3 Reasons Hilary Benn’s Use of the International Brigades to Justify Bombing Syria Was Ignorant

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

4 December 2015

On Wednesday night, with the war drums beating louder after ten and a half hours of debate, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, delivered a speech in support of the prime minister’s plans to bomb Syria. 67 Labour MPs defied the wishes of Jeremy Corbyn and joined the Conservatives in voting through the government’s motion, and the speech has already been labelled ‘historic’ by the British press.

Furthermore, to the dismay of the left (barely recovered from Michael Gove’s co-option of Gramsci), Benn pushed for the motion by invoking the memory of the International Brigades and their struggle against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. In his powerful concluding remarks, Benn compared Daesh to the armies of Franco, the Spanish dictator, before stating “what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.” He said:

“And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight.”

This rosy view of history is based on a problematic collapse of rather different processes: the participation of British volunteers in the fight against Franco, the involvement of the United Kingdom in the Second World War, the Labour party’s record on human rights, and the necessity to somehow save people by bombing them. So before antifascist history becomes rewritten and assimilated into the mythologies of British Jingoism, it may be worth unpacking the premises of this loaded speech.

1. The United Kingdom left the Spanish Republic to die.

The conflation of the involvement of British fighters in the International Brigades with Britain’s war declarations against Germany and Italy is a cheeky one; after all the British state did make war on fascist countries between 1939 and 1945. Yet, only a few years earlier, Britain did not seem so committed to the fight. We must remember that the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936 on the back of a failed military coup against a democratically-elected government. That same year, a London-based committee formed by representatives of the UK, France, Germany and Italy (among others), pledged ‘non-intervention’ and agreed to an arms embargo on all belligerent parties.

However, not only were the fascist countries quick to break the pact and heavily arm the Nationalist side, but they actually intervened: Italian troops would take Malaga while leaving a trail of atrocities against civilians. In the meantime, American and British companies literally fuelled the rebels, as Texaco and Shell became the key suppliers of oil to Franco’s war machine. As this happened, throughout the war Britain pressured France to continue with the arms embargo, further choking the already besieged Spanish Republic. Ironically, the Republican government dissolved the communist-led International Brigades in 1938 as an appeal to the UK to bring the embargo to an end.

One might argue that the problem was Neville Chamberlain’s isolationism, later corrected with the arrival of the mythic Winston Churchill to power. However, with the war raging, Churchill had been quite keen on Franco’s vision. In a 1936 article in the Evening Standard, he defended Britain’s ‘ “strictest neutrality” as he sympathised with ideals of the fascist insurrection: “Shall Spain, […] now sink into the equalitarian squalor of a communist state, or shall it resume its place among the great Powers of the world? Here is an appeal of the youth and manhood of a proud people.” If the British parliament stood up “against Hitler and Mussolini” in 1939, it certainly was not due to the continuation of a proud antifascist record.

2. The Labour party then and now.

In 1937 Clement Attlee, the future Labour prime minister, visited the British battalion of the International Brigades, which was renamed after him. One year later, as British fighters returned home at Victoria station, he was amongst the crowd that welcomed them as heroes.

Needless to say, this is not today’s Labour party (and has not been for a while). Their stance on British citizens who have joined the Kurdish forces, for instance, has been much less clear. Labour remained silent when Silhan Özçelik was sentenced to 21 months behind bars less than two weeks ago, accused of trying to join Kurdish forces in their fight against Daesh.

Meanwhile, with no sense of irony, the most hawkish factions of the Labour party appropriate the distantly friendly freedom fighters of Spain to cleanse their recent stance on human rights. Someone should remind Benn that his suit and tie remain stained with Iraqi blood from 2003.

3. Who was doing the bombing in Spain again?

Long story short, the Spanish Civil War has been dug out to argue for the historical necessity to bomb Syria. Paradoxically, this situation resonates more the stance of certain allies of Franco rather than the International Brigades. In 1937, the Nazi luftwaffe flattened the Basque town of Gernika, a village of little military and strategic value. The operation was more likely a symbolic gesture to demonstrate German prowess and test out new weaponry.

Back to the future, the British government has been unclear as to what the bombings will bring to the table. While it claims they will assist the strategic advance of Kurdish fighters and the Free Syrian Army, they have also withheld arms and funding from these groups, while other supplies have been scant. Equally contradictory is the lack of appal at the assistance of Daesh from Turkey and the Gulf states, and the unclear stance on the future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, in the event of the US’s proposed ceasefire (a problem which also divides the left). It looks as if David Cameron is more concerned with playing the great power game, and Benn, who less than a month ago rejected the extension of bombings to Syria, with destabilising Corbyn’s leadership of the party. In the meantime, thousands of civilians will surely die from the bombing of Raqqa, which is far from the front line, for the government’s arrogance and lack of sight.

Photo: Zofia Szleyen/Wikimedia Commons

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