Many of the 40,000 foreigners from 54 countries who came to fight fascism in Spain between 1936 and 1939 as soldiers, doctors or military advisors were immigrants and political exiles. Between 32,000 and 35,000 joined the International Brigades (BI), created by the Communist International.
The hybrid culture they personified was the antithesis of fascism. In fact, his experience in Spain helped shape a new transnational antifascist identity. But, as we have highlighted Maria Thomas and the author in a recent article, the cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity of BIs also posed serious challenges for the organization of the republican war effort.
The BIs brought a linguistic symphony to Spain that included, in addition to around 30 European languages, others that sounded more exotic to Western ears such as Turkish, Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. The reference to the Tower of Babel, the biblical story that underlines the divine decision to provoke a linguistic division in humanity, is recurring both in the internal reports of the BIs and in the memories of the volunteers.
On the one hand, the BI leadership stressed that this linguistic melting pot was the best representation of the new world that anti-fascism was trying to build beyond ethnic barriers. But on the other hand, they recognized that it presented enormous difficulties in practical terms, becoming a cacophony that caused high levels of confusion and misunderstanding.
Most of the leaders of the International Brigades were polyglots, and spoke among themselves in French, Spanish and Russian. In fact, the Russian became his sign of distinction from the elites of the BI, given that many had gained military experience in the Soviet Union. However, as the largest contingent of volunteers came from France – whether French or exiled – French initially became the official language of BI. The problem was that many volunteers who arrived in Spain did not understand French.
The BI organized quickly in mid-October 1936 and performed their baptism of fire only two weeks later to prevent the fascist occupation of Madrid. The participation of BIs was key in the defense of the capital, but it also highlighted the challenges of managing multi-linguistic units. Sometimes the orders had to be translated orally in up to three languages, causing inevitable misunderstandings in this chain of translations.
Some BI commanders noted since November 1936 that it was necessary to create homogeneous battalions in linguistic terms to reinforce military effectiveness on the battlefield. However, the leader of the BI, André Marty, was against this measure. Based on a utopian and idealistic vision, he defended that it was necessary to maintain multilingualism in order not to break the international unity of the Brigades.
This organization was maintained between November 1936 and March 1937. However, the linguistic problems generated in the Battle of Jarama convinced the high command of the BI that it was necessary to establish a new policy. In April 1937 the high command began to reorganize the soldiers, moving battalions between brigades, trying to gather groups based on the predominant languages: the 11 Brigade (German), the 12 Brigade (Italian) and the 14 Brigade (French) . At the same time, a new group of volunteers from Eastern Europe was created, who enjoyed greater polyglot ability given the multiethnic nature of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
However, the BI high command had to face a new linguistic challenge soon. Since February 1937, the BI units were accepting Spanish soldiers due to the lack of international volunteers to supply the battalions. In May, some battalions had more Spanish soldiers than foreigners, who were unaware of the official languages of each of the military units.
Given this situation, the BI high command decided to carry out a process of "Spanishization" of the battalions. The objective was to move from the existing linguistic policy towards bilingualism. Thus, the new brigades had to combine two official languages: Spanish-German (11 Brigade), Spanish-Italian (12 Brigade), Spanish-Slavic languages (13 Brigade), Spanish-French (14 Brigade) and Spanish-English (15 Brigade).
The new linguistic policy helped improve the military effectiveness of BIs, although communication difficulties remained during the rest of the war.
For this, the BI had the help of translators and interpreters, who tried to build communication bridges. Spanish courses were also offered for volunteers, although they were only mandatory in the 13 Brigade, where the predominant multilingualism favored language learning.
In addition to Spanish, Yiddish became another vehicular language among volunteers of different nationalities. In Spain many Yiddish speakers gathered who had fled from the fascist and authoritarian regimes of Eastern and Central Europe, along with others from the US. In fact, for many of these volunteers, their experience in Spain meant recovering the lost Yiddish from their childhood.
The multilingualism of the BIs generated enormous communication difficulties in practical terms, but also offered an opportunity to create a new slang and anti-fascist culture.
Many brigades ended up speaking a hybrid language that contained grammatical words and structures from different languages. In fact, numerous words in Spanish changed to their everyday vocabulary. Two of the most common words used by the brigade members were "health" and "comrade", which were incorporated into the international anti-fascist vocabulary.
During World War II, many brigades, along with their Spanish comrades, took this new anti-fascist language and identity to the concentration camps and resistance movements in their respective countries. On the lips of these "Spanci" – as the Brigadistas were called in various languages of Eastern Europe – this new hybrid language forged in Spain resonated through mountains, forests and deserts of Europe and North Africa.
The original version of this article was published in English at The Volunteer.
. (tagsToTranslate) Torre (t) Babel (t) antifascist (t) languages (t) Spanish