Daily Archives: November 30, 2013

Latvians in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

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Cover of the book about the Latvian Fighters in the Spanish civil war

On July 18 Spanish radio station issued a signal “Over all of Spain, the sky is clear”. It was a code phrase that started the right-wing nationalist coup against the left-wing Popular Front government that also was allied with Catalan and Basque nationalists. For three years Spain erupted in all out civil war between the fascist National Alliance and the Republican Alliance an alliance between communists, anarchists, republicans and Basque and Catalan national fighters. As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to support the Francisco Franco lead fascist forces, Soviet Union supported the republicans. While France and United Kingdom claimed neutrality, large numbers of volunteers from the western countries arrived at Spain to fight the republican cause. George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway were one of the most known.  And there were many Latvians from Latvia and the Soviet Union who came to Spain to support the republicans. For the most part they were on the communist side. Latvian authoritarian regime claimed neutrality and tried to prevent Latvian volunteers from reaching Spain. However, there are many stories about Latvians and Latvian Jews and Latvians from Soviet Union who took direct part in the war. This is a small collection of these.

On 1930 Spanish King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. A Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed. As in every new democratic republic Spain became involved in political struggle with various political forces looking to seize power. Republican party together with Socialists tried to install various reforms limiting the power of the army and widespread secularization angering Catholic community. Anarcho-Syndicalists and radical communists had their own paramilitary units. Among ethnic Basques and Catalans a strong will of national sovereignty was eminent. That caused the conservative forces among Spanish army and Catholics to gather under Fascist slogans.

Weakened by the unstable governments, anti-Catholic riots, military coup attempts, on 1936 left-wing parties including Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM, independent communist) and the republicans: Republican Left (IR), (led by Azaña) and Republican Union Party (UR), led by Diego Martínez Barrio joined in Popular Alliance and secured a narrow victory. Right wing nationalist Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups faced defeat. A left-wing government led by socialists took power. Meanwhile in Catalonia and  Basque land that enjoyed vast autonomy became dominated by left-wing radicals, armed trade unions, Trotskyists and anarchists. Spanish socialists faced a split after radical leftists lead by Francisco Largo Caballero demanding socialist revolution left the united cause. In growing tension a shot that killed the conservative leader Hose Kalvo Sotelo on July 13 1936 triggered the full-scale civil war.

A few days later the best Spanish military units located in Spanish protectorate of Morocco started uprising. On July 18 a full-scale nationalist uprising took place in mainland Spain. Reactionary army units, together with Fascist Falange movement and monarchists took over vast regions of Andalusia, Seville, Navarra. The cities of Saragossa, Salamanca, Burgos and the Canarian Islands were taken over by them. However, Madrid, Barcelona and other parts of Spain was still in the  hands of central government. The commander of Morocco Spanish units Francisco Franco soon became the leader of the Nationalist forces.

While UK and France looking to avoid a new world war in all costs claimed neutrality, Nazi Germany together with Italy saw the Spanish conflict as possibility to test their military capabilities. Same went for Soviet Union who used the chance to become the main supporter of the Republican alliance. In long run it turned out that support from Moscow actually ruined the Republican efforts. Also the rather cowardly stance of UK and France was to blame.

Meanwhile Latvia itself had been ruled by authoritarian dictator Kārlis Ulmanis since 1934. Ulmanis regime although more lighter and liberal was hostile to both radical right and left-wing movements. Latvian government declared full neutrality in the Spanish matter and on February 23 1937 banned Latvian citizens from taking part in the war. However, Latvia was no stranger to radical leftist movements. With the help of illegal Latvian Communist Party and the Communist Internationale in Moscow, many Latvian citizens joined the International Brigades.

According to Soviet intelligence reports 862 people from all three Baltic states came to Spain. 179 of them fell in battle 21% of all count. Baltic fighters suffered the most casualties within all foreign volunteers.  According to some sources 120 Latvians and 25 Latvians from USSR joined the Republican cause. Most Latvians joined in united International Brigade Artillery units. 13th Dombrovsky International Brigade 6th Slavic antitank battery Latvians formed a group named after poet Leon Paegle. Other Latvian artillery unit was formed within 1st Slavic heavy artillery squadron 3th Kolorov Bulgarian battery. The group was named after Janis – Jansnons-Brauns the Latvian revolutionary. 16 Latvians took part in 15th International brigade Dimitrov battalion.

