Mythos Spanien

Review: Fonseca on Uhl
Michael Uhl. Mythos Spanien: Das Erbe der Internationalen Brigaden in der DDR. Bonn: J.H.W. Dietz, 2004. 556 pp. Appendix, maps, bibliography. EUR 29.80 (cloth), ISBN 3-8012-5031-8.

Reviewed by: Ana Monica Fonseca, Portuguese Institute for International Relations, New University Lisbon.
Published by: H-German (September, 2006)

The Construction of a National Myth
In July 17, 1936, a military putsch led by Francisco Franco in Morocco set off the Spanish Civil War. The resistance of the Republican government from Madrid led to a bloody war with far-reaching consequences. In fact, many see what happened in Spain as a preview of the Second World War. On the one hand, the Popular Front, a coalition of several left-wing political parties, Basque and Catalonian nationalist groups, had been in government since February 1936. On the other hand, there were the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, and a combination of several right-wing, conservative and monarchic movements. In the beginning, the democratic powers, especially the United Kingdom and France, decided not to interfere in the conflict, but both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini immediately started to support the Francoist troops. Despite international resolve not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War, in September 1936, the Executive Committee of the Komintern decided to support the Spanish government. The recruitment of volunteers began, and International Brigades (IB) were formed (officially starting on October 22, 1936). The war ended three years later, leaving Franco in power. The military assistance of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy allowed the formation of a dictatorship that would rule Spain for almost forty years.

In this publication of his dissertation, Michael Uhl shows how the International Brigades were used by the German Democratic Republic government to create an anti-fascist heritage. The book is divided in three different parts. After presenting an overview and reviewing the vast amount of primary sources used in this work, Uhl begins with a brief description of the main events of the Spanish Civil War. The developments of the conflict, the international constraints and the non-involvement of the democratic governments as well as the formation of the Brigades compose the first part of the book. Uhl describes the profile of the average German brigadier as someone around "26 to 30 years old, single, who was part of the working class of a big city, belonged to the German Communist Party and was emigrated in other European country since 1936" (p. 61). The political formation of the German brigadiers was not so influenced by theoretical or ideological interests, but was mainly a consequence of their membership in the working class (pp. 62-65). The participation of so many Germans in the International Brigades must also be seen as a reaction to the National Socialist regime. Many participants thought that fighting in Spain would not only help the Spanish people, but also serve the fight against National Socialist rule in Germany.

The second part of the book is also divided in two sections. The first chapter describes and explains the circumstances that led to the presence of the "freedom fighters" in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). After an initial period spent in the USSR, most of the former brigadiers were sent to the Soviet Zone. There, they had to adapt to the needs of political realignment, but many were part of the SED structure (as Uhl clearly shows in the appendices). East German authorities used the brigadiers for all sorts of purposes, especially to heighten the differences between GDR and the Eastern bloc and the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as the West as a whole. The legacy of the Brigades was used as a proof of the real anti-fascism of the government of eastern Berlin in opposition to the good relations between Bonn and Madrid (pp. 221-222).

The creation of the International Brigades myth is analyzed in the last chapter of the book. Focusing on the construction of the myth, the International Brigades' cult and the Traditionspflege of the spirit of the brigadiers, Uhl describes and explains the use made of these former fighters. One of the myths used by the SED was the Brigades' anti-fascist tradition. This was supported by three main arguments (pp. 332-333): the importance of the German Communist Party in the resistance (justified by the fact that the KPD was the recruiter of the volunteers; because of this visible and active participation in the resistance, it was the faction that suffered more victims); the importance of and the bonding with the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (as the USSR was the only power that initially supported the International Brigades); and finally, the anti-capitalism of the resistance. This last point is justified by the necessity felt in the GDR to combine the principles that led to the defense of the Spanish Republic with the values of the Cold War. This sentiment highlighted the differences between Moscow (which had always supported the proletariat, even before the Second World War) and the Western democracies (which refused this support). As we can see, the anti-fascist myth led easily to the Spanish Civil War myth. It was a matter of realism: the Spanish resistance was more recognized internationally than the German resistance to Nazism. The image of the foreign volunteers who fought in Madrid to defend the Republican capital was broadly used even in the Second World War. It was a matter of using what had more impact in the society. The heroes of the International Brigades were even used as characters in children's stories (p. 337). The image of the brigadiers was also used to protest the Vietnam War (pp. 391-392).

This is an excellent work. Uhl analyzes the construction of a national myth in the GDR as it reflects national, regional and international constraints in the formation of a society. In this sense, I consider this book an example of the new historiography. Uhl has also availed himself of numerous national and international archives, drawing on a great deal of primary source material (German, Russian and Spanish), as well as an extraordinary bibliographical support deepened with the interviews he had with the real individuals. This book is useful not only for those who are interested in the International Brigades, but also to anyone interested in the history of the GDR and of the creation of national myths.

Citation: Ana Monica Fonseca. "Review of Michael Uhl, Mythos Spanien: Das Erbe der Internationalen Brigaden in der DDR," H-German, H-Net Reviews, September, 2006. URL:
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