrades',
which had cost the Internationals 80
dead and 200
wounded.46
This
impression may
well have been one
encouraged
by
the
Brigades' political leadership.
Soldiers who had
only rudimentary
39
SAPMO-BArch,
DY
55/SgY
11/V
237/12/190,
141. F.
Mergen,
'Mein
Weg
als
Parteiloser
nach
Spanien',
28 November 1964.
40
Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit.,
41.
41 For more on these
reports
see
Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 76-95; M. Uhl
and P.
Huber,
'Politische
Oberwachung
und
Repressionen
in den
Internationalen Brigaden (1936-1938)',
Forum
fiir osteuropiiische
Ideen- und
Zeitgeschichte,
5/2
(2001),
121-59.
42
SAPMO-BArch,
RY
1/I 2/3/86,
124.
43 E.
Weinert, op. cit.,
23.
44
McLellan, Antifascism
and
Memory, op. cit.,
180-1.
45
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/12/190,
259.
(Kurt Vogel.)
46
SAPMO-BArch, Sgy 30/1411,
20.
Erinnerungen
Ewald Munschke.
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298
Joumal
of
Contemporary History
Vol
41
No 2
Spanish,
and access
only
to
Brigade newspapers,
had little choice but to
accept
what information
they
were
given.
No amount of
ideological
fervour could
prepare
volunteers for the
reality
of
battle. The first
experience
of combat could seem like a form of
sensory
assault. Alfred Katzenstein remembered the 'terrible cries'
during
his first
attack and the
stomach-turning
smell of dead
mules, rapidly bloating
and
decomposing
under the summer
sun.47
He wrote to his
girlfriend:
Well,
I've
got my baptism
of fire under
my
belt. It's not a
very
nice
feeling
to hear bullets
whistling
around
you....
It's
so
easy
to
forget,
because it's
simply incomprehensible,
that the
aim of this whole
thing
is
simply
to turn
people, young people,
who love
life,
who are full of
hope,
into cold
stinking bloody corpses.
Katzenstein admitted
that,
in the heat of
battle,
he had
questioned
his decision
to come to
Spain,
but
hoped
now to have
put
this
'egocentric
weakness'
behind
him.48
An
anonymous
account of the battle of
Jarama
recalled the
'murderous
fire' of Nationalist
tanks,
comrades
'crying
out left and
right',
'bullets
whistling
from all sides'. When the remains of the writer's
company
reached
safety, they
could not believe that the retreat had
only
taken a few
minutes. 'It seemed to us as if the inferno had lasted for hours.'49
Accounts of the excitement or rush of combat are much harder to
find,
possibly
due to the veterans'
unwillingness
to be seen to
glorify
war. One man
described his
company's
attack as an 'avalanche of
fire', adding
'a
frenzy
gripped
us all'.o0 But such moments of
euphoria
are rare in veteran memoirs:
far more common is a sense of shambolic
panic.
One man described how dis-
orientated
volunteers, newly
arrived in
Spain
and
immediately dispatched
to
the Madrid
front,
were thrown into
panic by
the arrival of their
evening
meal, mistaking
the sound of the food van for that of a fascist tank. When
they
eventually
came under fire from Nationalist
troops,
one man
began
to scream
for
help, believing
himself to be
bleeding
to death. In
fact,
the water canister
hanging
above his head had been
punctured
and doused him with water. After
days
of combat and little
sleep,
some soldiers
began
to
display symptoms
of
shell
shock, failing
to react to
enemy
fire and
refusing
to take
cover.51
Even
those familiar with combat were shocked
by
the situation in the
early
months
of the war.
Ludwig Renn,
an
experienced
first world war
officer, began
to sob
uncontrollably
as he tried to
reprimand
a
junior officer,
a week without
sleep
taking
its toll.52
47 Interview with Alfred
Katzenstein,
5
February
1999.
48
Katzenstein, Einblicke, op. cit., i,
71-2.
49
SAPMO-BArch,
DY
55/SgY
11/V237/12/190,
269.
50
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1453,
6-7.
Erinnerungen
Wilhelm
Zajen.
51
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/208, 77,
79. Karl Po.
52
Staatsbibliothek
zu Berlin
-
Preugfischer
Kulturbesitz,
Archiv des
Aufbau-Verlages (Dep. 38)
(henceforth
Archiv des
Aufbau-Verlages), M619,
141.
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McLellan: ' Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 299
But if these were the
problems
associated with the first
days
of
fighting,
new
challenges appeared
as the war
dragged on,
and morale faded.
