Thälmann Battalion

The Thälmann Battalion was a battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. It 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 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)[1] and Prussian World War I officer Hans Kahle, later promoted to lead the Republican 45th division for a time.[2] 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.[1]

Кольцов Батальон имени Тельмана
Soldiers of the Thälmann Battalion in Spain, c.1938

Spanish Civil War German Volunteers

The German-speaking battalions[3] 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.[4] 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",[5] 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.[6] 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 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."[4]

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."[7]

Ernest Hemingway, the American writer, described them as follows:

"They had nearly all had military training or had fought in the war. They were all anti-Nazis. Most of them were Communists and they marched like the Reichswehr. They also sang songs that would break your heart and the last of them died on the Muela of Teruel, which was a position they sold as dearly as any position was sold in any war."[8]

Until December 1936 the battalion boasted a significant British contingent, including Winston Churchill's nephew, Esmond Romilly, however many of them were killed fighting to defend Madrid in the early months of the war.[9]

Flag of the International Brigades
Flag of the International Brigades

Ernest Hemingway went even further in his admiration, calling them representative of the "true Germany" and contrasting them unfavourably with the Germans fighting on the other side in the Legion Condor.[10] The respect with which the Germans were accorded - by the others in the International Brigades, as well as by the Republican populace[11] - 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.[10] 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).[12]

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 as the Stalinist tendency in the Brigades increased (usually being accused of Trotskyism). 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 Francisco Franco's victory came closer.[13] The Thälmann Battalion was memorialized in the song "Die Thälmann-Kolonne" (also known as "Spaniens Himmel", "Spain's Sky") by Gudrun Kabisch and Paul Dessau (writing pseudonymously as Paul Ernst and Peter Daniel, respectively), famously recorded by Ernst Busch.

World War II Partisan Battalion in the Former Yugoslavia

On Aug. 8, 1943, a Thälmann Battalion was founded in West Slavonia as an ethnic German unit within Tito's Partisan army in the former Yugoslavia. It was composed mainly of German Army (Wehrmacht) deserters and local ethnic Germans (Shwoveh) led by Commander Hans Pichler (a former fighter in the Spanish civil war) and Johann Mucker (Muker), a Shwovish Communist in the interwar period, as political commissar. Mucker's son was killed by Ustashe on March 13, 1942 and later earned the honor of "People's Hero" after the war. The battalion comprised roughly 200 men and was refreshed from Shwovish recruits from Croatia and the Serbian Banat. It remained a separate unit with its own Germanic Black, red, and gold insignia. It is said that Tito ordered that it not be engaged in combat against German Army units (the Partisans also fought Italian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Croatian forces.) In the end it was nearly destroyed in an engagement against heavily armored units at Mikleus (near Slatina) in November 1943, but continued to exist with some replacements. It was used often for its propaganda value. It adopted its own version of the Spanish Civil War song "Die Thälmann-Kolonne". The Battalion also contained a small unit of British volunteers, including Winston Churchill's nephew, Esmond Romilly, who published a book recording their experiences fighting in the Battle of Madrid.

See also


  1. ^ a b Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 31
  2. ^ "Feeble Palliative" - Time, Monday 6 June 1938
  3. ^ There were several other German-language battalions (note that their organisation also changed several times)
  4. ^ a b The International Brigades Archived 27 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine - Colodny, Robert G. Accessed 2008-05-12.
  5. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 17
  6. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 14
  7. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 27
  8. ^ Arthur H. Landis (1967). The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Citadel Press. p. xvi.
  9. ^ Boadilla by Esmond Romilly, The Clapton Press Limited, London, 2018 ISBN 978-1999654306
  10. ^ a b Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 28
  11. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 30
  12. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 29
  13. ^ Antifascism and Memory in East Germany - Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989 Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine - McLellan, Josie; Oxford Historical Monographs, Page 38-40
Almanac Singers

The Almanac Singers was an American New York City-based folk music group, active between 1940 and 1943, founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. The group specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. They were part of the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA (whose slogan, under their leader Earl Browder, was "Communism is twentieth century Americanism"), who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers' rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals.


