Four Danes in the Spanish Civil War
Brothers Harald, Kai and Aage Nielsen and their friend Hans Petersen were four young workers who, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, decided to leave for Spain in order to fight fascism side by side with the Spanish people. Obviously, this was not a decision without personal costs
By Allan Christiansen
The Spanish Civil War
At the first democratic election in Spain, 1936, a coalition of political parties won the election and formed a government. The government policy was not particularly left-wing and certainly not socialist. It was probably what might be termed conservative-social liberal. One of the key issues, on which the coalition went to the poll, was the demand for a redistribution of the national resources. This meant that the Church and the land owners should transfer part of their landholdings to the farm hands and peasants, providing them with modestly sized plots. It meant that the nobility, the Church and large industrial companies should contribute more to society and the economy.
The government’s demands actually constituted a minor intervention that did not change the primary structure of economic and social privileges, however, according to the country’s powerful economic elite, the coalition went far beyond the boundaries of democracy as the elite understood it.
Then and now, the ruling class, ie the capital, the Church and the landowners, would only accept democratic rules of play if they worked in their favour. Faced with government and popular demands, they resorted to military intervention in order to retain their power and privileges.
Led by generals Francisco Franco, Emilio Mola and José Sanjurjoi, the military carefully planned a military coup in accordance with the ruling class and the fascist states of Germany and Italy. The military uprising was planned to start 19 July 1936. At the signal “Over all of Spain, the sky is clear” the military should launch the uprising in all major cities and seize power. They largely succeeded, except in the Basque Country and the cities Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid. Spain was plunged into a civil war.
Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany and Italy’s aggressive foreign policy aroused fear among the populations of Europe.
People discussed politics everywhere, not least at the Young Communist League’s house on Bjelkes Allé in Nørrebro. Here all kind of political issues were discussed, but especially the situation in Spain. An important issue discussed in this connection was the possibility of traveling to Spain and join the fight against the fascist regime side by side with the Spanish people.
Four members of the Communist Youth of Denmark turned words into action. One of them was Harald Nielsen, the oldest of the three brothers who went to Spain with their friend Hans Petersen to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He recalls the events surrounding the decision: “It was shortly after Aages’s birthday. He turned 18 the 8 August 1936. My brother Kai and a comrade, Hans Petersen, worked together at Hartmann Engineering Company, and they were talking about going to Spain. I wanted to go too, and when Aage heard it, he wanted to join us.”
They thought Aage was too young to go, but being 18, he believed he was old enough to decide for himself, and so it was.
When the comrades on Bjelkes Allé heard that the four friends were leaving for Spain, they were delighted, and immediately started to collect money for their travel. They themselves had agreed to save up a weekly wage.
Kai, who was 21, and Hans Petersen, who was 26 and the eldest of the four, were machinists. Harald was 24 and a trained butcher, and Aage, who had just turned 18, was a bike messenger.
The political situation in the 1930s
What motivated the three brothers and Hans Petersen to go to Spain and fight? There are, no doubt, many reasons for that, but their political and social environment have unquestionable played a major part in their decision. The three brothers lived with additional six siblings and their parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Skyttegade in Nørrebro.
Their father was a blacksmith and a keen syndicalist unionist. The nine siblings worked from an early age. Political discussions were commonplace. The brothers Harald, Kai and Aage were, as mentioned, all members of the Young Communist League and did not always agree with their father. In the 1930s, unemployment was hight in Denmark, and they had witnessed the results firsthand. They had, however, also witnessed that one should not tacitly accept injustice. When someone in the neighbourhood had been evicted, their father and other neighbours carried the furniture back into the department and told the police officer to get lost and not show his face again.
In Denmark, as well, fascism gained a foothold and the Young Conservatives demonstrated their semi- and full-blown fascism. They habitually marched through the working-class areas and fights between the Young Conservatives and the Communist Youth frequently broke out.
The four Danes knew but little about the conditions in Spain, but they were convinced that assistance was needed in the fight against fascism. They wanted to leave for Spain as soon as possible. One day in August, they loaded their backpacks, grabbed their bikes and said goodbye to friends and family. Needless to say, the mother of Harald, Kai and Aage was distraught. To comfort her, their father said, — “They’ll be back before you know it.” “That was what we expected ourselves”, Harald later explained.