During
the
course of the
war,
initial
optimism
could
quickly give way
to
despair.
After his
first
experiences
at the battle of
Quinto
in late
August 1937,
the novelist Willi
Bredel had written in his
diary,
'I don't
just
feel
healthy,
but fresh and
lively
like seldom
before.'53
But on
returning
to Paris in the summer of
1938,
Bredel
estimated that the
past
12 months had
aged
him
by
10
years.54
The German
volunteers were involved in
every major
battle of the
war,
with a
correspond-
ingly high casualty
rate. Six months after
baking
under the hot sun at the
battle of
Brunete,
the volunteers found themselves
fighting
at Teruel in one of
the coldest winters of the
century.
As the
majority
had no safe home to return
to,
most
rejoined
their
Brigade
as soon as
they
had recovered from their
injuries.
Not
fighting
could be
dispiriting
too. The German members of the
Thirteenth
Brigade
found themselves on the bleak southern
front,
where
cold,
hunger
and boredom ate into their morale. As
Jef
Last's
song
'On the Sierra
Front'
put
it: 'Those bare mountains were so
lonely/
That
enemy
fire almost
cheered us
up.'55
The men of the Thirteenth
wryly
dubbed themselves the
'forgotten brigade', languishing
at the
top
of a
mountain,
while the Eleventh
received all the
glory.
There were few
opportunities
for
leave,
and the
replacement
of fallen
International
Brigade
volunteers with
Spanish conscripts
undermined the
solidarity
of the
troops. Experienced
soldiers were scattered
amongst
the
new
recruits,
a
very
different situation from the
early stages
of the war when
platoons
and
companies
were
predominantly German-speaking.
Veteran
memoirs abound with
complaints
about
shortages
of
weapons
and ammuni-
tion,
and the
poor quality
of the
equipment
that was
available.56
Even the most
committed volunteers found it hard to
keep up
their morale under these con-
ditions.
Particularly
in the later
stages
of the
war,
as more and more friends
and comrades were
killed,
exile in
Spain
could be
just
as
dispiriting
as exile
anywhere.
The
impossibility
of
sending
and
receiving regular
letters home
meant that soldiers had no news from loved ones for
years
on end. One officer
wrote in his
diary
on New Year's
Day
1938 of his 'loneliness' and the
'empti-
ness'
and
'boredom' of the war. 'Has the war
already
blunted
everyone,
so that
no one can be
happy
with all their heart? Is the hard battle of Teruel
weighing
on us all? Are we all
thinking
too much about
home,
about our homeland
somewhere in
Europe?'57
As the defeat of their
adopted
homeland came to
seem
inevitable,
the soldiers'
displacement
returned to haunt them.
Losing
the
53
Stiftung
Archiv Akademie der
Kiinste
(henceforth SAdK), Berlin,
Willi-Bredel-Archiv Nr
870,
9.
Diary entry
30
August
1937.
54
SAdK, Berlin,
Willi-Bredel-Archiv Nr
3109,
53. W. Bredel to L.
Bredel,
23
July
1938.
55
Busch,
Lieder der
Arbeiterklasse, op.
cit.
56
E.g. SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1411,
19.
Erinnerungen
Ewald Munschke.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY
30/0922,
59.
Erinnerungen
Gustav
Szinda.
57 Staats-
und
Universitatsbibliothek
Hamburg
Carl von
Ossietzsky,
Alfred-Kantorowicz-
Archiv,
BI:K1.
The author was Hans
Kahle.
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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
300
Journal
of
Contemporary History
Vol 41 No 2
war meant
failing
their new-found
Spanish friends,
and
leaving
the
community
of the front for the isolation and
uncertainty
of exile.
By
March 1938 morale in the Eleventh
Brigade
had reached its nadir.
By
this
stage
of the
war, Republican troops
were in an almost constant state of with-
drawal. One soldier had the
impression
that
they
were
'arriving just
in time to
join
in the
retreat'.58
Those who had witnessed the victories of the war's
early
stages
at least had their memories of
routing
the fascists. But later
arrivals,
some of whom
only
received
permission
to travel to
Spain
in
1938,
had the
feeling
that the outcome of the war had been decided before
they
had had
the
opportunity
to fire a
shot.59
Why
did men continue to
fight
under these
conditions? Official communist accounts tend to credit the
political leadership
of the
Brigades.
