Spanish Civil War veteran José Almudéver on fighting fascism

Image removed.

February 10, 2017 —  Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — February 6 marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the “Battle of Jarama” during the Spanish Civil War, as left-wing and democratic forces fought to stop the fascist forces of General Franco taking power.

Alongside the Battle of Madrid, the Battle of Jarama is commonly associated with the participation of the International Brigades — volunteers, often organised by Communist parties, who travelled from around the world to Spain to join the anti-fascist fight in defence of the 1931-39 Spanish Republic.

Following Franco’s failure to take Madrid in October-November 1936, the fascist forces attempted a military offensive in February 1937 on the western flank of the Spanish Republic forces, alongside the river Jarama. While the offensive failed, and the counter-offensives by the Republican forces effectively turned the battle into a stalemate, the battle itself became synonymous with the military, political and moral contribution of the International Brigades to the anti-fascist struggle.

Holding the frontline at Jarama were thousands of volunteers from Britain, Ireland, United States, Italy, France, Belgium and many others who came from around the world to defend Spanish democracy against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.

Among a handful of surviving International Brigadiers remaining today is José Almudéver Mateu.

Born in France of parents from Spain’s Valencia region, José Almudéver, a 97-year-old veteran of the Spanish Republican Army and the International Brigades, has always been a staunch defender of the historic memory of the Spanish Republic. He has also been a harsh critic of the 1936 Non-intervention Pact signed by all major Western European powers with the express goal of preventing military support reaching the contending sides in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

From the beginning, the Pact was cynically ignored by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose military assistance to the nationalist forces led by Franco was largely responsible for the defeat of the Republic, which only received inadequate support from the Soviet Union and Mexico.

As a 17-year old youth, Almudéver joined a militia group formed by the Spanish Socialist Youth (JSU) in his family’s home town of Alcàsser. After the July 18, 1936 Francoist coup against the Republic, he spent the rest of the year fighting in the rearguard of the Republican Army around Teruel (southern Aragon). At the same time the Francoist forces were steadily gaining ground throughout North West of the country.

In May 1938, owing to his foreign birth and knowledge of French, Almudéver joined the 129th division of the International Brigades. At the end of the war in March 1939, he was captured and sent to a number of concentration camps and prisons around Alicante and Madrid, enduring starvation and abuse from the Francoist authorities. He was finally released in November 1942. Like many other former Republican fighters, he was forced into exile - in France in August 1947 - only returning to Spain in 1965.

Now living in the rural French town of Pamiers, just south of Toulouse, Almudéver remains just as passionate about the cause of the International Brigades and the fight against fascism as he was more than 80 years ago. Despite his advanced age, he actively participates in events, forums and presentations concerning the historic memory of the Spanish Civil War. Most recently, he was an honoured guest at the 80th anniversary commemorations of the International Brigades in Madrid, where he unveiled the “Garden of the International Brigades”- one of the first public spaces in Madrid to formally honour the foreign volunteers.

Along with his 99-year-old brother Vicente, another veteran of the Republican Army, Almudéver is one of the last remaining fighers of the devastating conflict and one of the last three known surviving members of the International Brigades.

Denis Rogatyuk sat down with the old brigadista to talk about his experiences in the Civil War and its aftermath.

*  *  *  *  *

You were only 12 when the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. What do you remember from the atmosphere of those days?

Being only 12 years old, I did not fully know or understand all the events that surrounded me, but I witnessed great changes in my home town, Alcàsser. The majority of workers were peasants, illiteracy there was over 60% and a single landowner controlled more than 10% of the land. The bourgeoisie believed that they could constantly win elections because of the people’s ignorance.

April 14 was an event of incredible happiness for the Spanish people. I remember the first euphoric week and the explosion of freedom on the streets, when people from all the political groups marched together holding the pictures of the revolutionary martyrs and leaders. Two of those were Fermín Galán and Angel García Hernandez, two army captains who attempted a military rebellion in December 1930, but were captured and shot in the last months of the monarchy.

My parents and I also had to ask ourselves: had we really achieved a Workers’ Republic that we hoped would be entrenched in the constitution, or did the Second Republic serve the interests of the bourgeoisie?

The Republic did bring some important advances. For the first time, secular schools were created to educate children. The Republic was also the first government that gave equality to women. Women could now vote, be elected and be educated.

At the same time, it was a form of capitalist republic, not unlike the French Republic after the revolution. And, just like then, the bourgeoisie maintained power.

Neither repression nor the threat of the military coup, like that of General Sanjurjo [in August 1932], ever really went away. In November 1933, with the Republican government worn out, the conservative bourgeoisie won the elections. The workers could not understand how, with the Republican Manuel Azaña and the Socialists in government, the left could suffer so much repression.

You spent the majority of your time defending Alcàsser and Valencia from the fascists. How did it feel for you to fight alongside your family against the Francoist forces?

After Franco’s coup in July 1936, apart from the regular army, every political party formed its own volunteer force. At first, I tried to enlist with the Column “Germanias” of the Izquierda Republicana (Republican Left), but was sent away because I was only 17. My father and I then tried to go to the Communist Party, but they said they had no weapons or instructors to train new volunteers. Finally, they sent me off to join a Socialist column, which had its headquarters in a monastery in Alcàsser. I enlisted in the “Pablo Iglesias” Column on August 15 and on September 13 we headed off to the front line.