The Nielsen brothers and Hans Petersen’s journey to Spain was pretty eventful. Along the way, they experiences first hand the political polarisation of the time; at a hostel in Germany, standing at attention and arms stretched out in ‘Sieg Heil’ salute, the German youth sang the ‘Horst-Wessel song’. On the other hand, their party membership book was a valuable asset, providing them with food and shelter around Germany.
At the border, a French border guard confiscated their bikes. A German bank teller had cheated him them out of what was left of their money by exchanging them for invalid German Marks. Consequently, they could not pay the deposits for their bike, as one had to back then.
There was nothing to do but continue on foot and hitchhike. They picked fruits along the country lanes and at night, jam bucket at hand, they sneaked into the fields milking cows to get a little milk. They were transported from Verdun to Paris lying in the hay in the bed of a pig truck.
In Paris, they experienced solidarity with the fight they were heading into, personified by a Parisian taxi-driver who picked them up. He drove them around to different ranks and made collections among his fellow workers. The money should pay for the four Danes’ stay in Paris and their onward journey.
In the Soviet Union they watched the development in Europe, and especially Germany, with great concern. The fascist rebellion in Spain convinced communists throughout the world (not least Soviet leaders) that, if fascism/nazism should be contained before it set the world on fire it had to be in Spain. Hence, the leader of the Comintern, Georgi Mikhailovich Dimitrov and the leader of the French Communist Party, Maurice Thorez discussed the possibility of a united action under the auspices of the Comintern’s Western Bureau to help Spain’s legitimate government.
On and on
However, much to the regret of the four comrades, the Comintern’s Western Bureau didn’t exactly work swiftly. It appeared that their journey to Spain would be postponed as Comintern’s Westbureau in Paris had not yet delivered a final opinion on how to address the spontaneous help pouring into the Spanish Republic. To the four Danes in Paris, the days dragged on, so they decided to hitchhike their way to Spain.
In Fontainebleau, a little south of Paris, they got a ride on a lorry. Turns out it transported gravestones, a bit ghoulish, perhaps, but so what as long as it was not their own graves on which they were sitting. Later they were picked up by a taxi heading south.
Travelling through southern France, they visited the trade union offices in the various cities and presented their party membership books. In some offices, fascists towered behind the desks, then the comrades left in a hurry. Nonetheless, in most cities the unions supported the Popular Front and they usually got a meal and once in a while lodging.
In Perpignan, close to the Spanish border, they met an Austrian militiaman named Rudi, who offered to take them across the border. They merely had to mix in with his own men on the train; Germans, Austrians and other German-speaking men. And so they did. In early September, the four Danes arrived at their destination asleep in the baggage net. By that time the Spanish Civil war had lasted for one and a half months.
When the four Danes reached Barcelona, the German communist and former Bavarian Reichstag man, Hans Beimler was reorganising a military unit of German and Austrian volunteers, who had returned to Barcelona after the battles at Irún and the Aragon front. The military unit was named Centuria Thällmann after the German politician Ernst Thällmann.
After an unfortunate, if not dramatic, experience of being arrested by the POUM-militia, the three brothers and Hans Petersen managed to come into contact with Hans Beimler at Hotel Colón which subsequently led to their release. They then joined the Centuria Thällmann.
Hermitage of Santa Quiteria
Having carried out his military service in Denmark in a machine gun company, Harald Nielsen became a gunner, carrying one of the few Hotchkiss machine guns in Thällmann.
One early September morning, Centuria Thällmann left Barcelona heading for the Huesca front in Aragon to defend a group of small hills at Tardienta and Almudévar. In addition, they should try to recapture La Ermita de Santa Quiteria (the Hermitage of Santa Quiteria); a minor convent dominating the surrounding countryside.
The initial attack against the Hermitage took place late in the evening of the 20 October. The battle lasted the entire night and when dawn broke the next day, they had driven the rebels back, but on that same day, they launched a counterattack with artillery and air support.
