The Other Forgotten International Brigade

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2015)

The Left in all its various shades – Marxist, New, Romantic, Dogmatic, Innocent continues to wistfully pine in nostalgic innocence over the memorabilia and songs of the Spanish Civil War. This was supposedly “THE Good Fight” of all time pitting the good guys of the Republican Left against the evil forces of reaction in the Spanish Catholic Church, General Franco, the Spanish Falange Movement and military aid from both Hitler and Mussolini.

My book The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011) provoked numerous letters to me from former Leftists who praised it and did not avoid confronting the reality that Nazi Germany and the USSR were close allies for 22 of the 57 months of total combat time in World War II (ca. 37%, see chapter 15) but quite a few still took exception – that I had stepped on sensitive toes of many who still regard the Spanish Civil War as the ultimate “good fight.” By comparing it with the now forgotten International Brigade of volunteers for Finland in the 1939-40 “Winter War,” (chapter 17), it comes out looking a bit shabby.

The heroism and idealism of those who joined the International Brigades in Spain cannot be faulted or disparaged. Nonetheless, their naïveté and inexperience, and their ignorance of Spanish conditions allowed them to be brutally exploited and often sacrificed to protect more politically loyal hard core cadres of the Spanish Communist Party. Practically none of them had any knowledge of the complexities of Spanish politics, the rival unions and parties on the Left or the complex regional and linguistic picture in Spain in which Catalan and Basque national sentiments often ran higher than political ideologies.

This is an especially sensitive and emotional issue for the Jewish Left. It is estimated that almost 20% of all the volunteers in the International Brigades, who came to Spain to fight Fascism were Jews and in the case of the Americans, perhaps as many as 38%. Their heroism and experiences have been vividly recorded. Their struggle shaped the view of Franco as a close ally of Hitler, but a more objective view would regard Franco as primarily an opportunist, a fervent anti-communist who represented conservative Spanish traditions and aspirations. General Franco, however, did not personally employ antisemitic themes in his rhetoric, although several extreme right wing parties had labeled prominent personalities of the Republic on the political left as “secret Jews.”

The distinguished British historian of Spain, Raymond Carr, had this to say of Orwell’s experience and the Stalinist Left’s distortion of the truth:

The Spanish Civil War produced a spate of bad literature. Homage to Catalonia is one of the few exceptions and the reason is simple. Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it. This was something that many writers of the Left in 1936-39 could not bring themselves to do. Orwell comes back time and time again in his writings on Spain to those political conditions in the late thirties which fostered intellectual dishonesty: the subservience of the intellectuals of the European Left to the Communist ‘line’, especially in the case of the Popular Front in Spain where, in his view, the party line could not conceivably be supported by an honest man. “Only a few strong souls,” … and Orwell among them, could summon up the courage to fight the whole tone of the literary establishment and the influence of Communists within it.

Arthur Koestler quoted to a mixed audience of Communist sympathizers and independents, Thomas Mann’s phrase, ‘In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie’. The non-Communists applauded; the Communists and their sympathizers remained icily silent….It is precisely the immediacy of Orwell’s reaction that gives the early sections of his book Homage to Catalonia its value for the historian.

The Other Cause – Finland and the Other International Brigade

At the end of 1939, as the remnant of the International Brigade sought to reintegrate into national life back in their homelands following the Spanish Civil War, another spontaneous movement of idealistic and dedicated volunteers from many countries vainly strove to join another cause, one of a thoroughly democratic state and proud people who had been brutally invaded by the Soviet Union after failing to surrender sufficient territory to satisfy Stalin’s desire for a major “border revision” to protect Leningrad in the event of a European war.

Volunteers for Finland

These young men, unlike the volunteers for Spain enjoyed no support or subsidies and travel aid from an international political network as did the Leftists who flocked to Spain. When the USSR invaded Finland at the end of November, 1939 the assault was condemned widely. Although public opinion was entirely favorable to Finland outside the communist parties’ apparatus, none of the western democratic governments was ready to provide military aid or send regular troops to intervene in the conflict. There was no time even to design beautiful recruitment posters as in the case of the cause of International Brigades fighting in Spain. In December, 1939 the Finnish government decided that volunteers would be accepted only from those countries definitely friendly to the Finnish cause such as the neighboring Scandinavian states, Britain, France, Estonia and Hungary (distantly related by language to the Finns). No German or exile Russian volunteers were permitted. Only a few months earlier as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Hitler and Stalin were close allies and had already cooperated in the field by attacking Poland and dividing her territory between them.

Owing to the shortage of military equipment, the volunteers were required to come with their own arms and basic military gear. They were also to come as organized, trained units with their own officers. In January 1940, after heavy losses among Finnish troops, this decision was modified so that all able-bodied men were henceforth to be accepted at the discretion of Finnish embassies.

