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'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin': Ideology and the German International Brigade Volunteers
Author(s): Josie McLellan
Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 2006), pp. 287-304
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
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@ 2006 SAGEPublications,
of Contemporary
New Delhi,Vol41(2),287-304. ISSN0022-0094.
DOI:10. 177/0022009406062069

Josie McLellan

'I Wanted to be a Little Lenin':

Ideology and the German International
Brigade Volunteers
During the SpanishCivil War, about 2800 Germanssigned up to fight in the
InternationalBrigades.'The BritishstudentJohn Cornfordwrote: 'They are
the finest people in some ways I've ever met. In a way they have lost everything, have beenthroughenoughto breakmost people, and remainstrongand
cheerfuland humorous.If anythingis revolutionaryit is these comrades.'2As
Cornfordpointed out, the Germanswho convergedon Spain in 1936/7 had
hardtimes behindthem. Many of themhad beenimprisonedin Germanyafter
the nazi seizureof power, and subsequentlyexpelled from the country and
strippedof theircitizenship.Othershad fled to centresof Germananti-fascist
resistancelike Paris,Pragueand Moscow, hoping to underminethe National
The author would like to thank Daniel Kowalsky, Catherine Merridale, Leon Quinn and the
JCH's anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
1 On the Germanvolunteers, see the early account by Arnold Krammer, 'Germans Against Hitler.
The Thalmann Brigade in the Spanish Civil War', Journal of Contemporary History, 4, 2 (April
1969), 65-83. Patrik von zur Mihlen's Spanien war ihre Hoffnung. Die deutsche Linke im spanischen Biirgerkrieg 1936 bis 1939 (Bonn 1983) is the only book-length study of the Germans in Spain.
More recent work has had the advantage of access to communist archives: K.-M. Mallmann,
"'Kreuzritter des antifaschistischen Mysteriums": Zur Erfahrungsperspektive des Spanischen
Biirgerkrieges'in H. Grebing and C. Wickert (eds), Das 'andere' Deutschland im Widerstandgegen
den Nationalsozialismus. Beitriige zur politischen (Uberwindung der nationalsozialistischen
Diktatur im Exil und im Dritten Reich (Essen 1994); J. McLellan, Antifascism and Memory in East
Germany. Remembering the International Brigades (Oxford 2004), chap. 1. Michael Uhl, drawing
on German, Spanish and Russian archives, provides the most definitive account of the German volunteers yet: M. Uhl, 'Die Internationalen Brigaden im Spiegel neuer Dokumente', Internationale
Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, 35/4 (1999),
486-518; and esp. idem, Mythos Spanien. Das Erbe der internationalen Brigaden in der DDR (Bonn
2004), part one. Uhl, probably for reasons of space, is largely silent on the volunteers' combat motivation. The exact number of German volunteers in the International Brigades is impossible to ascertain. Recent research indicates that there were significantly fewer than the often-quoted figure of
5000. R. Skoutelsky, L'espoir guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires frangais dans les Brigades internationales, 1936-1939 (Paris 1998), 330; Mallmann, "'Kreuzritter des antifaschistischen
Mysteriums"', op. cit., 35. Uhl, 'Die Internationalen Brigaden im Spiegel neuer Dokumente', op. cit.,
490. On the Austrian International Brigade experience see Osterreicher im Spanischen Biirgerkrieg.
Interbrigadisten berichten iiber ihre Erlebnisse 1936 bis 1945 (Vienna 1986). West German veteran
memoirs are collected in M. Schafer (ed.), Spanien 1936 bis 1939. Erinnerungen von Interbrigadisten aus der BRD (Frankfurtam Main 1976).
2 J. Cornford to M. Heinemann, in V. Cunningham (ed.), The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil
War Verse (Harmondsworth 1996), 128.
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

Socialist regime from without. A significant number were Jewish.3 All continued to fear the long arm of the nazi security services and many fought under
assumed names. After the International Brigades were demobilized in the
summer of 1938, returning to Germany was an impossibility. The majority
ended up in internment camps in southern France. From here, a fortunate
few managed to obtain visas to a neutral country. The unlucky ones were
deported to Germany after the occupation of France and faced years in prison
or concentration camps.
The soldiers of the International Brigades were neither professionals nor
conscripts, nor were they fighting for their country. Not only their status as
volunteers, but also their political homogeneity was relatively unusual.
Although by no means the first international army, the 35,000 volunteers of
the International Brigades have attracted popular and scholarly attention far
beyond that which their numbers might appear to warrant.4To some commentators, both at the time and in retrospect, they seemed to embody the impulse to
fight oppression and dictatorship. To others, they were a 'Comintern army' of
ideologically blinkered communists, there to do the bidding of the Soviet
Union.5 Both interpretations are oversimplified, and neither does much to illuminate the often complex motivations of those who volunteered. A study of
combat motivation in the International Brigades as a whole would be a vast
project which cannot be attempted here. Nor does this article allow space for a
meaningful comparison between national groups. Instead, it will focus on the
German volunteers, a fascinating case study not only of International Brigade
soldiers, but of the role played by ideology in combat motivation. How do
soldiers whose primary motivation is ideological differ from those who are
fighting for money, for their country, or for self-preservation? This article
examines what drove them to volunteer for a war in Spain, and examines how
their combat motivation changed over time. Whatever role ideology played in
the decision to volunteer, political commitment alone was not enough to prepare men for combat and keep them in battle when the going got tough. And,
of course, factors which inspired men to volunteer, or motivated them during
3 Arno Lustiger estimates their number to have been around 500. A. Lustiger, 'German and
Austrian Jews in the International Brigade [sic]', Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XXXV (1990),
301. Cf. A. Lustiger, Schalom Libertad! Juden im spanischen Biirgerkrieg (Berlin 2001), 64.
4 On the International Brigades as a whole, see K. Bradley and M. Chappell, International
Brigades in Spain 1936-39 (London 1994); S. Alvarez, Historia politica y militar de las Brigadas
Internacionales (Madrid 1996); M. Jackson, Fallen Sparrows (Philadelphia, PA 1994); R.D.
Richardson, Comintern Army. The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War (Lexington,
KY 1982); V. Brome, The International Brigades. Spain 1936-1937 (London 1967). A number of
excellent recent studies of national groups have made use of Moscow archives to great effect: J.K.
Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire. The British in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, CA 1998); P.
Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Stanford, CA 1994); R. Baxell, British
Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (London 2004). On the historiography and reception of the
Brigades see R. Stradling, History and Legend. Writing the International Brigades (Cardiff 2003);
P. Monteath, Writing the Good Fight. Political Commitment in the International Literature of the
Spanish Civil War (Westport, CT 1994).
5 Richardson, op. cit.
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'IWantedto be a LittleLenin'


