The International Brigades

The idea of using foreign Communist Parties to recruit Communist and non-Communist volunteers for the Republic was proposed in September 1936 by the head of Comintern propaganda for Western Europe. By the end of September the French and Italian communist parties had agreed to set up a column. Luigi Longo, ex leader of the Italian Communist Youth, was charged to make the necessary arrangements with the Spanish government, with the assistance of the Soviet ministry of defence. At first Largo Caballero, the prime minister of Spain, was opposed, but as the Nationalist army was brushing aside the Republic's militias, he eventually changed his mind in October. Luigi Longo somehow succeeded in bringing order to chaos in record time, barely, and the first International Brigade, the XI International (I through X were regular Republican Army units), went into action in Madrid in November.

Slightly over half of the Brigaders were communist party members, but they accepted non communists as well, though the non-communist members had to have an interview with a Soviet NKVD "adviser" to determine their political reliability.

The French Socialist government of Leon Blum sympathised with Republican Spain and turned a blind eye to the laughably "covert" recruitment centre in Paris where volunteers were directed. Most volunteers were from the working classes who either left their jobs or were unemployed. Photographs of them show scrubbed faces with self conscious expressions, short hair, cloth caps clutched in hand and wearing Sunday suits with boots. Most had little idea of what war really meant, but the Party provided a powerful lure to them, a world where lost and lonely people could feel important. Deeply serious meetings run by Communist agitators gave members a feeling of being part of 'the march of History'.

Every day at the Gare du Nord in Paris, young men, brown paper parcels under their arm, would be seen waiting for the Perpignan train at the Gare d'Austerlitz, conspicuously trying to look inconspicuous. Once on the train they could fraternise with those whose glances they had just been avoiding so studiously. Wine was passed around, food shared, and the Internationale sung endlessly. Some anarchists at the Pyrenean border wanted to turn them back, fearing that a Communist controlled "Foreign Legion" was being built up to crush them later. But despite these misgivings they were generally welcomed. In the fields peasants straightened their backs to watch the young foreigners pass by, singing, in their trains and trucks. In the cities they were all warmly welcomed by the population, especially by the children, who all cheered and gave the clenched fist salute.

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