The Allies Support Finland with Words

Both the French and the British made contingent plans to come to the aid of Finland although this risked enlarging the conflict they faced in Europe in order to ensure that Germany be denied the supplies of Swedish iron ore crossing Finnish territory. The planned expeditionary force did not materialize as the conflict ended too soon in April, 1940 just before the great offensive of the German Army in the West that defeated France in May-June.

The French even discouraged any potential volunteers for Finland from among the Polish troops who had been able to reach France after their defeat in September, 1939 since it was thought that all able-bodied men were needed in the French army.

The Various National Contingents of Volunteers

Swedish Volunteers

The largest single nationality group was understandably Swedish. Close to 8000 men served in different formations. The most important unit was the Swedish Volunteer Corps (Svenska Frivilligkåren) with three battalions, all formed in Finland, since the Swedish government did not wish to send volunteers from Swedish territory as a unit. This also shows how careful the government was in not taking an official position that could draw Soviet and/or German criticism.

The Corps’ commander was General Lieutenant Linder, a Swede born in Finland. He and all three battalion commanders of the Corps and other senior officers had had experience of war in Finland when they fought as volunteers in 1918 on the anti-Communist (“White”) side in the Finnish Civil War. The Volunteer Corps took over the frontline on February 28th 1940 and saw two weeks of action. Since this part of the front was generally calm, the Swedish losses were a modest 28 killed in action and about 50 wounded, and an additional 140 frostbite casualties.

Flight Regiment 19 flew with aircraft from the Swedish Air Force: Gladiators, Harts, Bulldogs and other British built planes. The unit of 25 aircraft was based in the north of Finland with the task of protecting the largest towns and communications network in the area. They were protected by Swedish anti-aircraft units in the area.

Norwegian and Danish Volunteers

About 700 Norwegians volunteered, but since their government would not release any senior officers, they were enrolled together with the Swedish Volunteer Corps. When it disbanded, the Norwegians returned home and most of these men saw action against the invading Germans. About a thousand Danish volunteers reached Finland and were sent to training in Oulu in the central region, however, they were not ready for front-line duties when the war ended. Several dozen of the Danish volunteers later helped initiate the resistance movement in Denmark against the German occupation. They were active in the group led by Arne Sorensen known as Dansk Samling (Danish Unity), characterized before the war as a “Far-Right” Party (see The Left is Seldom Right, Chapter 16).

Hungarian Volunteers

Only Hungary sent volunteers as an organized unit. It consisted of 346 officers and men with one month of training in Hungary. These men reached Finland on March 2nd and were stationed to Lapua for further training. Their commander was a right-wing activist with experience from the fighting that ensued when Hungary occupied parts of Slovakia in 1938.

British and Estonian Volunteers

When the war ended there were only 13 British volunteers in Finland but many more had volunteered, including 214 men who reached Finland one week after the war had ended. There were an additional 750 volunteers waiting to be shipped to Finland, but the armistice came on March 13th, too late for their arrival. According to the initial British plan, the British volunteers were to fight in a single unit under the command of Colonel Kermit Roosevelt, a son of former US President Theodore Roosevelt. Estonians, closely related by language to the Finns provided the next largest group of approximately 60 men who had volunteered although their government was under intense Soviet pressure.

American and Canadian volunteers

In spite of immense difficulties and the problems of distance and transportation as well as the cost of outfitting volunteers to serve in a European war, about 350 Americans and 250 Canadians, mainly of Finnish birth, were also sent for training in Oulu.

This “Other” International Brigade received enormous encouragement and good will in their countries of origin from just about every domain of the political spectrum outside of Neo-Nazis and Stalinists. Their idealism and readiness for self-sacrifice compares favorably in every way with those who volunteered to fight in Spain but the difference lies in the simple fact that they have been forgotten, yet a look at the chronicles in American, Canadian and British newspapers reveals the tremendous enthusiasm these men evoked. They were fighting for freedom against an evil tyrant as menacing as Hitler.

The Stalinist Left Supports the Soviet Invasion, and the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact

For the organized hard Stalinist Left, the volunteers for Finland could not be called Nazis because Germany was an ally of the Soviet Union. They had to be labeled as adventurers, bandits, criminals, mercenaries and outcasts. While the Spanish Civil War took three and a half years, the fighting in Finland barely lasted four months. In spite of all the difficulties, 11,500 foreigners volunteered for service in Finland but not all managed to arrive, very few saw combat action and the number of killed and wounded can be counted in the dozens. This does not detract from their courage and determination.