the earlyphaseof the war, could changeas the war wore on and the euphoria
of arrival faded. In many ways, the experiencesof the Germanvolunteers
soldiers:cold, fear,hungerandpain
resembledthoseof othertwentieth-century
on the one hand,espritde corpsand a senseof professionalprideon the other.
This articleaskswhat differenceideologymade.
For all the ferventinternationalismof the Republicanwar effort, in retrospect the historyof the Germanvolunteersappearsnow more closelywedded
to events in Germanythan the broadersweep of Spanishhistory.As we shall
see, the volunteers'motivation stemmedin large part from events at home.
Once they reachedSpain,the structureof the Republicanarmy and linguistic
limitations meant that their contact with Spaniardswas limited, and their
grasp of Spanishpolitics even more so. For many, their political goals in
Germanyremainedmuch more tangiblethan vague conceptionsof Popular
Front victoryin Spain.Equally,when it comes to the sourcesavailableto the
historianof this topic, the most enduringtracesof the volunteers'experiences
are to be found in Germanarchives.Very few contemporarysources,such as
letters,have survived.Many of the soldierswere unable or unwillingto contact their familiesin Germany.Letterssent to friends and relativesin exile
frequentlywent missingin the war years. Likewise,soldierswho kept diaries
often lost them in the chaos that followed demobilization.6The Brigadepress
and publicationswere heavilycensoredand tend to reflectthe partyline fairly
assiduously.The InternationalBrigadearchives in Moscow are invaluable
sources for the military history of the conflict, but inevitably,the histories
of individualsoldiers tend to be eclipsed by the broadersweep of military
administrationand discipline.
After Germancapitulationin 1945, the majorityof the survivingveterans
settled in East Germany.7Most of them were communists,and either emotional ties or party disciplinedrew them to the new socialist state. After the
West GermanCommunistParty was banned in 1956, many West German
veteranswere orderedby the partyto 'retreat'to the East. The East German
state liked to present itself as the 'better Germany',representativeof the
progressive,anti-fascistGermantradition,and the SpanishCivil War was an
important part of this legitimizingtactic. The InternationalBrigadeswere
often portrayedas the vanguard of communist anti-fascismand the forerunnersof the East Germanarmedforces. This official version of events had
an impact on individualmemoriestoo. Even veteranswho had travelledto
Spain as non-communistsoften filteredtheir experiencesthroughthe lens of
6 A few diaries or diary fragments did survive in the archives, most notably those of the writer
Bodo Uhse. Uhse's diaries were held by the East German Academy of Arts and a lightly censored
version was published in the 1980s. The use of diaries published post-1945 is fraught with difficulty. See J. McLellan, 'The Politics of Communist Biography. Alfred Kantorowicz and the
Spanish Civil War', German History, 22, 4 (2004), 536-62 on the changes made to one diary in
the postwar period.
7 See McLellan, Antifascism and Memory, op. cit., for more on the veterans' situation in East
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

later political commitments. One man, describing the battle of Teruel to me,
said 'we were ten comrades altogether', before catching himself and adding, 'I
say comrade, although in those days I wasn't a comrade yet.'8 Published
accounts of the war were often aimed at a youthful readership, with the hope
that the young would be inspired to make similar sacrifices for the socialist
cause. Writers were encouraged to emphasize the political over the personal or
everyday. And, of course, histories of the war and collections of memoirs were
often heavily censored to fit the official line on the war.
Given these limited sources, and their partial, retrospective nature, how can
the historian hope to reconstruct the motivation of those who joined the
Brigades? It goes almost without saying that no body of sources is without its
limitations, and that even unlimited access to contemporary letters and diaries
does not open a window onto the soldier's mind. As experience is related whether five minutes or five decades after the event - it is inevitably overlaid
with hindsight, nostalgia, wishful thinking, bravado or bashfulness. All social
historians of war must be alive to the narrative structures used by soldiers to
make sense of what they have done and seen. In the case of sources available
for this study, the narrative overlay is often a thickly ideological one. But even
the East German archives preserved fragments of more personal memories,
which offer a glimpse into the motivations of individual soldiers.
For all their zeal in implementing the official line on the war, the East
German censors kept painstaking records of their cuts, which can be used to
reconstruct individual veterans' stories. Letters exchanged between veterans
reveal an irreverent perspective on the war, far from the formulaic heroism of
official histories. Equally, veteran memoirs collected by East German
archivists were often much franker than published accounts. Veterans proved
particularly prone to depart from the party line during interviews, perhaps
because it is easier to escape from the stylistic conventions of official histories
while speaking than while writing. Those interviewed by party historians often
used the licence of old age to wander wilfully off topic and pursue their own
agendas, in the knowledge that the interview would be transcribed and
archived for posterity.' Even those who did not have access to such official
repositories worked to preserve their memories. One veteran, who had been
imprisoned after a Stalinist show trial in 1957, wrote a lengthy memoir covering his time both in the International Brigades and in prison. With absolutely
no prospect of publication, and given that his family was under constant secret
police surveillance, this was a risky activity. There would have been severe
repercussions had the manuscript been discovered. His wife typed three copies
and gave one each to their daughter and son, spreading the burden of concealing the manuscript." None of the copies was ever discovered and his memoirs
were published in full in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall."11
8 Interview with Alfred Katzenstein, 5 February 1999.
9 Cf. McLellan, Antifascism and Memory, op. cit., 98-9.
10 Interview with Charlotte Janka, 11 April 2000.
11 W. Janka, Spuren eines Lebens (Hamburg 1991).
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' Wantedto be a LittleLenin'


