Book Review: Fighting for Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain during the Spanish Civil War


by Judith Keene

New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. Pp. x, 320. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 1-85285-593-2

While the story of the 40,000 or 50,000 foreign volunteers for the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936-1939 has been told often and generally with sympathy, that of the smaller number who chose to serve the Nationalists has not.  Thus, a study of the subject of those who chose to "Fight for Franco" is greatly needed. 

Alas, Fighting for Franco does not quite fill that need.  Judith Keene, of the European Studies Centre of the University of Sydney , betrays a strong Republican bias which tarnishes her treatment of the subject.  After providing some background, she devotes several chapters to anecdotes about some volunteers, with chapters on the French, Irish, and Anglo-Americans who served, concluding that they were mostly Catholic intellectuals fighting for tradition and reaction, or ambitious rightists seeking credentials useful back home.  So far, so good.  But we learn little of what these men, and some women, did for the Nationalist war effort, certainly nothing about their experience in combat. 

Moreover, Keene fails to compare these people with those who served the Republic.  Did they differ in education, class, and background, but for their politics, from the leftist intellectuals who fought for their ideals or from the many Communist Party members and fellow travelers who responded to the party's call to serve the Republic? 

The problems with this work begin early.  Though she understates their numbers, Keene rightly notes that volunteers for the Nationalists were far fewer than those for the Republic.  But she fails to deal with the claims by Loyalists and sympathetic historians that of many thousands of "foreign fascists" serving in Nationalist ranks (e.g., "two divisions" of Portuguese still claimed by some, when there were actually about two battalions' worth, which she fails to note).  Correctly observing that the Franco regime was largely indifferent, not to say hostile to volunteers, Keene does not discuss whether the difference in numbers could be attributed to the well-orchestrated Republican recruiting program, supervised by the Comintern. 

Similarly, though ridiculing the Nationalists for various ritual and rhetorical practices, she fails to observe that the appearance of André Marty, the brutal French commissar of the International Brigades, was accompanied by as much bloviation, fanfare, and cheering from the Brigadistas as that of any Nationalist hero by Franco's troops.  Keene also assumes that all Germans, Italians, and Portuguese serving in Spain were not volunteers, while overlooking the essentially compulsory service of many western and Soviet Communist Party members and of Red Army serving the Republic, who were told to "volunteer." 

The book also betrays a lack of knowledge of Spanish military terminology.  To provide but one example, Keene states that she has been told that a bandera is a company-sized unit, when it is in fact one of several unique types of battalion organization peculiar to Spanish military practice, a matter that could have been clarified by looking at a good Spanish dictionary rather than by asking someone. 

Although Fighting For Franco has some interesting anecdotes about the experiences of some of the volunteers for the Nationalists, and should be read by specialists in the Spanish Civil War, it is not the definitive treatment of the subject.                 

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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