The full extent of willingness to help the heroic Finns taxed the resources and imagination of many tens of thousands of individuals and organizations all trying to express their solidarity. Many private organizations sent medical and humanitarian aid. Thousands of workers in the Scandinavian countries volunteered to work in Finland to replace those who had been drafted but had to make their way and arrangements privately without government assistance. For the non-Communist press, this was not an issue of Left vs. Right but of Right vs. Wrong.

A Brief Extract of News Clippings: December 1939–March 1940

The American daily, The Chicago News suggests the 1940 Nobel Peace Prize be awarded to Finland. The German war correspondent Otto von Zwehl enlists as a volunteer in the Finnish Army. Hitler hears of this and strips him of his German citizenship and military rank. Finnish Nobel Prize Winner Frans Emil Sillanpää arrives in Haaparanta en route to receive his Nobel Prize for Literature and pledges to donate the award for Finnish defense. Aid, is provided for the evacuation of Finnish children to Sweden. The first shipment of children arrives by sea in Stockholm. Film star Greta Garbo gives 5,000 dollars to the Finnish aid fund. Despite the war, Finland is given immense publicity for continuing to repay its First World War debt to the USA. Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard give 1,000 guilders to the Dutch Red Cross to be passed on to the Finnish Red Cross. The first 150-bed field ambulance from the Swedish Red Cross arrives in Finland. The Hungarian Pen Club awards its medal for 1939 to the Finnish poet Otto Manninen. Argentina’s appeal at The League of Nations’ to aid for Finland is joined by a similar response from Ecuador, Haiti, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Mexico. Gunnar Bärlund, the Finnish heavyweight boxer resident in the USA, beats Italo Golonello and donates part of his winnings from the fight to the Finnish Relief Fund. Pope Pius XII condemns the Soviet attack on Finland.

The London dailies, The Times and The Daily Telegraph praise the stalwart Finnish resistance against overwhelming odds. In Amsterdam, unknown persons raise the Finnish flag on the mast of the Soviet steamship Joseph Stalin. Ten well-known Russian émigré writers, including Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, issue a communiqué in Paris condemning the Soviet Union’s invasion. More than 10,000 Swedish homes volunteer to receive Finnish mothers and children. The Canadian Red Cross sends 50,000 dollars in aid to Finland. Herbert Hoover, the former US President, and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia lead appeals to raise Finnish Relief aid. In response to the appeal by the League of Nations, Argentina sends 50,000 tons of grain to Finland with no fixed date for payment.

Germany forbids the passage of volunteers to Finland through German territory. Prince Ferdinand of Liechtenstein arrives in Finland and declares his wish to serve as a volunteer on the front. A Danish association of factory-owners sends a railway wagonload of food aid.

The Swiss Medical Association announces it is to send a group of volunteers. Hungarian professor Albert Szent-Györgyi, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine, contributes his Nobel Medal to Finland. Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, addresses the British nation in a broadcast speech: “All Scandinavia dwells brooding under Nazi and Bolshevik threats. Only Finland superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril shows what free men can do. … They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force.”….

At a press conference in Washington, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasizes that since there had been no official declaration of war, the United States did not consider Finland to be a country at war, and American volunteers would therefore retain their citizenship. Brazilian President Getulio Vargas announces that Brazil is to send Finland a gift of 10,000 sacks of coffee. The International Labor Office announces that the Soviet Union has been expelled from the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The great Finnish runners Paavo Nurmi and Taisto Mäki receive a hero’s welcome on arrival in New York. Thousands of people and dozens of reporters come to the harbor to welcome them. They continue on to Washington where they are received by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt The office of the Canadian Prime Minister announces there are no legal obstacles to Canadian volunteers participating in the war in Finland. Norwegian Nobel Prize winner in literature for 1928, Sigrid Undset devotes her award to Finnish relief (see New English Review August, 2012). After her demonstration of support for Finland against Stalin and communist tyranny, she is forced into exile by the Nazis a few months later for her outspoken condemnation of their antisemitism and brutality. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerl?f also contributes her Nobel Gold Medal for Literature to Finnish Relief.

Probably no other conflict elicited so much popular appeal from so many people from so many countries and of such diverse social and economic classes. In no other conflict was there such a recognition and revulsion of the single nature of the two extremes of Right and Left, Germany under the Nazis and Hitler, and the Communist USSR under Stalin. Never has the term “international community” been more justified than in condemnation of the Soviet attack on Finland in 1939.

Who were the Finnish-American and Canadian Volunteers?

Between 1870 and 1930, many tens of thousands of Finns migrated to the United States and Canada. The motivation for this migration was both economic and cultural. It attracted a large number of families who had despaired of acquiring sufficient farm land to support themselves at home and feared the growing foreign presence and threat to Finnish identity under Czarist rule in what was the Russian possession of the “Grand Duchy” of Finland. New migrants sent letters home, describing their life in the New World in very positive terms and professional recruiters, or “agents,” employed by mining and shipping companies were also active and helped provide funding for the voyage. During the period 1900-1914, 150,000 new Finnish migrants arrived in North America.