29 I1

The collapseof communismalso playedan importantrole in the interviews

carriedout for this projectin the late 1990s. All the veteransI interviewedhad
been membersof the East GermanCommunistParty. The end of the East
Germanstate affectedtheir narrativesof Spain in differentways. A few had
startedto reassessthe period and flesh out their own experienceswith newly
availableinformationon anarchistand Trotskyistgroups. Othersclung even
more tightly to the certaintiesof party dogma. Both groups, however, preferred talking about the war to talking about what happened afterwards.
Despite the failuresof state socialism,many felt that Spain held the key to
today'spoliticalquestions,and contrastedtheirpoliticalcommitmentwith the
lack of interestof their grandchildren'sgeneration.Their nostalgiafor Spain
was partly political, but it also containedwistfulnessfor the adventureand
romanceof theiryouth.
This articlefollows the volunteersfrom theirdecisionto volunteer,through
theirarrivalin Spain,theirfirstexposureto combatand the experienceof prolonged mobilization.Volunteers'perceptionsof what they were fightingfor
changedradicallyas they experiencedSpainat first hand and as they entered
combat. The decision to volunteerwas not identicalwith the motivationto
fight. Nor can any soldierbe said to have foughtfor one reasonalone- what
kept men in battlewas complex and shiftedover time. For some men, an initially abstractcommitmentto anti-fascismmay have evolved into loyalty to
their fellow soldiers.In other cases, lust for adventureand action may have
been complementedby a growing political awareness.What follows is an
attempt to separateout the strandsof combat motivation, and examinethe
ways in whichthey interactedand overlapped.
The most commonlyvoiced hope amongstthose travellingto Spain was for
the defeat of fascism. Germananti-fascistswere keen to defend the Spanish
PopularFront,but they were also quickto see the connectionwith their own
political predicament.While the volunteerscondemnedFranco's regime as
dangerousand illegitimate,but the situationin Germanywas rarelyfar from
their minds either.By 1936 it looked as if Hitler's dictatorshipwas there to
stay. Opportunitiesfor political action within Germanywere very limited
indeed, but striking a blow against Spanish fascism could, the volunteers
hoped, markthe beginningof the end for Germanfascismtoo. And, of course,
the involvementof the CondorLegionstrengthenedtheirconvictionthat, once
Madrid fell, Berlinwould soon follow. The civil war was both a displaced
fight againstHitlerand a chanceto strikea blow againstinternationalfascism.
As 'The Ballad of the Eleventh Brigade' put it:
And even if we have to fight
For seven more years,
Every war's over sometime.
We're going to see Germany again!
Then we'll march in the gates,
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of Contemporary
HistoryVol41 No 2


Witha cry of 'Pasaremos'.

We'llchuckwhatever'sleft of the swastika
Into old FatherRhine.12

Hew Strachanwrites: 'Men need to be hardenedin peace if they are to be

tough enough for war.'13Despite their lack of formal militarytraining, the
Germanvolunteershad been toughened by their experiencessince the nazi
seizure of power. Those who had suffered police or concentrationcamp
imprisonmentin Germanyhad first-handexperienceof the brutal nature of
the regime and the isolated position of Germananti-fascists.As one veteran
put it: '... most of the politicalemigrantshad alreadydone time in Germany.
They had been imprisoned,beaten.It [Spain]was an opportunityto face the
nazis with a gun in your hand. That played a huge role.'14Again and again,
veteranscited the opportunityto fight 'with a gun in your hand' as a central
part of the war's appeal.For people who had felt powerlesssince 1933, this
was a chance to face their enemy on equal terms. Althoughthe communist
movementhad recentlythrown its weight behindattemptsto form a German
Popular Front, many saw the InternationalBrigadesas part of a militant
WhatI had dreamtas a child,whenmy fathertold me storiesaboutthe struggleof the working class for a decent existence - Spartacus, Berlin, Leuna on the Ruhr, the victorious Soviet
army - wasn't a dream any more, it had become reality.

I was a soldierof the workingclass."

Another remembereda comrade saying: 'I wanted to be a little Lenin'.16A

largemajorityof the volunteers,probablyabout 70 per cent, were communist
Likethe InternationalBrigadesas a
or sympatheticto the CommunistParty.17
whole, the German
unusually politically homogeneous
group of soldiers.Some came from the SovietUnion, others had been politically active in Frenchor Czechoslovakianexile. Once the internationalcommunist movementgave nationalpartiesthe go-aheadto start sendingmen to
Spain,many felt it was theirduty as communiststo volunteerfor the Brigades.
Nevertheless,politicalconvictionwas not the only motivationfor fighting.
12 Ernst Busch, Lieder der Arbeiterklasse & Lieder aus dem spanischen Buirgerkrieg (CD)
(Dortmund n.d.).
13 See Hew Strachan's article in this issue on training and combat motivation.

14 Interviewwith RomanRubinstein,4 January1999.

15 Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv (henceforth SAPMO-BArch), SgY 11/V237/13/206, 85. Erlebnisbericht Willy Grunert, 22 May 1968.
Leuna is a reference to the BASF chemical works, the site of conflict between workers and state
security forces in March 1921, leading to the deaths of 145 and the arrest of over 34,000. See E.
Weitz, Creating German Communism 1890-1990 (Princeton, NJ 1997), 106. As Leuna lies on the
Saale, I assume that the reference to the Ruhr is the result of the author's conflation of Weimar-era
communist militancy.
16 SAPMO-BArch, DY 55 V 241/113, 76. Report by Hans Schubert.
17 Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 58.
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' Wantedto be a LittleLenin'



