An interview with José Almudever Mateu, international brigader and Spanish Civil War veteran
Sunday 12th February 2017
Among a handful of defenders of the Second Spanish Republic surviving today is 97-year-old veteran of the Spanish Republican Army and the International Brigades José Almudever Mateu. Denis Rogatyuk sat down with with him to talk about his experiences in the civil war and its aftermath
FEBRUARY 6 marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the “Battle of Jarama,” a battle of the Spanish civil war (1936-39) that, alongside the Battle of Madrid, is most commonly associated with the participation of the International Brigades.
Following General Franco’s failure to take Madrid in October-November 1936, the Nationalist forces attempted a military offensive in February 1937 on the western flank of the Spanish Republic’s forces, alongside the river Jarama.
While the offensive failed, and the counter-offensives by the Republican forces effectively turned the battle into a stalemate, the battle itself became synonymous with the military, political and moral contribution of the International Brigades to the anti-fascist struggle in the civil war.
Holding the front line at Jarama were thousands of volunteers from Britain, Ireland, the United States, Italy, France, Belgium and many others who came to defend Spanish democracy against Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Among a handful of surviving International Brigaders remaining today is Jose Almudever Mateu.
Born in France of parents from Spain’s Valencia region, Jose Almudever, 97-year-old veteran of the Spanish Republican Army and the International Brigades, has always been a staunch defender of the historic memory of the Spanish Republic (1931-39).
He has also been a harsh critic of the 1936 non-intervention pact signed by all major Western European powers with the expressed goal of preventing military support reaching the contending sides of the war.
In May 1938, owing to his foreign birth and knowledge of French, Almudever joined the 129th division of the International Brigades. At the end of the war in March 1939, he was captured and sent to a number of concentration camps and prisons around Alicante and Madrid, enduring starvation and abuse from the Francoist authorities. He was finally released in November 1942. Like many other former Republican fighters, he was forced into exile and only returned to Spain in 1965.
You were only 12 when the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. What do you remember from the atmosphere of those days?
Being only 12 years old, I did not fully know or understand all the events that surrounded me, but I witnessed great changes in my home town, Alcasser.
The majority of workers were peasants. Illiteracy there was over 60 per cent and a single landowner controlled over 10 per cent of the land. The bourgeoisie believed that they could constantly win elections because of the people’s ignorance.
April 14 was an event of incredible happiness for the Spanish people. I remember the first euphoric week and the explosion of freedom on the streets, when people of all the political groups marched together holding the pictures of the revolutionary martyrs and leaders. Two of those were Fermin Galan and Angel Garcia Hernandez, two army captains who attempted a military rebellion in December 1930, but were captured and shot in the last months of the monarchy.
My parents and I also had to ask ourselves: had we really achieved a workers’ republic that we hoped would be entrenched in the constitution, or did the second republic serve more the interests of the bourgeoisie?
The Republic did bring some important advances. For the first time, secular schools were created to educate children. The Republic was also the first government that gave equality to women. Women could now vote, women could now be elected and be educated.
At the same time, it was a form of a capitalist republic, not unlike the French Republic after the revolution. And, just like then, the bourgeoisie maintained power.
You spent the majority of your time defending Alcasser and Valencia from the fascists. How did it feel for you to fight alongside your family against the Francoist forces?
After Franco’s coup in July 1936, apart from the regular army, every political party formed its own volunteer force. At first, I tried to enlist with the Column “Germanias” of Izquierda Republicana (Republican Left), but was sent away because I was only 17.
My father and I then tried to go to the Communist Party, but they said they had no weapons or instructors to train new volunteers. Finally, they sent me off to join a Socialist column, which had its headquarters in a monastery in Alcasser. I enlisted in the “Pablo Iglesias” column on August 15 and on September 13 we headed off to the front line.
There were 200 of us. Each of us had a rifle. The people of Valencia applauded us greatly as we made our way to Teruel [then held by Franco’s forces]. I spent some months in rearguard action around Valacloche and Cubla [in Teruel Province], until finally we received our orders that on December 26 we would attack Teruel to support the defence of Madrid.
Our “Pablo Iglesias battalion” had over 500 men at that time. I spent several weeks in the trenches alongside other militias until February 4 1937, when I was allowed to return to Alcasser.
How did you become involved in the International Brigades?
On February 19, I returned to the front line with my comrades, in Utiel [Valencia province]. In Utiel, we met with the 13th International Brigade and I heard some of them speaking French. One of them told me they were being directed to the front in Malaga and I asked them if I could come with them and join the Brigades. But while I was waiting for him to confirm it, the 13th Brigade had to march off.
On June 26, the order came from the defence minister that forbade a 17 year old French-born youth like me from being in the Republican Army, so I had to leave the militia and return to Alcasser.
On September 1, they called up everyone born in 1919 for military service. But when I turned up, my name wasn’t on the list and I had to explain that I was born in France. They forbade me from serving in the army as a foreigner, so I returned to the front line as a volunteer.
It was in May 1938 that I finally presented myself to the Italian Rosselli Column, in Alcasser. This was when I was recovering from an arm injury, and still needed to be assigned. I presented my birth certificate to the commissar of the Rosselli Column, showing that I had been born in Marseilles and ended up joining them under the command of the 129th International Brigade.
What do you remember of the men and women who came from all over the world to fight for the Republic?
In the Rosselli Column, while waiting for our artillery pieces to arrive, I got to know combatants from all across the world. We had a Canadian, three Cubans, our chief mechanic was an American, one was Dutch, another was German, another Swiss and another Chinese.
For most of us, we did not get to know each other by name, but by nationality. With my Canadian comrade, David, we went everywhere together. Me being Franco-Spanish and him being Canadian, we hardly understood each other but we became good friends.
Despite our coming from different places the camaraderie among all of us was stupendous. We had passionate talks about everything, especially the war and the Republic but never had any conflicts. I remained with the Rosselli Column until November 1938, when it was divided into different language-speaking columns and sent off to the front, while I remained in Alcasser.
In December 1938, the non-intervention committee that was directed by Britain and France arrived in Spain and in January 1939 the International Brigades were expelled under its pressure.
Do you think that the non-intervention by Britain and France was what destroyed the Republic in the end?
Of course. The Republican government of Azana decided to expel the International Brigades in the hopes that Franco had a similar attitude and would do the same with the foreign armies supporting him. He did not.
The Brigadistas were inferior in numbers and the foreign troops on the other side comprised more than 80,000 and with far better weapons. And we also endured the anti-Soviet and anti-communist propaganda of the democratic capitalist countries.
The Republic was cruelly abandoned to the hands of nazism, since the British and French leaders believed that Hitler only wished to exterminate communism. Britain and France refused to sell any weapons or give any help to the Republic, while the United States continued to trade with Franco.
When General Franco was flown from the Canary Islands to Tetuan in the German plane on July 17 1936, alongside him arrived the support and the foreign armies of all those who supported the fascist coup and his side in the war.
Over 3,000 Germans, 12,000 Portuguese, 15,000 Moroccans, 30,000 members of the Foreign Legion and 70,000 Italians all came to support the formation of Franco’s army.
How can you call that a “civil war?”