Centuria Thällmann was unable to retain the position. In the preceding battles many of the Thällmann men had been killed or injured and the Centuria was forced to retreat. The first-shooter of Harald’s machine gun was killed by an explosive bullet and Harald himself was shot in his hand when he took over the gun. His brother Kai took his place.
The Danes received a bloody baptism of fire, but at least they escaped with their lives. Of 125 men, 19 were killed and 52 injured. In fact, Centuria Thällmann no longer existed and was replaced at the front by Spanish military units. However, Thällmann’s efforts in the hills of Tardiente had won admiration. Centuria Thällmann was awarded the Catalan Regional Government’s first honorary flag. The ceremony took place 27 October in the Carlos Marx barracks in the presence of Catalan government representatives, PSUC (the Catalan communist party) representatives and the Soviet Consul General in Barcelona, Vladimir Alexandrovich Antónov-Ovsjenko. On behalf of Centuria Thällmann, Aage, the youngest of the three brothers, was chosen to receive the honorary flag
The International Brigades
By the beginning of October, the Comintern had decided on the organisation of the help to the Spanish Government. While Centuria Thällmann was fighting at the Huesca front, the International Brigades was set up in Albacete under the command of Frenchman, André Marty.
Centuria Thälmann’s days were over. The four Danes were transferred to the new headquarters in Albacete and enrolled in the Thällmann Battalion. In November 1936, the battalion participated in the fierce battle of Madrid.
The first battalion of the International Brigades was the German Edgar André Battalion (correctly: Edkar André Battalion) — named after the German politician Edkar André. It was formed 17 October 1936. Shortly after, an Italian and a French brigade were established. The Italian brigade; the Garibaldi Battalion, was named after the Italian freedom fighter, Giuseppe Garibaldi and the French brigade; the Marseillaise Battalion, after the French national anthem.
By late October, the Edgar André Battalion was transformed into the XI Brigade, the brigade in which most Danes were enrolled.
The People’s Republican Army consisted of ten newly formed brigades, accordingly, the numbers assigned to International Brigades were XI, XII, XIII, XIV and XV Brigade
During the defence of Madrid, Hans Petersen had been wounded and was transferred to a hospital in Barcelona. Harald, Kai and Aage remained in Madrid until the end of December when the battles on the outskirt of Madrid came to a standstill and Franco’s troops had failed to capture the capital.
Early January 1937, the three brothers were enrolled in the newly established anti-air defence authority, DECA. They joined the International Brigades’ artillery battery, as did a few of the newly arrived Danes. The artillery battery was named the Dimitrov Battalion after the Bulgarian communist politician and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Georgi Mikhailovich Dimitrov.
he Battalion was equipped with a few old, French anti-aircraft guns which were later replaced by new, Russian ones. The group operated independently without being related to any particular International Brigade. The Dimitrov Battalion moved around, fighting in military hotspots to protect the front line against Franco’s paramount German and Italian air forces.
Life in the Dimitrov Battalion was entirely different from that as a front-line soldier. The tasks obviously changed; fewer soldiers were gathered in the same place and the transports to the fronts were less stressful, however, constantly being situated almost directly below attacking bombers was very dangerous.
Home and back again
Kai and Aage stayed in Spain for a year and returned to Denmark, October 1937. Hans Petersen and Harald Nielsen soon followed, only to return to Spain and carry out new assignments; for a while, Hans Petersen fought alongside the partisans and later served as a censor at the International Brigades’ headquarters in Albacete. Harald, on the other hand, was assigned to carry out Party work in Spain.
November 1938, the International Brigades were dissolved and after an emotional farewell parade in Barcelona, the volunteers set off for home. Hans Petersen and Harald Nielsen remained in Spain to assist the Danish government representative in the repatriation of 91 Danes and two Icelanders. On the journey home, Harald was in charge of the Danish group.
Hans Petersen followed in December and thus became one of the last volunteers to leave Spain as he was one of the first to leave for Spain. However, a large group of Danish artillerymen remained in the Valencia area and did not return until February 1939.
