An extraordinary chapter in the history of anti-fascism came to an end on Monday 24 May with the death of Josep Almudéver at the age of 101. He was almost certainly the last veteran of the legendary International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War.
As a 17-year-old, Josep initially took up arms with one of the militias hurriedly formed to defend the elected Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic after Francisco Franco and other generals launched their attempted coup in July 1936. He was wounded in fighting on the Teruel front and would later join the 129th ‘Mixta’ International Brigade.
In 1937, following terrible losses in fighting around Madrid at Jarama and Brunete, the depleted ranks of the International Brigades were filled with Spaniards. They eventually made up 50 percent of the Brigades. One of those who signed up was Josep, who had been born in Marseilles to Spanish parents and was living near Valencia when the civil war began.
Josep later insisted that the war in Spain was not a civil war, but an international one, and he was right. Franco’s eventual triumph in April 1939 would have been impossible without the participation of Hitler’s 18,000-strong airborne Condor Legion—the fire-bombers of Gernika—and the 70,000 troops sent by Mussolini. Meanwhile Britain and France helped Franco by imposing an arms and oil embargo on the Spanish Republic under the guise of ‘non-intervention’.
For the Republic, arms sales and assistance from the Soviet Union and Mexico could not cancel out the odds stacked against it. This gave the International Brigades—35,000 volunteers from three-quarters of all sovereign nations at the time—huge symbolic and practical importance. They were a beacon of solidarity that let the beleaguered Republic know it was not alone, and they were a source of committed shock troops to be thrown into battle in the face of overwhelming enemy firepower. Of the 2,500 volunteers from Britain and Ireland, 530 were killed.
After the war, Josep Almudéver spent time in Franco’s concentration camps, and remained forever haunted by the cries of his comrades who were executed. He continued the fight as a guerrilla until 1947, when he escaped to France, returning to Spain in 1965 to work as a bricklayer.
As far as we know, the last of the foreign International Brigaders was Londoner Geoffrey Servante, a merchant seaman who jumped ship in Valencia in the summer of 1937 in order to join the fight against Franco. He died in April 2019, a few weeks before his 100th birthday.
The epitaph for the International Brigades was surely written in 1959 at the height of the Cold War by the great American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn:
‘The men who fought and those who died for the [Spanish] Republic, whatever their nationality and whether they were communists, anarchists, socialists, poets, plumbers, middle class professional men, or the one Abyssinian prince, were brave and disinterested, as there were no rewards in Spain. They were fighting for us all, against the combined force of European fascism. They deserved our thanks and our respect and got neither.’