For some volunteers, being on the spot was an important factor. A number of
Germans who were in Spain when the war broke out, either as emigr6s or as
participants in the Workers' Olympiad, planned as an alternative to the Berlin
Olympics in Barcelona in summer 1936, were amongst the first volunteers to
fight for the Spanish Republic, pre-dating the International Brigades by a
number of months."' Clearly, ideology played a role, but there was also an
element of impulse and opportunity. Germans in exile elsewhere saw Spain as
a chance to escape from the boredom, loneliness and poverty of their uprooted
lives. German emigres were often cut off from their professional lives and networks of friends and family. Unable to speak the language and living on the
breadline, their opportunities for meaningful political work were limited. One
man I interviewed, recalling his time in exile in Prague, felt that his political
work there was trivial, 'too conventional, too small'.19Veteran memoirs often
convey a real sense of adventure and excitement - finally it was possible to
use one's initiative and do something significant.20Given that few of those
Germans who fought in the International Brigades experienced anything
approaching a normal civilian life until 1945 at the earliest, it is unsurprising
that they remember life in the International Brigades as a short window of
freedom. For those in their late teens or early to mid-twenties when they
travelled to Spain, it was their only opportunity to experience anything
approaching the autonomy of young adulthood, for all the restrictions of army
For others, the International Brigades offered an escape from communist
infighting. The novelist Gustav Regler saw the war as a liberation from the
claustrophobic atmosphere of Moscow at the time of the show trials. 'In
Spain, I felt sure of it, I would breathe a different air. There, death was a protection against treachery and judges; one died at the hands of the enemy. How
good it was to think of death!'21To Regler, Spain represented a second chance
for communism, an opportunity to cast off the shackles of Stalinism and fight
and possibly die for a worthy cause. He wrote this, however, after his break
with the communist movement following the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Like another
later ex-communist Alfred Kantorowicz, he tended to recast his decision to go
to Spain in retrospect, as a defence of 'good' communism against 'bad'
Stalinism. In a passage written in 1959, two years after his defection from
East Germany, Kantorowicz wrote of Spain: 'Some of us fled from the desperate doubts, which gave us headaches and homesickness, fled to the front,
where, in the face of the enemy who lay before us, we could forget our inner
18 E.g. G. Wohlrath, 'Als Arbeitersportler zur Volksolympiade nach Barcelona' in H. Maassen
(ed.), Brigade International ist unser Ehrennahme. Erlebnisse ehemaliger deutscher Spanienkiimpfer, 2 vols (3rd edn, Berlin 1983), 44-7.
19 Interview with Max Kahane, 22 February 1999.
20 One social democrat volunteer claimed that he and a Spanish comrade had disguised themselves as peasants and worked their way along the Mediterranean coast, blowing up bridges as they
went to halt the Nationalist advance. SAPMO-BArch, SgY 20/1706, 13. Erinnerungen Alfred
21 G. Regler, The Owl of Minerva (London 1959), 266.
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of Contemporary
HistoryVol41 No 2

desperation and get things straight with ourselves again.'22Regler and

Kantorowiczfelt that the war offered an identifiableenemy and a chance to
reclaim the tarnishedideology of communismby risking one's life. But in
Kantorowicz'scase at least, this was not the only motivationfor travellingto
Spain.His diariesdating from this period describehis desireto overcomehis
middle-class, bookish backgroundand slight bespectacledappearanceand
prove himselfin combat- as a communistand as a man. 'I must be there at
the front', he wrote.23WhateverReglerand Kantorowicz'smotives for volunteering,what is interestingis the fact that neitherof them renouncedhis decision to go to Spainafterhis breakwith the party- both remainedadamant
that it had been the rightthing to do. In retrospect,however,their breakwith
communismmay haveput a slightlydifferentcast on events.Kantorowiczcertainly went out of his way to give the impressionthat he had been an ordinary
foot soldier,ratherthan admithis membershipof the functionarycaste.24
Unlike soldiers who were uprooted from their homes to join the army, the
Germanvolunteersgenerallyrememberedtheir first weeks in the Brigadesas
a positive experiencerather than an unpleasantshock. Sometimesbeing a
soldier, for all its dangersand privations,could be preferableto the alternatives. For those who travelledto Spain out of a sense of political conviction,
their immediateexperiencesupon arrivaltended to reinforcetheir sense of
purpose. Men who had been involved in underground,illegal political work
relished being able to 'fight with an open visor'.25One veteranrecalled his
metamorphosisfrom 'an illegal' to 'a person again, a comrade'.Fightingin
Spain brought its own dangers, but it was preferableon every level to the
isolation and paranoiaof the underground,which forced its membersto be
'secretiveand aloof'.26
But even once the volunteersreachedSpain,primarygroupscould be slow
to form. One man noted how easily the Frenchand Britishvolunteersmixed
with one another,while the Germansremainedquiet,reservedand mistrustful.
'The suspicionthat somebodycould be a nazi spy hungin the air.'27For many,
the turningpoint was when they first held a gun. FritzRettmann,who acted
as a political commissarin Spain, remembereda dramaticimprovementin
morale when weapons arrived:the petty quarrelsand poor disciplinewhich
One soldierwrote to his
had characterizedthe waiting period disappeared.28
22 A. Kantorowicz, Deutsches Tagebuch. Erster Teil (Berlin 1980), 49.
23 A. Kantorowicz, Nachtbiicher. Aufzeichnungen im franzbsischen Exil (Hamburg 1995),
24 See McLellan, 'The Politics of Communist Biography', op. cit., 547.
25 E. Gliickauf, Begegnung und Signale: Erinnerungen eines Revolutioniirs (Berlin 1976), 292;
G. Szinda, 'Behiutetvon guten Christen', Wochenpost, 53 (1986), 19.
26 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1244/2, 126. Erinnerungen Karl Mewis.
27 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1821/2, 283-4. Erinnerungen Rudolf Engel.
28 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/23/204, F. Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse als Polit.-Kom. der II.
Komp. des Edgar-Andre-Battl.', 16.
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' Wantedto be a LittleLenin'



wife shortly beforehis death in December1936: 'How well I felt, when I had
the shooter in my hand for the first time ...

I had missed feeling so healthy.

