It is well-known that during Spain’s bloody, murderously divisive civil war of 1936-39 tens of thousands of volunteers from across Europe and North America flocked to the Iberian Peninsula to fight for the republic. They made up what became known as the International Brigades.
What is not so well-known is that the other side also had its own volunteers. Their numbers were lower but were counted in the thousands. This book tells their story. Its subtitle says it all – “Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War”. White Russians, British conservatives, Romanian fascists and countless individuals looking for the thrills of combat were among them. Christopher Othen uncovers their history in a highly readable, often entertaining manner.
A host of bizarre characters
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories concerns the volunteers from Ireland who went to fight for Franco. They were led by a 46-year-old general called Eoin O’Duffy, a former IRA chief of staff who became the first commander of the Guarda, Ireland’s police force. Out of power in later years he formed his own movement of “Blue Shirts”, whose members adopted the Nazi salute. He regarded himself as “Europe’s third greatest man” – after Hitler and Mussolini.
O’Duffy preached Catholic family values of the traditional, conservative type, though he was an active homosexual. “Hypocrisy ran like marrow in his bones,” says Othen. Nevertheless it was the religious crusade aspect that induced many Irish volunteers to head for Spain and fight against the republic. They were supported at home by the Church and the press. At one rally, according to Othen, a crowd of 40,000 heard Monsignor Patrick Sexton, the Dean of Cork, blame the conflict on “a gang of murderous Jews in Moscow”.
Initially Franco was just one of the leaders of the anti-republican insurrection of July 1936 but eventually he became the supremo. He wasn’t always welcoming towards the volunteers hoping to fight on his side – he had enough organised military support from the troops and airmen sent by Mussolini and Hitler. However, in the case of the Irish he believed they could help him win the support of the Catholic monarchists called Carlists, to whom O’Duffy was close.
Anecdotes to boot
Nevertheless, not everything went smoothly. Ships expected in Ireland to pick up volunteers sometimes never turned up. Once in Spain some of the 700 Irish were involved in drunken fights among themselves. Many were homesick and there were desertions. There was even one incident when they ended up fighting Spanish fascists by mistake.
O’Duffy, says Othen, would be more likely to be found drinking and chatting with journalists in hotel bars than at the front, and at one point, leaving his followers behind, he went sightseeing in Portugal.
It is details like these that help make this book a fascinating account of a little-known subject
Buy the book
Franco’s International Brigades
By Christopher Othen
Paperback, illustrated, 337 pages Hurst & Co., 2013