There were 200 of us. Each of us had a rifle. The people of Valencia applauded us greatly, as we made our way to Teruel (then held by Franco’s forces). I spent some months in rearguard action around Valacloche and Cubla (in Teruel Province), until finally we received our orders that on December 26 we would attack Teruel to support the defence of Madrid.

Our “Pablo Iglesias Battalion” had over 500 men at that time. I spent several weeks in the trenches alongside other militias until February 4, 1937, when I was allowed to return to Alcàsser.

How did you become involved in the International Brigades?

On February 19, I returned to the frontline with my comrades, in Utiel (Valencia province). In Utiel, we met with the 13th International Brigade and I heard some of them speaking French. One of them told me they were being directed to the front in Málaga and I asked them if I could come with them and join the Brigades. But while I was waiting for him to confirm it, the 13th Brigade had to march off.

On June 26, the order came from the Defense Minister of the Republic that forbidded a 17-year old French-born youth like me from being in the Republican Army, so I had to leave the militia and return to Alcàsser. On September 1, they called up everyone born in 1919 for military service. But when I turned up, my name wasn't on the list, and I had to explain that I was born in France. They forbade me from serving in the army as a foreigner, so I returned to the front line as a volunteer.

It was in May 1938 that I finally presented myself to the Italian Rosselli Column, in Alcàsser. This was when I was recovering from an arm injury. I presented my birth certificate to the commissar of the Rosselli Column, showing that I had been born in Marseilles, and ended up joining them, under the command of the 129th International Brigade.

What do you remember of the men and women who came from all over the world to fight for the Republic?

In the Rosselli Column, while waiting for our artillery pieces to arrive, I got to know combatants from all across the world. We had a Canadian, three Cubans, our chief mechanic was an American, one was Dutch, another was German, another Swiss and another Chinese. For most of us, we did not get to know each other by name, but by nationality. With my Canadian comrade, David, we went everywhere together. Me being Franco-Spanish and him being Canadian, we hardly understood each other, but we became good friends. Despite our coming from different places the camaraderie among all of us was stupendous. We had passionate talks about everything, especially the war and the Republic, and never had any personal conflicts.

I remained with the Rosselli Column until November 1938, when it was divided into different language-speaking columns and sent off to the front while I remained in Alcàsser. In December 1938, the Non-Intervention Committee that was directed by Britain and France arrived in Spain, and in January 1939 the International Brigades were expelled under its pressure

Do you think that the non-intervention by Britain and France was what destroyed the Republic in the end?

Of course. The Republican government of Azaña decided to expel the International Brigades in the hopes that Franco had a similar attitude and would do the same with the foreign armies supporting him. He did not.

The Brigadistas were inferior in numbers and the foreign troops on the other side comprised more than 80,000, and with far better weapons. And we also endured the anti-Soviet and anti-Communist propaganda of the democratic capitalist countries.

The Republic was cruelly abandoned to the hands of Nazism, since the British and French leaders believed that Hitler only wished to exterminate Communism. Britain and France refused to sell any weapons or give any help to the Republic, while the United States continued to trade with Franco.

When General Franco was flown from the Canary Islands to Tetuan in a German plane [on July 17, 1936], alongside him arrived the support and the foreign armies of all those who supported the fascist coup and his side in the war. Over 3000 Germans, 12,000 Portuguese, 15,000 Moors, 30,000 members of the “Foreign Legion” and 70,000 Italians all came to support the formation of Franco’s army.

How can you call that a “Civil War”?!

I remember hearing the news of all the Spaniards crossing into France after the Francoists began their invasion of Catalonia. Just 5 kilometres south of here [Pamiers] there were concentration camps for them. In one of them, Bernedarieja, many died of malnutrition. Only the French-speaking and the foreigners who resided in France were taken care of.

Talking about our world situation today, we see a familiar picture - a civil war in Syria, the rise of far-right forces across Europe and US and high social and economic inequality. What can you say about all of this?

All evil in this world comes from capitalism. Money must disappear in order for the world to become human again. Look at what is happening in Syria. Who sent the jihadists? How have they acquired their weapons? Who has been buying the oil from the oil sites that they occupied? And what will they do with the money that they got from them?

Fascism comes directly out of the decay of capitalism. Here in France with Marine Le Pen. I would not be surprised if she becomes the next president and the French ruling class backs her afterwards. In our next elections, there will be five left-wing candidates standing for the candidacy of the Republic. Five! What kind of socialists are they?

The only one who could possibly fix all of this in France is [the Left Front's] Jean Luc-Mélenchon, while all the others would be happy to serve the government of Le Pen. Unfortunately, the game is stacked against Mélenchon. Why wouldn't the left put its forces together, instead of fighting amongst themselves?

However, the new [Spanish] leftist forces give me a lot of hope. I no longer understand the Socialist Party [PSOE], which has nothing to do with those who call themselves socialists. A socialist always looks for the best for the working class, but above all else he wants to be with them. You can expect things to go better with Podemos, like what we are seeing with the Mayor of Madrid [Manuela Carmena].

[People’s Party prime minister Mariano] Rajoy will be thrown out, but this will not be thanks to the PSOE.