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Glory of the Brigades
[December 28, 2006]
(Morning Star daily UK newspaper version)


Seventy years ago, on October 17, the International Brigades gave birth to a glorious chapter in mankind's encyclopaedia. It was written by 59,380 men and women who came to Spain from 53 countries.

The words written here are for all those selfless humans who bravely fought to keep Spain free from fascist dictatorship.

"For the first time in the history of the peoples' struggles, there was the spectacle, breathtaking in its grandeur, of the formation of International Brigades to help save a threatened country's freedom and independence - the freedom and independence of our Spanish land. You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend."

So spoke leader of the Communist Party of Spain Dolores Ibarruri to 13,000 Brigaders in Barcelona on November 1 1938, as they were to leave their common battlefield.

Those who survived that brutal prologue to World War II continued writing their legend - either in the underground resistance movements that they launched when fascists occupied their countries or, again, in the 1960s, when they offered their active participation and guidance in solidarity with the rising tide of a new generation of idealists and resisters of oppression, wars and racism.

Spain honoured its Spanish and internationalist fighters for the republic in hundreds of commemorations in many cities this year during July, October and November.

One of the events, held in the little Valencian town of Benisa, was a special ceremony to commemorate Dane Egon Hojlund.

'When Hojlund returned to Denmark, he was imprisoned for defending democracy.'

He had enlisted in the common fight for democracy, one of the few Danish volunteers who was not a Communist or left socialist but rather adhered to the anti-communist circle of social democrats.

Hojlund had fought in the defence of Madrid and was wounded during the especially bloody battle of Jarama in January 1937.

Five thousand republican Spaniards and internationalists lost their lives in that battle.

When Hojlund returned to Denmark, he was jailed in Horserod concentration camp for defending democracy in Spain.

His nephew, Alan Christiansen, the organiser of the Danish Friends of the International Brigade Association, attended the 10-day Benisa commemoration.

Christiansen is writing a bibliography of the nearly 550 Danish volunteers, 220 of whom died in Spain. Some 150 perished on the battlefields, another 70 died of sickness and several were tortured to death in fascist jails.

Hojlund's story is told in the Danish television film Return to Spain, which was made during the 1996 commemoration in Benisa, where it was shown this year as part of the 70th anniversary event.

His connection with Benisa began after he was transported to one of its two hospitals for the wounded and the sick. When he had recovered, he was appointed Benisa's culture commissionaire for the wounded. He fell in love with a local woman and the pair were finally reunited in the town in 1996. He was also one of the many survivors to be awarded honorary citizenship by Spain's parliament.

The TV film shows Hojlund sitting in his wheelchair surrounded by equally elder Spanish fighters wearing berets. One of them had fought alongside him. The mayor and councilmen are there, as are many young people.

"Welcome home! Welcome to your home!" they roar. Hojlund is seen with his former lover. They toast with wine, tears and kisses. It was the first time that he'd seen her in 30 years. "She was the most beautiful woman in Benisa. Pepita is still pretty," says Hojlund.

A declaration is read. "You gave the seeds to our eventual liberty."

"We shared brotherhood!" Hojlund replies to his honorary countrymen. There isn't a dry eye in the crowd.

At the recent 70th anniversary event, Christiansen was invited to give a speech at the opening of a newly inaugurated cemetery for the fallen.

"It was so touching for us all," he recalls. "I was most heartened by the many young people present. Enthusiastic townspeople raised the three-coloured republican flag over the grave sites as we sang."

In August 1936, the first militia of foreign volunteers joined the many Spanish militias already in place following the 1932-4 Asturian uprisings and from Catalonia, which had been granted semi-autonomy under the second republic.

These militias were mainly made up of trade unionists led by anarcho-syndicalists, left socialists and Trotskyists. They received some weapons from the newly formed Popular Front government, which included, for the first time, the Communist Party and anarchist ministers.

The Popular Front took over from the second republic's tame leadership, which had refused to arm workers.

Many German, Italian, Austrian and Polish anti-fascists headed for Spain after fleeing their countries as fascism crushed bourgeois democracy. A few days after they had formed the Centuria Thalmann in Barcelona, the first four Danish volunteers reached the city and enrolled.

Their story was told by Christiansen during the civil war commemorations in Denmark. The initiative taken by the four led to the participation of many other Danes.

On August 8, Aage Nielsen turned 18. He and his older brothers, bicycle messenger Kaj and butcher Harald celebrated with their good friend Hans Petersen, who was a young machine worker.

They discussed the burning issues of those turbulent times - the 1929 economic crash, Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the civil war in Spain, accompanied by growing fascism at home.

The four lived in a workers' quarter in north-central Copenhagen, where they sometimes fought the pro-fascist Conservative Party youth. They were all members of Denmark's Communist Party (DKP) youth section. On Aage's birthday, they decided to cycle to Spain in order to join the newly formed foreign militia.

Their bicycles were confiscated at the French border, because they could not pay a tax, so they reached Paris by hitchhiking. There, they waited impatiently for the French Communist Party and the Comintern in Moscow to decide what steps they would take to help the Spanish republic.

Eventually, the four took off again, walking and hitchhiking. In early September, they reached Barcelona, where they soon joined the Centurion Thalmann.

Harald had been in a Danish army machine-gun company and was handed one of the militia's few Hotchkiss machine guns. The four took off with the centurion to Navarra province at the Huesce front.

Over a two-month period full of intense battles, the centurion of 125 men lost 19 people. Fifty-two were wounded. Harald was wounded in the hand and brother Kaj took over his machine gun. The republican loyalists and their internationalist brothers were able to beat back the fascists.

Their next major battle was at Albacete in Castilla La Mancha province. There, on October 17, the first international brigade was officially inaugurated. Spanish units already were structured in 10 brigades, so the international ones began at number 11, where most of the Danes and other Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans and Austrians were incorporated. Eventually, there were six international brigades.

In the autumn, the four Danes were among the thousands of internationals and Spaniards defending Madrid.

Hans was wounded and taken to a Barcelona hospital. The three brothers survived the entire two-month offensive, which the republic repelled at great human cost. In January 1937, the brothers were part of the DECA anti-aircraft artillery unit, shooting down bombers when they could.

Kaj and Aage returned to Denmark after a year's fighting, but Harald and Hans returned to fight in Spain, after a short rest in Denmark, and worked on propaganda and party work.

They stayed after the official November 1 1938 farewell to the international brigades and were eventually among the last to leave Barcelona before it fell to the fascists without a fight on January 25 1939.


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