Analysis

The International Brigade 2.0

The foreign volunteers in Ukraine follow those who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of volunteers from the United States who served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces as part of the International Brigade.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of volunteers from the United States who served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces as part of the International Brigade.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of volunteers from the United States who served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces as part of the International Brigade. Universal Images Group via Getty Images
By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

Putin’s War

Last Sunday, several Russian cruise missiles struck a military base in Yavoriv, a city in western Ukraine. Much has been made of its proximity to Poland—Yavoriv is 15 miles from the Polish border—as well as its use as a NATO training site. (Troops from the Florida National Guard left the camp just last month.)

Less has been made, though, about the apparent presence of more than 1,000 foreign volunteers now training at the camp. While the Russians claimed to have killed as many as 180 “foreign mercenaries,” local Ukrainian officials declared that there were no foreign volunteers among the 35 dead and more than 100 wounded. Yet these volunteers deserve our attention, not only for what they remind us of our past, but what they suggest about our future.

Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 27, President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a formal invitation to all foreigners “wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers” to “come to our state and join the ranks of the territorial defense forces.” He announced a separate unit, called the International Brigade of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, is being formed with foreigners.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of volunteers from the United States who served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces as part of the International Brigade.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of volunteers from the United States who served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces as part of the International Brigade. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Last Sunday, several Russian cruise missiles struck a military base in Yavoriv, a city in western Ukraine. Much has been made of its proximity to Poland—Yavoriv is 15 miles from the Polish border—as well as its use as a NATO training site. (Troops from the Florida National Guard left the camp just last month.)

Less has been made, though, about the apparent presence of more than 1,000 foreign volunteers now training at the camp. While the Russians claimed to have killed as many as 180 “foreign mercenaries,” local Ukrainian officials declared that there were no foreign volunteers among the 35 dead and more than 100 wounded. Yet these volunteers deserve our attention, not only for what they remind us of our past, but what they suggest about our future.


Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 27, President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a formal invitation to all foreigners “wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers” to “come to our state and join the ranks of the territorial defense forces.” He announced a separate unit, called the International Brigade of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, is being formed with foreigners.

In the two weeks since then, about 20,000 volunteers, according, at least, to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, have answered the call. Inevitably, the creation of this International Brigade brings to mind the men and women across much of the globe who, in response to the attempted military coup against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Second Republic, a coup aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, packed their bags and made for Spain to fight in its civil war. By the end of the war in 1939, about 35,000 volunteers had joined this transnational army created to defend the republic.

Notwithstanding its name, the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War were not an independent military force. Instead, they were what Zelensky has in mind for Ukraine, a part of the regular army that took its marching orders from the national government. Yet not only were they grouped together for recruitment, training, and deployment, but the battalions of foreigners that composed the brigades often took their names from their own histories. By way of honoring the communist leader imprisoned by the Nazis, one German battalion took the moniker “Thälmann” while a group of French volunteers, inspired by the example of a leader of the Paris Commune, called itself the “Louise Michel” battalion. (Not to be outdone, another French battalion baptized itself “Commune de Paris.”)

Although the Spanish government both formalized the creation of the International Brigades and maintained control over them, it largely failed to adequately train and equip the volunteers. The guns that were provided were as old as they were scarce, prompting one French officer to remark that they resembled a “collection from a weapons museum.” With the shortage of weapons, there was also a shortage of discipline. Many volunteers were leftist militants with little acquaintance and less patience for the drills and marches, scheduled for five hours every day, not to mention the salutes demanded by their officers. (At least, when the officers demanded them. A few of them were reluctant to give orders from fear of appearing like factory foreman.)

Affairs at the International Brigades headquarters in the provincial capital of Albacete swung between the chaotic and cacophonic. Confusion over the order of command was compounded by the legion of languages found among the battalions. As Giles Tremlett argues in his magisterial work “The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom, and the Spanish Civil War,” there were 65, and not the standard figure of 52 nationalities who composed the brigade. “Men and women from almost four-fifths of the world’s sovereign countries and empires were present,” he wrote. While the sound of hundreds of volunteers all singing “The Internationale” in dozens of different languages was undoubtedly inspiring, it also underscored the obstacles that confronted their commanding officers.

