Scoop Review of Books

From the Edge of Annihilation

Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, various, edited by Mark Derby
Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2009. Reviews by SCOTT HAMILTON and SIMON NATHAN

In Spain, the pamphlet-poem that raised hundreds of pounds for British supporters of the Republican government in 1937, WH Auden saluted the young men and women who made the journey to the ‘arid square’ of Iberia to defend the Republicans against Franco’s fascist insurrection:

They clung like birds to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

Although he seems to have spent much of his own time in Spain playing table tennis in a Valencia hotel, Auden understood the beliefs that impelled so many non-Spaniards to risk their lives opposing Franco. Whether they were ‘orthodox’ communists strongly supportive of the Republican government and its patrons in Moscow, anarchists inspired by social revolution in Catalonia, or social democrats angered by the West’s appeasement of fascism, the volunteers who flocked to Spain believed that the struggle there was a decisive event in world history. If Franco and his friends in Rome and Berlin triumphed, then fascism would develop a near-unstoppable momentum, and the remaining European democracies might soon be swept away; if he were thwarted, fascism would suffer a grave setback, and Spain could become a model for a better world. Spain was the place where the future was being made, and the shape that the future took might depend upon the contributions of a relatively small number of idealistic young internationalists. As Auden said, at the end of his poem:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Seventy years after Franco’s triumph, the Spanish Civil War continues to fascinate some of us. The launch parties held in New Zealand’s major centres for Mark Derby’s Kiwi Compañeros have attracted enthusiastic and diverse audiences. Elderly men and women who read about the Battle of Jarama and the fall of Madrid in the newspapers have mingled with those who were not even born when Franco died. But if the conflict in Spain fascinates younger generations, it does so for reasons that the volunteers of 1937 would struggle to understand. In an era characterised, in the West at least, by political apathy and the absence of any apparent alternative to the economic and social status quo, the conflict in Spain seems like a remarkable historical oddity. Contemporary pessimism about the whole notion of human progress contrasts dramatically with the excited idealism of the volunteers Auden celebrated. The cynical, shifting justifications for recent wars in the Middle East seem light years from the passionate ideological justifications for the war in Spain. The great struggle in Spain fascinated Auden and millions of other non-Spaniards because it seemed so urgently relevant to their circumstances; today, the conflict fascinates some of us precisely because of its distance from our experiences.

The volunteers who journeyed to Spain have been commemorated by millions of words, but little has been written about the New Zealanders who fought in the International Brigades, worked as doctors or nurses, or covered the war as journalists. The stories of foreign-born veterans who settled in this country after the fighting ended have received even less attention. Kiwi Companeros has its origins in a well-attended conference of the New Zealand Trade Union History Project in 2006; in his introduction to the book, Derby talks of the urgent need to rescue a set of ‘all-but-forgotten Kiwis’ from the threat of ‘historical annihilation’.
Kiwi Compañeros is divided into four parts. In part one, Derby and other scholars supply a series of capsule biographies of combatants in the Spanish war who were connected in one way or another to New Zealand. In the second, complementary part of the book, Derby and co. turn their attentions to doctors, nurses, and journalists. Altogether the biographies take up more than one half of Kiwi Compañeros, and most of them are written by scholars with a strong interest in and affinity with the New Zealand left and labour movement. The third part of Kiwi Compañeros includes seven essays which examine different aspects of the domestic New Zealand response to the conflict in Spain. The last part of the book consists of a short essay by Australian scholar Judith Keene on the ways in which post-Franco Spain is acknowledging and examining the terrible events of the second half of the ‘30s.

The biographical entries in the first half of Kiwi Compañeros succeed handsomely in rescuing their subjects from the ‘annihilation’ that Derby fears. Studded with interesting anecdotes and copiously illustrated with photos, drawings, and cartoons, the entries offer respectful treatments of footsloggers and nurses, as well as discussions of better-known veterans of the war like the trade unionist Tom Spiller and the journalist Geoffrey Cox.

I particularly enjoyed Derby’s biography of Robert Ford, the abnormally tall communist nephew of Hollywood director John Ford who served in the International Brigades in 1937 and ’38 and fled McCarthyite America for Auckland in the early ‘50s. While I was working at the Auckland War Memorial Museum I was able to locate and describe the postcards which Ford sent home from Spain, and which his family eventually donated to the museum’s library. Derby has turned the laconic, sometimes cryptic messages on the backs of the cards into an entertaining narrative of Ford’s war. Derby’s discussion of Ford’s postwar life in New Zealand reflects his determination to cover the whole lives of the subjects of Kiwi Compañeros, and not just the few dramatic months they spent in Spain.

