In this sweeping and brilliant new history of the International Brigades, Giles Tremlett emphasises that amid all their nationalities, ideologies and motivations, “only one political and moral category” fits them all. “They were anti-fascists” at the beginning of a global fight against fascism that most would not realise was binary until it was too late for Spain. Making use of accounts from across the world and the archives of the brigades (long kept secret in Moscow), Tremlett – a veteran Guardian journalist based in Madrid – assembles a magnificent and readable history.
However, his engaging narrative does not prevent Tremlett from pausing to tackle difficult, awkward or controversial issues. This is commendable, but the warts and all approach does make for grim reading at times. He recounts in graphic detail how, despite being poorly trained, led and equipped, the Brigades were nonetheless some of the Republic’s best fighters and consequently used as shock troops, thrown ‘into the heart of the fire’. He also discusses the victimisation of political ‘deviants’, the endemic desertions, draconian punishments and the execution of deserters.