Spanish government researchers said Sunday they had identified 357 foreign fighters who went missing during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the conflict that foreshadowed World War II.
Researchers confirmed the names of 212 fighters from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, according to a statement from the government Sunday. Some 102 are of German origin, 70 Austrian and 40 Dutch. It gave no information on how many people of other nationalities had been identified.
The identified combatants fought within the International Brigades, military units set up by the Communist International to fight against General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. Some 40,000 foreign men and women joined up as volunteers, fighting alongside the forces of the democratic Second Spanish Republic and against the rise of fascism in Europe in late 1930s.
The findings are based on a year of research in records held in documentary archives in Spain and Russia. Researchers combed through the daily lists of casualties and missing soldiers compiled by officers in the International Brigades.
The names of private soldiers were frequently omitted from the lists, making the research process more difficult. These lists are held in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, in Moscow. Researchers also dipped into the main archives on the Spanish Civil War located in Spain.
By cross-referencing documents, researchers were also able to identify the likely area where the soldiers died or were badly wounded. It is an important step toward locating their remains inside mass graves scattered across the country.
This research provides “very valuable information that gives us the opportunity to contact the families of the missing combatants and, in the future, to intervene in the mass graves that have been located,” said Alfons Aragoneses, head of the project.
All those identified were part of the Thälmann Brigade, a Communist unit made up largely of anti-Nazi Germans. The battalion was active on the Ebro River front in northeastern Spain between March and September 1938, the site of the longest and deadliest battle of the war.
The research is ongoing and it is funded by Catalan regional government, with the aim of contributing to the country’s historical memory. The second phase of the project will try to identify missing militiamen from Great Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States. The final step would require opening the graves in search of bodies.
Historians estimate nearly 10,000 foreign volunteers died in combat on Spanish soil during the war. How many are still unidentified, buried inside graves, remains unknown.
The Spanish Civil War served as a testing ground for Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy prior to World War II. This triggered an international outcry to try to save the Republic’s democratic government, which eventually succumbed to Franco in 1939.