With their desire to retrieve the details of the experiences of ‘ordinary’ participants in the Spanish Civil War and their insistence on giving more or less equal space and prominence to all their subjects, Derby and the other authors of the biographies in Kiwi Compañeros seem to be searching for a methodology that can do justice to the fiercely egalitarian politics of the men and women who struggled against Franco. They seem to want to abolish rank and class in their writing, in the same way that men like Robert Ford wanted to abolish rank and class in Spain. The practice of Derby and many of his colleagues can be related to the ‘school’ of ‘people’s history’ or ‘history from below’, which developed in Britain after World War Two and became identified in its purest form with Raphael Samuels’ History Workshop Journal. In an introduction to an important collection of ‘people’s histories’, Samuels quoted a poem by Bertolt Brecht:

The young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Without even a cook?

…A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the costs?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Not every New Zealand historian has been an uncritical admirer of the more extreme forms of ‘people’s history’. In the introduction to his influential book The Ideal Society and Its Enemies, Miles Fairburn argues that the tendency has weaknesses as well as strengths:

With this genre of social history there is no testing of hypotheses, let alone an explicit interpretation, for the assumption is that the facts speak for themselves…It may rely on fine writing and entertaining anecdotes to compensate for its lack of intellectual bite and coherence. Its undoubted strength, if the research has been thorough, is to bring forth details that are interesting and useful as references.

Fairburn’s words describe the qualities of many of the biographical sketches in Kiwi Compañeros. The portraits of Robert Ford and his comrades are vivid and accessible, and have a great deal of intrinsic interest. It is harder, though, to perceive the extrinsic interest of the biographies that fill the first half of the book. What, if anything, do they tell us about subjects somewhat removed from the Spanish Civil War? Do they help us, for instance, to better understand New Zealand society in the 1930s? Can we use them to get a firmer grip on the histories of the New Zealand left, and the New Zealand labour movement?

‘People’s history’ is at its most extrinsically interesting when its subjects are involved in epoch-making events. It is easy to see why Brecht was interested in the composition of the army that Alexander used to conquer India and so many other nations: Alexander’s conquests changed the world, spreading Greek influence deep into Asia and inaugurating contacts between long-separated cultures. The more we know about Alexander’s expeditions the more we are likely to know about innumerable aspects of world history.

The Spanish Civil War could perhaps have been an epoch-making event, if only it had not ended in the defeat of the anti-fascist forces, and the end of the communist and anarchist dreams of revolutionary transformation. Many of the volunteers who went to Spain saw themselves as part of the advance guard of the international working class. Many believed that the ranks of the anti-Franco forces would soon swell, as vast numbers of workers took up the cause and helped make Spain into an inspiration for a world revolution. If this vision had been realised, then the Spanish Civil War would not seem so fascinatingly exotic today, and men like Robert Ford would be representative figures, not exceptional individuals requiring rescue from the threat of ‘historical annihilation’.

Given the fate of the fight against Franco, there is a danger that the biographies in the first half of Kiwi Companeros might be seen as attractive exercises in antiquarianism. The lives of men like Robert Ford might be interesting, even fascinating, but a cynic might ask whether they are not also irrelevant, from a historiographical point of view. It is possible that Mark Derby was aware of this danger when he commissioned the essays which fill most of the second half of Kiwi Companeros, and seem intended to provide some sort of interpretive context for the biographies in the first two sections of the book. Instead of interpreting the lives celebrated by Derby and co, though, these essays only emphasise that men like Tom Spiller belonged to a very small minority of New Zealand society. In his study of the Labour government’s response to the war, for example, Malcolm McKinnon briskly denies that the conflict was an important issue for Michael Joseph Savage and his Cabinet. In his account of the Communist Party’s attitude to Spain, Kerry Taylor confirms that the party’s relentless advocacy of the Republican cause failed to capture the attention, let alone the support, of the vast majority of New Zealanders.

The essayists in part three of Kiwi Compañeros are often thwarted by the gap between their methods and the ethos of the ‘people’s history’ on display in the first half of the book. Lawrence Jones, for instance, examines the response of New Zealand writers to the Spanish Civil War, and decides that this response is ‘almost invisible in the body of canonical New Zealand literature’. It is quite true that relatively few important New Zealand writers addressed the war, and that even fewer of them produced work of lasting quality about the conflict. But Jones’ essay virtually ignores the considerable quantity of propagandistic verse and prose produced about Spain by trade unionists and left-wing activists who were not entirely serious about literature, but who were very serious indeed about anti-fascism. Jones ignores this body of unsubtle but passionate writing because he is used to studying the ‘highbrow’ literary culture represented, in the thirties, by men like Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, and ARD Fairburn.

