Conference Report – Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation

Conference Report – Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation, Birkbeck, 30 June-1 July 2016

civil-war-imageEarlier this summer, Birkbeck played host to a two-day conference on the international history of the Spanish Civil War. Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation was funded by The Reluctant Internationalists research group, Birkbeck, Queen Mary, the University of Kent and the Royal Historical Society, and was organised in collaboration with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE. Bringing together over thirty scholars from the UK, Europe, the US and further afield, it set out to explore the origins and experiences of transnational mobilisation during the conflict and the immediate post-war period.

The first day began with a panel on the wide range of transnational actors involved in the war, from the Republican politicians who helped to establish the Popular Front movement whilst in exile in Paris in 1934 and 1935, to the international peace activists whose campaigns against aerial warfare encompassed both the Spanish and Chinese civil wars. Complicating the traditional focus on transnational mobilisation in favour of the Republican cause, the panel also discussed the involvement of fascist-dominated veterans’ networks in debates about international intervention, and the international left-wing mobilisation in favour of POUM activists imprisoned by the Republican regime.

The remainder of the day focused on the humanitarian and medical dimensions of transnational mobilisation during the Civil War. A number of papers focused on the thousands of Spanish refugees who were evacuated from Republican zones during the conflict, or who fled to France in 1939. Wartime evacuations were organised both by the Republican government and its allies, and by international humanitarian groups, but were hampered by the political tensions surrounding the conflict. The huge numbers of refugees stranded in France at the end of the war were housed in overcrowded and insanitary camps, with care provided by exiled Spanish medical professionals and by humanitarian organisations. For the international humanitarian community, the Spanish Civil War represented both an intense political, financial and logistical challenge, and a crucial step in the development of new models of humanitarian activity. The conflict itself left thousands of people exiled, bereaved or permanently disabled, with its legacies living on both inside and outside Spain through such individuals well beyond 1939.

The second day shifted focus towards the military dimension of transnational mobilisation. The first panel on propaganda highlighted the ways in which the thousands of Moroccan troops who fought with rebel forces were portrayed and instrumentalised in propaganda on both the Republican and rebel sides. It also demonstrated how the Spanish Civil War came to play a central role in the anti-Bolshevik cultural activities of Nazi Germany. This was followed by two panels which focused on the experiences of the transnational military volunteers who took part in the conflict. The first focussed on the International Brigades, providing a new perspective on this oft-studied topic by highlighting the relations between volunteers of different nationalities within individual battalions, and on the experiences of international volunteers after their return home. It also featured a fascinating presentation on SIDBRINT, a new digital archive on the International Brigades hosted by the University of Barcelona which provides an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the transnational history of the Spanish Civil War. The second panel took a global perspective on transnational military mobilisation, examining the experiences of Arab and Jewish volunteers who fought with Republican forces, and the experience and memory of a Basque town which played host to both German and Italian troops during the conflict.

The final panel of the conference focused in on the transnational lives and experiences of individuals involved in the Spanish Civil War.  Artists such as the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna drew on their experiences of the war to explore the importance of internal and external borders for those who had lived through it. The lives of other individuals and groups continued to be affected by the Spanish Civil War long after formal hostilities had ended, including the Spanish and Catalan women imprisoned by the Nazis at Ravensbrück during the Second World War, and the Czech and Slovak communist volunteers whose post-war political and emotional lives were shaped by their experiences in Spain.

The theme of transnational lives also lay at the heart of the conference’s keynote delivered by Helen Graham (Royal Holloway). A well-attended public lecture hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and introduced by Paul Preston (LSE), this fascinating lecture used the lives of five individuals to explore the significance of the Spanish Republic cause to the continental wars of social change which took place between 1936 and 1948. A podcast of the lecture is available online, and you can find abstracts for all of the conference papers and information about individual speakers here.

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