Barcelona has paid homage to the last few survivors of the International Brigades volunteers who fought to defend Spain against the fascist-backed General Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 civil war.
At ceremonies across the city yesterday the handful of survivors, now mostly in their nineties, were fêted to mark the 70th anniversary of the brigades' departure from Spain. They were reminded that at their official send-off from Barcelona in 1938 they had been told: 'You are history. You are legend ... We will not forget you.'
'They've stuck to that. It's a hero's return,' said Jack Edwards, aged 94, who travelled to Spain as a 21-year-old in 1936. 'I was sad when I left, because I had made so many friends.'
Four of the 23 surviving brigade members who made it to Barcelona yesterday were British, including the former Transport and General Workers Union leader Jack Jones.
The homage came as Spain became further entangled in a bitter dispute about how it should deal with crimes from the civil war after the crusading judge Baltasar Garzón opened the way for what could be the first prosecutions of Franco's henchmen.
Campaigners and experts in international law yesterday told The Observer that the judge, even though he only named 35 deceased Franco generals and ministers, has now made it possible for those still alive who were involved in Franco's repression to be placed on trial.
That would be unprecedented in a country which has so far refused to seek justice for crimes committed in Franco's name, either during the war or in his 36-year dictatorship. It would go further than even campaigners originally intended.
'This opens the door,' said David Sugarman, professor of law at Lancaster University, who has been watching Garzón since he had Chile's General Augusto Pinochet arrested in London on similar charges in 1998. 'I can't believe he does not know where this is taking him. The Pandora's box is opened.'
The key element of the judge's decision has been to declare that, where a person was detained and later disappeared, a crime of kidnapping is still being carried out today if their body has not been found. Thousands of 'disappeared' political opponents were marched off by Franco's death squads and never seen again. Anyone who took part in such a kidnapping can now be put on trial. Courts in Chile have used the same criteria to convict hundreds of those involved in the Pinochet regime.
Spanish campaigners now also recognise that Garzón's decision may lead to trials. 'Where there is a crime and a perpetrator, the judge will have to do something about it,' said Emilio Silva, of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory.
A lot will now depend on whether campaigners decide it is time to denounce those involved in the repression to the courts. The realisation that trials may eventually follow helps to explain why state-appointed lawyers are trying hard to prevent Garzón from continuing his investigation by appealing to higher judicial authorities.
'It seems a political reaction in defence of the government,' Silva said.
International Brigades, groups of foreign volunteers who fought on the Republican side against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). So called because their members (initially) came from some 50 countries, the International Brigades were recruited, organized, and directed by the Comintern (Communist International), with headquarters in Paris. A large number of the mostly young recruits were Communists before they became involved in the conflict; more joined the party during the course of the war. The French were the largest single foreign group (some 28,000); Germany, Austria, Poland, Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Hungary, and Belgium were also represented by significant numbers of volunteers.
The first group of 500 trainees arrived in Albacete, Spain, on October 14, 1936. As other trainees and Soviet arms arrived, they were placed under the command of representatives of the Comintern. There were seven brigades in all, and each one was divided into battalions by nationality (e.g., the French-Belgian Commune de Paris Battalion, the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the British Battalion). The number of volunteers probably never exceeded 20,000 at any one time, but the total number of volunteers, including a small number of women, reached about 60,000.
From 1936 to 1938 the brigades, despite some difficulties, operated effectively on the Republican side, and their organization was imitated by other units of the Republican army. From 1937 on, recruits for the brigades diminished, and men lost in action or by desertion were replaced mainly by Spanish Communists. The brigades were formally withdrawn from Spain late in 1938 as part of Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s attempt to win British and French support for his government. The last battle in which they participated was that of the Ebro. A farewell parade was held for the volunteers in Barcelona, Spain, on November 15, 1938.