As for material conditions, they were mostly wretched. Volunteers reached Spain only after demanding and difficult journeys from their home countries, yet they found themselves sleeping on straw-covered cement floors once they reached Albacete. Fresh water was scarce but alcohol was abundant, food was spartan but still spurred widespread diarrhea, and the latrines were few and fetid. Describing the miasmal state of the Spanish squats, George Orwell later wrote, “Here we are,  soldiers of a revolutionary army, defending Democracy against Fascism, fighting a war which is about something, and the detail of our lives is just as sordid and degrading as it could be in prison.”


Volunteers of the International Brigade are trained in Albacete, Spain during the Spanish Civil War, circa 1938.

Volunteers of the International Brigade are trained in Albacete, Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1938.Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Orwell’s recollection captures not just the squalid details of volunteer life, but also the stirring ideals that brought them to Spain. Inevitably, the 35,000 volunteers were not, as Tremlett remarks, uniformly “good people.” The ranks included sadists and rapists, the cowardly and confused. There were volunteers who left for Spain because they were jobless and penniless at home. (In fact, the mayor of the French city of Lyon, eager to relieve his streets of unemployed citizens, packed off several dozen to Spain. They were soon returned to Lyon.)

But nearly all of them shared a common goal. They had come, like Orwell, to stop fascism. In recent studies, historians like Richard Baxell and James Hopkins agree that British volunteers, instead of driven by claims of economic necessity or personal eccentricity, went to Spain driven by ethical and political convictions. Whether it was anger at their government’s refusal to arm the republic or the conviction that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had to be stopped before they reached the English Channel, their decision, as Hopkins concludes, “was based on their experience of life, their reading of books and newspapers and the kind of open exchanges they had known on street corners and great public places.”

Unlike Orwell, however, who had joined the ranks of the anti-Stalinist Workers Party of Marxist Unification, or the French philosopher Simone Weil, who joined the anarchist Durutti Column, most of these volunteers enrolled in the International Brigades. This was a problem since the brigades were controlled by communists. Indeed, the Comintern, under Joseph Stalin’s watchful eye, largely orchestrated the formation and direction of the brigades. (The Spanish prime minister, Francisco Largo Caballero, mistrusted Moscow’s emissaries. At their first meeting, he did not invite them to sit down in his office but, given the refusal of Western powers to help his government, he had little choice but to work with them.)

This is the most obvious—and ironic—contrast between then and now. The brigades today, unlike their ancestors, are organized against, not by Moscow. (This irony is mirrored by Vladimir Putin’s description of the Ukrainian government, led by a Jewish president, as “neo-Nazi.”) But this, in turn, points to at least two similarities. First, while some volunteers are retired soldiers who seem eager to use their skills, most of those going to Ukraine have cited the same ideal that sent Orwell and thousands of others to Spain. They are, quite simply, determined to stop what one volunteer called a “21st century version of fascism.”

What is no less simple, but much more dire, is a second parallel. In the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Spain, over two dozen countries—including Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia—signed a non-intervention pact. The countries agreed to prevent both men and materiel from reaching either side in the conflict. As soon became clear, the only important signatories that obeyed this prohibition were France and Great Britain, both eager to avoid possible escalation with the fascist powers. Would Franco, we wonder, have prevailed were it not for the German and Italian planes and pilots that devastated military and civilian targets?

Slightly less than a century later, the Western powers seem to have again agreed to a non-intervention treaty. This time, though, it is with Putin’s Russia, not Hitler’s Germany. But the aim to avoid a dangerous military escalation that might lead to another world war is the same. Hence NATO’s refusal to create no-fly zones over Ukraine or equip their air force with used Russian fighter jets, a decision based on powerful strategic and political reasons.

But those who fought in Spain remind us of equally powerful reasons to provide more than defensive weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The outbreak of World War Two made clear, Tremlett writes, that though the volunteers in Spain had lost that war, “they would soon be proved right about the dangers posed to all nations by the unchecked rise of fascism.” This truth, he concludes, anchored the pride of these volunteers “in later years and established their myth.” Should Ukraine fall, the question is whether there will be years enough to allow new myths to take root.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.