Sunday just gone was Remembrance Sunday. The Sunday closest to the 11th November where the UK honours those killed in service to the Crown in all the conflicts over the last hundred years. Its primary focus this year being those lost in the First World War as its centenary is recognised; a hundred years ago the actions of a Serbian reformed the continent, causing empires and monarchies to fall and killing tens of millions of people.
It is a big deal in the UK.
The wearing of a poppy in one’s lapel or pinned to a coat or hat is important. Not to do so is openly questioned these days, and any public figure photographed not paying tribute to Britain’s war dead is at risk of online trolling. One sportsman in particular refused to wear the poppy in the weekend’s football (soccer) games and was soon in the cross-hairs of everyone to the left of the National Front, his name being dragged through the mud for everything from being an unpatriotic role model to spreading the outbreak of Ebola.
Okay, the last one was made up yet the level of hysteria was at that level. The trolls had a field day.
Until the man released a statement explaining his actions. Growing up on the streets of Belfast in Northern Ireland he heard stories from his relatives about the actions of the English Army, who were a patrolling force in the city during the time-period known as “The Troubles” when the IRA were waging an insurgency war against the loyalist population. The ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in 1972, when the army mistook civilians for terrorists and shot indiscriminately was admitted as his primary focus NOT to wear the flower in tribute. It is his decision, he is not DIS-honouring the dead by not wearing a poppy, he is sticking true to himself despite it being an unpopular decision in the eyes of the nationalistic fawning media.
I bought a poppy late the day before. I wore it after some considerable soul searching. The Sunday itself was a big day in London. Ceremonies across the country but primarily at the cenotaph where the Queen lays wreaths to honour the fallen, the obvious focal point being the two biggest wars that dragged the entire world into battle, but in recent times all the smaller conflicts from 1945 to 2014 have been included, their losses as real as any trench casualty or beachhead death. Everyone marches by; from those veterans still fit and able to attend to the family and relatives of those no longer with us.
All of them save one.
One twentieth century conflict is not honoured on November 11th. Not officially anyway. No sombre voiceover, no dedication, no memory. I do not even know if any veterans of this conflict are still alive today. Their numbers from Britain were so small in comparison, the war they were involved in illegal in the eyes of the government at the time, but they believed what they were doing was right. The right thing. They all wanted to do the right thing.
The Freedom Brigades from The Spanish Civil War.
According to Wikipedia only approximately 2500 pro-republican fighters made the trip from Britain to Spain. Compared to 10,000 Frenchmen, hardly a significant number, nor is it close to the numbers of soldiers Germany and Austria sent, both countries siding with Franco’s nationalists. This was a war of the newly created sections of society. Communists, fascists, socialists; the stagnant bourgeoisie controlling the lower classes came the shouts, the slogans splashed from every angle for every faction in support.
It was understandable then that the sputtering European democracies wanted nothing to do with it. Britain publically forbade anyone to travel to Spain to fight. I was listening on the radio years ago to an interview with two veterans of the war. One was 92, the other 86, and both were saying how they had to take a train to France and then, at the risk being shot, smuggle themselves across the border into Spain to enlist. Author George Orwell served in the Brigades (against his better judgement he later admitted, arriving and discovering what an ideological mess the republicans had gotten themselves into). Earnest Hemmingway covered it, along with the photojournalistic double act of Robert Kapa and Gerda Tauro. The latter losing her life in the conflict. Pablo Picasso painted ‘Guernica’, his own take on the terrible toll the Luftwaffe distributed to the beautiful city, when Hitler lent Franco his air force in order to use it as a training exercise for bombing practice. The good guys would lose; Franco would seize power, Spain becoming a fascist state for the next three decades.
So why did they go? And why do I write about it today?
Because everyone involved on the Republican side saw the threat fascism posed to the world. Something many idle politicians came to rue when Hitler continued what Franco had started in 1939 plunging the world back into chaos. Communism gave more rights to the workers, socialism helped those who needed help, fascism gave power to the minority with the largest teeth with nothing given in exchange, a dynamic that was hardly a positive for long term prosperity.
But times changed. These days there is a memorial, erected in 2012. It’s near the London Eye on the south bank of the capital. Nothing special, many don’t even know it’s there.
Why am I talking about this?
I think because like the young football player who refused to wear the poppy, there’s a section of this world that must stand up for what they believe is right. That to stand aside and look away while terrible things happen is, in their eyes, wrong. You have to get involved, even if you lose, even if you die, there is something in your heart that cannot be dissuaded.
Are these people fanatics then? It is with a sense of irony that I write this, considering the current state of affairs in Syria. Some British Muslims are leaving the UK to fight against the Assad regime in Syria, as well as beginning to join Isis in Iraq as they attempt to create an Islamic State. The UK government has condemned this, threatening any jihadi fighter with virtual exile if they take up arms for what they believe in. While I cannot condone the involvement with the Isis gang, I fail to see the logic behind the decree that anyone fighting Assad will be kicked out of the country. After all aren’t we, the UK also fighting Assad?
Furthermore isn’t this the same government state of non-involvement from almost 80 years ago? What is the difference between these young Muslims and Orwell? The Syrian rebels are trying to topple a dictatorship, so isn’t that a good thing? I guess anti-fascism has more political drawing power.
The International Brigades will never be honoured like the rest of the surviving veterans from that time. But something tells me that’s exactly the way they like it. They didn’t get involved because their government or queen told them too. It wasn’t for oil or land or to expand an empire. They didn’t fight for medals or promotions or glory. It was because they believed fascism was wrong, and their hearts couldn’t let them stand idle. Character is doing your best when no one’s watching. Maybe it’s something we can all learn from.
“The Spanish people will rise again as they have always risen before against tyranny. The dead do not need to rise. They are a part of the earth now and the earth can never be conquered. For the earth endureth forever. It will outlive all systems of tyranny. Those who have entered it honorably, and no men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain, already have achieved immortality.” – Earnest Hemmingway