When is a war hero not one?

The issue is sensitive as it is always tragic when lives are lost in conflict amid displays of bravery and self-sacrifice, as the Anzac celebrations have reminded us this week.

But not all deaths in conflict are equal. Much of the world’s violence emanates from a single source – jihadist followers of the Islamic religion – and rarely does a news bulletin (at least on the BBC) pass without a bombing or people being killed somewhere in the name of martyrdom.

So what do you make of TVNZ’s Sunday programme that devoted 15 minutes to making a case for war hero status for Griffith (“Griff”) Maclaurin and comrade-in-arms, Steve Yates?

Both had been recruited by the British communist party, on behalf of the Stalin-controlled Comintern, to resist a fascist-style military putsch in mid-1930s Spain (think of the parallels with the Allende government in Chile).

The embattled Republican government, faced with forces backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, called for volunteers from overseas.

They were called International Brigades (IBs) and initially comprised a collection of anti-fascist groups. But the IBs were soon taken over by Stalin’s Comintern with dissident anarchists and others soon eliminated.

The history of the IBs has long been a totem for the Left to boost its anti-fascist credentials. Entries in New Zealand History Online play down the communist connection and the IBs’ function as a tool of the Soviets, who were initially against intervening in a civil war but then saw a strategic opportunity to be involved in the Mediterranean.

Fighting for a foreign power
Later, in the Cold War, such volunteers, fighting in the name of a foreign power, would be labelled “spies,” “traitors” and agents worthy of being prosecuted.

So is the Maclaurin case – and those of his fellow communists – any different because it was 1936 and World War II had yet to happen? A variety of sources would say no, though the IBs are dealt with sympathetically by the few local historians that have studied the period.

Though the IBs were badly equipped and trained, lacking any military status as regular soldiers, Maclaurin was recruited mainly because he had handled machine guns while at university in Auckland and before he went to Cambridge as a mathematics scholar.

(Yes, the same contemporary Cambridge where the notorious “five spies” were based – note the Wikipedia entry is contested but there are countless books and some great TV shows about them, including the BBC’s Cambridge Spies.)

Locally, Sir James McNeish has published two books on the New Zealanders at Cambridge at the time, while the late Graeme Hunt, who has also written on the topic, believes Ian Milner and “Paddy” Costello, among others, were active Soviet agents.

Maclaurin features in both of McNeish’s books (Dance of the Peacocks and The Sixth Man) because he introduced Costello to the woman who became his wife – an Austrian communist and, like many others opposed to Nazism, a Jew.

Maclaurin and Yates were killed, as depicted in Sunday, at the University of Madrid on November 9 or 10, 1936, in one of the civil war’s first clashes involving the IB "shock troops," who took heavy losses.

The NZ History Online entry on Maclaurin has more details but more interesting, from today’s perspective, is the status of the IBs in their home countries.

New Zealand, along with other British Empire countries, supported the Non-Intervention Pact along with Britain, the US, Germany and Italy – even the Soviet Union - so the IBs were on their own.

The Vatican takes sides
The NZ History version, written partly by Mark Derby (editor of Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War) and Peter Clayworth (who has written in support of Maclaurin in the New Zealand Herald), blames the Catholic Church for the Labour government’s lack of support:.

The Vatican had recognised Franco’s Nationalist regime in 1937. New Zealand Catholic newspapers like the Zealandia portrayed the war as a communist and anarchist attack on the Church. Reports of atrocities committed by the Nationalists such as the bombing of Guernica by their German allies were dismissed as the work of communist saboteurs. In 1939 Zealandia editor Father (later Cardinal) Peter McKeefry met Franco in Spain at a special mass in dedication to the fallen Nationalist General Emilio Mola.

This refers to events after Maclaurin’s death. But Labour’s stand was not unusual. Switzerland locked up its IB members on grounds they violated that country’s neutrality.

In Canada, the IBs were under police surveillance and denied military service. Remember, when the Comintern line against the Nazis changed with the Soviet-Nazi Pact in 1939, all communists opposed the war effort against Germany and were considered subversive until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union a couple of years later.

Revolutionary betrayal and intrigue
Few historians and writers were impressed with the record of the IBs in Spain under their Comintern masters. George Orwell, of course, famously exposed them in Homage to Catalonia, while Kenneth Loach’s film Land and Freedom (1995) is a searing account of revolutionary betrayal and intrigue in the story of one young idealist.

All the IBs who survived the civil war, which ended in defeat for the Republicans in 1939, and lived long enough afterward, were declared citizens of Spain in 1996 in a gesture by the socialist government.

But none has received “war hero” status in any country outside the Soviet bloc, despite agitation on the Left (including the Sunday programme). Stalin, of course, purged those who returned to the Soviet Union both during and after World War II.

Herbert Romerstein, director of the US Information Agency's Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation and Active Measures in the Reagan administration, described the IBs as "Stalin's foreign legion” in a book of the same name.

Andy Durgan (1999) provides an anti-Stalinist account of the IBs from a Marxist perspective, while Wikipedia’s version is here

Postcript: Why they won’t come
Anne O’Brien, artistic director of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, says all of the writers I mentioned last week have been invited at some stage to the festival – but none has been able to come.

Francis Fukuyama was coming but pulled out because his son was graduating, while Michael Lewis will come when his family is grown up. Others have sad they are too busy while Malcolm Gladwell has never replied.

Anne’s organising and persuasive abilities are legendary so if you have any suggestions, send them to her at aobrien@writersfestival.co.nz.

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