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Anti-Semitism in International Brigades

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Scholarly research on the Anti-Semitism in International Brigades has been limited. Contemporary accounts from the Spanish Civil War of anti-Semitism vary. However, they indicate that the anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon among soldiers in the International Brigades, which included many Jewish volunteers. Until the early 21st Nationalists’ anti-Semitism, though "mentioned in scores of books on the Spanish Civil War", was handled "only in passing and without analysis".[1]

Soviet Union, Comintern and the Jewish question[edit]

Joseph Stalin (1937)

It seems that in 1936 it was international politics which was most responsible for shaping the Moscow's stand on the Jewish issue, especially in relation to the International Brigades. The Soviets were increasingly alarmed by the growing German military might and embarked on attempts to mount a joint-security scheme which would involve also the Western Powers, the policy commenced by entering the League of Nations in 1934. The Nazi involvement in Spain provided Moscow with one more argument in favor or such a solution; persuading Britain and France to join a common anti-German alliance became the principal aim of the Soviet policy in Spain, taking precedence even over such objectives as defeating the Nationalists or dominating the Republican zone.[2] Fighting the common Fascist menace was adopted as a key propaganda message leading to this end, and this is when the Jewish issue came into play. Since anti-Semitism was identified as a constituent element of Fascism, fighting it enhanced the anti-Fascist message advanced. As the recruitment campaign to International Brigades was invariably calibrated as fight against Fascism.[3] The logic worked very well; confronting international Fascism is routinely listed as primary motivation of the Interbrigadista volunteers, and at times it even seems that they came to Spain to fight Hitler rather than Franco. Fighting anti-Semitism also proved to be of high mobilizing potential for the Jews.[4]


Luigi Longo (1970s)

Culture-rooted anti-Semitism was related mostly to cliché images of a Jew, persistent in many ethnic communities.[5][6] They typically associated the Jews with trade, attributing to them features like greed and a penchant for dishonesty.[7] Visibly distinct and impenetrable world of orthodox religious Jews earned them the opinion of being secretive and treacherous.[8] Finally, poverty of especially East-European Jewry led to further stigmatizing of "dirty Jew", "stinking Jew" or "scabby Jew".[9][10]

Politically-fuelled anti-Semitism could have assumed widely different orientations. Among not a marginal fraction of Communists – including those of the Jewish origin themselves – the prevailing opinion was that one can not be a genuine Communist or a genuine proletarian unless one leaves behind all sorts of bourgeoisie identity, including the national ones, including the Jewish one. The concept led to fear of cultivating Zionism among the die-hard Stalinist International Brigades tycoons, André Marty and Luigi Longo.[11] This perception was shared be some sections of the rank-and-file, especially from Britain; in wake of the Battle of Cable Street they considered "apathy and classist attitudes of the Board of Deputies towards working class Jews as a disgrace and betrayal".[12] Another version of the same "you are not a genuine Communist" resentment were attempts to identify the Jews as Trotskyites in disguise[13] or more typically, simply as traitors.[14] Exactly the opposite orientation of the same politically motivated charge was demonstrated by blaming the Jews for excessive Communist fervor.[15][16]


Refusal to acknowledge the Jewish nationality is by some considered a systematic feature of the International Brigades command layer, which "denied the very existence of a Jewish people and Jewish national questions".[17] It is thanks to such an attitude that, at least according to some scholars, the Brigades commanders might have resisted repeated requests to form a separate Jewish unit, which materialized as Botwin Company in December 1937.[18] Also later on the Brigades command were cautious to confine propaganda endeavors of the Botwinists; a periodical issued by the company men was not permitted to be distributed beyond the unit.[19] None of the above is openly dubbed as anti-Semitism, but attributed to apparent anxiety not to fuel Jewish nationalism.[20][21]

According to one account, even volunteers coming from mutually conflicted nationalities swallowed their traditional animosity in order to form alliances aimed against the Jews, like it was the case of the Poles and the Ukrainians.[22] In reaction, some Jewish volunteers hesitated to serve in the same unit and tended to own groups.[23] This is how some witnesses describe the actual origin of the Botwin Company; in a more balanced version the Jewish volunteers sought to form own military unit "not only due to the language, which united them, but also because of anti-Semitism ruling among non-Jewish volunteers",[24] in a more straightforward account the Jews were simply driven out of the Polish unit and ended up in the one of their own.[25]

Military performance[edit]

Brigadiers in combat

In January 1938 one of key Soviet commanding officers sent to Spain, Karl Sverchevskyi, in his report to Moscow complained that "the nationality question is the weakest spot in the international units. Francophobia. Anti-Semitism is faded but has not died out yet".[26] Mid-level commanders acknowledged that "there is anti-Semitic spirit among the volunteers"[27] in apparent defiance of official propaganda.[28] Decimating the Botwin Company in Extremadura has drawn harsh criticism that undertrained and underarmed unit was thrown into a frontal and semi-suicidal charge against expert Moroccan troops, yet those comments are related to general deficiencies of the Republican army and do not advance anti-Semitism-related suggestions.[29]


