75th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War

How Canada's Foreign Enlistment Act
Criminalized the Anti-Fascist Volunteers

The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and Dr. Norman Bethune, outstanding
Canadian participants in the Spanish Civil War.

July 18, 2011, marked the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, fought between the people's forces or Republicans who had been elected to govern, and the fascist "Nationalist" forces, led militarily by General Francisco Franco (see TML, July 16, 2011). Franco was openly assisted militarily and financially by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The people's forces were aided by anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world, including Canadians of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XVth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. Battalion members came from all parts of Canada and were almost wholly working class. About one-third were of Ukrainian origin. 1,546 people volunteered to go, including Dr. Norman Bethune, a communist medical doctor from Montreal who invented the mobile blood unit on the Spanish battlefield, and died helping the wounded in 1939 near the end of the Anti-Japanese Anti-Fascist War led by the Communist Party of China. The Mac-Pap volunteers felt that they had to defy their government's unjust law in order to stand up against fascism in Spain and defend the rights of the peoples of the world.

While the Canadian people supported the anti-fascist forces in Spain in both words and deeds, the Canadian ruling circles supported the fascist forces by declaring Canada's "neutrality". In April 1937, the Mackenzie King Liberal government passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, based on the British Imperial Foreign Enlist Act [1870] which extended to all Dominions. The 1937 Act stipulates that it is an "Offence to enlist with a foreign state at war with a friendly state" and that "any person who, being a Canadian national, within or outside Canada, voluntarily accepts or agrees to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly foreign state or, whether a Canadian national or not, within Canada, induces any other person to accept or agree to accept any commission or engagement in any such armed forces is guilty of an offence." In practice, the declaration of "neutrality" by Canada, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and other countries gave the Franco forces free rein to more viciously attack the Spanish people and set the stage for the Nazi invasion of Europe.

The two main internal forces for "neutrality" in Canada were the Canadian industrialists who had financial interests in Spain, such as the Barcelona Traction electrical utility (later taken over by Franco's multimillionaire backer, Juan March), and the reactionary hierarchy of the Catholic Church which was a major landowner in Spain. In passing the Foreign Enlistment Act in 1937, the King government was also kowtowing to their old masters in Britain and their new masters in the United States,[1] both of whom had also pushed through "neutrality" legislation. Both the UK and U.S. had big investments in Spain and profited directly from supporting Franco.[2] Mackenzie King was also a rabid anti-communist, a fascist sympathizer who praised Mussolini, and an admirer of Hitler. He visited Germany in June 1937 and stated in a memorandum that he was "very favorably impressed" by Hitler's assurances that Germany would not go to war in Europe, even as Nazi Germany had thousands of men and tons of war material already engaged in Spain on behalf of General Franco.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines neutrality as "the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality." In practice, however, those capitalist governments who declare neutrality in words do not act neutrally and do not enforce neutrality in deeds. Instead they do whatever is profitable. Switzerland declared "neutrality" during the Second World War, but the Swiss banks were a haven for Nazi plunder. Sweden also declared neutrality during the Second World War, but SKF, a monopoly owned by Sweden's leading finance capitalist, Marcus Wallenberg, provided the Nazis with a reliable supply of ball bearings crucial to waging aggressive war. As a result, the financial oligarchies in both Switzerland and Sweden emerged from the war with huge increases in their wealth. Similarly, during the Spanish Civil War, the declaration of "neutrality" by the King government was totally phony because in practice everything was done to try to protect the profits of the monopolies, while nothing was done to oppose Franco's forces.

Canada's Foreign Enlistment Act made the anti-fascist workers' volunteering to fight against fascism in Spain into a criminal act, to be punished immediately with jail terms and to be punished for generations after by denial of any claim of pensionable military service. The passports of the 1,300 Canadian volunteers were confiscated and the RCMP opposed their re-entry into Canada. Only 646 ever returned. Far from acclaiming these true working class heroes for resisting fascism, the Canadian government and media of the day demonized their political motivations and beliefs. The ruling circles supported the fascists, just as they do today, while criminalizing the anti-fascists, just as they do today. Julio Alvarez del Vayo, who was Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republican government during most of the civil war, summed up "... the whole saga of non-intervention" as follows: "It was the finest example of the art of handing victims over to the aggressor States, while preserving the perfect manners of a gentleman and at the same time giving the impression that peace is the one objective and consideration."[3]

Subsequent Canadian governments have followed Mackenzie King's policy of phony neutrality in order to support the most reactionary forces. Although the "neutrality" of the Foreign Enlistment Act made it illegal for Canadians to enlist in conflicts where the Canadian government was not a participant, and still applies to this day, Canada announced on March 1, 1940, that citizens were free to enlist in the Finnish armed forces, which were collaborating with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. On May 18, 1948, the Canadian cabinet decided that the question of application of the Foreign Enlistment Act to Palestine should be deferred so as to facilitate the military recruiting of Canadian nationals to suppress the Palestinians. In the 1960s and 70s, over 100 Canadians "illegally" enlisted with U.S. forces in the aggression against Vietnam. Finally, the recent Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin did not charge Zionist groups with violating this law when they set up recruitment tables for the Israeli Armed Forces at Concordia University and some other campuses. TML Daily pointed out at the time, "This shows that the Canadian ruling circles persist in their highly selective and self-serving definitions of  what political aim Canadians shall be permitted to volunteer to serve..."[4]

Today, the Harper government continues the blatant use of high sounding, self-serving definitions such as "neutrality" to support interventions on behalf of the fascist and imperialist forces and to oppose anyone who stands against them. The Harper government has attacked those Canadians who support the Palestinians as being "provocative", while allowing Israel to recruit Canadians into the Israeli Army to commit crimes against the Palestinian people. Resistance movements that fight for the interests of the people have been falsely labeled as "terrorist" and support for them has been criminalized, while a blind eye is turned to countries that carry out state terrorism against their own and other peoples. The Canadian military is sent to sovereign countries such as Haiti, Afghanistan and Libya to oppress, kill and bomb people under ever new disguises such as "responsibility to protect," "fighting terrorism", and "humanitarian intervention," while those who dissent against such ventures are spied on and repressed. Just as his predecessor Mackenzie King did during the Spanish Civil War by claiming "neutrality," Harper shamelessly uses the Canadian people's strong sentiment for peace and non-intervention to try to establish Canada as a supporter of the world's most reactionary forces.