60 In some
cases, reminding
men of their initial
ideological
commitment
may
well have been effective. A member of the
Edgar
Andre
Battalion remembered a moment of collective hesitation when his
section,
depleted by heavy
losses and disorientated
by
the noise of the
battle,
were
ordered to cross a road under
heavy
fire. The German in
charge
of the machine
guns
roared
'Get over, comrades, get
over. Are
you
anti-fascists or what?!' The
entire
company
crossed the street without
losing
a
man.61
Communist accounts
stress the
importance
of
ideology, arguing
that the
'fighting spirit'
of the
volunteers allowed them to overcome
poor leadership
and
faulty weapons.62
Veterans of the first world war often made favourable
comparisons
between
the soldiers of the International
Brigades
and those of the Kaiser's
army.63
Ludwig Renn,
chief of staff of the Eleventh
Brigade,
was
surprised
that the
men did not tell
dirty jokes,
and attributed this to their
political
commitment.64
(They may
of course have
simply
been reticent in the
presence
of a senior
officer.)
But over the course of a
two-year conflict, political
commitment alone was
unlikely
to
keep
soldiers
fighting.
As well as
appealing
to their fellow volun-
teers as
'anti-fascists',
German commanders resorted to
joking
to lift the
morale of their dazed
troops.
After the men of the
Edgar
Andre Battalion had
reached
cover,
one of their commanders
began
to fool around with an umbrel-
la he had
found, pretending
it could
protect
him from
enemy
fire.6" When
writing
for each
other,
veterans often dwelt on the camaraderie of
army life,
emphasizing
the volunteers'
group identity
and cheerfulness in
adversity.
One
veteran recalled how a meal of
unripe grapes
led to what he described as
58 Interview with Alfred
Katzenstein,
5
February
1999.
59 Interview with Max
Kahane,
22
February
1999.
60
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/0922,
87.
Erinnerungen
Gustav Szinda.
61
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1438,
6.
Erinnerungen
Petros Laros.
62 Gustav
Szinda,
Die
XI.
Brigade (Berlin 1956).
63
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1445,
2.
Erinnerungen
Reinhold Rau.
64 Archiv des
Aufbau-Verlages, M619,
43.
65
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1438,
6.
Erinnerungen
Petros Laros.
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McLellan: 'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 301
'volcanic' diarrhoea
amongst
the
troops, resulting
in a
general
loss of bowel
control.
However, despite
the
misery
of the
situation,
he concluded: 'We
helped
each
other,
often with
good humour,
to
get
over these
difficulties.'66
Another remembered the
way younger
soldiers would
help
their older com-
rades
carry
their
baggage.67 Ultimately
it is difficult to
separate
the volunteers'
group identity
as soldiers and their
political identity
as anti-fascists. A soldier's
attachment to his or her immediate
companions may
be universal. But there is
something specific
to the German communist
experience
here too.
People
who had
grown up
in
large
families in
very poor
conditions and had suffered
poverty
and
unemployment
in the 1920s were often attracted to the
kinship
of
the communist movement. This sense of
security
had been shattered in
1933;
the
community
of the International
Brigades
offered a chance to rebuild it.
Willy Busch,
wounded at the
Jarama front,
wrote that the
knowledge
that he
would have to leave his comrades was worse than the fear of his
injuries.68
Separation
from one's comrades
might
mean a return to the loneliness and iso-
lation of
emigration.
Unlike the first world war soldiers discussed in Alexander
Watson's article in this
issue,
the German volunteers had no
prospect
of a
Heimatschufl.
Communal
singing
was a
powerful symbol
of this new-found
solidarity.
When the volunteers first
arrived, they
marched into Madrid
singing
the
Internationale and other
songs
from the German
revolutionary repertoire.69
Soldiers soon demanded
songs
which described their new
situation,
and
German writers in
Spain
were
put
to work. Ernst
Busch,
a
frequent
collabora-
tor of
Brecht,
in 1937 and 1938 travelled to
Spain,
where he
sang
for the
troops
and recorded a record in Barcelona.70
Songs
such as
'Spain's Sky' (also
known as 'The Thalmann
Column') quickly
found favour with the German
volunteers.
'Spain's Sky' expressed
the volunteers'
pleasure
in
comradeship,
as well as their sense that this was a war which must be won: 'Shoulder to
shoulder with unbeatable comrades/ There's no retreat for us.' Its refrain
touched on their forced
exile,
but ended
triumphantly
with a statement of
intent: 'The homeland is far
away,
but we're
ready/To fight
and die for
you,
freedom!'71 Voices raised
together
in
song
lifted the
troops' spirits
and fostered
belief in their shared cause and
hope
for the future. One man remembered the
volunteers
singing together
on the
night
before their first
battle.72
Not
only
that,
the
songs
formed a link to German
political
traditions which ran back
66
SAPMO-BArch, SgY/1434/1,
84.