Life has such a deep meaninghere.'29Many volunteerssharedhis feelingthat

Spain returnedmeaningand order to their lives; it was now possible to see
their defeat in Germanyas one lost battlein a much longerwar. Not only did
arrivalin Spaingive the volunteersa new sense of purpose,it also seemedto
counteractthe physical and mental scars of nazi brutality.Weapons, army
training, and the homosocial bonds of army life restored soldiers' sense of
masculinity,and left them feelingphysicallytransformed.As one accountput
it: 'You couldn'tsee the years in prisonsand concentrationcamps any more.
Joy and the confidenceof victorywere writtenon theirfaces.'3o
Key to the soldiers'sense of pride and confidencein their abilitieswas the
enthusiasticwelcomeof the Spanishpeople.Fromtheirreceptionin Madridin
1936 to their farewellparade in Barcelonain October 1938, the volunteers
sensedthat they had the full supportof the local population.Veteransremembered feeling 'as if we were at home, with friends,with comrades',31
as local
farmerspushedoranges,breadand wine onto the trainwhich was takingthe
soldiers to the front.32This often led to a lasting emotional attachmentto
Spain, and a sense that it had become their new Heimat or homeland.For
Germancommunistsembitteredby the defeat of 1933, this kind of popular
enthusiasmformeda poignantcontrastto the indifferenceand betrayalof the
Germanmasses.'The people of Madridare heroes,not us', wrote one soldier
Whilemany of the volunteersmay
to a friendbackhome in the Sudetenland.33
have felt a strongabstractcommitmentto the SpanishRepublicat the moment
of volunteering,this becamemuch more tangible,emotional and concreteas
they came into contactwith the Spanishpeople.The fact that suchcontactwas
necessarilylimited by the lack of a common languageand the efforts of the
Brigadeleadershipto keep their soldiers unawareof the complexitiesof the
politicalsituationmeantthat the volunteersoften cameaway with an idealized
view of the country for which they were fighting. It was easier to love a
fuzzily-defined,romanticizedSpainthan the Germanythey had left behind.34
Many volunteersended up feelingas if they were fightingfor two causes, but
must have found it difficultto avoid the conclusionthat Spainwas altogether
the more straightforwardof the two. The song 'Forwards, International
29 SAPMO-BArch, NY 4316/19, 99.
30 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/207, K. Hofer, F. Baumgirten, W. Kinzel, 'Feuertaufe an
der Jarama-Front', 52.
31 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1411, 5. Erinnerungen Ewald Munschke.
32 F. Miuller,Da kamen sie aus aller Welt, m/s, n.d., no pagination.
33 SAPMO-BArch, DY 55/V241/113, 85.
34 See, for example, Erich Arendt's Spanish Civil War-inspired poetry, Bergwindballade.
Gedichte des spanischen Freibeitskampfes (Berlin 1952); Eduard Claudius' Grune Oliven und
nackte Bergen (Berlin 1952) and Hans Maassen's Die Messe des Barcelo (Halle 1956). Willi
Bredel's Begegnung am Ebro (Paris 1939) gives a less rosy picture of relations between the Spanish
and the International Volunteers.
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

Brigades', one of the most famous of the war, encapsulated this bittersweet
Born in the far-away fatherland,
We brought nothing with us but the hate in our hearts.
But we haven't forgotten our homeland
Today our homeland's in front of Madrid.35

In a sense, however, fighting in Spain allowed the volunteers to rediscover

their pride in being German. One volunteer noted that in the early days of the
war, 'there were very few who declared themselves to be "German", they were
Bavarians, Rheinlanders, Upper Silesians or Saxons.'36But membership of a
German company or battalion, and the approval of both the Spanish population and international observers, gave the men the confidence openly to
declare their nationality. One volunteer wrote to his girlfriend: 'A comrade has
written "Germany" very beautifully in front of the tents of the German
section. (The real Germany is here.)'37The volunteers were able to feel that
they were rebuilding a 'good' national identity in the eyes of the world, keeping alive the traditions of the 'true' Germany, which had been obscured by
For those who had been committed communists before their arrival in
Spain, the war was in many ways a reinforcement of their political identity,
which had been weakened and undermined by the experiences of 1933 and
after. Arrival in the International Brigades was an opportunity to reclaim the
verve and dynamism of political action and turn German communism into a
success story once again. For German communists, the party provided the only
point of permanence during their years of exile. Like soldiers everywhere, the
German volunteers longed to return home. But they could not while the nazis
remained in power. The party provided networks of support for exiled communists, and for those who ended up in German concentration camps it was
often the clandestine party networks within the camps which enabled them to
survive until the end of the second world war. It is therefore unsurprising that,
for communist volunteers, their political identity was central to the way they
experienced and remembered the war.
Those who were not communists at the time, but joined the party later,
tended to remember Spain in terms of political enlightenment or revelation.
Their time in the Brigades often appears as a crucial phase in the emergence of
35 Erich Weinert, Cameradas. Ein Spanienbuch (Berlin 1956), 23.
36 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1821/2, 283-4. Erinnerungen Rudolf Engel.
37 A. Katzenstein, Einblicke, Berichte, Bilder, Briefe, 3 vols, ms (Berlin 1995), ii, 79.
38 See, for example, Ernest Hemingway's description of the volunteers as 'true, worthy
Germans. Germans as we love them.' E. Hemingway, 'An das wirkliche Deutschland' in
Pasaremos. Deutsche Antifaschisten im national-revolutioniiren Krieg des spanischen Volkes (2nd
edn, Berlin 1970), 276. The idea of the German volunteers as representative of the 'good Germany'
was central to the war's commemoration in East Germany. See McLellan, Antifascism and
Memory, op. cit., 80-1.
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'IWantedto be a LittleLenin'


theircommunistidentity.One veteranwrote how he was 'filledwith pride'to

'be allowed to help' as an InternationalBrigadesvolunteer. 'I have never
forgotten the trust the party gave me.'39For him, political action was something inextricablylinked to the communist movement, participationsomething which could only be granted by the party. Indeed, the International
Brigadeswerea politicizedarmyon any terms.Everyunit, from brigadedown
to platoon, had its own politicalcommissarwho was also responsiblefor the
content of front newspapersand any brigadepublications.40
after the war on the Germanvolunteersassessedthem on both militaryand
It was not unusual for a volunteerto be describedas a
political criteria.41
'braveand disciplinedsoldier'but 'politicallyprimitive,not active,not always
Politicalinstructiontook place on a voluntarybasis, but it is fair
to say that the daily life of the brigadeswas relativelyideologicallysaturated.
Perhapsthe most strikingindicationof the effect this may have had on the
volunteersis theirattitudetowardsotherpoliticalgroupson the Left.Reading
veteranmemoirs,one can only concludethat the divisionsamongthe soldiers
of the Left were greaterthan those betweenopposing armies.Anarchistsand
Trotskyistsappear in veteran memoirs as, at best, undisciplined,unreliable
soldiers, and at worst, traitors to the SpanishRepublic. Many communists
were convincedthat anarchistsand othernon-communistswere beingused by
enemy intelligenceto infiltratethe ranks.The dangerof enemy agentswas a
common preoccupationin Spain, reflected in the line in the Song of the
InternationalBrigades,'No mercyto the dog who betraysus!'.43The willingness of the volunteersactivelyto persecuteother Leftistsshould also not be
underestimated:a numberof Germansoldierstransferredto the Republican
militarypolice and were involvedwith the interrogationof politically'suspect'
prisoners."But this animositywas not founded purely on ideologicaldifferences. Dislike or hatredof anarchistsand Trotskyistswas often coupledwith
the belief that their militaryirresponsibilitywas responsiblefor International
Brigadelosses. It was claimedthat anarchistsoldiersdesertedat the prospect
of combat,41and in one case they were said to have surrenderedterritory
'soakedwith the blood of our comrades',which had cost the Internationals80
This impressionmay well have been one encouraged
dead and 200 wounded.46
by the Brigades'political leadership. Soldiers who had only rudimentary
39 SAPMO-BArch, DY 55/SgY 11/V 237/12/190, 141. F. Mergen, 'Mein Weg als Parteiloser
nach Spanien', 28 November 1964.
40 Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 41.
41 For more on these reports see Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 76-95; M. Uhl and P. Huber,
'Politische Oberwachung und Repressionen in den Internationalen Brigaden (1936-1938)', Forum
fiir osteuropiiische Ideen- und Zeitgeschichte, 5/2 (2001), 121-59.
42 SAPMO-BArch, RY 1/I 2/3/86, 124.
43 E. Weinert, op. cit., 23.
44 McLellan, Antifascism and Memory, op. cit., 180-1.
45 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/12/190, 259. (Kurt Vogel.)
46 SAPMO-BArch, Sgy 30/1411, 20. Erinnerungen Ewald Munschke.
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Joumalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

