Alan Riach looks deeper into a new book gathering the life stories of four Scots who went to fight fascism and Franco in Spain ...

LAST week, I introduced the book Our Fathers Fought Franco (Luath Press) edited by Willy Maley, which has a series of chapters presented by four of our contemporaries telling of their fathers’ lives as they left to fight fascism and Franco in Spain in the 1930s.

I talked mainly about Willy Maley’s account of his father James’s experience. I’d like to look at the lives of the other men in the book, Donald Renton, George (Geordie) Watters and Archibald Campbell McAskill (AC) Williams, who, like James Maley, were captured together at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and were held together as prisoners of war in Franco’s jails.

READ MORE: New book looks at lives of four Scottish volunteers who fought in Spanish Civil War

But before we get there, we should give some background and context to the book. Maybe we should start with the simplest of questions: Of what relevance are these stories to us now? Well, if I paraphrase a passage from James Robertson’s novel To Be Continued … (2016), perhaps

I can quickly and conclusively affirm the lasting significance of these life stories. One of the characters in that novel says this: “All knowledge is potentially valuable, and its value, potential or realised, cannot be determined by the superficial assessment of its perceived utility at any given moment.”

That sense of value, whether held in potential or actualised in events, underlies everything. It informs the world. Denying it is murderous. Ali Smith, in her novel Spring (2019), addresses the continuing condition of Britain since the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. It begins: “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth”.

It goes on: “We want the people we call foreign to feel foreign, we need to make it clear they can’t have rights unless we say so. […] We need emotion we want righteousness we want anger. We need all that patriotic stuff. What we want is […] fury we want outrage we want words at their most emotive antisemite is good nazi is great paedo will really do it perverted foreigner illegal we want gut reaction we want […]

“We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it. We need it not to matter what words mean. […] We’re what this country’s needed all along we’re what you need we’re what you want.”

Smith’s satiric indignation is passionate. We should never forget it. People in power keep telling us lies. The truth they tell us is not the truth. The ethos of lies and propaganda surrounding us is even more pervasive and saturating today than it could have been in 1936, media being what it is.

The National:

So what we have in Our Fathers Fought Franco (cover above) isn’t simply nostalgic commemoration or military history or left-wing idealism wrapped up in family accounts.

It’s a profoundly indignant, steady, still and unwavering, dispassionate condemnation of the lies of authority, the encouraged indulgence of brutality, the opposition to the rule of muscle, militarism and absolute control that fascism defines.

It’s in praise of human worth and it’s an affirmation of moral value. It’s a form of opposition and the need for it has never gone away. The need for it is permanent, but also urgent now, because of where we are. That’s my rationale, if it were needed, for spending more time with this book.

Willy Maley has explained how the book came into being: “Lisa Croft emailed me out of the blue in September 2010 to say she’d been doing some research about her grandfather and his role with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.

“Her mother, Rosemary, had given her some old papers and when Lisa went through them she discovered a lot more about him. She’d been 12 in 1972 when her grandfather died at the age of 66 so there was a lot she didn’t know.

“Her grandfather was AC Williams (Archibald Campbell McAskill Williams). Lisa found out he’d been captured at Jarama alongside my father. Her grandfather had kept a notebook in Franco’s jail which had the signatures of all his fellow prisoners, ‘plus other facts, such as the scores and commentary of a baseball game they played’.

“As well as the prison notebook there was another remarkable element to her grandfather’s story: he had become a father while in prison, presumed dead by his family, so his daughter – Lisa’s mother – was called Rosemary Nina for remembrance. Rosemary’s younger sister has Talavera as her middle name after one of the places – Talavera de la Reina – where AC Williams was held prisoner.”

The following year, Maley organised a one-day event to mark the Scottish contribution to the International Brigades and the 75th anniversary of its formation. A group of family members whose fathers and grandfathers fought Franco (below) came together, including Rosemary Williams and Jennie Renton, and the idea sparked for a book about the families of the men who went to Spain.

The National: General Franco

In 2017, Maley met Tam Watters for the first time at an International Brigades commemoration on Clydeside at the statue to La Pasionaria. They spoke about their fathers. The idea focused more sharply on a book about a few men with shared experiences, who came from different places but ended up in the same prison cell in Spain. “A few good men at a turning point in history.”

Maley explains the bigger context. The Spanish Civil War was the prelude to the Second World War: “Anti-Communism was a key component of fascism. Joseph Goebbels followed events in Spain closely and it was also a proving ground for propaganda. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were involved alongside Franco’s forces.

“It was an opportunity to take a stand, to draw a line, and to prepare for a wider conflict. A fascist Spain was what Germany and Italy wanted and it survived well beyond their own regimes. Meanwhile, Britain and France adopted a policy of non-intervention that left Spain to suffer and let Germany test its airpower and weaponry, including Panzer tanks, and engage in the tactics to come of targeted bombing of civilians and cities.

