Current Affairs / History / Michele Haapamaki

Barbarity and Civilization: Parallels between the Fight Against ISIS and the Spanish Civil War

As ISIS and their followers dominate the headlines, author Michele Haapamäki takes a look at those fighting against the Islamic State, and draws parallels with the militia who took up arms against General Franco…

ISIS, Islamic State, Peshmerga, Militia, Kurds, War

Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in intensive security deployment against Islamic State // Flickr

The trajectory of the conflict against ISIS (Islamic State), with its many turns and deviations in the last year, is as chaotic, unclear, and uncertain as ever. Western intervention in the areas threatened by them, or currently under their control, is fraught with many problems. One of the most intractable is the fact that while enemies in the region are certain, friends are not. The record of ‘regime change’ is, at the very least, not a promising one. And while the question of dealing with the insurgents in situ is dominated by domestic political imperatives – that is, what the public is prepared to countenance – so too is the worrisome problem of radicalization at home. The fear of citizens traveling to train and fight with ISIS and returning to possibly perpetuate coordinated or ‘lone wolf’ attacks has prompted various countermeasures. All of them will entail constitutional pitfalls – confiscating passports, prosecution, and possible detention for offenses including the glorification of terrorism. In practice this will be extremely difficult to define and delineate.

But while those intending to fight for ISIS have grabbed most of the headlines, there is a smaller and, I would argue, more fascinating subset of independent individuals traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the Kurdish Peshmerga fight against them (Peshmerga meaning “one who confronts death”). As early as last autumn, reports were emerging about a motley consortium of warriors who were prepared to make the perilous journey to join up with bands of guerrilla fighters in hostile, largely inaccessible areas. Many are the ‘usual suspects’ – retired soldiers from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq who have left the battle, but find that the battle has not, in the end, left them. Their stated motivation always points to the defense of civilization in its many forms. In a March 2015 column in The Telegraph the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, highlighted the historical importance of the antiquities threatened by ISIS sledgehammers. He even hinted that he himself, should his own position in life be otherwise, would be tempted to volunteer.

Other combatants are rather more unexpected – members of biker gangs, ‘soldier of fortune’ bounty-hunter facsimiles, outdoors-men, and all-purpose adventurers. (Although this is really not so incongruous – such types have always been attracted to danger and the allure of a good fight.) Others have proclaimed themselves more straightforwardly ‘ideological’ – viewing the conflict beyond the Manichean struggle between civilization and barbarity but rather as an act of political self-expression. Such is the example of Ivana Hoffman, a 19 year-old German described as a Communist and a feminist, who died fighting on 7 March 2015 with a militia that is an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

The commonality between all these participants is a (necessarily) unshakable belief that the conflict represents the quintessential ‘Just War’ which warrants their participation, and even death – a conflict that is beyond a question of choice if societal values and a sense of common decency are to be preserved. All this has put me in mind of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), an historical subject I have studied in various forms, particularly the involvement of the British volunteers. It was also seen as an elemental struggle between the forces of freedom and Fascism (even if the truth was rather murkier). For leftists in particular, it remained a touchstone well into the 1960s – a heroic doomed cause that was the first salvo in the ultimate Just War against Fascism and the domination of Europe by Hitler.

Spanish Civil War, The International Brigade, General Franco, ISIS, War

The International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, December 1936 – January 1937 // Wikimedia Commons

One immediate parallel which springs to mind is the dubious legality of involvement in the conflict for foreign participants, even when on the approved side in the battle against ISIS. Western governments have warned potential volunteers that their involvement could be deemed ‘terrorist activity’ after the fact in equal measure with those who actually fight for ISIS – possibly jeopardizing their citizenship and legal status on their return. The volunteers in Spain faced a similar moral conundrum, although the ramifications were not as intense as in the security-conscious states of the early twenty-first century. Around 2,700 Britons braved the official ‘non-intervention’ stance of their government towards the conflict, which rendered their own participation illegal. Most were working-class volunteers, despite the moniker of a ‘Poet’s War’. Some 500 of these would not return home.