Erinnerungen
Reinhold Hentschke.
67
Szinda,
XI
Brigade, op. cit.,
18.
68
SAPMO-BArch,
DY
55/SgY 11/V237/12/190,
12. 'Als deutcher Antifaschist
kampfte
ich in
Spanien
in der amerikanischen
Brigade
"Abraham Lincoln"'.
69
SAPMO-BArch, SgY
11/V
237/13/204,
22. Fritz
Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse als Polit.-Kom. der
II.
Komp.
des
Edgar-Andre-Battl.'.
70 D.
Robb, 'Clowns, Songs
and Lost
Utopias.
Karl
Enkel,
'Reassessment of the
Spanish
Civil
War' in
Spanier
aller
Ldnder, Debatte,
9
(2) (2001),
156-7.
71
Busch,
Lieder der
Arbeiterklasse, op.
cit.
72
SAPMO-BArch, SgY
11/
V237/12/189,
161-2. Hans
Maassen,
'Ulrich Fuchs - Der Dichter
des
Tschapiew
Liedes'.
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302
Journal
of
Contemporary History
Vol 41 No 2
through
the
Rotfrontkimpferbund,
the interwar
youth movements,
and the
trenches of the first world war.
By combining
the volunteers'
political heritage
and their memories of Germany, 'they brought the homeland to
us'.7
Songs
written
during
the war often memorialized those who had
fallen,
and
the wish to
avenge
dead comrades could be a
powerful
motivator. Alfred
Kantorowicz wrote that the
sight
of bodies mutilated
by
the
enemy
in
December 1936 'hardened our hate and
gave
our
constancy
abnormal
strength.
From this
horror,
we
grasped
reserves of
strength
from
places
that
normal brave soldiers could never reach.'74 Another
account, however,
reveals
that a decision was taken not to show the bodies to the men. Political commit-
ment was felt to be a healthier and more
powerful
motive than
revenge.
A
political
commissar also admitted that fear that 'one or
two'
comrades
might
be demoralized
by
the
gruesome sight
also
played
a role in the decision to
bury
the men in closed coffins.75 Comrades who died were often remembered not
just
as
good soldiers,
but as
exemplary
communists. A letter home in
June
1937
eulogized
a fellow soldier who refused to
give up
his
weapon
after
taking
a bullet in the
stomach, shooting
on until he bled to death. 'So died a
Bolshevik.'76
In
many cases,
the
Brigade leadership
resorted to tried and tested 'carrot'
and 'stick' motivational
techniques. Giving
the soldiers a rest and some hot
food could work wonders. The Eleventh
Brigade,
in tatters in the
spring
of
1938,
was taken out of combat and
given
a chance to rest and
regroup,
and
went on to
fight
in the battle of the Ebro. The leader of a
partisan group
remembered how he used
cigarettes
and
trips
to the local town for sex
to reward his men after a successful mission.77
Shooting
deserters and self-
mutilators was not unheard
of, although
the victims tended to be
Spanish
con-
scripts.78
Michael Uhl's exhaustive researches
suggest
that
only
two German
volunteers were shot for desertion. The more usual
punishment
was a
spell
in
a work
camp
before
being
sent back to the front." Sometimes action
against
those who wavered could be more ad hoc:
political
commissar Fritz Rettmann
resorted to
threatening
one
young
volunteer with his
pistol
to
get
him back
behind the lines.80
But in some cases the will to
fight
was
simply
not
strong enough.
Communist records show that about 200 of the volunteers
spent
some time
under lock and
key
-
that is to
say that,
on
average, every
tenth German
volunteer was arrested at some
stage
of his time in
Spain.
About half of these
73
SAPMO-BArch,
NY
4072/154,
120. Fritz Rettmann to Franz Dahlem.
74 Alfred
Kantorowicz, Spanisches Tagebuch (Berlin 1948),
52.
75
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/204,
38. Fritz
Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse als Polit.-Komm. der
II. Komp.'.
76
SAPMO-BArch,
DY
55/V241/113,
82.
77
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1349,
60.
Erinnerungen
Richard Stahlmann.
78
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1448,
17.
Erinnerungen
Karl Deutscher.
