G. Zaagsma: Jewish Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War

Jewish Volunteers, the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War.

Zaagsma, Gerben
War, Culture and Society
London 2018: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
IX, 250 S.
£ 28.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Zoé Grumberg, Centre d'histoire de Sciences Po, Paris

Gerben Zaagsma’s new book is not a study of Jews’ engagement in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, as the title might suggest. It is a subtle analysis of the „symbolic meaning both during and after the conflict“ (p. 3) of Jews’ participation in the International Brigades. Zaagsma shows that the Holocaust „has fundamentally shaped the way in which the participation of Jewish volunteers in the International Brigades has come to be seen“ among Jews. During the Spanish Civil War, most Jews who volunteered did not see their participation as a specific Jewish response to the rise of fascism. However, in many post-war publications, the Jewishness of Jewish volunteers is considered to be one of the main reasons for their decision to volunteer: volunteers of „Jewish descents“ became „Jewish volunteers“ (p. 4). Zaagsma’s central question is: How and why did this shift happen?

His analysis is divided into three parts. In the first part of the book, he discusses the participation of Jewish volunteers in the International Brigades (of the 35.000 volunteers, 3.500–4.000 were of „Jewish descent“), with particular focus on Jewish communists of France – the majority born in Poland – who lobbied to create a Jewish military unit within the Polish Dombrowsky Brigade. His analysis specifically examines the Naftali Botwin company, created in December 1937, and this could disappoint readers looking for a reflection on all volunteers of Jewish descent in the International Brigades.

In Chapter 1, the author provides context and background and shows how Jewish communists’ politics in Paris in the interwar years was shaped by local, national and international contexts. As Polish-Jewish migrants, they brought a specific form of politicization from Eastern Europe to France (Zaagsma speaks of a „transnationalisation of habitus“ p. 33) and created „specific transnational networks and spaces of political activity, communication and shared practices across borders“ (p. 3) while trying to integrate into French society and adapt to the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Comintern’s strategy. Following his own analysis in a previous article, Zaagsma offers one of the most subtle examinations of Jewish communists’ politics in interwar Paris.1 He shows the complexity of their identity and the „interplay of political strategies and truly felt Jewish allegiance“ (p. 36). As he then demonstrates in Chapter 2, their choice to fight in a Jewish company could be explained both by propaganda reasons in the context of the Comintern’s popular front strategy and the will to fight anti-Semitic prejudices among Polish migrants in France. Some Polish fighters indeed perceived Jews as cowards who always tried to avoid conscription in Poland. The formation of a Jewish brigade could thus be considered a process of Jewish emancipation through equal participation on the Spanish battlefields – even though some Jews also went to Spain because they realized that fascism was a threat for Jews.

In the second part, the author analyzes the representation of Jewish volunteers in the Parisian Yiddish press during the war itself, comparing communist (Naye Prese) and non-communist newspapers (the Labour-Zionist Parizer Haynt and the Bundist Undzer Shtime) to outline different perceptions of Jewish volunteers. In Chapter 5, he shows how Jewish volunteers were instrumentalized in Naye Prese, being described as „Chosen Fighters of the Jewish people“ (p. 65), a religious reference specifically chosen to speak to non-communist Jews. The Botwin company was indeed „used to promote unity among Jewish migrants“ (p. 87), and as Zaagsma argues, it should not be reduced to solely being considered part of the Comintern’s strategy: Jewish migrants faced difficulties in France in the 1930s – notably, xenophobia in the context of the economic crisis – and Jewish communists wanted to provide a „model of how to act in the face of adversity“ (p. 78). In Parizer Haynt and Undzer Shtime, Jewish volunteers were given less importance. Given the fact that several issues of Undzer Shtime have been lost, the comparison is a bit unequal, but it is still convincing, particularly in light of later perceptions of Jewish volunteers: at that time, Jewish volunteers were important for communist newspapers.

In part three of the book, probably the most interesting and innovative, Zaagsma analyzes the ways in which Jewish volunteers have been remembered and commemorated after the Holocaust. He shows several reasons for this shift – notably, debates about Jewish passivity in front of the Shoah (p. 122).2 In the Yiddish-speaking press of the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish volunteers’ engagement in Spain was often described as the first armed Jewish resistance against fascism. Some newspapers, such as New York’s Forverts, tended to ignore Jewish volunteers’ communism and focused solely on their Jewishness as the primary motivation for their engagement, which clearly contradicted the perception during the Civil War years and that among Jewish volunteers themselves. Zaagsma’s choice of newspapers is, however, somewhat surprising: instead of following his analysis of the Parisian Yiddish-speaking press, he chooses Polish and American newspapers that he had not previously analyzed, which may frustrate the reader. In the last two chapters, the author follows former volunteers around the world to the places where they lived or gathered. He focuses on Poland during the anti-Jewish campaign of 1968, which led Jews – including former volunteers – to leave Poland for good. He also analyzes a reunion of veterans and researchers in Tel Aviv in 1972, showing that the image of Jewish volunteers as the first armed Jewish resistance fighters against fascism was then firmly established.

In this book, Zaagsma’s goal is neither to underline Jewish military efforts in the Spanish Civil War nor to contradict the idea that Jews had been passive in the face of fascism, and this could disappoint readers looking for military history and history of the Spanish Civil War. Focusing on representations of Jewish fighters, he wonders „how a particular set of Jewish military experiences, both actual and remembered, became an expression of processes of emancipation and validation that were so integral to the project of Jewish modernity“ (p. 3). He re-historicizes the myth of „Jewish cowardice“ and analyzes representations of Jewish volunteers in the Spanish civil War in the longue durée, which adds to the value of the book. The Shoah contributed to emphasizing Jewish volunteers’ Jewishness while also leading non-communist Jews to integrate Jewish communist volunteers’ engagement into Jewish history, even in the Cold War context. Zaagsma uses an impressive array of sources: the Yiddish-speaking press, the International Brigades’ archives in Moscow and London, the Police Prefecture archives and French Communist archives in Paris, the Bund archives at YIVO in New York, etc. He does not, however, use memoirs or interviews with former volunteers, which could have helped in examining self-representation among volunteers both during and after the conflict. One might also notice some repetition in the book, and too much space is given to methodological considerations. Nevertheless, it is an impressive book that goes beyond the history of representations. It is a major contribution to modern Jewish history and the history of Jewish emancipation in the 20th century, which will also interest scholars from other fields such as Holocaust studies, the history of communism and the history of memory.

1 Gerben Zaagsma, “The Local and the International – Jewish Communists in Paris Between the Wars,” in: Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 8 (2009), pp. 345–63.
2 Bruno Bettelheim, “The Holocaust—One Generation Later”, in: Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays, New York 1989; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews, Chicago 1961; Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York 1963.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension