This month marks the 80th anniversary of the creation of the International Brigades – those men and women who travelled to Spain from more than 50 countries to fight fascism and defend democracy in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
The Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, London, will be hosting a series of events over the next two weeks for this important anniversary in conjunction with the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), Unite the Union and Townsend Productions.
There were 2,500 ‘volunteers for liberty’ from the British Isles, and 526 of them died in the war to stop Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.
The Spanish Republic was eventually defeated. But the volunteers, who warned that a world war was inevitable unless the spread of fascism was stopped in Spain, were proved right.
They also inspired the world by their example of sacrifice and international solidarity. Their struggle, and the heroic efforts all those in Spain and elsewhere who supported the cause of the Republic, continue to give inspiration to anti-fascists and campaigners for social justice.
Their story lives on in many spheres – in politics, the labour movement, the academic world and in the arts. Our two-week mini-festival, ‘Remembering the International Brigades’, aims to capture some of that heritage.
Renowned historians Paul Preston and Richard Baxell are to speak about the historical significance of the International Brigades on Tuesday (18 October).
On Thursday (20 October) we will welcome folk-duo na-mara for a performance of songs inspired by the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War. At the same time we will screen two new short films about the volunteers, one from Britain, another from Poland, interspersed with poems about the war in Spain.
Then on Sunday 30 October there is to be a gala matinée performance of songs from ‘Dare Devil Rides to Jarama’, a new play about the International Brigades commissioned by the IBMT.
This will be followed by a drinks reception and the unveiling by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP of a plaque naming the 90 men of the British Battalion who were killed in the Battle of the Ebro in the summer of 1938.
The plaque was first unveiled on the Ebro battlefield in 2005 by International Brigade veterans Bob Doyle, Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and Alan Menai Williams. It was smashed to pieces two years later by Spanish neo-fascists. A replacement was soon re-installed, but this original plaque, though damaged, will have pride of place in our memorial garden in Clerkenwell.
In the week leading up to this unveiling, from 24-29 October, ‘Dare Devil Rides to Jarama’ will be performed at the Bussey Building in Peckham.
Described in this newspaper by reviewer Peter Frost as ‘quite simply the best political theatre produced for a long, long time’, the play centres on the contrasting lives of two communists who joined the British Battalion: former blacksmith and champion speedway motorcyclist Clem Beckett and Christopher Caudwell, the Marxist theoretician, poet and novelist. Though from differing backgrounds they forged a bond of anti-fascism – and a shared a similar fate at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
After its residency at the Bussey Building the play, written by Neil Gore and produced by Louise Townsend, resumes its UK tour until3 December, including performances in Portsmouth, Doncaster, Sheffield, Liverpool and Oxford.
The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War, perhaps more than any other modern war, inspired much great art, whether paintings, posters, poetry, songs, novels, film and memoirs. Underlining the point, Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote the great paean to the Brigaders, ‘The Volunteer’ was soon to ask during the Second World War: ‘Where are the war poets?’
As the songs of na-mara and Neil Gore’s new play demonstrate, the volunteers are still being celebrated on stage and elsewhere in the arts.
And the war itself, its causes, course and tragic outcome, continue to provoke heated discussion and argument among historians and those of us on the left.
Our festival hopes to capture some of this legacy, and thus to help inform and inspire a new generation who will learn about the men and women who declared: ‘¡No pasarán!’
For more information about these events see www.marxlibrary.org.uk/education/upcoming-events andwww.townsendproductions.org.uk