The regions preferred by most Finnish immigrants bore a similarity to the landscape they were familiar with back home, especially in the Upper Midwest although several pockets of Finnish settlement appeared in New England and the Pacific Northwest as well. The heaviest levels of Finnish settlement were seen in an area known as the Finn Hook, which includes Northeastern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Many Finnish immigrants retained a strong sense of affiliation with the Socialist movements and had a strong proletarian identity and limited knowledge of English. The Communist Party in both the United States and Canada successfully attracted many Finns who became the largest group of recruited members and supporters organized into a specific ethnic organization. Following the failure of the Communists to create a Soviet style Finland after the country won its independence from the new government of the USSR, a bitter Civil War took place simultaneously in the new Finland and Russia.

Whereas the Reds triumphed in Russia, the “Whites“ aided by German troops were victorious in Finland and provoked a new exodus of all those Left-wing Finns, some of whom managed to emigrate to the United States and Canada. In spite of the considerable amount of Leftwing and Communist activity among the North American Finns and considerable feelings of being exploited and often discriminated against in their new homelands in North America, the Soviet invasion was almost universally received with shock and disgust. Helsinki had been chosen for the site of the 1940 Olympic Games, Finnish communal organizations in North America that had organized for the games turned their attention to support Finland. Travel and enlistment for the Canadians was especially difficult because Canada, along with Great Britain, were already at war with Germany, Stalin’s ally in November 1939 – March 1940.

Absurd Communist Propaganda

The campaigns run by Communist front organizations in the United States and Canada and the editorial line of the Daily Worker that had waxed so eloquently over the International Brigades in Spain, incensed public opinion by their support of Soviet aggression. Even among those Finns who had been communists, there was a full realization that the Mannerheim government had not provoked war, and that the “Finnish People’s Republic” established by Stalin on Soviet soil and headed by communist leader, Otto Kuusinen, was a puppet regime of traitors. Kuusinen was a veteran communist who had fled Finland after the loss of the “Reds” in the Civil War and had spent the years 1921-1939 in Moscow. No sane person could accept that a nation of under four million with a long tradition of strong Christian and humane values had invaded the largest military power in the world, a brutal dictatorship and close ally of Hitler who had just divided the corpse of Poland between them.

Many Communist Party members in the United States and around the world were still in shock from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland and simply ignored the propaganda. One such example was a grotesque portrait of Finland’s Marshall Gustave Mannerheim posted around Detroit assembly lines with the text “Not a Dime for Mannerheim!” It went on to read…”What guy would be dumb enough to lay his hard earned dimes on the Mannerheim Line, when that line is backed by the Hoovers and Fords and Chryslers and the rest of the fascist punks? And their stooge, Butch Mannerheim, the last of the Czar’s White Guard majordomos, those who made a bloody shambles of the first worker’s republic in early years. In 1918 Mannerheim massacred 30,000 Finnish workers and their wives and kids, arming his murderers with money loaned from Britain, France and the U.S.A. in the war to ‘make the world safe from Socialism.’ Today, the Finnish Big Bankers are paying the war ‘debt’ in full – the debt of the slaughtered Finnish workers !!!”

In a full page ad in the New York Times (where else?), the American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who had fought in Spain issued a statement on Christmas day 1939 in support of the Soviet Union and promising the Finns that “The Yanks Are NOT Coming” to demonstrate their total rejection of any comparison between their fight against Fascism in Spain and the idealism of international volunteers to fight Soviet aggression against Finland. The statement condemned “people who prate about the rights of small nations and about the Soviet Union because she is wiping out an imperialist base for aggression.”

The Two Brigades From Today’s Perspective

Both International Brigades were the product of a noble idealism, the desire of free men to defend the values of civilization against tyranny. The major difference is that for many among the Spanish Civil War Veterans, their devotion was tarnished by the excesses and lies of Stalin’s henchmen and the Far Left that served him across the globe. For those who tried to aid Finland, there are only the fond memories of world solidarity.


In next Month’s issue, I will deal with the “Third International Brigade” of forgotten volunteers in the mid- twentieth century – those who rushed to the aid of the embattled State of Israel in the face of seven invading Arab armies in 1948-49. Known as Mahal (Hebrew: ??”??, an acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz (Hebrew: ?????? ??? ?????), literally, Volunteers from outside the Land of Israel], they were both Jews and non-Jews who participated in combat or had earlier helped in breaking the British naval blockade to prevent the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Mandatory Palestine. About 4,000 volunteers from all over the world came to fight on the Israeli side.



Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.


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