Jones is a literary scholar, and it is neither surprising nor lamentable that he has made his career out of studying New Zealand’s best writers, and the best literary artefacts they have produced. His ‘highbrow’ approach is ill-advised in Kiwi Companeros, though, because it completely contradicts the method Derby and co use in the first half of the book. Even if they had and continue to have negligible literary value, propaganda pieces like the anonymous verses that appeared in People’s Voice or RAK Mason’s ‘Service for the Fallen: in Memory of the International Brigade’ offer potentially interesting insights into the worldview of Kiwi supporters of the Republican government, and the mileux in which these supporters moved. Men like Tom Spiller were more likely to have read or heard this tub-thumping propaganda than the writing that appeared in the small-circulation highbrow journals with which Jones is preoccupied.
Kiwi Compañeros is, then, a curiously fractured book. The first half of the text contains a rich set of biographical studies which demand to be interpreted and related to the pattern of twentieth century New Zealand history. The essays which take up most of the second half of the book do not even begin this task. Mark Derby has succeeded in rescuing Robert Ford and dozens of other men and women from the threat of ‘historical annihilation’, but he has not saved them from the danger of what EP Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. Without interpretation, these believers in a lost cause may all too easily seem exotically eccentric figures with interesting but ultimately irrelevant stories to tell.
Kiwi Compañeros will be treasured by the descendants of New Zealanders who served in Spain, and by those of us fascinated by the romantic gloss which the Spanish Civil War has acquired in our unromantic age. But the book and its subjects deserve a bigger readership than this. The biographies in the first half of the volume should attract the attention of all scholars of twentieth century New Zealand history, because they have the potential to open up new lines of inquiry into that history.

The very marginality of the Kiwis who went to Spain makes them potentially important foci for research. As EP Thompson and other social historians have taught us, exceptional individuals and groups can help us to understand the society in which they exist, because they throw what is normal in that society into relief. Instead of simply noting the isolation of individuals like Tom Spiller, scholars ought to use them to probe the limits of mainstream ideology and politics in late ‘30s New Zealand. Much controversy still surrounds the Labour government that took power in 1935: some historians, particularly those on the right, are fond of labelling Savage’s policies as ‘radical’ and ‘unnecessary’, while others insist that the first Labour government had close ties with New Zealand’s business class and implemented policies which saved rather than savaged capitalism. Can we use Labour’s attitude to the Spanish Civil War and to men like Tom Spiller to gauge its commitment to the socialism and internationalism that were still part of the rhetorical arsenal of its leaders in the late ‘30s?

The Spanish Civil war may have been a marginal feature of highbrow New Zealand literature at the time when the conflict was actually being waged, but what about its influence on the work of a later generation of writers? In the 1960s a number of iconoclastic young Kiwi writers proclaimed their admiration for Federico Garcia Lorca, the modernist poet who became the great literary martyr of the Civil War when he was shot in cold blood by Franco’s supporters. Mark Young, who was perhaps the most innovative writer operating in this country in the early ‘60s, paid homage to Lorca in an early poem and included references to the Spanish Civil War in several other early pieces. Did the failure of the literary establishment of the ‘30s to do justice to Spain and the writers of the Republic lead to a sort of backlash amongst the following generation? Did some of the exiles from Spain and America who settled in New Zealand after the war help to introduce the work of Lorca and other great Spanish-language modernists to this country?

Another fascinating question which Kiwi Compañeros prompts concerns the relevance of the Spanish Civil War to the preparations which were made for the defence of New Zealand from a Japanese invasion in 1942 and 1943. In Britain it was Tom Wintringham, the commander of the British section of the International Brigades, who revolutionised the Home Guard by teaching its members the decentralised, improvisational methods of warfare he had learned in Spain. In 1942, when Japanese submarines were circling New Zealand and float planes were flying over our cities taking photographs, the Savage government set up a secret guerrilla force called the Guide Platoons and built them bases in the backblocks of the country, where it was hoped they would be able to resist a Japanese occupation of the country. Where had this radical piece of defence policy come from?

The Home Guard Manual distributed to thousands of New Zealanders in 1942 was clearly written by a person or persons with an intimate knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. When the Manual told its readers how to make Molotov cocktails, it explained that these weapons had been used very effectively in ‘the war in Spain’. When it discussed the mechanics of urban street fighting, the book relied again on lessons from the Civil War. How did all this knowledge come to be accepted by New Zealand’s conservative military establishment, which had wanted no part in the war in Spain? Did one of the Kiwis who returned from Spain share what he had learnt there with this country’s army?

Whatever its flaws,Kiwi Compañeros is an important book which ought to prompt a lot more research into New Zealand history.


Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.

Simon Nathan’s Review of Kiwi Compañeros

Many years ago I can remember one of my school teachers saying that there were four topics that should not be mentioned in conversation – as well as sex, religion and money, the other was the Spanish civil war (1936-39). In the 1950s there was a clear divide between those who felt that General Franco was a fascist dictator and those who saw him as a hero who had saved Spain from communist domination, with no middle ground.

The military coup against the elected government of the Spanish republic in 1936 led to civil war. Many thousands of foreign volunteers made their way to Spain to fight for the republican cause. It was a particularly brutal war, with no prisoners taken by either side, followed by 35 years of Franco’s dictatorship. There remains a romantic aura around the volunteers in the International Brigade who were prepared to fight for democracy.

New Zealand is on the opposite side of the world to Spain, but events in the civil war were reported in the newspapers here. Catholic journals such as Zealandia took a strongly pro-Franco line. A small and diverse group of New Zealanders made individual decisions to travel to Spain, and a few expatriates already living in the United Kingdom also travelled there. Kiwi Campañeros is their story, completed almost seventy years after the event. The website, ‘New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War’ is a summary of the book which is readily available to anyone with an internet connection.

In contrast to many other war histories, there were no official records to use, so much of the narrative has had to be reconstructed from whatever records are available – often letters or family memories as well as widely scattered newspaper articles. The project developed from a seminar organised in 2006 by the Trade Union History Project, followed up by attempts to document the contribution of all those involved.

The book is broadly divided into two sections. The first gives brief biographies of the thirty New Zealanders involved in the civil war, grouped into New Zealand combatants, non-combatants, and post-war emigrants. No authorship is indicated, but most of the work of research and writing has been done by Mark Derby – his contribution goes far beyond his description as editor. The second section is a series of articles, covering the New Zealand response to the civil war, ranging from the Catholic church to the Communist party.

It is fascinating to read the stories of the thirty New Zealanders who went to Spain, and to wonder what motivated them. Johnson, the main character in John Mulgan’s novel ‘Man Alone’ went to fight in Spain with his mate O’Reilly for reasons he finds hard to explain. Friendship was one part, together with a general feeling that he should do what was right. The real New Zealanders in this book seem to be a mixture of idealists (both communists and liberal democrats) and adventurers, with a couple of mercenaries. They cannot really be called ordinary kiwis, because what they were doing was extraordinary, but most of those who survived did not have distinguished careers in later life. For example only one of the thirty has an entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Nurse Rene Shadbolt was the aunt of Maurice Shadbolt, who wrote her biography

Some of the stories are intensely sad. Out of thirty people who made their way to Soain, six died. Steve Yates and Griff MacLaurin were killed almost as soon as they arrived in Spain during the defence of Madrid. Jack Kent didn’t even make it there as he drowned when the troopship Cuidad de Barcelona was torpedoed by an Italian submarine. Rene Shadbolt married a wounded German soldier, but never saw him after she left Spain as he could not gain entry to New Zealand, and spent the rest of his life behind the iron curtain.

Cromwell-born doctor Doug Jolly emerges as one of the heroes. Just before sitting his final exams as a surgeon, he set off to join the Republican Army Medical Service in 1936. He spent the next two years operating close to the front lines, often in caves and disused railway tunnels. He later published his experiences in a textbook, “Field surgery in a total war” which was widely read during World War 2.

Although the Republican side gets most of the space, there has clearly been an effort to include all those who were involved on both sides. Film maker Philip Cross was in Spain when war broke out, and was apparently the only New Zealander to join Franco’s forces. He fought in the battle for Madrid, and later publicised the case for Franco when he returned to New Zealand.

This is a powerful and moving book documenting an aspect of New Zealand history that has been overlooked for far too long. Fascinating and thought-provoking, it’s the sort of book that should be in every school library.

SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. As Science Editor for Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from 2003-07, he has become interested in writing for the web. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.

New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War Web article in New Zealand History Online

Radio NZ interview with Mark Derby

Homage to Aotearoa’s Anti-Fascists


  1. Skyler, 29. June 2009, 17:01

    Thanks Mark for bringing such important stories to light in your new book. I hope your book gets people talking and discussing the Spanish Civil War and NZers involvement in it. It’s a period in history which is too often neglected. Both reviews above are well considered – Thanks Scott and Simon.

  2. Blog notes « Poumista (Pingback), 17. October 2009, 1:29

    […] and very pertinent to the issues this blog covers. Extract: Reading Mark Derby’s book Kiwi Compañeros (which compiles a wealth of primary source material detailing the involvement of New Zealanders in […]