by Michael Petrou
UBC Press, 2008; 282 pp; $24.95
Walter Hellund and Alex Forbes, two handsome young Canucks of the desperate 1930s, look out from the cover photo of this equally handsome book, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. They wear patches over their wounded right and left eyes respectively. Neither Republican volunteer has any depth perception; yet seven decades on, with totalitarianism still rampant, their pirate glares suggest a paradoxical fullness of historical vision. In a Dominion blind to fascism’s threat, these one-eyed men were prescient.
Forbes, Hellund, and seventeen hundred or so other Canadians, most of them former Europeans of a communist bent, volunteered to fight Hitlerite fascism in Spain, years before the Nazis invaded Poland. They were unofficial men in an unofficial war, as the MacLean’s journalist Michael Petrou reminds us, in this scrupulous and sober history.
Most eventually saw combat in one permutation or another of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the International Brigades. Roughly four hundred died on the peninsula between 1936 and 1939, battling German and Italian as well as Spanish fascist armies. Coincidentally, about four hundred Canadians died in the D-Day landings of June 1944, as London and Ottawa belatedly conceded Hellund and Forbes’s point about the dangers of fascism.
Some of the Mac-Pap soldiers, unfortunately, were dangerously authoritarian themselves, as Petrou is perhaps a little shy to admit. He documents, from a Canadian perspective, the well-known story of how Stalinists from Moscow, Moose Jaw, and Madrid kneecapped the fragile unity of the elected Spanish government. But he does so glancingly; little reference is made to the international Communist Party’s murder and imprisonment of its allies in Spain, or its military incompetence.
By contrast, Renegades makes much hay of internal government and RCMP memoranda regarding this strange breed of Euro-Canadian political zealots going off to fight an obscure war. The tone of these espionage documents is antique and hilariously bureaucratic:
… The whole question regarding the action to be taken in connection with the Foreign Enlistment Act appears to be entirely dependent upon the wishes of the Government …
And, they show that the Canadian state’s attitude to the Mac-Paps was one of moustachioed, bum-covering indifference. (Still is, actually). But one illustration of this desultory surveillance would probably have sufficed. Petrou feasts on these nerdy files, which suggests the primary material must have been easy to hand.
What really happened in Spain seventy years ago, and what it all meant, is hard to discern. This insightful book brings those terrible days into close focus, and helps explain why good Canadians sometimes get blinded.
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From Issue #53.