International Brigades

The International Brigades were a collection of military units made up of volunteers from some 50 countries who fought for the Spanish Republic. The Brigades were organised by the Comintern, although only about half of those who came were Communist Party members. Some 32,000-35,000 are estimated to have fought in Spain, accompanied by 10,000 non-combatant volunteers and about 3,000-5,000 foreigners who joined the CNT or POUM militias. About 80% were working class and a similar figure had no military experience. An estimated 20% were Jewish.

The origins of the International Brigades were in Barcelona with athletes who had come for the People’s Olympiad. Perhaps a couple of hundred of these athletes took part in the coup’s defeat in July 1936 and then joined Spanish militia columns or began to group together into small militia units to leave for the front. One of the first units to be formed was a group of 11 German volunteers (including three women) many of whom were Jewish refugees, which left Barcelona for Aragón in late July. The unit formed the kernel of what later become the Thälmann Battalion, the most famous of the German-speaking battalions of the XI Brigade.

In March 1938, the headquarters of the Brigades were moved from Albacete to Barcelona,

The Republican Government announced their withdrawal on 21 September 1938 in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to pressure Hitler and Mussolini to do likewise, although in truth, by October 1938, the Brigades were no longer the fighting force they had been in 1936 and 1937, with just a few thousand fully fit men left.

Although the Brigades were disbanded, many foreigner volunteers remained in Spain, in particular those from Germany, Italy, Hungary, and other authoritarian right-wing regimes: they could not return home and instead were given honorary Spanish citizenship and joined Spanish Republican army units.

An estimated 10,000 foreign volunteers died in Spain (including CNT and POUM volunteers), leaving 30,000 still alive by 1939. Half of these men were dead by 1945: at the front, in the resistance, in camps. If brigaders from English-speaking countries, Latin America, Sweden and Switzerland are discounted, the figure becomes all the more tragic. Moreover, those who survived from Eastern Europe often faced a very uncertain fate in the new Stalinist states.







New Zealand and Australia

Continental Europe

Latin America


JAPAN Franco’s Spain and the Japanese Empire. An interesting article. See also Jack Shirai, the only known Japanese volunteer in the IBs