Bob Doyle's book - Brigadista - Prologue by Paul Preston
Those who volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against Spain's reactionary military and their Nazi and Fascist allies made the hazardous journey to Spain out of a visionary concern for what defeat would mean for the democracies. The volunteers overcame enormous difficulties to fight for the Republic. Some were out of work, others were intellectuals and there were a few adventurers, but all had come to build barriers against fascist aggression. For Italian, German and Austrian refugees from Fascism and Nazism, however, the Spanish Civil War was the first real chance to fight back and eventually to go home. For all of them, eventual defeat was a devastating blow but for none quite so bitter as for those who faced Hitler's concentration camps and Mussolini's prisons. Yet, remarkably, those who went on to renege on their anti-Fascist gamble were a tiny minority.
The idea that to have fought in Spain gave meaning to an entire life was captured by the American correspondent Herbert Matthews, a passionate supporter of the Republic both during the war and after. He wrote: 'In those years we lived our best and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again.' Like many correspondents, Matthews never lost his pride in supporting the Republic: 'Those of us who championed the cause of the Republican government against the Franco Nationalists were right. It was, on balance, the cause of justice, morality, decency. All of us who lived the Spanish Civil War felt deeply emotional about it.' That feeling was shared even more intensely by those who fought, and it suffuses Bob Doyle's splendid autobiography.
This is a fascinating memoir, written with honesty and utterly devoid of self-promotion. The Spanish edition was called Rebel Without a Pause and that title sums up the endless and heroic struggles of Bob Doyle's life. He was involved in the struggle against fascism in Dublin, earning vicious beatings from the hands of O'Duffy's Blueshirts. After abortive attempts to find work in Liverpool, he joined the IRA, which gave him a weapons' training that came in useful in Spain. He made Herculean efforts to join the International Brigades in the summer of 1937, stowing away aboard a Greek ship to get to Spain from Marseilles. Unable to make contact with the International Brigades, he was forced to take a job on a ship sailing between Spain and Britain. He learned some Spanish and used his position to liaise with the Spanish Aid Committee in Liverpool, smuggling leaflets and posters in and out of Spain and letters to and from International Brigaders when he called at Republican ports. Finally, at the end of October 1937, he persuaded the recruiting agency at the King Street headquarters of the Communist Party to send him to Spain.
The basic story of his life and of his experiences in Spain is itself astonishing yet it is related without pretension and with an acute sense of humour. What is especially remarkable about Bob Doyle's experience is that he is one of the very few brigaders who were imprisoned at Franco's improvised concentration camp in the disused monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos. Bob was one of over one hundred British volunteers taken prisoner on 31 March 1938 at Calaceite, between Alcañiz in the province of Teruel and Tortosa on the coast of Tarragona. They were captured by Italians of the Black Arrows Division as the Francoists made their rapid advance through Aragón to the sea. His account of the brutality with which prisoners were treated when they were captured is one of the few by volunteers - that by George Wheeler being another and the one by the American Carl Geiser perhaps the most complete. It was revealing of the Francoist mentality that the officers were convinced that the brigaders were all Jewish.
They were variously interned in cow sheds, threatened with being burnt alive and suffered horrendous conditions: overcrowding, bitter cold, one thin blanket, little food, thin gruel with bits of stale bread, or a couple of sardines and some beans, daily beatings and tortures for trivial 'offences' like not standing to attention during meals or genuflecting in church. They were subjected to indoctrination and obligatory attendance at Mass. The ferocity of their treatment was seen by Bob as a deliberate strategy to humiliate, dehumanise and demoralise the prisoners. Interestingly, Bob Doyle, like Carl Geiser and others before him, comments on the sinister role of the pro-Francoist correspondent of the New York Times, William 'General Bill' Carney, who wrote mendacious accounts representing San Pedro as if it were a relaxing rest home. He reminds us of the Francoist collaboration with the Gestapo agents who came to collect German volunteers and returned them to the Third Reich for execution.
Although he himself does not stress the point, these are the memoirs of a man of immense courage and idealism, with great inner reserves of stoicism which enabled him to resist hardship of all kinds. What is especially fascinating is the combination of the deep humanity, warmth and humour familiar to anyone who has ever met Bob Doyle and the utterly serious way he went about his participation in the International Brigades. Evidence from the documents found in the Moscow archives by Irish historian Barry McLoughlin show Bob as a deeply serious Communist, fully aware of, and committed to, the need for discpline within the Brigades.
There have been many deeply emotional comments made about the Spanish Civil War by those who supported the struggle of the Second Republic against Franco and his Nazi and Fascist allies. Albert Camus came near to accounting for the universal fascination with the Spanish Civil War when he wrote: 'It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward. It is this, without doubt, which explains why so many men throughout the world regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.' Yet, despite defeat, capture and imprisonment, Bob Doyle emerged from Spain with his faith in humanity undiminished. Relative to what he suffered, the optimism and militancy which pulse through every page of this marvellous book must inspire anyone who did not fight in Spain to know more about the anti-Fascist struggle that unfolded there.
Paul Preston is Professor in International Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Among his recent publications are: Juan Carlos. A People's King (London, HarperCollins, 2004); Doves of War. Four Women of Spain (London: HarperCollins, 2002); and ¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War! (London: HarperCollins, 1999.
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