Monday, May 23, 2016

The Spanish Civil War: a fight for democracy and freedom

James Throup, a student from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, is currently spending time in the archives uncovering some of the fascinating documents which tell the history of Sheffield.  His fifth blog post takes us back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War...

Lasting from July 1936 to April 1939, the Spanish Civil War was one of a number of events that foreshadowed the Second World War and precipitated one of the darkest periods of European history. The war pitted the Republicans, who supported the democratically elected leftist government, against the right-wing ‘Nationalists’, who sought to overthrow it. Due to superior backing from the German and Italian governments, the Nationalists, under General Francisco Franco, were victorious, inaugurating a dictatorship that lasted until 1975. 


During the conflict, the British Government signed a non-intervention agreement stipulating that it would not support either side, a move widely viewed as a cynical attempt to protect British economic interests. Nevertheless, public support was strong, helping to provide money, medical resources, and food to send over in aid.


But some offered more than this: the International Brigades were contingents of foreign fighters who travelled to Spain to fight on the side of the Republicans. Comprised of fighters from countries such as France, Russia, England, the USA, Austria, Italy, and Germany, the Brigades were united by a belief in democracy and leftist politics. It is estimated that around 40,000 foreign nationals fought in the International Brigades, with 2,000 coming from England.       


Several residents of Sheffield travelled to Spain to fight with the Brigades, one of whom was Joe Albaya. Born in 1911, Albaya was the son of Spanish immigrants from the Basque region of Spain, and was driven to join the Brigades by his strong ancestral ties and his belief in democracy.


Albaya’s wife, Win, remembers his departure sadly:


The week before Christmas 1936, Joe came to my home to say goodbye. Most partings are sad, but this was unusually so, due to the combined elements of uncertainty and unknown dangers. The virtual blackout of his movements from then, until a link of communication was restored, made that period one of the darkest I can remember. (Moore 1986)


During his stint in Spain, Albaya worked as an interpreter due to his ability to speak English, Spanish, and French, and sometimes worked 24 hours a day.


Sheffield Archives hold a collection of postcards sent from Albaya, whilst in Spain, to Judy Abbot, the secretary of the Sheffield Left Book Club. I found these pieces particularly fascinating: colourful works of pro-Republic propaganda, they reveal a sense of buoyancy and hope, a sense mirrored in the levity of Albaya’s missives. From June 20th 1937:


The big feature tonight has been a boxing display in the bull ring. It was good fun (though the English were easily superior) until seven Fascist planes passed over. You ought to have seen the stampede. Happily they flew away without dropping anything.


Though the tone of the postcards is mostly light hearted, this should not obscure the more distressing side of the war. One of many present at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, Albaya was lucky enough to survive, but seems to have been deeply affected by the event. The skirmish took place along the Jarama River, east of Madrid, and resulted in severe casualties for both Republicans and Nationalists. Of the original 600 of the British Battalion who fought at Jarama, only 225 survived. Win Albaya notes that, though her husband was generally forthcoming with tales of his time in Spain, the Battle of Jarama was strictly off limits – intimating the traumatic impact this experience must have had on him.


Though it is easy to single out local heroes from this period, praise should not be neglected for those who worked tirelessly to raise aid for Spain, and for those who contributed generously to the war effort. Speaking on door-to-door collections, Bill Moore, a local left-wing historian, recalls:


the self-sacrifice of these people on the doorstep was matched by the self-sacrifice of those who gave food and money – as willingly in 1938 as they had done in 1936 – at a time when unemployment was still high and the wages of those lucky enough to have a job pretty low. (Moore 1986)


The international ‘Aid for Spain’ campaign garnered much support from the Sheffield area, abetted by the local communist party and trade unions. Moreover, Sheffield has never been shy in honouring its links to the Spanish Civil War. In 1986 the city hosted a commemorative event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the war, featuring art exhibitions, films, theatre, poetry, music, and lectures. During the event a memorial plaque was unveiled in the Peace Gardens, dedicated to the brave people of Sheffield who fought in the Spanish Civil War.


I remember seeing this plaque for the first time when I moved to Sheffield five years ago. It was the middle of summer and families had flooded the peace gardens – a myriad of different cultures and backgrounds mingled together in the heart of the city, their children playing freely together. Here was a symbol of the freedom that so many had fought to preserve. And though the Republic and the Brigades were defeated in 1939, the courage and bravery of those who fought against tyranny and oppression serve as a lasting example for those who value the ideals of democracy and liberty.

James Throup, University of Sheffield



Bill Moore (1986) ‘Behind the Clenched Fist: Sheffield’s ‘Aid to Spain’ 1936-1939’ (Sheffield: Holberry Society) Local Studies Library: 946 081 SQ


‘Postcards from the Spanish Civil War, etc.’ Sheffield Archives: X274 Acc. 2009/118 Box 16


‘Sheffield City Council: Programme of Events [to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the] Spanish Civil War: 1936 – 1986’ Local Studies Library: MP 3883 S

Photograph of Joe Albaya, Picture Sheffield: arc00310