Spanish,and accessonly to Brigadenewspapers,had littlechoice but to accept

what informationthey were given.
No amount of ideologicalfervourcould preparevolunteersfor the reality of
battle. The first experienceof combat could seem like a form of sensory
assault. Alfred Katzensteinrememberedthe 'terriblecries' during his first
attack and the stomach-turningsmell of dead mules, rapidly bloating and
decomposingunderthe summersun.47He wrote to his girlfriend:
Well, I've got my baptism of fire under my belt. It's not a very nice feeling to hear bullets
whistling around you.... It's so easy to forget, because it's simply incomprehensible, that the
aim of this whole thing is simply to turn people, young people, who love life, who are full of
hope, into cold stinking bloody corpses.

Katzensteinadmittedthat, in the heat of battle,he had questionedhis decision

to come to Spain, but hoped now to have put this 'egocentricweakness'
behind him.48An anonymous account of the battle of Jaramarecalled the
'murderousfire' of Nationalist tanks, comrades 'crying out left and right',
'bulletswhistling from all sides'. When the remainsof the writer'scompany
reached safety, they could not believe that the retreathad only taken a few
minutes.'It seemedto us as if the infernohad lastedfor hours.'49
Accounts of the excitementor rush of combat are much harder to find,
possibly due to the veterans'unwillingnessto be seen to glorifywar. One man
described his company's attack as an 'avalancheof fire', adding 'a frenzy
grippedus all'.o0But such momentsof euphoriaare rarein veteranmemoirs:
far more common is a sense of shambolicpanic. One man describedhow disorientatedvolunteers,newly arrivedin Spain and immediatelydispatchedto
the Madrid front, were thrown into panic by the arrival of their evening
meal, mistakingthe soundof the food van for that of a fascisttank. Whenthey
eventuallycame underfire from Nationalisttroops, one man beganto scream
for help, believinghimselfto be bleedingto death. In fact, the water canister
hangingabove his headhad beenpuncturedand dousedhim with water. After
days of combat and little sleep, some soldiers began to display symptomsof
shell shock, failing to react to enemy fire and refusingto take cover.51Even
those familiarwith combatwere shockedby the situationin the earlymonths
of the war. LudwigRenn,an experiencedfirstworld war officer,beganto sob
uncontrollablyas he triedto reprimanda juniorofficer,a week without sleep
taking its toll.52
47 Interview with Alfred Katzenstein, 5 February 1999.
48 Katzenstein, Einblicke, op. cit., i, 71-2.
49 SAPMO-BArch, DY 55/SgY 11/V237/12/190, 269.
50 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1453, 6-7. Erinnerungen Wilhelm Zajen.
51 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/208, 77, 79. Karl Po.
52 Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - PreugfischerKulturbesitz, Archiv des Aufbau-Verlages (Dep. 38)
(henceforth Archiv des Aufbau-Verlages), M619, 141.
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' Wantedto be a LittleLenin'



But if these were the problems associated with the first days of fighting, new
challenges appeared as the war dragged on, and morale faded. During the
course of the war, initial optimism could quickly give way to despair. After his
first experiences at the battle of Quinto in late August 1937, the novelist Willi
Bredel had written in his diary, 'I don't just feel healthy, but fresh and lively
like seldom before.'53But on returning to Paris in the summer of 1938, Bredel
estimated that the past 12 months had aged him by 10 years.54The German
volunteers were involved in every major battle of the war, with a correspondingly high casualty rate. Six months after baking under the hot sun at the
battle of Brunete, the volunteers found themselves fighting at Teruel in one of
the coldest winters of the century. As the majority had no safe home to return
to, most rejoined their Brigade as soon as they had recovered from their
injuries. Not fighting could be dispiriting too. The German members of the
Thirteenth Brigade found themselves on the bleak southern front, where cold,
hunger and boredom ate into their morale. As Jef Last's song 'On the Sierra
Front' put it: 'Those bare mountains were so lonely/ That enemy fire almost
cheered us up.'55The men of the Thirteenth wryly dubbed themselves the
'forgotten brigade', languishing at the top of a mountain, while the Eleventh
received all the glory.
There were few opportunities for leave, and the replacement of fallen
International Brigade volunteers with Spanish conscripts undermined the
solidarity of the troops. Experienced soldiers were scattered amongst the
new recruits, a very different situation from the early stages of the war when
platoons and companies were predominantly German-speaking. Veteran
memoirs abound with complaints about shortages of weapons and ammunition, and the poor quality of the equipment that was available.56Even the most
committed volunteers found it hard to keep up their morale under these conditions. Particularly in the later stages of the war, as more and more friends
and comrades were killed, exile in Spain could be just as dispiriting as exile
anywhere. The impossibility of sending and receiving regular letters home
meant that soldiers had no news from loved ones for years on end. One officer
wrote in his diary on New Year's Day 1938 of his 'loneliness' and the 'emptiness' and 'boredom' of the war. 'Has the war already blunted everyone, so that
no one can be happy with all their heart? Is the hard battle of Teruel weighing
on us all? Are we all thinking too much about home, about our homeland
somewhere in Europe?'57As the defeat of their adopted homeland came to
seem inevitable, the soldiers' displacement returned to haunt them. Losing the
53 Stiftung Archiv Akademie der Kiinste (henceforth SAdK), Berlin, Willi-Bredel-Archiv Nr
870, 9. Diary entry 30 August 1937.
54 SAdK, Berlin, Willi-Bredel-Archiv Nr 3109, 53. W. Bredel to L. Bredel, 23 July 1938.

