I have spent a large part of my life thinking about ‘A Cause’. Maybe that is what happens, when there does not seem to be one to advocate, or espouse. Past Causes that I have thought about a great deal include; The Confederacy, The Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, the Republicans in Spain in the 1930’s, and the rise of The Left in 1960’s Europe.
There have been other Causes of course. The Union side in the American Civil War, The Crusades, Irish Republicanism, and the rabid anti-Communism of America after the Second World War. I didn’t think so much about those causes, they seemed somehow less attractive to me. I was in search of a good old-fashioned flag-waving Cause, and the images in my head were of the Paris Commune, and Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace.
I missed the war, any war, by a good few years. I also just avoided National Service, so have never been compelled to fight in an army. I would have been reluctant to join the peacetime forces in Britain anyway, as they obviously defend the monarchy, and were mainly deployed abroad, interfering in the business of other sovereign nations, or seeking to prolong colonial interests. I attached an unrealistic romantic appeal to those Causes that interested me, which had little to do with their reason for being what they were, and a lot more to do with my reasons for being drawn towards them.
The Confederacy has interested me since I was very young. Not because it supported slavery, as this is an often-quoted, and far too simplistic description of the reason for its formation. It was because it was the underdog, and started a war it could never hope to win, to prove a point, and to defend a principle. The right of a State to govern itself, free from Federal control, is a more pertinent explanation of the real reason behind this rebellion. The army that fought for the Confederacy was a volunteer force for the great part, and comprised predominantly of very poor men, from rural backgrounds. They could never hope to own anything to speak of, let alone a slave, yet they were prepared to die in their thousands, for what they believed was a ‘Good Cause’.
The Parliamentary side in the English Civil War, was also a rebel force, rising up against the right of Charles 1st to rule unchallenged, and unrestrained. These were religious men, troubled by conscience, and often unhappy about the course they had taken. Yet still, they were prepared to fight against members of their own family, the Royal dynasty, and most of the Aristocrats of the time, in order to secure what they believed was the right thing. Despite all that occurred then, and immediately after the wars were over, it cannot be denied that those participants equally believed that they were fighting for a valid reason, and what they considered to be a Cause. As far as I was concerned, despite my interest in Cromwell, and the fact that they actually executed a monarch, they were too steeped in religious bigotry, to be other than of historical interest.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, many factions began to appear, ostensibly fighting for left-wing revolution in Europe, and beyond. In Italy, there was the Brigate Rosse, in France, Action Direct, and in Germany, the Baader-Meinhof group. They sought alliances with Palestinian groups, and with revolutionary movements in South America also, and seemed to be set on a world movement of left-wing uprisings. Unfortunately, they all degenerated into gangs that did little more than kidnap and ransom leading figures, rob banks, murder people, and explode bombs in public places. There was little cohesion; bitterness and jealousy caused them to split into factions, and despite some headline-grabbing exploits, and moderate support (at least in Germany) from some of the public, they did little good for the cause they purported to represent.
So I come to a real Cause, perhaps the last ‘real’ cause in modern times; the Spanish Civil War. In July, 1936, the Republican Government in Spain was rocked by a rebellion of the Right, led by many army officers, including Francisco Franco, who would later become the Fascist dictator of the country. Supported by Royalists in the North, The Catholic Church, and the members of the Falange, a fascist political party, they greatly outnumbered the loyal army, and the government was forced to call for volunteer militias to help. As a result, the Republican side became disjointed, as factions assumed control of areas, and others, such as the Catalans, sought to gain their own independence during the hostilities. Anarchists, Communists, Socialists, and numerous Trade Union militias fought on nearly all fronts, sometimes alongside the Republican army, and on occasion, even against them.
Countries outside Spain soon sent help, seeking to bolster the chances of their preferred side. Russia and Mexico sent help to the Republicans, and Germany, Italy, and Portugal assisted the Fascists. The Germans and Italians in particular sent troops and aircraft, using this tragic Civil War as a training ground for their future ambitions. Help for the Republic from Russia, was attached to the formation of a Communist government, should they be victorious. This was unpopular with the other left-wing factions, and the Anarchists, leading to fighting between groups, mainly in Barcelona. With all this internal strife distracting the Republic, and the war going heavily in favour of the Rebels, they called for international volunteers to come to Spain, and to fight against the Fascists.
By late 1936, the first International volunteers had arrived in Spain. They were formed into the now famous ‘International Brigades’, and some also joined trade union militias, like the CNT. The mainly Communist led and organised Brigades were formed mostly in national groups. Italian, German, and French were the most numerous, though by the end of their participation in the war, there had been volunteers from over 50 countries, numbering almost 40,000. They first went into action at the end of 1936, fighting around Madrid, where their determined defence of the University district helped to deny the Fascist army entry into the capital, and led to the long siege that followed. Many well-known writers, political figures, and trade unionists served in the International Brigades, including many from Britain, and even America. They continued to fight for the Republican side up to October 1938, when the Spanish Government disbanded them, in the vain hope that the Fascists would also have to send home the foreign fighters assisting them.
Thousands of those volunteers had been killed or injured. On returning home, many of the survivors were ostracised, for what was seen as participation in a ‘Communist Cause’. In some countries, they were warmly welcomed, as by the end of the Civil War, with a Fascist victory in 1939, it was becoming obvious that there was soon going to be a World War, fought against many of those who had supported Franco. Despite some criticism of the organisation and use of the International Brigades, notably by George Orwell, in his book ‘Homage to Catalonia’, it cannot be denied that most of those volunteers genuinely enlisted in what was a real Cause, and I feel sure that history proves this to be true.
If such a situation ever develops again, it will be interesting to see if almost 40,000 people are inspired to give up everything, to fight for it.