Memorial to the German Members of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Berlin-Friedrichshain

The Defenders of the Republic

The loyalist fractions of the army belonged to the defenders of the republic. However, its defenders were initially the militia, who were the first foreigners to be joined by German and Italian emigrants and participants in the workers’ parade, planned for July 1936 in Barcelona as protest against the Olympic Games in Berlin. The “Thälmann” Brigade was the first international unit. Thus the defense of the Spanish Republic had an international side from the very start.

As was the case with foreign fighters, there were also different positions amongst the defenders of the republic. Socialists, communists, and - as a uniquely Spanish addition - the large group of anarchists/anarcho-syndicalists belonged to the (divided) workers’ movement. The socialist workers’ party of Spain (PSOE) was able to draw upon the U.G.T. union. The communist PCE was insignificant from the beginning of the Civil War, but later became a strong party. The anti-Stalin communists in the POUM fell somewhere between the socialists and the anarchists, in terms of numbers. Their militia had long fought alongside the conventional army and the International Brigades.


Spain was the only country in which anarchists/anarcho-syndicalists played a dominant role in the workers’ movement. The anarchist union CNT had approximately 2 million members and its own militia. (Around 200 Germans fought in the anarchist militias). In contrast to the people’s front, they aimed to connect the fight against the rebels/against fascism to a social revolution. In some parts of Spain, particularly Catalonia, land and factories were collectivized and run by workers. This does not belong to “war history”, rather to a noteworthy attempt to build a “new world”. Yet it cannot be ignored that the anarchists/anarcho-syndicalists also played a part in the particular barbarity of the war in Spain. In the summer of 1936, the base of the movement murdered thousands of Catholic believers: an eruption of uninhibited violence toward the commonly and widely hated clergy.

militia during a break from fighting in 1936;          photo credit: federal archives, image 146-1968-048-15 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
militia during a break from fighting in 1936; photo credit: federal archives, image 146-1968-048-15 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The European Left carried its political conflicts into an already “torn” Spain. The communists aligned with the Soviet Union became the determining force. In Moscow, “show trials” of Stalinists were staged, and Stalin-critics were persecuted in Spain.


A merciless “war within a war” arose against the independent communists in Moscow, against the socialists and the social democrats, and particularly against the large group of anarcho-syndicalists. In May 1937, this conflict culminated in a bloody street war in Barcelona with subsequent arrests and assassinations. The accusation of “Trotskyism” toward all critics of the Stalinist way was also taken up in Spain. - And still: the common enemy remained the rebels, the fascists.

For many years, women were absent from “war history”. However: for many women and Jews, the “War in Spain” was an opportunity to show that they could fight in armed combat, in an effort to emancipate themselves from defamatory attributions. Thus women also initially fought in combat, but were then pushed into more traditionally feminine domains, e.g. nursing. More than 6,000 Jews were among the volunteers who often did not arrive “as Jews” at all but as socialists etc. Yet 300 Jewish volunteers from Palestine and the Jewish unit “Botwin” still played a part.


Source: excerpts from the conceptual text by Dr. Dietlinde Peters