55 Busch,LiederderArbeiterklasse,
op. cit.
56 E.g. SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1411, 19. Erinnerungen Ewald Munschke. SAPMO-BArch, SgY
30/0922, 59. Erinnerungen Gustav Szinda.
57 Staats- und Universitatsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzsky, Alfred-KantorowiczArchiv, BI:K1. The author was Hans Kahle.
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

of thefrontfortheisolationanduncertainty
of exile.
ByMarch1938 moralein the EleventhBrigadehadreachedits nadir.By this
troopswerein an almostconstantstateof withstageof thewar,Republican
justin timeto
Thosewho hadwitnessedthe victoriesof thewar'searly
joinin the retreat'.58
stagesat leasthad theirmemoriesof routingthe fascists.But laterarrivals,
someof whomonlyreceivedpermissionto travelto Spainin 1938, had the
feelingthat the outcomeof the war had beendecidedbeforethey had had
the opportunity
to firea shot.59
Whydid mencontinueto fightunderthese
accountstendto creditthepoliticalleadership
60 In some cases,reminding
of the Brigades.
men of theirinitialideological
commitmentmay well have beeneffective.A memberof the EdgarAndre
a momentof collectivehesitationwhen his section,
depletedby heavylossesand disorientated
by the noiseof the battle,were
orderedto crossa roadunderheavyfire.TheGermaninchargeof themachine
or what?!'The
entirecompanycrossedthestreetwithoutlosinga man.61
stressthe importanceof ideology,arguingthat the 'fightingspirit'of the
volunteersallowedthemto overcomepoorleadership
Veteransof the firstworldwar oftenmadefavourable
the soldiersof the International
Brigadesand those of the Kaiser'sarmy.63
Ludwig Renn, chief of staff of the EleventhBrigade,was surprisedthat the

thisto theirpoliticalcommitment.64
(They may of course have simply been reticent in the presence of a senior

Butoverthe courseof a two-yearconflict,politicalcommitment

unlikelyto keep soldiersfighting.As well as appealingto their fellow volun-

teers as 'anti-fascists',
Germancommandersresortedto jokingto lift the
moraleof theirdazedtroops.Afterthemenof theEdgarAndreBattalionhad
reachedcover,oneof theircommanders
beganto foolaroundwithanumbrella he had found,pretendingit could protecthim fromenemyfire.6"
of armylife,
writingfor eachother,veteransoftendwelton the camaraderie
in adversity.One
veteranrecalledhow a meal of unripegrapesled to what he describedas

Interview with Alfred Katzenstein, 5 February 1999.

Interview with Max Kahane, 22 February 1999.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/0922, 87. Erinnerungen Gustav Szinda.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1438, 6. Erinnerungen Petros Laros.
Gustav Szinda, Die XI. Brigade (Berlin 1956).
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1445, 2. Erinnerungen Reinhold Rau.
Archiv des Aufbau-Verlages, M619, 43.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1438, 6. Erinnerungen Petros Laros.
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'IWantedto be a LittleLenin'


'volcanic'diarrhoeaamongstthe troops, resultingin a generalloss of bowel

control. However, despite the misery of the situation, he concluded: 'We
helped each other, often with good humour, to get over these difficulties.'66
Another rememberedthe way younger soldierswould help their older comradescarrytheirbaggage.67
Ultimatelyit is difficultto separatethe volunteers'
groupidentityas soldiersand theirpoliticalidentityas anti-fascists.A soldier's
attachmentto his or her immediatecompanionsmay be universal.Butthereis
something specific to the German communist experiencehere too. People
who had grown up in large familiesin very poor conditionsand had suffered
povertyand unemploymentin the 1920s were often attractedto the kinshipof
the communistmovement.This sense of securityhad been shatteredin 1933;
the communityof the InternationalBrigadesoffered a chance to rebuildit.
Willy Busch,wounded at the Jaramafront, wrote that the knowledgethat he
would have to leave his comradeswas worse than the fear of his injuries.68
Separationfromone's comradesmightmeana returnto the lonelinessand isolation of emigration.Unlikethe firstworldwar soldiersdiscussedin Alexander
Watson's articlein this issue, the Germanvolunteershad no prospect of a
Communalsinging was a powerful symbol of this new-found solidarity.
When the volunteersfirst arrived, they marched into Madrid singing the
Internationaleand other songs from the Germanrevolutionaryrepertoire.69
Soldiers soon demanded songs which described their new situation, and
Germanwritersin Spainwere put to work. ErnstBusch,a frequentcollaborator of Brecht,in 1937 and 1938 travelledto Spain, where he sang for the
troops and recordeda recordin Barcelona.70
Songssuch as 'Spain'sSky' (also
known as 'The ThalmannColumn')quickly found favour with the German
volunteers.'Spain'sSky' expressedthe volunteers'pleasurein comradeship,
as well as their sense that this was a war which must be won: 'Shoulderto
shoulder with unbeatablecomrades/ There's no retreat for us.' Its refrain
touched on their forced exile, but ended triumphantlywith a statementof
intent:'The homelandis far away, but we're ready/Tofight and die for you,
Voicesraisedtogetherin song liftedthe troops'spiritsand fostered
beliefin theirsharedcause and hope for the future.One man rememberedthe
volunteerssingingtogether on the night before their first battle.72Not only
that, the songs formed a link to Germanpolitical traditionswhich ran back
66 SAPMO-BArch,
SgY/1434/1,84. Erinnerungen
67 Szinda,XI Brigade,op. cit., 18.
68 SAPMO-BArch,
DY 55/SgY 11/V237/12/190,12. 'Als deutcherAntifaschistkampfteich in
Spanienin der amerikanischen
69 SAPMO-BArch,
SgY11/V237/13/204, 22. FritzRettmann,'Erlebnisseals Polit.-Kom.derII.
Komp.des Edgar-Andre-Battl.'.
70 D. Robb, 'Clowns,Songsand Lost Utopias.KarlEnkel,'Reassessmentof the SpanishCivil
War'in SpanierallerLdnder,Debatte,9 (2) (2001), 156-7.
71 Busch,LiederderArbeiterklasse,
op. cit.
72 SAPMO-BArch,
SgY11/ V237/12/189, 161-2. Hans Maassen,'UlrichFuchs- Der Dichter
des TschapiewLiedes'.
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2


