Chapter 17




Both Hitler and Mussolini recognised the full implications of the Spanish Civil War; a victory for the left there would have galvanised their enemies, and not the least of these the workers of Germany and Italy. They moved with alacrity, and later Hitler was to boast that the intervention of the 14,000 men of his Condor Legion was decisive in the struggle. Another 25,000 Germans were to serve with Franco's tank corps and artillery, and the Italians sent in another l00,000 'volunteers'. The Loyalist left also received substantial foreign support; individual radicals crossed the Pyrenees on their own to join the workers' militias; the Communist International organised 40,000 volunteers of the International Brigades (although by no means all were Communists); and ultimately the Soviets were to send in both men and material, although never in the quantities supplied by the Fascist states.

There is no certainty as to the number of Jews who fought in Spain. They identified themselves as radicals rather than as Jews, and few thought then to count them as Jews. The considered estimate of Professor Albert Prago, himself a veteran of the conflict, is that they provided 16 per cent of the International Brigades, proportionately the highest figure for any ethnic group. It is believed that of the 2,000 Britons, at least 214 or 10.7 per cent were Jewish, and the numbers given for American Jews are between 900 and 1,250, about 30 per cent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The largest single Jewish national grouping consisted of Poles living in exile from the savagely anti-Communist regime in Warsaw. Of the approximately 5,000 Poles, 2,250 or 45 per cent were Jews. In 1937 the Brigades, for propagandist reasons, set up the Naftali Botwin Company, almost 200 Yiddish speakers in the Polish Dombrowski Brigade. Strangely, no one has ever estimated a figure for the Jews among the German Ernst Thaelmanns, the second largest national contingent, but they were well represented.

A few of the Italians were also Jews; the most notable of these was Carlo Rosselli, whom Mussolini considered his most dangerous opponent among the exile community. A maverick liberal who went to Spain some time before the Communists, he organised the first Italian column of 130 men --mostly Anarchists, with a few clusters of liberals and Trotskyists-- to fight in the ranks of the militia of the Catalonian Anarcho-Syndicalists. Mussolini finally had Carlo and his brother Nello assassinated by thugs of the Cagoulards, a French Fascist group, on 9 July 1937.


'The Question is not Why They Went, But Rather Why Didn't We Go?'


There were 22 Zionists from Palestine in Spain when the Civil War broke out. These were members of HaPoel, the Labour Zionist athletic association, who had come for a Workers' Olympiad scheduled to be held in Barcelona on 19 July 1936 as a protest against the forthcoming Olympic Games in Berlin. Almost all of them took part in the battles in Barcelona when the workers crushed the rising of the local garrison.

Albert Prago mentions two other Zionists by name as having come to fight and doubtless there were others, but they came strictly as individuals. The Zionist movement not only opposed their members in Palestine going to Spain, but on 24 December 1937 Ha'aretz, the Zionist daily newspaper in Palestine, denounced the American Jews in the Lincoln Brigades for fighting in Spain rather than coming to Palestine to work. There were, however, Jews in Palestine who ignored the strictures of the Zionist movement and went to Spain, but no one is certain of their number; estimates run from 267 to 500, proportionately the highest number for any country.The Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel describes them as 'about 400 Communists'. It is known that some Zionists, acting as individuals, were amongst their number, but almost all were members of the Palestine Communist Party.

In 1973 the Israeli veterans of the conflict held a reunion and invited veterans from other countries to attend. One of these, Saul Wellman, an American Jew, later described the most dramatic incident of the event, which occurred when they toured Jerusalem and met the mayor, Teddy Kolleck. They had been debating whether they had been right to go to Spain in the midst of the Arab revolt and Kolleck had his own answer to their discussion: 'The question is not why they went, but rather why didn't we go as well?'