Anti-fascism is opposition to fascist ideologies, groups and individuals. The anti-fascist movement began in a few European countries in the 1920s, and eventually spread to other countries around the world. It was at its most significant shortly before and during World War II, where the fascist Axis powers were opposed by many countries forming the Allies of World War II and dozens of resistance movements worldwide. Anti-fascism has been an element of movements holding many different political positions, including social democratic, nationalist, liberal, conservative, communist, Marxist, capitalist, anarchist, socialist, and centrist viewpoints.

Battle of Guadalajara

The Battle of Guadalajara (March 8–23, 1937) saw the People's Republican Army (Ejército Popular Republicano, or EPR) defeat Italian and Nationalist forces attempting to encircle Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces involved in the Battle of Guadalajara were primarily the Italian Corps of Volunteer Troops (Corpo Truppe Volontarie, or CTV).

The battle opened with an Italian offensive on 8 March. This offensive was halted by 11 March. Between 12 March and 14 March, renewed Italian attacks were supported by Spanish Nationalist units. These were halted too. On 15 March, a Republican counter-offensive was prepared. The Republicans successfully launched their counter-offensive from 18 March to 23 March.

Battle of Jarama

The Battle of Jarama (February 6–27, 1937) was an attempt by General Francisco Franco's Nationalists to dislodge the Republican lines along the river Jarama, just east of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War. Elite Spanish Legionnaires and Moroccan Regulares from the Army of Africa forced back the Republican Army of the Centre, including the International Brigades, but after days of fierce fighting no breakthrough was achieved. Republican counterattacks along the captured ground likewise failed, resulting in heavy casualties to both sides.

British Battalion

The British Battalion (1936–1938) was the 16th battalion of the XV International Brigade, one of the mixed brigades of the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War.

Connolly Column

The Connolly Column (Spanish: Columna Connolly, Irish: Colún Uí Chonghaile) is a phrase retroactively applied to a group of Irish republican socialist volunteers who fought for the Second Spanish Republic in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. They were named after James Connolly, the executed leader of the Irish Citizen Army. They were a company-strength unit of the American Lincoln Battalion of the XV International Brigade, formed from Irishmen who were earlier part of the British Battalion of the same Brigade.

Ernst Busch (actor)

Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Busch (22 January 1900 – 8 June 1980) was a German singer and actor.

Busch originated from a Kiel worker family. He started in life as a shipyard worker before he decided to make use of his acting and singing talent.Busch first rose to prominence as an interpreter of political songs, particularly those of Kurt Tucholsky, in the Berlin Kabarett scene of the 1920s. He starred in the original 1928 production of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, as well as the subsequent 1931 film by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. He also appeared in the movie Kuhle Wampe.

A lifelong communist, Busch fled Nazi Germany in 1933, accompanied by his wife, Eva and with the Gestapo on his heels, initially settling in the Netherlands. By 1938 they had divorced, without acrimony, as their lives diverged. Eva settled in Paris while Ernst initially made his home in the Soviet Union where he worked with Gustav von Wangenheim on the 1935 film "Kämpfer" ("Fighters"). In 1937 he joined the International Brigades to fight against the Nationalists in Spain. His wartime songs were then recorded and broadcast by Radio Barcelona and Radio Madrid. After the Spanish Republic fell to General Franco, Busch migrated to Belgium where he was interned during the German occupation and later imprisoned in Camp Gurs, France and Berlin. Freed by the Red Army in 1945, he settled in East Berlin, where he acted in the first play to be produced in the American-occupied zone, Robert Ardrey's Thunder Rock. He would go on to start his own record label and work with Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator at the "Berliner Ensemble". A beloved figure in the German Democratic Republic, he is best remembered for his performance in the title role of Brecht's Life of Galileo and his recordings of workers songs, including many written by Hanns Eisler. He also made a memorable recording of "Peat Bog Soldiers".

Ernst Thälmann

Ernst Thälmann (16 April 1886 – 18 August 1944) was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during much of the Weimar Republic. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Adolf Hitler's personal orders in 1944.

Freiheit (song)

"Freiheit", also known as "Spaniens Himmel" or "Die Thälmann-Kolonne", is a song written in 1936 by Gudrun Kabisch and Paul Dessau, German anti-fascists. The song was written for the International Brigades but later became a popular standard in Germany and in American communist and folk music communities. The title translates as "Freedom" in English.

