November 12, 2012

CBC Radio One airs: "The Spanish Crucible"

An incredible story is being aired on CBC Radio One over the next few days and is now available online.

In the mid-to-late 1930s, about 1600 Canadian men and women left for Spain, to fight against the Fascist coup led by General Francisco Franco against the democratically elected Popular Front government.

Why did they go? How did they fight? How did they die? And when the survivors came home why were they harassed and spied on? These questions and more are addressed by the CBC interviews.

While Britian and the US declared 'neutrality' and quitely supported the fascists, the Soviet Union and countries like Mexico supported the Popular Front. Many forces were represented in the Popular Front government, and the disorganization of the army (including trying to organize units along the abstract principals of anarchism) helped contribute to the fascists making a rapid advance.

Although only a small part in the Popular Front government, the Communist Party of Spain worked together with the international communist movement to form a well organized and disciplined army of volunteers from around the world, know as the intentional brigades. The Communists and their allies earned tremendous respect.

The Canadian government of the day, however, made it illegal for any Canadian to join the war. Despite this, the Communist Party of Canada and the Young Communist League, grass-roots members of the CCF, progressive organizations, and Canadian trade unions facilitated the movement of hundreds of Canadian fighters to join the tens of thousands of international volunteers to fight in a civil-war that helped shape the entirety of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Many of them travelled officially as tourists to France and then made the hard trek through the mountains. Eventually so many Canadians arrived they formed their own battalion and named it after the leaders of the democratic uprising against British colonial domination in 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau.

The first Canadian to die in Spain was a member of the Toronto YCL. While that young man's name is forgotten, history has remembered Dr. Norman Bethune who invented the MASH unit or mobile blood transfusion unit.

The MacPaps fought heroically but after several years of hard fighting the forces of fascism won -- with the help of fascist Italy and Germany. Germany sent the entire Condor Legion to Spain and spent over two hundred million US dollars (in 1939 currency) while Italy sent over 700 air planes, over a hundred tanks, four destroyers, submarines and put 90 additional naval ships into the ocean around Spain in a blockade.

Coming home, the battalion received a heros welcome in some parts of Canada, while fascist-sympathizers attacked them in other places. When war broke out with fascist Germany, many were interned in concentration camps as dangerous radicals and communists.

Never recognized officially as veterans of the just war to defend democracy in Spain, the Mac Paps sacrifice wakened millions of people to the danger of appeasement to fascism. This was perhaps epitomized by the 1938 non-aggression treaty between Chamberlain and Hitler (signed right after the Munich deal).

Years later, Jouranlist Mac Reynolds travelled Canada in 1964 and 1965, looking for Mac-Pap vets, and recording as many as he could. He made over 50 interviews and recorded 150 hours of tape. Reynolds himself had been a supporter of the cause at that time, in Britain and Canada, and a friend of the CPC.

CBC archives contain a letter from Reynolds to the legendary producer and CBC executive Robert Weaver, asking about airtime. But there was no reply on file, nor any evidence that the material had ever aired. Instead the tapes were mothballed.

A campaign in the late 1990s saw some small plaques erected for the Mac Paps in places like Victoria, Ottawa and Toronto. Several books, including by veterans, have been written about the Mac Paps although the total literature is relatively small.

In Spain, however, the Mac Paps are heros and have been awarded many honors -- even honorary citizenship.

As to the tapes, no one but the CBC archivists knew the material was there, or had paid it any mind, until CBC producer Steve Wadhams recently rediscovered the files. “Forty-plus years of doing radio, and I have never stumbled into a treasure trove like this,” Wadhams told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

The CBC Radio programme "Living Out Loud" aired these accounts in a two-part documentary titled " The Spanish Crucible".

These interviews are already available online -

This article combines reports, sources and articles by Kate Taylor, F. AhmedJoe Fiorito and D. Rankin

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