International Brigades' standard

Some authors present anti-Semitic sentiment as nothing but the result of squabbles typical for large congregations of people coming from different backgrounds and cultures, noting that the Jews were by no means singled out; it is noted that German volunteers mocked the French, considered "drunkards, quarrelsome, and sometimes sloppy", the Austrians and the Scandinavians complained that they were dominated by the Germans, who kept all positions of power for themselves, while the Serbs clashed with the Croats.[30] Some authors note anti-Semitism but refrain from quantitative statements.[31] Claims of somewhat broader scope of anti-Semitism, reportedly developed by "several" volunteers, are exceptional.[32] It is even more so in case of claims advancing a theory of anti-Semitism having been a common if not actually prevailing phenomenon, e.g. that most soldiers of some nationalities at least initially "held anti-Semite views",[33] that anti-Semitism defined relations in some Polish units,[34] or that at some stages it was "everywhere".[35]

Anti-Semitism was manifested by the rank-and-file, often people with very proletarian background,[36] at times referred to by the Brigades top tier as "backward ambience".[37] However, there are recorded cases of people in mid-level command chain indulging in anti-Semitic outbursts.[38] Also the political commissars, supposed to be responsible for ideological awareness and high morale of the volunteers, were at times embarking on tirades marked by strong anti-Jewish bias.[39]


Karl Sverchevskyi (1940s)

Top Soviet military in Spain and command of International Brigades alike seemed aware of anti-Semitism in ranks of their troops and apparently considered it alarming enough to report its presence to Moscow and to mount schemes aimed at eradicating the phenomenon. They key instrument used was propaganda, which assumed shape of lectures delivered to Interbrigadista audiences[40] or articles, published in the Interbrigadista prints;[41] some volunteers assigned to propaganda or education sections were specifically entrusted with the task of fighting anti-Semitism.[42] Resentment was being eradicated also by usage of unspecified informal penalties applied within sub-units of specific brigades, measures usually referred to as "swift and exemplary".[43][44] There are reports of some volunteers guilty of anti-Semitism having been sent back home[45] and some having been jailed.[46] One account provides information of a trial,[47] though another version of probably the same incident suggests that the "trial" in question was not a formal judicial procedure but rather sort of an informal meeting held in the unit.[48] Some note that anti-Semitism was "severely punished"[49] and some confirm that it was declared a crime subject to death penalty.[50] There are opinions that initial anti-Semitism, harbored by many at the beginning of the Civil War, evaporated naturally upon closer contact with the Jews.[51] On the other hand, there are claims exactly to the opposite, namely that anti-Semitism was on the rise when the war took a decisively anti-Republican turn, and cursing the Jews was common amongst those fleeing to France.[52] Some note that all disciplinary measures were in fact counter-effective and led to further animosity towards the Jews.[53]

See also[edit]