79
Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit.,
82.
80
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/204,
38. Fritz
Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse
als Polit.-Komm. der
II.
Komp.'.
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McLellan:
'
Wanted to be a Little Lenin' 303
arrests took
place
as a result of desertion or
breaking Brigade discipline.81
Michael Uhl
suggests
that in total 90 Germans
(about
3
per cent)
deserted.82
While those who fled were a
tiny minority,
most veterans remembered
moments in which their own motivation had faltered. It was for this reason
that veterans
struggled
to
recognize
themselves in the one-dimensional heroes
of official communist histories of the war. In memoirs and
interviews,
veterans
returned
again
and
again
to the
subject
of heroism and the
gap
between the
official
depictions
of the war and their own stories.
They
felt that it was
impossible
to live
up
to such a rarefied
concept
of
soldiering
without doubt or
fear. One man I talked to
spoke
of his alienation from official accounts:
'Everyone
who had resisted was a hero.
Only
the heroic
struggle
was shown.
But the whole filth and so on ... Fear is
something
human. But a hero can't be
frightened.'"8
There can be no doubt that the
majority
of the German volunteers were
highly
politically
committed.
Ideology
was
extremely important
to them in numerous
ways:
their
membership
of or
alignment
with the communist
movement,
the
sense of an anti-fascist
crusade,
their
derogatory
attitudes towards anarchists
and other non-communists. But alternative combat motivations surface in
memoirs too:
boredom, longing
for
adventure,
desire to
escape
communist
infighting,
circumstance. The wish to be a 'little Lenin' was an
ideological one,
but it also
expressed
a
yearning
for a
purposeful,
active
masculinity.
Soldiers'
motivation was neither
homogeneous
nor stable. What
may
have started as an
ideological
decision was
complicated by
emotions felt for the
Spanish people
and for fellow volunteers.
Ideology
was
important,
but it was not
everything,
and even
ideology
could
fail
you
in the heat of battle.
Particularly
in retro-
spect,
soldiers tended to distance themselves from the brand of
self-sacrificing
heroism
propagated by party
historians. Even the veterans themselves could
not
identify
with the steel-like
masculinity
of communist
legend.
The German volunteers acted on a
complex
mixture of
ideological
and
per-
sonal motivation. In lives
shaped by political commitment, campaigning
and
persecution,
there was
rarely
a
sharp
definition between
personal
and ideo-
logical goals. Victory
in
Spain
would have been a
victory
for the
Left,
but the
volunteers
hoped
it would also be their first
stop
on the road back to
Germany,
to their
families,
and to civilian lives.
Ultimately
it is
impossible
to
untangle
the
political
and
private
threads. As another
Englishman
Esmond
Romilly recognized, 'they
were
fighting
for their cause and
they
were
fighting
as well for a home to live in . . .
they
had staked
everything
on this
war.'84
Nothing
demonstrated this more
clearly
than the fate of the German volun-
teers after the demobilization of the
Brigades.
While their international
81
Uhl,
'Die Internationalen
Brigaden', op. cit.,
507.
82
Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit.,
82.
83 Interview with Roman
Rubinstein,
5
January
1999.
84
Quoted
in
Preston,
A Concise
History of
the
Spanish
Civil War
(London 1996),
114.
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304
Journal
of
Contemporary History
Vol
41
No 2
comrades-in-arms returned
home, they
had no choice but to remain in
Spain
and wait for the war to
play
itself out.
According
to one
volunteer,
tears stood
in the
eyes
of the Germans as
they gave up
their
weapons. 'They
were no
normal
weapons
. . .
they
were
weapons
that were carried in the hands of
workers for a
just cause,
for
peace,
for socialism and for the liberation of
humankind.'8s
For all the bathos in these
lines, they give
a sense of how much
the German volunteers had ventured.
Although they
had volunteered to take
up
arms in
Spain,
once the war was over
they
had no choice but to
carry
on
fighting.
Josie
McLellan
is Lecturer in Modern
European History
at the
University
of Bristol.
Her
publications
include
Antifascism
and
Memory
in East
Germany.
Remembering
the International
Brigades
1945-1989
(Oxford 2004).
She is
currently working
on a
study
of
sexuality
and
everyday
life
under East German communism.
85 Kurt
Hofer,
'Wir
kampfen
weiter' in Immer
bereit
fiir
die
Verteidigung
der
Freiheit des
Volkes.
Spaniens Freiheitskampf
1936-1939
(Berlin 1956),
59.
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