Georg Hornstein

Georg Hornstein (8 December 1900 in Berlin - 3 September 1942 at the Buchenwald concentration camp) was a German-Jewish Resistance fighter during the period of National Socialism (nazism). His acknowledgement of his Jewish heritage, which he made in 1942 during one of his periods of captivity by the Gestapo, has been frequently proclaimed and used as an example of Jewish resistance to the National Socialist regime.

International Brigades

The International Brigades (Spanish: Brigadas Internacionales) were paramilitary units set up by the Communist International to assist the Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The organisation existed for two years, from 1936 until 1938. It is estimated that during the entire war, between 32,000 and 35,000 members served in the International Brigades, including 15,000 who died in combat; however, there were never more than 20,000 brigade members present on the front line at one time.The headquarters of the brigade was located at the Gran Hotel, Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha. They participated in the Battle of Madrid, Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Aragon and the Ebro. Most of these ended in defeat. For the last year of its existence, the International Brigades were integrated into the Spanish Republican Army as part of the Spanish Foreign Legion. The organisation was dissolved on 23 September 1938 by Spanish Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, in an attempt to get more support from the liberal democracies on the Non-Intervention Committee.

The International Brigades represented Comintern and Joseph Stalin's commitment to provide assistance to the Spanish Republican cause (with arms, logistics, military advisers and the NKVD), just as Fascist Italy, Corporatist Portugal and Nazi Germany were providing assistance to the opposing Nationalist insurgency. The largest number of volunteers came from France (where the French Communist Party had many members) and communist exiles from Italy and Germany. A large number of Jews from the English-speaking world and Eastern Europe also participated. Republican volunteers who were opposed to "Stalinism" did not join the Brigades but formed the separate Popular Front, the POUM, formed from Trotskyist, Bukharinist and other anti-Stalinist groups, which was composed of a mix of Spaniards and foreign volunteers (such as George Orwell) or anarcho-syndicalist groups such as the Durruti Column, the IWA and the CNT.

Lise Lindbæk

Lise Lindbæk (1 January 1905 – 13 March 1961) was a Norwegian freelance journalist and foreign correspondent, and writer of several books. She is commonly regarded as Norway's first female war correspondent.

List of German veterans of the International Brigades

Willi Bredel - Writer. Commissar of the Thälmann Battalion

Ernst Busch - Singer/songwriter/actor.

Ernst Buschmann - Section leader Hans Beimler Battalion, commander Edgar André Battalion

Franz Dahlem (in German), (14 Jan 1892-17 Dec 1981) - Political commissar, International Brigades

Friedrich Dickel (in German), (9 Dec 1013-22 Oct 1993) - DDR Minister of the Interior.

Julius Deutsch - General, International Brigades

Kurt Julius Goldstein - Editor-in-chief of the major radio station Deutschlandsender

Herbert Grünstein – DDR - Deputy Minister of the Interior

Kurt Hager (24 Jul 1912-18 Sep 1998) -Politburo member

Erich Henschke – Editor-in-chief of Berliner Zeitung

Karl-Heinz Hoffmann – General of the Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army) XI International Brigade

Max Kahane – Journalist. Editor of Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst

Hans Kahle (in German) – Divisional commander

Alfred Kantorowicz (12 Aug 1899-27 Mar 1979) - Author

Frieda Kantorowicz - Wife of author and International Brigades administrator

Egon Erwin Kisch - German-Czech journalist and writer

Karl Mewis (in German), (22 Nov 1907-3 Jan 1987) – District Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. Political commissar, International Brigades.

Ewald Munschke - Major General, Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army)

Alfred Neumann (15 Dec 1909-8 Jan 2001) - Politburo member

Erich Mielke (28 Dec 1907-21 May 2000) – Head of the Stasi

Josef Raab (in German) - German resistance leader

Heinrich Rau - Communist, German resistance leader

Ludwig Renn - German writer. Section leader XI International Brigade

Heinrich Schürmann (in German) - Commander Edgar André Battalion

Richard Staimer (in German) - Commander Thälmann Battalion

Toni Stemmler (in German) - Communist, Section leader

Georg Stibi (in German), (25 Jul 1901-30 May 1982) - Journalist. Editor of Berliner Zeitung

Bodo Uhse - Writer

Paul Verner (26. Apr 1911-12 Dec 1986) – Politburo member XV International Brigade

Wilhelm Zaisser - General "Gomez" - 1937 military leader of the international forces. First head of the Stasi

Pete Seeger

Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene", which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, Seeger re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture, and environmental causes.