In the Danish resistance movement
9 April 1940 Denmark was occupied by Germany. Not unexpectedly, the Danish volunteers continued the fight against fascism on Danish soil. They were thus among the first freedom fighters who joined forces against the German occupation. They formed the largest and most powerful Danish resistance, KOPA (Communist Partisans). In order to achieve greater political breadth, and consequently greater impact, they changed their name to DAPA (Danish Partisans) and shortly after to BOPA (Civil Partisans). Our three brothers and their friend Hans Petersen were actively engaged in building the resistance movement.
Following German attack on the Soviet Union 22 June 1941, a wave of arrests against the communists was launched in Denmark. 7 November 1942, the Danish police arrested 86 former volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Within the next few days, the number would reach 125. They were sent to the Danish Horserød internment camp in North Zealand, the same camp where the communist were incarcerated.
29 August 1943, the Germans occupied the camp. In the dead of night, 92 prisoners managed to escape over the fence. The rest of the 152 prisoners were packed into a vessel cargo hold and shipped to Swinemünde. They were then transported by freight wagon to Stuffhof concentration camp near Gdansk in Poland. Eight volunteers in the Spanish Civil War died in the camp or on the Death March westwards in the months of February-March 1945.
Initially, the brothers and Hans Petersen avoided being arrested. Hans Petersen was eventually arrested and, as the first Dane, sentenced to death at a German court in Denmark. He was later pardoned and sentenced to life in prison. He was transferred to the prison Dreibergen in Bützow, Germany. By the end of the war, he was still alive.
Aage, on the other hand, who was a saboteur like his brothers Harald and Kai, was ambushed after the completion of an action in September 1943. Although he was continuously and fiercely tortured by the Gestapo to make him identify his comrades, he never said a word. Aage died after prolonged torture in Vester Fængsel (’Western Prison’) 18 October 1943.
Years later, a memorial plaque for Aage was erected at the main entrance of Husum Skole (‘Husum School’) and another inside the offices of the Jord- og Betonarbejdernes Fagforening (‘Earth and Concrete Workers’ Union).
Harald and Kai were on the most wanted list for sabotage activity. In November 1943, they were both injured in a shoot-out with the Danish police. Harald was shot in his lung and Kai in his leg. They were admitted to the Bispebjerg Hospital from where they were sent to Sweden.
At the arrival to Sweden the two brothers were arrested by the Swedish police and initially admitted to the Malmø Sygehus (‘Malmö Hospital’). After one week in the hospital they were placed in solitary confinement in Malmø Arrest (‘Malmö Prison’) as the Swedish police feared they had come to Sweden in order to sabotage the Swedish rail transport to Germany and participate in establishing weapons transports from the Soviet Union to the Danish saboteurs. Later they were transferred to Kalmar Fængsel (‘Kalmar Prison’) where they were incarcerated for three months. May 1945 (Denmark was liberated 5 May 1945) Harald and Kai returned home to Denmark.
A butcher, a machinist and a ‘chochard’
After the 2nd World War, Harald resumed his work as a butcher, while Hans Petersen got work as a machinist. Kai held a series of jobs. In 1954 he left Denmark to travel around Europe as a boatman.
Mid1950, he followed through on his ambition to sail around the world, attracting a lot of attention from the French press who dubbed him ‘le clochard de la mer’ — ‘the ocean tramp’. He only made it as far as the Suez, however, as the Suez Canal had been closed due to the war in the Middle East in 1956.
In Chelles-les-Courtreau, where he lived, only the postman knew his real name. To everyone else he was ‘le capitaine’. Kai returned to Denmark in May 1979. He was severely ill and was hospitalised in the Kingdom Hospital in Copenhagen where he died just a few days later.
Harald was honoured with the privilege of presenting ‘La Pasionaria’ with a greeting from De Danske Spaniensfrivilliges Forening (‘the Association of Danish Volunteers in Spain’) on the occasion of her 90th birthday in 1985. Part of the greeting reads:
We thank you for your lifelong efforts
in the fight for freedom, peace and democracy.
We will never forget your inspiring speeches
during the time we fought in the International Brigades,
We wish you good health and fortitude
in the continuing fight.
As the last of the three brothers, Harald died 5 December 1989.
FEATURED IMAGE: From left: Hans Petersen, Harald, Kai og Aage Nielsen in Albacete, around February-March 1937