“Thälmann Battalion” from Wikipedia

Battle of Jarama Anniversary Special:
Germans fighting fascism.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“Thälmann Battalion”

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Thälmann Battalion was a battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The International Brigades fought on the side of the Republic against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, which were supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The Thälmann Battalion was named after the imprisoned German communist leader Ernst Thälmann (born 16 April 1886, executed 18 August 1944) and included approximately 1,500 people, mainly Germans, Austrians, Swiss, and Scandinavians. The battalion fought in the Battle of Jarama and in the defence of Madrid. Amongst the commanders of the battalion were the German writer, historian, and World War I officer Ludwig Renn, later Chief of Staff of the XI International Brigade, and Prussian World War I officer Hans Kahle, later promoted to lead the Republican 45th division for a time. The battalion, like the International Brigades in general, also attracted its share of intellectuals, such as the well-known writer Willi Bredel, who became its commissar.

The German-speaking battalions were one of the first and eventually largest groups that formed in the International Brigades, coalescing out of the “Thälmann Centuria” of the early war days. Most of the Germans volunteering were working-class people, “members of the Weimar Republic’s ‘lost generation’, who had never known stability or regular employment,” and to many, the simple arrival in Spain (through the French blockade) to join the fight on the Republic’s side was their first victory after years of losing their political struggle at home. In their home countries of Germany and Austria, fascism had already conquered, giving their foreign struggle a special grim context. As Robert G. Colodny writes in The International Brigades:

“The history of the Germans in Spain…is the history of strong men who proved and overproved their courage and endurance, their resistance to pessimism and despair. It is the story of men who died or were broken physically in doing this. They brought to the International Brigades an offensive spirit, a bitter desperate courage at rare intervals in war priceless, essential, but always costly. They set an early example of what shock troops could be like. They tried to do the impossible, and paid for it. And during the early days in Aragon, in the futile fighting around Huesca, at Tardienta, the Germans, in countless bayonet charges against fortified positions, took their objectives, buried their dead, and waited with a caged restlessness for the next day’s orders.”

John Cornford, an English communist and poet, echoed these thoughts, describing the Germans as:

“…the finest people in some ways I have ever met. In a way they have lost everything, have been through enough to break most people, and remain strong and cheerful and humorous. If anything is revolutionary it is these comrades.”

Ernest Hemingway went even further in his admiration, calling them representative of the “true Germany” and contrasting them unfavourably with the Germans fighting on Franco’s Nationalist side in the Legion Condor. The respect with which the Germans were accorded—by the others in the International Brigades, as well as by the Republican populace—lifted their spirits as well. Many of them had been stripped of their nationality by the Nazis, and had spent years underground or in exile, and the war gave them the opportunity to reclaim an anti-fascist identity, their vision of a better Germany. For many it was also a time of either communist re-affirmation or political enlightenment (the largest block of all volunteers in the International Brigades was communist or had been recruited by communists).

However, the German volunteers were not above human faults and despair—especially as the war dragged on, and got increasingly difficult for the Republican side, which lacked the plentiful supplies and superior organisation of their Nationalist opponents. Records show that about one-tenth of the volunteers eventually found themselves imprisoned at least for a certain duration for crimes like desertion, breaking discipline, or for political reasons (usually being accused of Trotskyism) as the Stalinist tendency in the Brigades increased. Infighting between anarchists and communists, eventually resulting in outright battles with several hundred dead and the purging of rival communist groups like the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), also further poisoned the atmosphere as Franco’s victory drew closer.