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Douglas Fetherling - Popular Mac-Paps
by Douglas Fetherling

The Spanish Civil War prefigured the Second World War in Europe not only in political terms but also in certain military ones. Spain is where democrats fought fascists in the unofficial opening-act of a much larger drama; it's also where the Spanish fascists' German allies first tried out their tactic of blitzkrieg. Three generations have passed since then, and each of them, as though in obedience to a comfortable cliché, has had to examine these events anew.

The last go-round was in the late 1960s. In Britain, Hugh Thomas's history The Spanish Civil War appeared in 1968, instantly setting a standard. In Canada, The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, by Victor Hoar and Mac Reynolds, came out the following year, a work of some importance because it reclaimed from fading memory and official silence the story of the Canadians who rushed to the defence of Spain's elected government. The latest book, Mark Zuehlke's The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (Whitecap, $26.95), has an extensive bibliography that doesn't even mention the Hoar-Reynolds book (though Zuehlke does use some of Reynolds's taped interviews with Spanish Civil War veterans in the CBC Archives, one of the three main sources of primary material). Zuehlke even seems to miss a number of important books about the war that appeared in the 1990s, such as Murray Bookchin's To Remember Spain: The Anarchist & Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 (Marginal Distribution, $6 paper) and Peter N. Carroll's The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Stanford University Press, US$55). Yet he has written an appealing work all the same. It is one that (in contrast to The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion) simplifies the incredibly complex politics of the time but also shows how conditions at home (riots in Vancouver and Regina, the iron-fisted hostility of the Bennett government) made going to Spain, for many, an attractive idea.

Zuehlke has constructed a readable narrative by highlighting the stories of a variety of individuals. Ordinary joes are the backbone of the book, and it's fascinating to learn what happened to them once they returned home (those who survived) and tried to re-integrate themselves into Canadian society. But he also naturally includes Dr. Norman Bethune (about whom little more remains to be said except by clinical professionals) and Joe Salsberg (a Toronto Communist politician who worked hard on the home front) and the putative Canadian Emil Kleber, "the defender of Madrid". Kleber commanded the XIth International Brigade. (The Loyalists used big Roman numerals in a pathetic attempt to foil Nationalist intelligence into believing they were more numerous than they were.)

Zuehlke's writing is frequently journalistic in tone, mock-stirring or mock-sentimental. For example: "Catalonia province and its capital Barcelona were the heartland of Spanish anarchism. Walking the streets of the city, [one twenty-two-year-old Canadian volunteer] thought himself in the middle of a lyrical springlike affair where everything was coming to pass that a radical had ever dreamed possible. In Barcelona there was no depression; the ills of capitalism seemed cured. There was also no evidence of the heavy-handed tyranny of Soviet-style communism or Nazi-like fascism. Drifting on the air, like the scent of blossoms in spring, was the promise of a true workers' democracy bursting into full bloom." Overall, though the prose is workmanlike and effective.

The fact that Zuehlke feels obliged to defend his whole approach in his introduction says much about our times and such a writer's unwillingness to assume that his readers have an ideological background. For towards the end of his otherwise straightforward prefatory remarks, he suddenly takes a defensive tone:

"This book is a work of literary non-fiction. As such it adopts certain stylistic conventions that require the shaping of the narrative around the limited point of view of the participants. In this sense the form mimics fictional technique. The fundamental premise of historical literary non-fiction is that the limited point of view and meticulous research required to make the form effective will transport the reader directly into the historical events related. This happens not only in descriptive terms but, more important, by putting the readers inside the minds of the participants who lived with the events. The reader, then, is distinctly aware of the motives, beliefs, and emotions that psychologically and intellectually influenced the historical participants to do what they did.

"It should be noted that literary non-fiction is not fiction or what is sometimes called `faction'. The details surrounding the characters, the actions they take, and the thoughts they have are all drawn as faithfully as possible from the historical record. If the sky is described as being blue on the day of a particular battle, then the historical record shows this was the case. No literary licence is taken or assumed."

This sounds like a disclaimer written by a lawyer. Zuehlke continues a while longer, trying to cut down the weeds around the whole question of literary non-fiction. In fact, there is nothing literary about what he defines. But his only alternative was "creative non-fiction", a term used by reporters who seek funding for book projects in a time when job opportunities in the news business are shrinking. In fact, The Gallant Cause is in the genus non-fiction and the phylum popular history ("popular" being what sets it apart from a more serious and textually based work such as Hoar's and Reynolds's). It's a shame when internecine squabbling in the writing world complicates matters so needlessly.

As for the Mac-Paps, what a splendidly Canadian group they were. For one thing, long before the name had official status it was used informally to describe those Canadians (like the novelist Hugh Garner) who joined the war early on. Since the International Brigades were grouped by language, such people were put in with the Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (which had been formed in January 1937 following the arrival of the first ninety-six U.S. militiamen). Tim Buck, general secretary of the Canadian Communist Party, thought he could safely promise 250 recruits from Canada. In fact, current study of the rather sketchy records suggests that the number was about 1,600. Enough so that by July 1937 a separate unit was formed with the name Mackenzie-Papineau and was meant to be suitably bicultural, even though almost no Franco-Canadians took part in the Spanish fighting. Many of the Mac-Paps were Finns from northern Ontario or Americans who joined up to fight with these and other Canadians, just as yet other Canadians continued along in the ranks of the Lincolns. Statistical analysis seems to suggest that Canada had the highest level of participation of any of the volunteer countries and that Vancouver was the most heavily represented city. The U.S. population, ten times that of Canada, supplied 2,800 personnel to the Lincolns.

The story is also curiously Canadian in that while the government in Ottawa was vehemently opposed to such displays of premature anti-fascism, even going so far as to pass a law aimed at forbidding Canadian enlistment in the Spanish cause, many individual Canadian officials, particularly the young Lester Pearson at External Affairs, worked to facilitate the expression of such idealism and generally smooth the whole process.

The Mac-Paps fought in five major battles, employing weapons that were at best obsolete and at worst more dangerous to their users than to their targets. Hugh Garner told me once that he operated a Maxim gun so old that it moved on spoked wheels-there's a picture of such a weapon on page 82 of Zuehlke's book. Other people were reduced to using the Ross rifle, which had been condemned during the First World War following a major scandal. The bolt of the Ross tended to jam after each firing and had to be struck with a rock. The most idealistic yet most down-to-earth of all the foreign volunteers were the anarchists (the war represented the high tide of applied anarchist theory); like the liberals and others, they were ultimately betrayed by the Stalinists.

Only half of the Mac-Paps came home alive. A plaque honouring their efforts-a plaque that Zuehlke credits with awakening his interest in the subject in the first place-was unveiled on the grounds of the Ontario Legislature only in 1995. Even then, it was sort of half-hidden around the west side of the building, by the bust of William Lyon Mackenzie that has always been dwarfed by the full-size bronze statues of Queen Victoria and Sir John A.

Douglas Fetherling, newly D. Litt., is somewhere on a Russian tramp steamer.


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