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  1. Isabelle Rohr, The use of antisemitism in the Spanish Civil War, [in:] Patterns of Prejudice 37/2 (2003), p. 195
  2. opinion most thoroughly advanced in Stanley Payne, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism, New York 2004, ISBN 9780300178326, see esp. pp. 128-129. For the latest work, which offers somewhat different perspective but adheres to the same conclusion, see Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War, New York 2015, ISBN 9781107106277
  3. some authors go as far as claiming that local communist parties – in this particular case the Romanian Communist Party – were "highly efficient in manipulating anti-fascist symbols" when recruiting to the International Brigades, Vladimir Tismaneanu, The tragicomedy of Romanian Communism [paper for National Council for Soviet and East European Studies], Philadelphia 1989, p. 30
  4. fighting anti-Semitism is the key motive admitted by many Jewish ex-combatants, compare Bagon 2001; some of those writing ex-post were even inclined towards a hyperbole, see opinion of the Botwin Company commander, Emmanuel Mink: "we were not among those who decided to fight Hitler only upon realizing that the only way out of the Nazi ghetto is to the gas chambers", quoted after Bartłomiej Różycki, Polska Ludowa wobec Hiszpanii frankistowskiej i hiszpańskiej transformacji ustrojowej, Warszawa 2015, ISBN 9788376297651, p. 155.
  5. "many come from backward ambience and anti-Semitism is what they brought with them", Sygmunt Stein, Moja wojna w Hiszpanii, Kraków 2015, ISBN 9788308055243, pp. 72-73
  6. "But, still, there were several Polish coalminers and they came with traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes", Rein, Ofer 2012, p. 109
  7. perhaps the claim that "all imporant posts were reserved for the Jews" falls into this category, Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107
  8. see the anti-Jewish outburst featuring omnipotent "rabbis", Stein 2015, p. 248
  9. Stein 2015, p. 44
  10. Rein, Ofer 2016, p. 109
  11. Zaagsma 2001, pp. 12-15
  12. Sugarman 2015, p. 8. For detailed discussion of the British case, see Elaine Rosa Smith, East End Jews in Politics, 1918-1919: A Study in Class and Ethnicity [PhD thesis University of Leicester], Leicester 1999, especially the chapter Communism and Zionism: Ideological Conflict in the Jewish East End, pp. 165-223
  13. Stein 2015, p. 282
  14. Stein 2015, p. 238
  15. Eby 2007, p. 372
  16. Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London 2006, ISBN 9781101201206, p. 386
  17. Zaagsma 2001, p. 15
  18. Zaagsma 2001, pp. 12-15. According to Longo himself, it was the linguistic difficulties which delayed formation of a Jewish unit, Prago 1979, p. 21
  19. the Jews within the French Communist party had to dodge the official party line when attempting to convey a message of heroic Jewish volunteers, compare discussion of an exhibition, organized in September 1937 by a committee linked to the Paris Naye Prese daily, Gerben Zaagsma, Jewish Communists in Paris between Local and International, [in:] Simon Dubnov Institute Year Book 8 (2009), pp. 16-18
  20. Zaagsma 2001, p. 22
  21. Tuvia Friling, A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz: History, Memory, and the Politics of Survival, Waltham 2014, ISBN 978-1611685879, p. 20
  22. Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107
  23. Diamant 1967, pp. 173-174
  24. Stein 2015, p. 255
  25. Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107
  26. "Национальный вопрос – самое слабое место интерчастей. Франкофобия. Увял и не потух еще окончательно антисемитизм", report is dated Jan 14, 1938, quoted after Игорь Анатольевич Дамаскин, Сталин и разведка, Москва 2004, ISBN 5953302681, p. 358
  27. Stein 2015, pp. 72-73
  28. Arthur Koestler, [obituary of George Orwell], [in:] Observer 29.01.1950, p. 4, quoted after Jeffrey Meyers (ed.), George Orwell. The critical heritage, London 2002, ISBN 0415159237, p. 298
  29. Zaagsma 2001, pp. 17-19, Stein 2015, pp. 271-280
  30. Марклен Мещеряков, Судьба интербригад в Испании по новым документам, [in:] Новая и новейшая история 5 (1993), pp. 18-42
  31. compare e.g. "allerdings begegneten die jüdischen Freiwilligen antisemitischen Vorurteilen auch in den Reihen der Republikaner", Freiheitskämpfer, [in:] Zukunft. Informationsblatt des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland 16/7 (2016), p. 6
  32. Rein, Ofer 2016, p. 109, Мещеряков 1993, pp. 18-42
  33. this particular reference is about the Spaniards, Miguel Ayuso, La increíble y olvidada historia de los judíos que lucharon en la Guerra Civil española, [in:] El Confidencial online, January 17, 2016
  34. Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107
  35. Stein 2015, p. 282
  36. Rein, Ofer 2016, p. 109. A certain Franek, a Polish emigree miner recruited in France, self-declared die-hard bolshevik, admitted also – with some sort of embarassment – that he can not free himself from anti-Semitism, Stein 2015, p. 42
  37. Stein 2015, pp. 72-73
  38. Stein 2015, p. 248
  39. Stein 2015, p. 203
  40. Stein 2015, p. 238
  41. Stein 2015, pp. 72-73
  42. Stein 2015, p. 73
  43. Hopkins 1998, pp. 171-172
  44. Raanan Rein, Josna María Thomàs (eds.), Guerra civil y franquismo. Una perspectiva internacional, Zaragoza 2016, ISBN 9788416515530, p. 43
  45. Hopkins 1998, p. 172
  46. Rein, Ofer 2016, p. 99
  47. Eby 2007, p. 179
  48. Hopkins 1998, p. 172
  49. Rein, Ofer 2016, p. 99
  50. Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107. This specific account comes from a Polish volunteer who returned to Poland and was de-briefed by the Polish intelligence.
  51. Ayuso 2016
  52. Stein 2015, p. 282
  53. Ciechanowski 2009, p. 107

Further reading[edit]

  • Isidro González García, Los judíos y la Guerra Civíl española, Madrid 2009, ISBN 9788461323029
  • Arno Lustiger, Schalom libertad! Juden im spanischen Bürgerkrieg, Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 9783610085292
  • Efraim Wuzek, Larissa Wuzek-Gruszow, La compagnie Botwin. Combattants juifs dans la guerre d’Espagne, Paris 2012, ISBN 9782849503584
  • Gerben Zaagsma, Jewish Volunteers, the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War, London 2017, ISBN 9781472505491
  • דיאמאנט דוד, יידן אין שפאנישן קריג 1939-1936, Paris 1967
  • בנימין ליבעלסקי,ײדן אין שפאנישן בירגערקריג, 1936-1939: פארצײכענונגען פון א ײדישן פרײװיליקן, Tel-Aviv 1984

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