Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hidden Histories

This article originally appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 7, February 2011

Forgotten Stories from the Fight Against Fascism

75 years ago this year, in Spain, a group of right-wing generals, led by Franco, launched an offensive against the democratically elected Republican government. They were aided in this by the Fascist regimes of Italy and Germany. The civil war that ensued lasted until 1939 and ended with the defeat of the Republicans, and a period of Fascist dictatorship that lasted until 1978.

One might not imagine that there was any direct connection between this traumatic period in Spanish history and Birmingham. But just a ten minute walk from New Street Station, in a quiet corner of the St Thomas Peace Garden on Bath Row, there is a plaque commemorating the volunteers from the city who joined the International Brigade, an ad hoc army of anti-fascists who converged upon Spain during those years, after Western democracies such as Britain and France refused to intervene, still clinging to the hope that appeasement might prevent a wider European conflict.

It is estimated that over 30,000 volunteers from over fifty countries fought in the Brigade. Of the 2,000 that came from the UK and Ireland over 500 lost their lives.

The inscription on the plaque reads –

‘In honour of the volunteers who left Birmingham to fight in the International Brigade, Spain 1936-1939.
They fought alongside the Spanish people to stop Fascism and save liberty and peace for all.
They went because their open eyes could see no other way.
No pasaran!’

These days the story of the International Brigade has largely slipped from popular consciousness. Anti-fascist history has a habit of doing this.

In the post-war period in Britain, the 43 Group, composed mainly of Jewish ex-servicemen were so successful in disrupting the activities of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists that they were a significant factor in the BUF’s eventual decline and disappearance.

In the eighties and early nineties, Anti-fascist Action provided such an effective physical opposition to the BNP that the party gave up trying to hold public marches or rallies. (An authorised history of Anti-fascist Action, Beating The Fascists, was published recently. It contains a section detailing the group's activities in the West Midlands and is well worth seeking out.)

But, however successful such groups are, they tend to remain almost unknown outside of left wing circles.

About twenty years ago, some friends and myself were involved in any number of left wing or anarchist projects, usually short-lived and usually centred around Zebedee’s vegetarian cafe in Saltley. A group of us would occasionally go out to leaflet some of the estates around Birmingham where the NF were still active. We would often be joined by one of the café’s regulars, an old guy called Ernie, and sometimes a mate of his, who had both actually been volunteers in the International Brigade. They were both affable, friendly guys who were happy to get involved with whatever was going on, but they never spoke in detail about that part of their lives and, as is the way with young, know-it-all idealists, it never occurred to us to ask.

Over time the café closed, the NF dwindled, and Ernie and his mate disappeared back to wherever they had come from, taking their untold stories with them.

It’s hard not to wonder what advice they might have had for anti-fascists today, when the far-right has arguably been more successful at reinventing itself than the left.

The BNP may still be small, but they have been growing steadily for over a decade, and if you believe their leader Nick Griffin, they are looking forward to the next general election when the credibility of all the mainstream parties is likely to be utterly threadbare.

So if you are ever in town with time on your hands then you could do worse than take a stroll up to the Peace Garden, have a look at the plaque, and remember that old saying about those who don’t know their history…


  1. Do you know me? So thrilled to see the name Zebedee's on tinternet. Eugene.

  2. Hi Eugene. Don't think we met, so guessing you were around during the earlier days of the cafe?

    I still see Dave S quite often, and Russ occasionally. Most of the other old co-op members are scattered around different parts of the country these days.

  3. Hello John,
    Our mutual friend, the big fella from Erdington, mentioned your book and I've subsequently spent the morning reading your blog. Seems voyeuristic of me but I've really enjoyed reading your posts. Hope you are well, healthy, happy and all that old comrade.

    1. Hi Neal. Nice to hear from you again. Hope all’s well with you too. Am living over in Stirchley now. Jess and kids are fine. Not really involved with anything these days. D was talking about meeting up sometime soon so might catch up with you then?