- Interview by
- Denis Rogatyuk
Earlier this week, Josep Almudéver Mateu, very likely the last surviving International Brigader from Spain’s war against fascism, died at age 101.
Almudéver had been an unusual Brigader – born in France to Spanish parents, he initially joined the militia of the Spanish Socialist Youth (JSU) near Alcàsser and spent much of the early war fighting in the Republican Army near Teruel in southern Aragon.
But circumstances forced him to leave the main army and join the volunteers from around the world who had come to Spain to fight against Franco. While in their ranks, Almudéver came to see the global significance of the war in Spain – and, even years later, rejected the idea that it was a ‘civil war.’
Instead, he believed, it was part of the greater war against fascism waged and won in much of Europe in the late 1930s and ’40s, but lost in Spain, where he would go on to fight in an anti-fascist underground against Franco after release from a concentration camp.
Here, in one of his final interviews before his passing, Josep Almudéver Mateu speaks to Denis Rogatyuk about his time in the Brigades.
You were only 12 when the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. What do you remember from the atmosphere of those days?
Being only 12 years old, I did not fully know or understand all the events that surrounded me, but I witnessed great changes in my home town, Alcàsser. The majority of workers were peasants, illiteracy there was over 60% and a single landowner controlled more than 10% of the land. The bourgeoisie believed that they could constantly win elections because of the people’s ignorance.
April 14 was an event of incredible happiness for the Spanish people. I remember the first euphoric week and the explosion of freedom on the streets, when people from all the political groups marched together holding the pictures of the revolutionary martyrs and leaders. Two of those were Fermín Galán and Angel García Hernandez, two army captains who attempted a military rebellion in December 1930, but were captured and shot in the last months of the monarchy.
My parents and I also had to ask ourselves: had we really achieved a Workers’ Republic that we hoped would be entrenched in the constitution, or did the Second Republic serve the interests of the bourgeoisie?
The Republic did bring some important advances. For the first time, secular schools were created to educate children. The Republic was also the first government that gave equality to women. Women could now vote, be elected and be educated.
At the same time, it was a form of capitalist republic, not unlike the French Republic after the revolution. And, just like then, the bourgeoisie maintained power.
Neither repression nor the threat of the military coup, like that of General Sanjurjo [in August 1932], ever really went away. In November 1933, with the Republican government worn out, the conservative bourgeoisie won the elections. The workers could not understand how, with the Republican Manuel Azaña and the Socialists in government, the left could suffer so much repression.
You spent the majority of your time defending Alcàsser and Valencia from the fascists. How did it feel for you to fight alongside your family against the Francoist forces?
After Franco’s coup in July 1936, apart from the regular army, every political party formed its own volunteer force. At first, I tried to enlist with the Column “Germanias” of the Izquierda Republicana (Republican Left), but was sent away because I was only 17.
My father and I then tried to go to the Communist Party, but they said they had no weapons or instructors to train new volunteers. Finally, they sent me off to join a Socialist column, which had its headquarters in a monastery in Alcàsser. I enlisted in the Pablo Iglesias Column on August 15 and on September 13 we headed off to the front line.
There were 200 of us. Each of us had a rifle. The people of Valencia applauded us greatly, as we made our way to Teruel (then held by Franco’s forces). I spent some months in rearguard action around Valacloche and Cubla (in Teruel Province), until finally we received our orders that on December 26 we would attack Teruel to support the defence of Madrid.
Our Pablo Iglesias Column had over 500 men at that time. I spent several weeks in the trenches alongside other militias until February 4, 1937, when I was allowed to return to Alcàsser.
How did you become involved in the International Brigades?
On February 19, I returned to the frontline with my comrades, in Utiel (Valencia province). In Utiel, we met with the 13th International Brigade and I heard some of them speaking French. One of them told me they were being directed to the front in Málaga and I asked them if I could come with them and join the Brigades. But while I was waiting for him to confirm it, the 13th Brigade had to march off.
On June 26, the order came from the Defence Minister of the Republic that forbade a 17-year-old French-born youth like me from being in the Republican Army, so I had to leave the militia and return to Alcàsser. On September 1, they called up everyone born in 1919 for military service. But when I turned up, my name wasn’t on the list, and I had to explain that I was born in France. They forbade me from serving in the army as a foreigner, so I returned to the frontline as a volunteer.
It was in May 1938 that I finally presented myself to the Italian Rosselli Column in Alcàsser. This was when I was recovering from an arm injury. I presented my birth certificate to the commissar of the Rosselli Column, showing that I had been born in Marseille, and ended up joining them, under the command of the 129th International Brigade.
What do you remember of the men and women who came from all over the world to fight for the Republic?
In the Rosselli Column, while waiting for our artillery pieces to arrive, I got to know combatants from all across the world. We had a Canadian, three Cubans, our chief mechanic was an American, one was Dutch, another was German, another Swiss and another Chinese.
For most of us, we did not get to know each other by name, but by nationality. With my Canadian comrade, David, we went everywhere together. Me being Franco-Spanish and him being Canadian, we hardly understood each other, but we became good friends. Despite coming from different places the camaraderie among all of us was stupendous. We had passionate talks about everything, especially the war and the Republic, and never had any personal conflicts.
I remained with the Rosselli Column until November 1938, when it was divided into different language-speaking columns and sent off to the front while I remained in Alcàsser. In December 1938, the Non-Intervention Committee that was directed by Britain and France arrived in Spain, and in January 1939 the International Brigades were expelled under its pressure
Do you think that the non-intervention by Britain and France was what destroyed the Republic in the end?
Of course. The Republican government of Azaña decided to expel the International Brigades in the hopes that Franco had a similar attitude and would do the same with the foreign armies supporting him. He did not.
The Brigadistas were inferior in numbers and the foreign troops on the other side comprised more than 80,000, and with far better weapons. And we also endured the anti-Soviet and anti-Communist propaganda of the democratic capitalist countries.
The Republic was cruelly abandoned to the hands of Nazism, since the British and French leaders believed that Hitler only wished to exterminate Communism. Britain and France refused to sell any weapons or give any help to the Republic, while the United States continued to trade with Franco.
When General Franco was flown from the Canary Islands to Tetuan in a German plane [on July 17, 1936], alongside him arrived the support and the foreign armies of all those who supported the fascist coup and his side in the war. Over 3,000 Germans, 12,000 Portuguese, 15,000 Moors, 30,000 members of the Foreign Legion and 70,000 Italians came to support the formation of Franco’s army. How can you call that a ‘civil war’?
I remember hearing the news of all the Spaniards crossing into France after the Francoists began their invasion of Catalonia. Just 5 kilometres south of here [Pamiers] there were concentration camps for them. In one of them, Bernedarieja, many died of malnutrition. Only the French-speaking and the foreigners who resided in France were taken care of.