The International Brigade 20th battalion was commanded by Major Georgs Boziņs. His adjutant was lieutenant Fricis Pūce. Assisted by the communist party he left Latvia in secret to avoid draft in the Latvian army. In Paris, France a hub of communications and assistance was organized by Latvian citizen Masja Zilberman.

Jānis Bērziņš on the soviet postmark

Jānis Bērziņš on the soviet postmark

One if the most notable Latvians who took direct part was Jānis Bērziņš the head of the Soviet Foreign Intelligence.  As he arrived at Madrid on 1936 and became advisor to José Miaja – the main commander of the Republican army. Along with him the aviation specialist Dāvids Beika, artillery specialist Vilhelms Kumelāns, intelligence advisors Artūrs Sproģis Kristaps Saliņš.

Jānis Bērziņš or General Grishin as they called him in Russia, was famous Russian Civil War veteran. For many years he led the Soviet military intelligence and is regarded as many as the main designer of the soviet spy net across the world. His methods in recruiting, spying, coded message system helped the soviet to take the lead in the intelligence warfare.

Bērziņš helped the Republicans defend Madrid on 1936 -1937. However, his reports to Moscow where he accused the soviet diplomats treating the Spain as a Soviet colony angered Joseph Stalin. Despite awarded with the Order of Lenin he was shot as many other Latvians during the 1938 purge. Many Latvians from Soviet Union who returned to Spain at this time perished along him. With exception of Arturs Sproģis who survived the purge and took part in the WW2 by training and commanding the soviet commandos.

Other Latvian from Soviet Union Pēteris Tiltiņš  lived in Riga when he joined the communists on 1920. He then moved to France to study radio equipment and as French communist party member changed his name to Paul Armane. Posing as actor of Jelgava Drama Theater he took part in the communist underground within Latvia and France.  His brother Alfrēds Tiltiņš was a soviet resident spy in US and UK. Later Pēteris arrived at USSR and emerged as a commander of 4th army mechanized corps. And in Spain he lead the soviet tanks. On 1936 October 28 his T-26 tanks faced the Italian “Ansaldo” light tancettes. Some soviet history books even called this event as first known tank battle in history. He was awarded with the title of the Soviet Hero, first tank commander in USSR. He also escaped the purge and died in 1943 August 7 near Leningrad.

Spanish Republican General Voldemārs Ozols

Spanish Republican General Voldemārs Ozols

One of the most known Latvian volunteers from Latvia was colonel Voldemārs Ozols. Ozols started as first class officer in Petersburg War school. He made his name in the WWI Eastern Front. First as Staff Captain in the Caucasus front where he organized the Armenian national units and lead  the capture of Van and Erzerum. On 1916 by his own demand he was dispatched to Latvian rifleman units and directed the 2th Latvian Rifleman Brigade in the Christmas Battles of 1917. He was awarded and promoted as junior colonel. After the 1917 February revolution he was elected as the head of the Latvian Rifleman united executive soviet committee. Or Iskolatstrel that was dominated by Bolsheviks. He however, resigned and returned to 12th Russian army staff and asked to form united Latvian corps removing the Bolshevik supporters. He was turned down and he left the army.

When Latvia was invaded by Bolsheviks on 1918, he arrived at Latvia and asked to join the Latvian army. He was however, rejected because of his involvement with Bolsheviks on 1917 and accused of spying. He was arrested, but released because of  the lack of evidence. He moved to Estonia and joined the Estonian forces. By his help the Latvian North Latvian Brigade was organized that defeated the Germans near Cēsis on 1919. However, he was still distrusted by Latvian generals and the Provisional government. He left the Estonian army and then shortly joined the Lithuanian army and took part in Lithuanian – Polish conflict.

Disappointed, about his rejection and mistrust Ozols opposed the Latvian democratic system. He became the leader of the right-wing nationalist movement “Legion”. His movement was very similar to Francoist movement as it involved demobilized generals and he was planning to  overthrow the democratic government. The “Legion” became pursued by the Latvian Secret Police on 1933. On 1934 Kārlis Ulmanis who deposed the government used him as scapegoat to justify the takeover.

Ozols was exiled and lived in Estonia and Lithuania. His attempts to organize the Legion underground struggle failed and he was arrested for entering Latvia again on 1934. After spending time in prison he was exiled again in 1936. He went to Paris and became involved with Latvians who organized the International Brigades against Franco’s Fascists. Voldemārs Ozols who once strived to create fascist type government now took part in battle against Spanish fascist forces. In Spain he was ranked as General and served as reserve forces instructor. Republicans however also mistrusted him and on 1937 arrested him. The Failed Latvian Franco was however released by the help of Latvian social democrat Fēliks Cielēns. And then Ozols joined the Soviet secret service and as agent Zola worked in France. He survived the WWII within France and returned to Latvia as lecturer in Latvian State University in Faculty of Geography. Such was the story of the Latvian Military adventurer – from the officer in the Russian Imperial Army to foreign spy in Soviet secret service. In Latvia he desired to make his own nationalist military coup while in Spain he was fighting against nationalist militants. A truly exceptional personality in Latvian history.

