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...
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
Moore (1986) ‘Behind the Clenched Fist: Sheffield’s ‘Aid to Spain’ 1936-1939’
(Sheffield: Holberry Society) Local Studies Library: 946 081 SQ
from the Spanish Civil War, etc.’ Sheffield Archives: X274 Acc. 2009/118 Box 16
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