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During the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) to what extent did the International Brigades play a role in fighting the fascists coup? My understanding is that they were a relatively minor element, mostly dramatized by the Republican government and socialist parties world wide. However, I am really interested to know if they were effective in any major battles.

I would also like to know the level of Soviet support that was given to the brigades, in comparison to international support for the Republican government and fascist support for the military coup. Wikipedia provides some interesting statistics apparently heavily from Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, but some context and additional sources would be appreciated.

  • Beevor is a revisioist historian, I would not trust his statistics very much. – Anixx Apr 11 '12 at 9:04
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    Given that Beevor works primarily as someone who produces synthetic histories with large scopes, and is not a Spanish Civil War specialist, I would rely on other works. – Samuel Russell May 12 '13 at 9:50
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From what I can tell, the International Brigades were mostly effective only for propaganda purposes and to camouflage the presence of Soviet assistance to the Republican government. The 32,000-35,000 men in the brigades were a grab-bag of unemployed workers, middle class non-combatants, veterans from the first world war, etc; all motivated by a shared socialist ideology and anti-fascist outlook. Despite their generally noble intentions (a few were certainly adventure seekers), they were mostly unused to combat and lacked military training [2006, Beevor].

This was a problem given that one of the motivations of the International Brigades were to provide an example in military discipline and tactics to the equally unready Republican army. Soviet military advisors tried to provide adequate training to the brigades, but often ran into problems such as political squabbles between soviet and republican leaders, cultural differences, and varying quality of equipment (which was mostly poor). The International Brigades only lasted for about a year during which the battles in which they played a decisive role appear to have been bloody stalemates or in the case of the Battle of Guadalajara, an outcome due more to the incompetence of the Italian allies of the nationalists.

The International Brigades, were driven in their formation and ultimate dissolution by larger regional factors. The Soviet Union was unwilling to provide too much open support for the Republican government for fear of straining relationships with Britain and France, which they felt they needed to maintain as part of an anti-fascist bloc against Italy and Germany. Britain and France were unwilling to involve themselves because the governments of those countries were ambivalent about the fascist countries (in some sectors, most notably the navy and business, there were open supporters of the fascists) and were put off by the left-wing characteristics of the Republican government. America was unwilling to get involved in another major European war, but many of her prominent businessmen (such as Ford) openly supported the fascist rebellion.

The International Brigades were never able to achieve the same level of military effectiveness as the nationalist Army of Africa, and appear to have only made it more difficult for Republican Spain to gain the support of the non-fascist governments. It seems to me that despite the undoubted courage shown by the International Brigades, they faced the same insurmountable problems as the Republic in general; it is no wonder that they were not capable of changing what was ultimately a losing battle.

  • Another unfortunate circumstance for Republican Spain was in the fact that their most important ally (the Soviet Union) was only half heartedly supporting them. From "The Battle for Spain" by Antony Beevor, "Hitler evidently did not realize that Stalin was afraid of provoking him and that he was unwilling to let Spanish affairs embarrass Soviet foreign policy". – BrotherJack Apr 29 '12 at 17:46
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In general you're right that their role was greatly overblown by foreign and Republican media, in order to create the impression of a worldwide popular mobilization standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish Republic, which clearly was not the case.

It's not fair to say that the International Brigades suffered, in an absolute sense, from lack of military training. Its volunteers certainly included young and idealistic men --unemployed or intellectual-- who had missed out on the world war, but also many veterans of the Great War and the many local entanglements that had resulted from it (Great War veterans like Kleber, Tito and Marty; Irish volunteers who had experience in the Irish Independence and Civil Wars; Austrian and German activists with experience in those countries' political paramilitaries, etc.). That's not a negligible factor, given that neither the Spanish military nor the civilian population had ever experienced anything resembling the total war of 1914-18 (with the possible exception of the October 194 rising), so men who could be trusted to hold the line under the commotion of shellfire was not insignificant.

Rather, the challenge to their effectiveness was one of discipline, of forging an effective force from a heterogeneous base: Volunteers from dozens of different countries, with different expectations, military traditions, languages, political families. So for example, you have the Irish volunteers being assigned to the American after protesting being placed under British officers; you have British liberals such as Orwell baulking at the idea of communist discipline; you have American troops mutinying over the question of deployment and imposed officers.

As regards their military usefulness. Although the Brigades participated in several engagements between 1936 and their dissolution in 1938, their role was not game-changing. However, nor were they superfluous to the war effort for one major reason: they arrived into Madrid on the fourth day of the capital's siege, providing the city with its sole effective full strength military force. At a moment when the regular army and armed police had been disrupted by defections to the rebels, the lack of dependable defenders had led the Republican government to flee the city. Now again, that's not to say that the Brigades were the only fighters; they were three thousand out of forty thousand --but many of the Spanish defenders were untested recruits in political militias, accustomed to street brawls but untrained in modern warfare. So in the very early days of the war, the International Brigades tipped the scales in favour of the defenders of Madrid at a crucial moment when the city was badly in need of trained fighters. By keeping the rebel troops out of the capital (at a horrendous cost in lives), the International Brigades were of both a practical and symbolic importance to the Republic at its moment of greatest confusion and disorganization.

It wouldn't be before the end of 1936 that the ragtag political militias, greater on enthusiasm than expertise, began to be formed into a cohesive Republican army. In the weeks after the Brigades' initial arrival, the Republic rebuilt an army from the ground up, and the International Brigades were increasingly not needed and became a diplomatic liability, withdrawn from combat and eventually sent home. Even where they participated in combat in 1937 and 1938, they were now a regular part of the Republic's Popular Army: by 1937 60% of their members were Spaniards.

In summary: yes their role is exaggerated, both in terms of their numbers and effectiveness. But nor were they superfluous, offering a valuable military and morale-boosting resource in the critical month of October 1936.

  • You bring up good points, especially about the siege of Madrid, however I do stand by Beevor's assessment of the IB's military readiness. While there were certainly former WWI veterans, however much of the contingent, as I understand it, were largely proletarian, from oppressed groups, and many had not seen military conflict (either because they were too young at the time or came from countries that did not participate in the war). – BrotherJack Oct 12 '17 at 15:28
  • This is a great answer, but references would make it excellent. – Evargalo Aug 16 '18 at 13:43
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It is my understanding from historic magazines on the subject and wikipedia information, that the international brigades were able to develop their combat effectiveness because they were highly motivated (for the bulk of them) and were largely engaged on the front line.

More explanations: - The international brigades were made from volunteers that came with no weaponry, and thus were assemblied, equipped and when possible trained as infantry or light infantry. Because of the fields of the Spanish war and the opposition of elite light troop on the frankish side such as the Moroccon units, these tactics were very important - The motivation of the international brigades was an important factor, maintained by the foreign support from USSR and the regular new arrivals of volunteers. On the contrary, the multiple politic difficulties on the Spanish Republican side and the inherent moral difficulties of a civil war put spanish republican units in a difficult position most of the time, except at some moments like the defense of Madrid

Another point of effectiveness of the international brigades is in the air: there were multiples foreign pilots, including American and Russian pilots, that were effective with Soviet aircrafts against the Axis-born nationalist air forces

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