Latvian movie about Spanish Civil war "Nocturne" on 1966

Latvian movie about Spanish Civil war “Nocturne” on 1966

During the Soviet times a well-known Latvian literate was Žanis Grīva, also a volunteer in the Republican forces. He came trough all front lines and ended up in French front lines. He returned on 1940 after Soviet occupation and later fought the Nazis in the Eastern Front. As veteran after the war he published many books about Latvians in the Spanish civil war from the Soviet point of view. On 1966 one of his novels about the Civil war “Nocturne” was adapted on the movie of the same name.

Latvian citizen Harijs Tranzē book about his fight for Francos army

Latvian citizen Harijs Tranzē book about his fight for Francos army

There was one known Latvian citizen who fought on the Franco’s side. Harijs Tranzē an heir of Baltic German noble family arrived at Berlin, Germany at the Nationalist Spain consulate. He served in Spain for nine months and wrote memoirs about it.

Among Latvian nationals who went to Spain, many were Jews. Most of them were convinced communists. 14 of them fell in battle. Those who survived took part in WWII on the Soviet side. Baron Abram Solmonovitch was convinced communist and spend time communist underground also in Czechoslovakia. When he was called to serve in Latvian army on 1935 he left Prague and carried out his duty despite his communist conviction. On 1936 he joined the International Brigade. He served there until his death in Aragon front on 1938. Kur Chaimanovitch survived the war and on 1939 entered France and was detained by the French authorities. He was denied to go back to Latvia. He returned only on February 1941. As Germans invaded he joined the Latvian Red Riflemen division and fell in battle near Moscow in 1942.  Permand Chaim Davidovich also survived the war and was in the French detention camp. He returned to Latvia after it was occupied by the Soviet Union. Žanis Grīva helped him to escape Germans and both joined the Latvian red divisions. He also survived the both one of few to do so.

The Republican forces failed to defeat the Nationalist forces. There was no valid support from France and UK, while Germany and Italy sent bombing raids and equipped Fascists with best weapons. Republicans were abused by devious Stalin’s policies, on 1939 Stalin was now looking to ally with Nazi Germany. So all the support from Moscow was halted. On February France and UK recognized the Franco government. On March 28 Madrid was taken without a fight. Valencia was last to surrender. On April 1 1939 war was officially over.

Hitler’s gamble on Franco later backfired. Franco refused to join the Axis forces and refused to attack Gibraltar that belonged to British. Had the Spain joined the Axis forces the outcome of the North African front would be different.  Francoist victory was a disaster for Catalans and Basques. Barcelona was ravaged by the conflicting anarchists and fascists. Catalan national autonomy was suppressed for many decades. Basques who suffered heavy casualties continued the national struggle in the means of terrorism against the post-Francoist government. The scars of the Civil War are clearly visible today. As Catalan national forces are looking to restore their independence by civil legal means, the Madrid government has shown a Franco style hostile reaction. The passion for Franco is still present in Spain and is masked by unionism. Despite the long distance Latvia has long-lasting historical connection with Spain and Catalonia and this connection is still needed today and in the future.

Selected Sources: 

Latvijas cīnītāji Spānijā : 1936-1939 : Atmiņas un dokumenti. (1966) LKP CK Partijas vēst. inst. PSKP CK Marksisma-ļeninisma inst. filiāle ; [Red. kol.: S. Ziemelis (atb. red.) u.c.]. Rīga : Liesma

Daukšts, Bonifācijs (2013) Kopveža Voldemāra Ozola kara gaitas un politiskā evolūcija.Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

Ватер, Ева.(2006) Евреи Латвии в борьбе с нацизмом. Latvian Jews in fight against Nazism Иерасулим

Рочко, Иосиф.(2010) Евреи в Латгалии. Исторические очерки. Кн. 1. Даугавпилс: Музей «Евреи в Даугавпилсе и Латгалии» Даугавпилсской религозной обшины и еврейского обшества.

Latvieši Spānijas piloņu kara ellē. Ilustrētā Vēsture. 2011. Nr. 39

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