"Britain's priority was preserving its empire. You could say the Second World War began on April 26, 1937, with the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe, a Nazi war crime. Dreadful in itself, the attack on the Basque town established a pattern – this was Blitzkrieg.

“According to George Steer, an eyewitness and journalist for The Times, ‘The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race’. As the Second World War ended the Cold War kicked in and the anti-communism that lay at the rotten core of fascism became entangled with a more general and more virulent Western anti-communism.

“At the end of Homage to Catalonia (1938), George Orwell had declared: ‘Please note that I am saying nothing against the rank-and-file communist, least of all against the thousands of communists who died heroically round Madrid … those were not the men who were directing policy’. This important distinction soon disappeared and Franco remained in power for 40 years, a stain on the memory of those who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

“Speaking in the House of Commons on August 2, 1944 Winston Churchill declared: ‘It is the Russian armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet armies’.

“That speech was soon forgotten and with it ‘the thousands of communists who died heroically round Madrid’, and those communists who fought fascism from 1936 to 1945.”

Maley is surely right to insist that it’s vitally important for people to know more about the causes and effects of the Spanish Civil War because it casts the Second World War in a more searching light. The Cold War lens has obscured some of the complexities. “Schools could do a lot more to teach the 1930s and to put the Spanish Civil War in context, especially in Scotland. The problem is that between the BBC and other British media as well as official histories the narrative has become skewed. It’s all about heroic Britain, not about the Second Front, or the role of empire in dictating Britain’s war policy.

"More discussion about Spain would also encourage pupils to ask how a fascist leader managed to stay in power, and maybe this would raise questions about the status of Gibraltar, for example, and about the shared right-wing perspectives of European powers. People forget that Britain has had a border with Spain since 1713. Franco refused to let Hitler (below) occupy Gibraltar because he wanted to keep Britain sweet, and keep up his pretence of neutrality during the Second World War.”

The National: Ron Green's mum had first dibs on using as loo roll any newspaper with Hitler on it    Photo: British Pathe

If ever there were good reason to look at the stories in this book with an eye to their relevance to our current situation, with the UK self-immured from Europe, the province of Northern Ireland sharing trade agreements while Scotland is denied them, caught in a trap of London’s making, this is it. The dead hand of empire clutches what it can. None of these things are unconnected. Look deeper.

It’s important to recognise that those declared for Scotland’s independence today are increasingly the younger demographic, though that doesn’t exclude a significant number of older people too. The point is that despite all the Unionists’ efforts, there’s a growing realisation and a deepening understanding among people rising through the generations that if there is to be any future at all, this is how it will be made. And it comes directly through a multiplicity of stories from the atrocity enacted and crystalised in Guernica in 1937.

“Like Hitler and Mussolini and Franco, the Western media and the capitalist class it served feared communism, so there was a shiftiness and a shadiness about Britain’s dealings with Franco.”

Franco is gone but this condition shows no sign of going away. Being aware of it is what they do not want. They want, as Ali Smith puts it, “emotion we want righteousness we want anger. We need all that patriotic stuff”. They want “words to mean what we say they mean”. So let’s be cool and take their measure. Let’s see it all in full context.

Maley concludes anti-communism was normalised, “obscuring the connection between the pioneering anti-fascists of the International Brigades and the war against Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Meanwhile, Franco was allowed to get on with terrorising and torturing.”

Of course there should be more engagement with the Spanish Civil War, and with Spain and Spanish culture and history and culture more broadly, and those of the three areas (shall we call them nations?) that Franco explicitly and violently oppressed, Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, each with their own distinctive languages and literatures, arts and traditions. Resistance to imperial domination has its own steely determination and it also persists. In Scotland, we have so much to learn. When you feel like just slumping into exhausted despair at the circular shenanigans of all the politicos and their pathetic, insidious media, remember the richness of this subject and how much more there is to find out.

Next week, I’ll look at the individual stories of the men and their families presented in Our Fathers Fought Franco. We learn best by sampling as many different viewpoints as possible. As Maley puts it: “We’re used to getting one side of a story – it’s good to get as many as possible. The four men whose stories are told in Our Fathers Fought Franco are not clones, and they weren’t always on the same page – they are distinctive individuals whose lives before and after Spain followed different paths. But for a few months in 1936-37 they were in the same zone, putting their lives on the line in the fight against fascism.”

By demonising the left, the tabloids, and indeed the broadsheets, seek to obliterate a vital part of our democratic heritage. Education is the essence of democracy. You have to know what it is you’re choosing if you have a choice at all.

Democracy requires education. Education democratises. The stories in this book present us with a means of measuring how much our present world is cutting both out.