Josep Eduardo Almudéver Mateu, thought to be the last surviving member of the International Brigades who volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, died on Sunday, in Pamiers, France.
Almudéver died just two months before his 102nd birthday, but when he first joined the Pablo Iglesias Battalion of the Republican Army at 17, he lied about his age. He was injured at the Battle of Teruel, discovered, and sent home. His family had always been one of action and adventure; his mother was a circus performer and his father, a bricklayer, had been exiled to France for trying to burn down a church. Almudéver was born there, and was a French citizen. He used this status to enlist in the International Brigades, in which he served as a fighter and translator for the Garibaldi Brigades.
When the brigades made their final parade through the streets of Barcelona before being sent home in October 1938, Almudéver hopped on a boat and returned. This time, he signed up as a Spaniard and kept fighting. He watched as the Republic collapsed and refugees rushed to his home region of Valencia; he watched as Britain and France refused to transport them and many chose to end their own lives rather than live under fascism.
Almudéver stayed with his comrades and was captured, sentenced to death, and held in Franco’s concentration camps, where he watched his comrades be shot, starved, and tortured. He never knew if he was next. He was released in 1944, and promptly picked up his gun again and fought as a partisan against Franco until 1947.
International volunteers in the Spanish Civil War have been the subject of much of my own academic work. I had the great good fortune to meet some of them when I was the same age Almudéver had been when he went to war and to read their letters and diaries, and I’ve had the great privilege of telling some of their stories since. They’ve been remembered, when they are remembered at all, as either faultless heroes or naïvely ideological fools. They’d be the first to tell you they were neither, that war doesn’t make heroes but makes broken people, and that ideology was the only thing that stopped fascism in the streets of Barcelona and Madrid.
Roughly 45,000 men and women from more than 50 countries volunteered to stop the spread of fascism in Spain. Some of them were household names in their time and beyond, like Eric Arthur Blair (better known as George Orwell, who actually volunteered in a unit that was not part of the International Brigades), Willy Brandt, Memet Shehu (who fought alongside Almudéver in the Garibaldi Battallion) and David Alfaro Siquieros. Most of them were working-class people who saw what happened in Germany and Italy and decided that fascism had to stop in Spain.
At a time when much of the world was segregated along lines of race and gender, the earliest versions of the Republican militia were not. German and Italian leftists who had taken advantage of the generous asylum policies of Spain’s Second Republic formed units named after leftist leaders from their countries. They planned to defeat fascism in Spain and then liberate their own countries with their Spanish comrades. They were joined by Jewish anti-fascists, Irish Republicans, British trade unionists, and Chinese farmers.
The International Brigades were anti-fascist in a way that the Allied armies in World War II were not. Anti-fascist armies aren’t segregated by race; their officers are not selected on the basis of class. It’s fitting that almost a decade later the first soldiers to liberate Paris were not Tommies or GIs, but 120 Spanish anarchists who had escaped capture and continued their fight in the French Foreign Legion.
Units mixed races, religions, and languages, but increasingly became more doctrinaire communist as the war went on. In May 1937, hundreds of left-libertarian international volunteers, including Orwell, fought against authoritarian communists. If you’ve walked down La Rambla in Barcelona, you’ve walked through what was once a battle for the soul of the European left. There’s a Subway shop there now.
Many of the volunteers had fought in World War I or their own national independence struggles. They fought with rifles that in some cases were made in the U.S., sent to the czar of Russia, captured by the Bolsheviks, sold to Mexico, and then shipped to Spain, where they found their way into the hands of American volunteers.
The largest contingent in the brigades were, like Almudéver, French. At the time, France and Spain both had Popular Front governments that united socialists, liberals, communists, and some anarchists in opposition to fascism. The brigades represented a formalization of the earlier “centuria,” loosely nation-based militias that sprang up among German and Italian exiles and anti-fascists who were in Barcelona for the anti-fascist Popular Olympics—meant to counter Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics—in the days following the military coup against Spain’s elected government.
In the early months of the war, Western democracies made the decision to abandon the Republic, and fascist Germany and Italy made the decision to send men, planes, and arms to Franco’s nationalists. It was because of democracies’ nonintervention pact that Almudéver’s unit first made its way to the front with guns but no bullets. Ultimately, it was because of the fascists’ intervention that the Republic lost and Spanish democracy was destroyed. As Almudéver himself said, this wasn’t a civil war so much as a global conflict between democratic people and fascist governments.
Where their governments failed, citizens stepped up. In the battle of Madrid, International Brigadiers fought room to room and house to house. In the city’s Complutense University, they stacked books as barricades and coined the slogan no pasarán—“They shall not pass”—as they halted the Francoist forces and died in thousands. It’s a slogan that seemed more relevant than ever this year, and one I have seen raised against oppression everywhere from Caracas to California.
In a year when anti-fascism has returned to the political discourse, the International Brigades have seen more attention as the high point of an intersectional and international anti-fascism. In Spain, Jewish dockers from New York were commanded by Black Communists from Texas, queer people (including the probable inspiration for Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls) commanded straight people, and men and women fought alongside one another against fascism. For years, they held their own.
One in three volunteers died in Spain. Many more came home to face investigation, prosecution, and jail time. Black officers who left Spain as commanders came back to the U.S. and weren’t allowed to eat in the same room as the men they’d commanded. In Spain, volunteers learned to, in the words of American volunteer Milton Wolff, “take on whole bloody professional fascist armies and kick the shit out of ’em”; back home, their knowledge was ignored and many of them went on to die fighting in the war they had seen coming nine years earlier. But they did take some things with them, including the iconic raised fist salute that was the salute of the Republican Army and has since found itself on the right side of history with admirable consistency.
Almudéver lived long enough to see Franco die in his sleep, lie in a monument built by enslaved prisoners of war, and then be exhumed in October 2019. He also lived long enough to see the specter of fascism raise its head again around the world and lament the division of the working class in an interview given in 2016. Just a week after he gave that interview, Donald Trump was elected, and I couldn’t sleep. I remember running through Barcelona at 5 a.m. and running into a freshly painted “no pasarán” under one of the many Spanish Republican flags that hang from balconies in the city just like they did when it said farewell to Almudéver and his comrades in 1938. In Barcelona, the bullet holes from the Civil War haven’t been filled in yet, and 85 years after a 17-year-old young man took up arms against fascism, it seems more relevant than ever.
Almudéver is survived by, among others, his 104-year-old brother Vicente, who also fought in the Republican Army.