There were several reasons, all deeply rooted in Zionism --and particularly Labour Zionism-- which explain why they did not go, when it was clear that the Nazis were crucially involved on Franco's side. All Zionists saw the solving of the Jewish question as their most important task, and they sharply counterposed Jewish nationalism to any concept of international solidarity; none despised 'red assimilation' more vigorously than the Labour Zionists. During the Spanish Civil War, in 1937, Berl Katznelson, the editor of the Histadrut's daily paper Davar, and a senior figure in the movement, wrote a pamphlet, entitled Revolutionary Constructivism, which was primarily an attack on their own youth for their growing criticism of the party's supine line OI Revisionist Fascism and its increasing racism towards the Arabs. Katznelson's polemic was also an assault on the very heart of Marxism: its internationalism. He denounced the youths in no uncertain terms:


They do not have the capacity to live their own lives. They can live only someone else's life and think someone else's thought. What queer altruism! Our Zionist ideologists have always denounced this type of Jew --this revolutionary middleman, who pretending to be an internationalist, a rebel, a warrior, a hero, is actually so abject, so cowardly, and spineless when the existence of his own nation hangs in the balance... The revolutionary speculator is continually begging, 'See my modesty, see my piety, see how I observe all significant and trivial revolutionary precepts., How prevalent is this attitude among us and how dangerous at this hour when it is imperative that we be honest with ourselves and straightforward with our neighbors.


Nominally the Labour Zionists were part of the Socialist International, but for them international workers' solidarity only meant workers' support for them in Palestine. They raised small sums of money for Spain, but none of their number officially went to fight in 'someone else's battles'. At the 1973 veterans' conference they had taken up the question of whether they had been justified in going off to Spain 'in the face of some criticism from Zionist and Histadrut leaders in 1936... at a time of anti-Jewish riots'. But given the statements by Enzo Sereni and Moshe Beilenson in Jews and Arabs in Palestine, which was published in July 1936, the very month that the Fascists revolted in Spain, it is apparent that the Labour Zionists' thinking at that time was not defensive; their ambition was to conquer Palestine and economically dominate the Middle East. The 'riots' were the natural defence response to their ambitions and not the other way around. Although the Histadrut's ranks did sympathise with the left in Spain, with their ambitions the Zionist leaders were as far removed as ever from the fight against international Fascism. It was during the Spanish conflict that their approaches to the Nazis reached their height with the request in December 1936 that the Nazis testify on their behalf before the Peel Commission and then the further offers, by the Labour-dominated Haganah, to spy for the SS in 1937.

Only one Zionist tendency, the Hashomer Hatzair, ever tried to grapple with the deeper implications of the Spanish revolution. Its members had devoted considerable efforts to try to win over the British Independent Labour Party (ILP) to a pro-Zionist position, and they closely followed the fate of the ILP's sister party in Spain, the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM). The political failure of the Popular Front strategy in Spain prompted a broad critique of the Stalinists and Social Democrats. However, there is no evidence that any of their members went to Spain, certainly not in an official capacity, or that they did anything for the struggle there beyond the raising of an insignificant donation, in Palestine, for the POUM. Throughout the l930s Hashomer's members took no part in political life, not even Jewish communal affairs, outside Palestine and were, in this regard, the most narrowly focused of all the Zionist groupings. Far from providing any theoretical leadership, on the Spanish question or on the larger problems of Fascism and Nazism, they lost followers to both the Stalinists and the Trotskyists as they offered nothing beyond isolationist and utopian rhetoric in the midst of a world catastrophe.

In later years the bravery of the Jewish left-wingers who fought and died in Spain has been used to prove that 'the Jews' did not go as sheep to the slaughter during the Holocaust. Most zealous in pursuing this line have been those Jewish ex-Stalinists who have since sought to make their peace with Zionism. They cannot bring themselves to repudiate their venture or to claim that the Zionists were correct in denouncing them for fighting in Spain, but in retrospect they have sought to emphasise the 'national' Jewish aspect of their involvement and they have carefully counted every Jew in the long lists of those who fought. The majority of those who went to Spain went because they were committed Communists and they had become radicalised on the basis of many issues, of which Nazism was only one. Their bravery proves nothing about how 'the Jews' reacted to the Holocaust, any more than their involvement with the Communist movement implicates 'the Jews' in the systematic murder of the leaders of the POUM by the Soviet secret police.

Stalin's crimes in Spain are part of the Civil War and they cannot be minimised. Nevertheless, those leftists were flghting and dying in the front lines of the world struggle against international Fascism, while the Labour Zionists were receiving Adolf Eichmann as their guest in Palestine and offering to spy for the SS.