The Greek antifascist volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
On July 171936 agroup of fascist officers in Spanish Morocco, led by Colonel Seguin, rebelled and overthrew the legitimate democratic authorities which had been elected in February of the same year. This was the beginning of the fascist coup, which spread like lightning in the country, and caused the massacre of the Spanish people for nearly three years.
The fascist coup was not the result of a shoddy plot. It was a very well thought out and organized coup, guided by a group of experienced generals known for their sympathies to the Hitler regime, and for their fascist beliefs, among whom was Francisco Franco, who became their leader. He was firmly supported by the bourgeoisie of the country, the landowners, and by (who else?) the clergy. Fascist organizations such like Falange, the Carlists and others, acted almost legitimately consisting the para-state, and eroding the entire state apparatus. Franco even had the support of foreign fascist regimes, and inflicted an open and well-organized attack against Republican Spain, which for the first time in history, was governed by all, without exception, the democratic parties; an attack that could be characterised as a rehearsal for World War II.
However, the fascist plans did not fully succeed, thanks to the sacrifices of the Spanish people, and above all of the Spanish working class. From the first moment of the fascist attack a giant popular mobilization embraced the country. Massive demonstrations took place inMadrid,Barcelona,Valenciaand in other cities with the cry “We want arms”. The regular army of the Republic was almost dissolved because over 80% of the officers joined the fascists. But another army was being formed by the working classes in the cities and the countryside. It was the new army of theSpanishRepublic, which heroically confronted the fascist hordes for more than 32 months. Thus, the forecast of Franco and his clique that all would end within a few days was proved wrong. After the first successes of the fascists and after the democratic people began to re-organise and counter-attack, the situation for the coup became critical. The areas they had occupied in metropolitanSpainwere in danger. The fascists were saved thanks to two factors:
a) the immediate help of the fascist regimes ofGermanyandItaly. The two dictators gave Franco’s fascists 1,650 airplanes, 1,150 tanks and armoured vehicles, 2,630 cannons, 8,800 heavy and light machine guns, 1,430 mortars, more than half a million rifles, huge quantities of ammunition, and 250,000 soldiers, officers and technical consultants.
b) to the “neutral” stance of urban democracies of Europe andAmerica. The governments ofAmerica,France, andEngland, followed the hypocritical policy of “non-interference”, which in essence meant recognition and enhancement of the Francoist regime.
Solidarity of the peoples
But if the Spanish people were abandoned in the most tragic moments in history by the rulers of the “free” world, they were not abandoned by the democratic people of the earth.Paris,London,New Yorkand many other cities around the world began to form committees of solidarity with the people of theSpanishRepublic. Money was collected from fundraising to purchase and send food, medicine, and weapons. All over the world, all the people with the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity burning inside them, turned their eyes with understanding, and offered their solidarity to the struggling Spaniards.
Thousands of citizens from the Soviet Union, the USA, Canada, Cuba, Argentina, the Balkans, Central Europe, England, France and many other countries responded to the call for voluntary support to the armed struggle of the Spanish people. Industrial workers, teachers, farmers, sailors, miners, doctors, engineers, journalists, students, men and women, ordinary people voluntarily enlisted on the side of the Spanish fighters. Anarchists, socialists, communists and democrats, in total 53,000 people from 53 nationalities took up arms and fought inSpain, a great proportion of them being French (8,000). The units formed by the volunteers were named “International Brigades”.
In early November 1936, the first coherent brigade, the 11th (which consisted of the battalions a) “Edgar Andre”, b) “Paris Commune and c)” Dobrofsky “) arrived at the Madrid Front and was installed at the most dangerous spot. “People ofSpain,” said a call of the volunteers, “we came to help and defend your capital as if it was the capital of each of us. Your honour is our honour. Your fight is our fight.” And they kept their word. The army of the fascists failed to get anywhere near the Madrid Front.
The course of the International Brigades during the war is the same as the course of the Spanish Republican Army. Not only inMadrid, but in all fronts,Guadalajara,Zaragoza, Brunete, Ebro etc, they contributed significantly to the struggles of the Spanish people, writing with their blood some of the brightest pages of the world revolutionary movement.
InGreece, under the conditions created by the Metaxas dictatorship, the difficulties and obstacles were many and great. In the short time between Franco’s coup and the dictatorship of Metaxas (17 July – 4 August), things where relatively easy, therefore more than 2000 volunteered. However, after August 4 things changed. Legitimate roads closed, passports were not permitted to leftists many of whom were arrested. There remained only illegal routes abroad, but they were extremely dangerous. However, despite the risks, there were people who found their way out of the border, and took the road toSpain. The destination of the volunteers was initiallyMarseilles, where they would supposedly work as labourers in factories. Once arrived there, they came in contact with the Greek organization of Marseille – mainly sailors – and were brought on toSpain.
The volunteer fighter Stefanos Tsermegas writes:
“On New Year’s Eve 1937, we disembark at theportofHavre,France, from where we would proceed toSpain. It was 10am. We went to customs to have our luggage checked. The scene that followed is unforgettable. When the French customs officials opened our suitcases, and saw that they were filled with military supplies, uniforms, bandoliers, flasks, and other military items, they all erupted into a frenzy of excitement. They lifted up their fists and hailed us with the usual at the time Spanish antifascist salute “NO PASARAN”.
