No matter our methods, approaches and interpretations, all historians of the International Brigades spend a lot of time doing the same thing: counting. Trying to establish just how many foreigners fought for the Spanish Republic – not to mention who they were and where they came from – is always a tortuous but necessary process. Even within the various national groups, there can be some quite startling variation in numbers given by different accounts.

Numbers were a constant subject of discussion at a workshop I recently attended at the University of Leeds. The matter came to a head during a presentation from researchers at INSMLI, discussing their work creating a database of the thousands of Italians who went to Spain. Similar, albeit generally less intricate, databases exist for many national groups, begging the question of why there isn’t a central, international database that could amalgamate existing efforts? Why, in other words, do we still need to spend so much of our time counting?

history-444816_1280Qualitative discipline, my arse.

Part of the problem, as Richard Baxell pointed out in the discussion, is technical – you can’t just copy and paste together a bunch of databases using different platforms and measuring different variables. An attempt at amalgamating existing knowledge of the International Brigades does in fact already exist – SIDBRINT – but lacks the depth and functionality of many other databases, and covers less than 20,000 individuals. A worthy effort, but not the single, definitive resource that should be possible.

The other half of the problem, though, is how we count International Brigaders in the first place. When it comes to my own group, the Scots, there are several existing estimates, ranging from 437 to 549. The latter figure, first given by Baxell in 2004, has become relatively settled upon as definitive, to the extent that ‘549’ was used as the title of a play about Scottish volunteers from Prestonpans. Yet the methodology behind these estimates is often not particularly transparent, so it’s worth exploring a bit how such figures are deduced.

549-Wonder+Fools+32Photo (C) Wonderfools

The first piece of the puzzle is deciding who should be regarded as ‘Scottish’. Is it anyone born in Scotland, or anyone living in Scotland at the time they went to Spain? Using both inevitably means including volunteers who could also reasonably be counted as English. This is to say nothing of those who moved overseas – is a Scottish migrant to Canada still Scottish? Their offspring? One study of the Irish volunteers included second-generation Irish migrants, so it’s hardly unprecedented – but all of these variables mean that counting the International Brigades simply by adding up ‘national’ totals is going to lead to a lot of double-counting.

Ultimately, this decision comes down to the purpose of the study. Many err on the side of inclusiveness, for good and bad reasons. A good reason is avoiding replicating categorisations from the period – not just of nationality, but status. Should a nurse be counted as a volunteer? Should someone who fought with an anarchist militia? Saying yes makes for a more socially and politically inclusive list, but also starts to inflate the numbers involved. This opens the door to bad reasons – the conscious or unconscious desire to get a bigger number, thereby inflating the importance of your national group and by extension your own work.

In my case, I chose a definition that suited the purpose of the study, but actually reduced the number of Scots counted. For me, the most important category was not some sort of inherent, inborn Scottishness, but the extent that specific Scottish political cultures were important when it came to recruiting for Spain. Along with the ‘uncontroversial’ Scots (i.e. those who were born and lived only in Scotland), I include anyone, regardless of place of birth, who had substantial and direct experience of Scottish political life in the 1930s – joining a local political party, trade union branch, that sort of thing. This meant excluding the bulk of those who had moved away from Scotland early in life, but retaining some of those who moved away very soon before going to Spain, or who had demonstrably been part of the Scottish political scene before leaving. It also meant including a number of English-born individuals who had become immersed, one way or another, in Scottish political life before Spain.

My definition is far from perfect, not least because the sources don’t always make such fine distinctions possible, and in some cases can be flatly contradictory. I’ve tried to take a hierarchical approach to evidence to try and ensure consistency. For instance, I treated membership of a particular political party or trade union branch as especially important evidence of where someone came from, not least because my approach focuses so much on political cultures. For another, I’d take the next-of-kin address given on enrolment in Spain more seriously if it was for a wife than a parent, because it was more likely that the individual had actually been living at that address.

I also made the choice to exclude individuals for whom I can’t find independent confirmation of their being in Spain, unless there is a good reason for their absence from the source base (for instance, if their stay was cut very short either by death or medical rejection). This rules out quite a few individuals, including some who appeared to have elaborated their personal histories recounted to friends and family, and many more who were spied leaving Britain by the security services and wrongly suspected to be en route to Spain. I’ve also excluded Scots who didn’t volunteer for the International Brigades themselves – such as those who only served with medical groups like the Scottish Ambulance Unit, or with independent militia groups. This isn’t because these individuals aren’t interesting or worthy of study, but because they don’t fit well within my main remit of studying the International Brigades.

In the end, 520 Scots made the cut. While I could potentially have managed to include another hundred or more with different criteria, this is more than enough for my purposes – and still establishes the Scots as the major regional grouping within the British contingent, making up somewhere between 20-25% of the total. Depending, of course, on how you count the British…

3 thoughts on “Counting the International Brigades

  1. Interesting article. Thanks Frazer. Here in Canada the counts have ranged from 1200 early on, to almost 1800 today. Of course, even that most recent count, by Michael Petrou for his academic book, “Renegades, Canadians in the Spanish Civil War”, is fraught because so many immigrants came to Canada just prior to the Great Depression, including my father, Jim Higgins, whose memoir I am at a editing. He definitely counts because, though born in England, he had Canadian citizenship and a Canadian passport. Your blog post alerts me to the broader issues. Thanks. And thanks for following me on Twitter.


    1. Glad it was useful! I didn’t discuss Canada here for reasons of space, but as you note it is probably the total which has seen the most revision in the English-speaking (well, sort of!) world thanks to the unusual proportion of immigrants among the Canadian volunteers. Given that this is a distinctive feature of the Canadian contingent, it’s clear why studies such as Petrou’s would have wanted to adopt an expansive definition of ‘Canadian-ness’. But it does also highlight the limits of a strictly national perspective in studying the International Brigades – there are far too few recent books that try to substantially break that pattern.


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