Another parallel between the two conflicts can be seen in the structural composition of the opposition. Each seems marked by the proliferation of politically-motivated militias, many (at least in the case of the Spanish Civil War) as bitterly opposed to each other as their supposed common enemy. Often outgunned, the Spanish Republic relied on guerrilla tactics to combat the stronger and highly organized forces of General Franco. Their lack of both uniforms and a strict hierarchical structure emphasized the ad hoc and flexible nature of their military engagements. Such tactics would develop continuously in the various irregular, often undeclared, conflicts of the twentieth century. The radical PKK that Ivana Hoffman served with and the larger PYD (Democratic Union Party of the Kurds) echo this de-centralized structure. The first Briton to be killed fighting ISIS was 25 year-old Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, a former British Royal Marine, who has been praised as a ‘brave and fearless warrior.’ Among those who fought with him in a unit named the ‘Lions of Rogava’ included numerous young Americans who belong to this self-styled group.

The element of international camaraderie is strong among the Peshmerga, as it was among the ‘International Brigades’ which fought in Spain. The American (Lincoln) Brigade contained an Irish Company, and many prominent writers fought with the British Battalion. The martyrs were later eulogized in terms that emphasized that they had given their lives out of a great tradition of ‘British liberty,’ and a proud national past, that freedom might prevail both abroad and at home. Famous volunteers who died in Spain included the Communist writer and organizer Ralph Fox, the young poet John Cornford, and Julian Bell (nephew of Virginia Woolf). There were also numerous independent politicized militias, including the POUM – its most prominent member was George Orwell, who was injured in the course of his service in Spain. This quasi-Trotskyist faction was later crushed by Stalin on the orders of Moscow, forever altering Orwell’s perception of the left and its internecine in-fighting. Volunteers who returned to Britain in 1939 turned to the defense of their own homeland; Communist Tom Wintringham, who had been a commander with the British Battalion, was drafted in to craft directives and training procedures for the Home Guard.

The inclusion of female fighters battling Islamic State is particularly relevant, given its uncompromising and brutal misogyny. Ivana Hoffman sympathized with a strain of Kurdish feminism emphasizing a change in the roles and rights of women as a principle precondition for a new Middle East. Another prominent female volunteer is a Canadian-Israeli woman, Gill Rosenberg. She made international headlines in November 2014 after Islamists erroneously claimed that she had been taken hostage while fighting with Kurdish forces. The Spanish Republic also emphasized the equality of gender participation in its cause. One of its most fiery spokeswomen was Dolores Ibárruri of the famous slogan No Parasán! (‘They shall not pass’). Contemporary posters also tended to feature idealized milicianas female militia fighters. The first British volunteer to be killed in Spain was Felicia Browne, an artist who perished in August 1936 while taking part in an attempt to blow up a railway station. The exact manner of her death remains unclear, with most accounts placing her running through a firefight in an attempt to rescue a wounded comrade.

The eventual fate of the Spanish Republic may possibly reflect the future of the Kurdish militias, despite their noblest intentions. Even with the avowal by Western democracies that Islamic State will not be permitted to overrun and dominate huge sections of Syria and Iraq, the hope of the Ivana Hoffmans and Konstandinos Erik Scurfields of the anti-ISIS volunteers for progressive, liberal, feminist, or Communist utopias is likely just that. But all true ideals tend to be chimeras of some sort or another. The volunteers in Republican Spain certainly realized the symbolic import of their contribution as counting for more than the actual military effect of their presence, which was likely minor. Ultimately, both series of volunteers – separated by eight decades – have based their actions on a belief that freedom at home means the eradication of a totalitarian and destructive ideology at its source.

The Coming of the Aerial War, Book, I.B.Tauris, History, Michele Haapamäki The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-War Britain is out now

Michele Haapamäki was educated at the British Columbia and McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. She holds a PhD in modern British history and writes on contemporary and historical aspects of war and society.

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