Digital history & historiography

"Chosen Fighters of the Jewish People": Jewish volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) around 35000 volunteers from many countries fought in the so-called International Brigades that were created and organised by the Communist International. Roughly 4000 of these volunteers were of Jewish descent. In december 1937, the Jewish Naftali Botwin company was formed within the 13th Polish Dombrowski Brigade as a result of lobbying efforts by Polish-Jewish migrant communists in Paris. In their daily newspaper, Naye Prese, the company’s existence became an important part of the propaganda battle waged on the ‘Jewish street’ in Paris in support of the Comintern’s post-1935 Popular Front tactic. But while the propaganda was unmistakably communist, the subtext became increasingly Jewish in the course of the war. Indeed, against a background of age-old allegations of ‘Jewish cowardice’, Naye Prese consistently emphasised that the fight of Jewish volunteers, symbolised by the Botwin Company, had an emancipatory dimension: Jews were worthy and equal fighters. Their participation simultaneously served as a model of Jewish action to be emulated by Jewish migrants in France as they sought to negotiate increasingly difficult living circumstances.

After World War II and the Holocaust, the memory of Jewish volunteers became decisively shaped by debates on Jewish responses to fascism and Nazism; their participation was inscribed in a broader narrative of Jewish resistance that aimed to counter the myth of Jewish passivity in the face of the Nazi onslaught. To put it succinctly: ‘Spain’ served to prove that Jews did not go like “sheep to the slaughter” but already resisted Hitler in Spain.

Based upon my scholarship on Jewish volunteers in the International Brigades, the aim of this paper, then, is to analyze the symbolic meaning of their participation, and show the various ways in which the qualification ‘Jewish’ was and has been imbued with meaning, both during and after the Spanish Civil War. Ultimately, I will show how volunteers of Jewish descent during the Spanish Civil War became Jewish volunteers after the Holocaust.

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