And P. Aivatzis, who were among the first volunteers:
“… The first group of Greek volunteers started with a few hundred anti-fascists from other countries, in October 1936, fromFrancetoSpain”
Also, many Greeks of the diaspora, mostly fromFranceand theUSAparticipated in the International Brigades. In a book written about the 15th International Brigade, and published inMadridin 1937, an entire chapter is devoted to Greek Volunteers of America. It emphasises the dual importance of their contribution: “Their struggle was not only a struggle for Republican Spain, but also for the restoration of democracy in their own country.” InCyprus, although the English banned the fundraising forSpain, the Cypriots managed to collect a good deal of money; the first instalment of more than4,000 poundswas sent in 1937. More than 60 Cypriots fromEnglandandAmericawent toSpainto fight.
The number of Greek volunteers cannot be determined with certainty, as the conditions prevailing in the country did not allow proper registration. Approximately, P. Aivazis (see “Avgi” 10/12/75) estimates them at 300. John Kampitis (volunteer) claims they were 290. The historian Karanikolas (“Radical 5.10.75) estimates 400. The same number gives the Cypriot newspaper “Haravgi” (see 11.2.75). The vast majority of the Greek volunteers were labourers, and almost half of them sailors. Politically, most of the Greek volunteers belonged to the Communist Party, and there was a group of Greek anarchists who acted basically in the area ofBarcelona, where the Spanish anarchists gathered most of their power. It was never known whether among the Greeks there were women volunteers either as fighters or other auxiliary services, like women from other countries.
Action of the Greek volunteers inSpain
The majority of the Greek volunteers fought from the beginning of1937 inthe lines of the 15th International Brigade, and especially in the Balkan battalion “G. Dimitrof.” But they were also scattered in all batallions. As time passed, in mid-1937, aGreek company was established, whose commander was Yiannis Pantelias, carpenter, under the pseudonym Yiannis Margaritis, deputy commander was Anagnostis Deliyannis, tobacco worker, under the pseudonym Yiannis Siganos, and political commissioner was Kyriakos Stefopoulos, railway worker, nicknamed Dimitris Perros. The company was named “Rigas Fereos”, that is the name of the great visionary of the Balkan Federation. For a time the company was called “Zachariades.” However, many Greeks remained in the units where they fought, and did not join the Greek company.
The Greek company, part of the 15th International Brigade, participated in the battle of Brunete where they acted as force of conflict and occupied the small town Villanueva de la Cañada, after three weeks of fighting. The loss of the brigade was huge, as nearly half of the fighters were lost. The losses of the Greeks have not been determined, but if we consider the losses of the brigade in general, they must have been quite a lot. Among those killed is the 35-year-old Cypriot Achilleas Kanaris, and Dimitris Rapitis fromChios, who according to his comrade Kostas Makrinos fell fighting on his machinegun, covering the retreat of the fighters of his unit.
Another battle of the Greek company was in Belchite, where the objective was the capture ofSaragossa, held by the fascists. The attack began on August 24 with first target Belchite, a small but well-fortified city. In one of the counterattacks of the fascists, the Dimitrov Battalion and particularly the Greek company suffered great losses. In this battle the commander of the battalion Pantelias was killed, as well as the political commissioner Stefopoulos, who left their lives on the machineguns, surrounded by soldiers of Franco. Deputy Deligiannis became commander and together with the remaining fighters, continued the battles with selfless heroism “defending not only democracy inSpain, but with the belief that fighting they defended democracy around the world, and their homeland.” After fierce battles, Belchite was finally occupied on September 8.
The Greek company also participated in the occupation of Teruel in December 1937. Indeed, one of the first who entered the city ofTeruelwas the Greek officer Minas Thomaidis, from theBlack Sea. In early March 1938, the fascists after a fierce air bombardment (provided by the Nazis to the fascists), attacked the front ofAragon. The democratic troops, fatigued by the constant battles and without war material, began to retreat. The 15th International Brigade was the last antifascist unit which abandoned the ruined city, with great, however, losses. At least 11 Cypriots were killed, and two Greek fighters were captured and executed on the spot because, according to those who escaped, refused to shout “long live General Franco.” In the vicinity of Cadesa more than 20 Greeks were killed, and dozens were injured.
In honour of the Greek fighters of the International Brigades, there was an event in Barcelona, where along with the Greek anti-fascists, most of them wounded, took part several sailors who had come to port with supplies for Republican Spain. The Spaniard in charge of the event said in his speech: “… In your face we see the live democratic antifascistGreecestruggling against our common enemy, fascism, for democracy, independence, and prosperity of our people …”
“… the farewell to the heroes of the International Brigades, despite the festive atmosphere, was chill and melancholy. The heart filled with bitterness watching those heroes pass on the big “aveniada” ofBarcelonawhere the popular farewell had been organised. We were thinking of our fate and the fate of these people, many of whom could not return to their countries, because fascism prevailed there. They were heroes marked by their participation in the war in Spain, put under suspicion by the diplomacy of non-intervention, like lepers; they would be persecuted, handed over to the police insanity, put in camps, finally surrendered to Hitler and Mussolini”. (see Memoirs of Pasionaria, Avgi, 25.5.63).
Indeed, those who had nowhere to go were many; among them the surviving Greeks, with the exception of the Greeks of America andEnglandwho returned there. The rest stayed in Spain until the end, and passed to France after the collapse, after they gave the last battles in Catalonia together with the Spanish antifascists, thus enabling hundreds of thousands of women, children, and wounded to cross the border.
According to the available data, the known names of the Greeks who were killed in the Spanish civil war are 53, of which 2 were missing. However, they are believed to be more than 100. The dead Greek antifascists are pioneers in the hundreds of thousands of fighters who were killed in mountains, cities, and by squads, battling the local and international fascism.
Source: Μ. Paleologou, Greek antifascist volunteers in the Spanish civil war,Athens, 1979.