A prolific songwriter, his best-known songs include "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (with Lee Hays of the Weavers), and "Turn! Turn! Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement. "Flowers" was a hit recording for the Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963) while the Byrds had a number one hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in 1965.

Seeger was one of the folk singers responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song", Seeger said it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome".

Second Battle of the Corunna Road

The Second Battle of the Corunna Road (Spanish: Batalla de la Carretera de Coruña) was a battle of the Spanish Civil War that took place from 13 December 1936 to 15 January 1937, northwest of Madrid. In December 1936, the Nationalists launched an offensive in order to cut the Corunna Road and isolate Madrid, but a Republican counter-offensive stopped the Nationalist advance. The Nationalists cut the Corunna road but failed to encircle Madrid.

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War (Spanish: Guerra Civil Española) took place from 1936 to 1939. Republicans loyal to the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with the Anarchists and Communists, fought against the Nationalists, an alliance of Falangists, Monarchists, and Catholics, led by General Francisco Franco. Due to the international political climate at the time, the war had many facets, and different views saw it as class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counterrevolution, between fascism and communism. The Nationalists won the war in early 1939 and ruled Spain until Franco's death in November 1975.

The war began after a pronunciamiento (a declaration of military opposition) against the Republican government by a group of generals of the Spanish Republican Armed Forces, originally under the leadership of José Sanjurjo. The government at the time was a moderate, liberal coalition of Republicans, supported in the Cortes by communist and socialist parties, under the leadership of centre-left President Manuel Azaña. The Nationalist group was supported by a number of conservative groups, including the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, or CEDA), monarchists, including both the opposing sides of Alfonsists and the religious conservative Carlists, and the Falange Española de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (FE y de las JONS), a fascist political party. Sanjurjo was killed in an aircraft accident while attempting to return from exile in Portugal, whereupon Franco emerged as the leader of the Nationalists.

The coup was supported by military units in the Spanish protectorate in Morocco, Pamplona, Burgos, Zaragoza, Valladolid, Cádiz, Córdoba, and Seville. However, rebelling units in some important cities—such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, and Málaga—did not gain control, and those cities remained under the control of the government. Spain was thus left militarily and politically divided. The Nationalists and the Republican government fought for control of the country. The Nationalist forces received munitions, soldiers, and air support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while the Republican side received support from the Soviet Union and Mexico. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, continued to recognise the Republican government, but followed an official policy of non-intervention. Notwithstanding this policy, tens of thousands of citizens from non-interventionist countries directly participated in the conflict. They fought mostly in the pro-Republican International Brigades, which also included several thousand exiles from pro-Nationalist regimes.

The Nationalists advanced from their strongholds in the south and west, capturing most of Spain's northern coastline in 1937. They also besieged Madrid and the area to its south and west for much of the war. After much of Catalonia was captured in 1938 and 1939, and Madrid cut off from Barcelona, the Republican military position became hopeless. Madrid and Barcelona were occupied without resistance, Franco declared victory and his regime received diplomatic recognition from all non-interventionist governments. Thousands of leftist Spaniards fled to refugee camps in southern France. Those associated with the losing Republicans were persecuted by the victorious Nationalists. With the establishment of a dictatorship led by General Franco in the aftermath of the war, all right-wing parties were fused into the structure of the Franco regime.The war became notable for the passion and political division it inspired and for the many atrocities that occurred, on both sides. Organised purges occurred in territory captured by Franco's forces so they could consolidate their future regime. A significant number of killings also took place in areas controlled by the Republicans. The extent to which Republican authorities took part in killings in Republican territory varied.

Willi Bredel

Willi Bredel (2 May 1901 – 27 October 1964) was a German writer and president of the DDR Academy of Arts, Berlin. Born in Hamburg, he was a pioneer of socialist realist literature.

XI International Brigade

The XI International Brigade fought for the Spanish Second Republic in the Spanish Civil War.

It would become especially renowned for providing desperately needed support in the darkest hours of the Republican defense of Madrid on 8 November 1936, when, with great losses, it helped repulse a major assault by veteran Nationalist troops, buying time for more Republican troops to be brought into the city.

Political parties

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