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Saturday, 14 May 2011

75 years ago ‘They shall not pass’: Fighting back against fascism

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the start of organised mass resistance to fascism by the British people. It was in 1936 when hundreds of men and women began making the journey to Spain to join the International Brigades to oppose General Franco’s fascist-backed rebellion.

And in that same year the people of London’s East End stopped Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts from marching through their streets – adopting the slogan used by the defenders of Madrid: "They shall not pass" – "No pasarán".

Many of those who took part in the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936 went on to fight for the Spanish Republic’s democratically elected government during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

Created on 22 October 1936, the International Brigades rallied over 35,000 people from more than 50 countries to the anti-fascist cause. Some 2,500 of them came from Britain and Ireland, of whom 527 died in Spain.

Who were these volunteers? Most were ordinary working people: dockers, clerks, miners, print workers, doctors, building workers, seafarers, teachers, factory workers and nurses.

There were those who had taken part in the Battle of Cable Street: young Jewish East Enders such as mechanic Lou Kenton and textile worker David Lomon, who are today two of the very few surviving veterans of the International Brigades.

Some later rose to prominence in the trade union movement, among them Liverpool docker Jack Jones and Thora Silverthorne, the Welsh-born nurse who was working in Reading when the civil war began.

Others, such as the brilliant Cambridge student John Cornford, who died aged 21 in fighting near Córdoba, and Laurie Lee, were poets and writers. A few became military experts: Tom Wintringham, one of the commanders of the British Battalion, and former journalist Hugh Slater were the instigators of the Home Guard during the Second World War.

What they all shared was a conviction that the spread of fascism must be stopped – as did the East Enders who knew that the antisemitic Backshirts had to be prevented from marching though the heart of London’s Jewish community. A large proportion of the volunteers were communists, as their party was at that time in the vanguard of the anti-fascist fight, though many were Labour Party members or had no political affiliation.

As Jack Jones, who was a Labour local councillor when he travelled to Spain, later wrote: "The march had started with Mussolini and had gained terrible momentum with Hitler and was being carried forward by Franco. For most young people there was a feeling of frustration, but some determined to do anything that seemed possible, even if it meant death, to try to stop the spread of fascism… This was fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped."

Meanwhile Britain’s Conservative-led government was eager to appease Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Indeed a large part of the ruling class admired Hitler and Mussolini for the way they dealt with their opponents on the left. Those same people detested Spain’s left-of-centre government and its modest programme of social and economic reform.

So the British government supported a hypocritical policy of "non-intervention" in the Spanish Civil War, which meant enforcing an arms embargo on the Spanish Republic and turning a blind eye to the huge military assistance given to Franco by the fascist dictators after he launched his coup attempt on 17 July 1936.

But just as the people of the East End forcibly prevented the police from clearing the way for the Blackshirts to march through their streets, so the International Brigade volunteers defied government threats to prosecute them for enlisting in a foreign war.

For every International Brigade volunteer who clandestinely crossed the Pyrenees there were hundreds of people in Britain who gave money to help the Spanish Republic, who marched in favour of arms for Spain or who cared for the thousands of refugee children who arrived in Britain fleeing Hitler’s and Mussolini’s bombs on Guernica and other Basque towns.

The International Brigaders and their supporters warned that the bombing of Guernica, Barcelona and Madrid would soon mean Nazi bombers over Britain unless fascism was crushed in Spain. They were proved right: five months after the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939 with victory for the fascists, Britain and Germany were at war.

With only the distant Soviet Union and Mexico willing to supply it with arms, the Spanish Republic was doomed. The cause of freedom in Spain was lost – democracy was not restored until after Franco’s death in 1975 – but the resistance of the Spanish people and the International Brigades crucially checked the advance of fascism in Europe for more than two-and-a-half years.

The International Brigades also showed the world an unprecedented example of international solidarity and selfless commitment to anti-fascism. That is why we remember them today. Fascism in all its many ugly facets – whether antisemitism, militarism, racism, hostility to immigrants, violent authoritarianism, sexism and islamophobia – has not gone away. As Bertolt Brecht warned in 1945: "For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

Inspired by the International Brigaders who took the road to Spain via Cable Street, a new generation must say once again: "No pasarán".

Jim Jump
IBMT Secretary

The IBMT will hold its annual commemoration at the International Brigade memorial in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank on Saturday 2 July at 1pm. A weekend of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the International Brigades is being organised in London on 30 September-2 October, coinciding with the commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street. For more details contact: secretary@international-brigades.org.uk