Canadians defied this in 1936 by valiantly participating in the Republican Army's 15th Brigade and they continue to stand against all crimes against peace today.


1. Mackenzie King worked for the Rockefeller Foundation from 1914-18 to help whitewash John D. Rockefeller's role in the 1913 massacre of the striking Ludlow miners and to help Rockefeller draft a set of policies and principles to undermine the militancy of labour and to facilitate its collaboration with capital. David Rockefeller stated at one time that Mackenzie King was his father's "best friend."

2. Examples include British-owned Rio Tinto's mining interests, U.S.-owned ITT's Telefonika utility, sales of gasoline to Franco by the Texas Oil Company, and the sales of 12,000 military trucks to Franco by Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors. José Maria Doussinague, who was undersecretary at the Spanish Foreign Ministry, said, "without American petroleum and American trucks, and American credit, we could never have won the Civil War."

3. Del Vayo, Freedom's Battle, p. 252.

4. The Media's "Working-Class Heroes" in Afghanistan, TML Daily, May 4, 2006, No. 73.

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The Song of Songs: Memorial Concert
Dedicated to the Anti-Fascist Resistance

London, July 16, 2011

E'en as the sweetest note is born of pain,
So shall the song of songs be born in Spain.
- T.E. Nicholas

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the commencement of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and celebrate the heroes of the Republic and of the International Brigades, a concert of music, film and poetry was held at the historic Bridewell Hall in central London, England on Saturday, July 16.

The music was specially written for the occasion by the four composers Michael Chant, Robert Coleridge, Hugh Shrapnel and John White, while two new films had been produced by Stuart Monro. Marlene Sidaway, President of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, read poems by Dave Marshall, one of the first Englishmen to go to Spain to fight to defeat fascism and assist in creating a new society. Some of these poems formed the narrative to the film "The Planet Tilts," a tribute to the International Brigaders. A banner "No Pasarán!" was displayed at the front of the hall, while a painting inspired by the struggle was also exhibited.

The greatest culture arises out of ordinary people immersing themselves in the struggle for the progress of society, never conciliating with those forces who want to block and crush this progress, rising to the occasion and so making history by performing extraordinary deeds. This was the essence of the introduction to the concert by Michael Chant, welcoming all the participants. This is the meaning of "The Song of Songs," the theme of the poem "In Remembrance of a Son of Wales (Who Fell in Spain)" by T.E. Nicholas, "Niclas y Glais." In this way, the content of the music and the videos paid tribute today to the spirit of those who took a stand against war and fascism, not only from 1936-1939 but also in the defeat of Nazi fascism in the Second World War, by creating something new and vital and pointing to the future, the dawn of a new humanity.

The short film "In the Dawn" set the scene, combining images of the fallen of the International Brigades with the hills around the Ebro river, set to the song "De Madrugada" sung by Cornelius Cardew accompanied by People's Liberation Music. The melody of this music arises again in triumph at the end of the concert out of the theme of "Ay Carmela," the song of the Fifteenth (the International) Brigade, played by the musicians of the Madrugada Ensemble at the conclusion of the work "The Song of Songs" by Michael Chant, ending the concert on this uplifting note and symbolizing what has been given birth to out of the intensity of the struggle in Spain. "Ay Carmela" was sung prior to this final piece in a powerful arrangement for voice and strings by Hugh Shrapnel.

Piano works by John White and Robert Coleridge were included in the concert. That by John White reflected the systematic destruction of Guernica, followed by a quiet, sustained, reflection on the devastation. Guernica, in the Basque country, was bombed during the course of the war by warplanes of the German Luftwaffe, one of the first acts of aggression on a defenceless civilian population. The work by Robert Coleridge, performed by the composer, was deeply influenced by the content of poems by John Cornford. Poet and committed communist Cornford died on or around his 21st birthday while fighting with political idealism and revolutionary spirit in Spain.

The concert included two substantial works for the Madrugada Ensemble by Michael Chant and Hugh Shrapnel. The vivid composition "Tomorrow's Seed" by Hugh Shrapnel expresses in music the lines of the poem by Langston Hughes: "The mighty roots of liberty/Push upward in the dark/To burst in flame." The piece includes a setting of the poem "Tomorrow's Seed", beautifully and hauntingly sung by Emily Underwood. The work by Michael Chant, "The Song of Songs," took its inspiration from the poem by T. E. Nicholas, rendering it into music twice to begin and end the concert, moving from the images of war to the necessity and inevitability of the final victory of the anti-fascist forces.

The overwhelming sentiment of the audience and performers at the end of the concert was one of celebration, of touching on aspects of the human personality which they were not fully aware of possessing. To look in depth at the history and the ideals of the Spanish Civil War and give rise to new cultural works gave everyone a more profound grasp of the well-springs and legacy of this conflict, and was an inspiration to join in unity to prevent such tragedies happening in the future and to build a society consonant with the ideals of those who went to Spain to fight to defend the rights of the people and to defeat fascism once and for all.

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July 30, 2011 Bulletin • Return to Index • Write to: editor@cpcml.ca