through the Rotfrontkimpferbund,the interwaryouth movements,and the

trenchesof the firstworld war. By combiningthe volunteers'politicalheritage
and theirmemoriesof Germany,'they broughtthe homelandto us'.7
Songswrittenduringthe war often memorializedthose who had fallen, and
the wish to avenge dead comrades could be a powerful motivator. Alfred
Kantorowicz wrote that the sight of bodies mutilated by the enemy in
December 1936 'hardened our hate and gave our constancy abnormal
strength.From this horror,we graspedreservesof strengthfrom places that
normalbravesoldierscould neverreach.'74
that a decisionwas takennot to show the bodies to the men. Politicalcommitment was felt to be a healthierand more powerful motive than revenge.A
political commissaralso admittedthat fear that 'one or two' comradesmight
be demoralizedby the gruesomesightalso playeda role in the decisionto bury
the men in closed coffins.75Comradeswho died were often rememberednot
just as good soldiers, but as exemplarycommunists.A letter home in June
1937 eulogizeda fellow soldierwho refusedto give up his weapon aftertaking
a bullet in the stomach, shooting on until he bled to death. 'So died a

In many cases, the Brigadeleadershipresortedto tried and tested 'carrot'

and 'stick' motivationaltechniques.Giving the soldiersa rest and some hot
food could work wonders. The EleventhBrigade,in tatters in the spring of
1938, was taken out of combat and given a chanceto rest and regroup,and
went on to fight in the battle of the Ebro. The leader of a partisangroup
rememberedhow he used cigarettes and trips to the local town for sex
to reward his men after a successfulmission.77Shooting desertersand selfmutilatorswas not unheardof, althoughthe victimstendedto be Spanishconscripts.78Michael Uhl's exhaustiveresearchessuggestthat only two German
volunteerswere shot for desertion.The more usualpunishmentwas a spell in
a work camp before being sent back to the front." Sometimesaction against
those who waveredcould be more ad hoc: politicalcommissarFritzRettmann
resortedto threateningone young volunteerwith his pistol to get him back
behind the lines.80

But in some cases the will to fight was simply not strong enough.
Communistrecordsshow that about 200 of the volunteersspent some time
under lock and key - that is to say that, on average,every tenth German
volunteerwas arrestedat some stage of his time in Spain.About half of these
SAPMO-BArch, NY 4072/154, 120. Fritz Rettmann to Franz Dahlem.
Alfred Kantorowicz, Spanisches Tagebuch (Berlin 1948), 52.
SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/204, 38. Fritz Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse als Polit.-Komm. der
II. Komp.'.
76 SAPMO-BArch, DY 55/V241/113, 82.
77 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1349, 60. Erinnerungen Richard Stahlmann.
78 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 30/1448, 17. Erinnerungen Karl Deutscher.
79 Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 82.
80 SAPMO-BArch, SgY 11/V237/13/204, 38. Fritz Rettmann, 'Erlebnisse als Polit.-Komm. der
II. Komp.'.

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' Wantedto be a LittleLenin'



arrests took place as a result of desertion or breaking Brigade discipline.81

Michael Uhl suggests that in total 90 Germans (about 3 per cent) deserted.82
While those who fled were a tiny minority, most veterans remembered
moments in which their own motivation had faltered. It was for this reason
that veterans struggled to recognize themselves in the one-dimensional heroes
of official communist histories of the war. In memoirs and interviews, veterans
returned again and again to the subject of heroism and the gap between the
official depictions of the war and their own stories. They felt that it was
impossible to live up to such a rarefied concept of soldiering without doubt or
fear. One man I talked to spoke of his alienation from official accounts:
'Everyone who had resisted was a hero. Only the heroic struggle was shown.
But the whole filth and so on ... Fear is something human. But a hero can't be

There can be no doubt that the majority of the German volunteers were highly
politically committed. Ideology was extremely important to them in numerous
ways: their membership of or alignment with the communist movement, the
sense of an anti-fascist crusade, their derogatory attitudes towards anarchists
and other non-communists. But alternative combat motivations surface in
memoirs too: boredom, longing for adventure, desire to escape communist
infighting, circumstance. The wish to be a 'little Lenin' was an ideological one,
but it also expressed a yearning for a purposeful, active masculinity. Soldiers'
motivation was neither homogeneous nor stable. What may have started as an
ideological decision was complicated by emotions felt for the Spanish people
and for fellow volunteers. Ideology was important, but it was not everything,
and even ideology could fail you in the heat of battle. Particularly in retrospect, soldiers tended to distance themselves from the brand of self-sacrificing
heroism propagated by party historians. Even the veterans themselves could
not identify with the steel-like masculinity of communist legend.
The German volunteers acted on a complex mixture of ideological and personal motivation. In lives shaped by political commitment, campaigning and
persecution, there was rarely a sharp definition between personal and ideological goals. Victory in Spain would have been a victory for the Left, but the
volunteers hoped it would also be their first stop on the road back to
Germany, to their families, and to civilian lives. Ultimately it is impossible to
untangle the political and private threads. As another Englishman Esmond
Romilly recognized, 'they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting
as well for a home to live in . . . they had staked everything on this war.'84
Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the fate of the German volunteers after the demobilization of the Brigades. While their international

Uhl, 'Die Internationalen Brigaden', op. cit., 507.

Uhl, Mythos Spanien, op. cit., 82.
Interview with Roman Rubinstein, 5 January 1999.
Quoted in Preston, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War (London 1996), 114.
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of Contemporary
HistoryVol41 No 2

comrades-in-armsreturnedhome, they had no choice but to remainin Spain

and wait for the war to play itself out. Accordingto one volunteer,tears stood
in the eyes of the Germansas they gave up their weapons. 'They were no
normal weapons . . . they were weapons that were carried in the hands of

workers for a just cause, for peace, for socialism and for the liberation of
For all the bathos in these lines, they give a sense of how much
the Germanvolunteershad ventured.Althoughthey had volunteeredto take
up arms in Spain,once the war was over they had no choice but to carryon
Josie McLellan
is Lecturerin ModernEuropeanHistoryat the Universityof Bristol.
Her publicationsincludeAntifascismand Memoryin East Germany.
Rememberingthe InternationalBrigades1945-1989 (Oxford2004).
She is currentlyworkingon a study of sexualityand everydaylife

85 Kurt Hofer, 'Wir kampfen weiter' in Immer bereit fiir die Verteidigung der Freiheit des
Volkes. Spaniens Freiheitskampf 1936-1939 (Berlin 1956), 59.
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