Written by Dan Hinman-Smith
Submitted to The Record
A Mac-Pap Memorial Stone was unveiled at a joint Cumberland Museum and Canadian Veterans Memorial Ceremony at the Cumberland Cemetery, Saturday, June 20. The cost of the stone was covered by B.C. supporters of the Mac-Paps, as well as the national charity organization “Friends of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion”.
The Spanish Civil War is often seen as a prelude to World War II. The civil war began on July 18, 1936, as army officers attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected Republican government.
But it was also a proxy war. The Soviets lent significant organizational and material support to the elected Spanish Republican government. That assistance, however, was dwarfed by the backing Mussolini and Hitler provided to their fellow fascist Francisco Franco. Some 75,000 Italian fascists fought in Spain. The Nazis not only helped the rebel nationalist forces, but used Spain as a military laboratory for their nascent Luftwaffe. The most notorious example of this was the terror bombing of the northern Basque torn of Guernica in April 1937.
The Western Powers adopted a policy of non-intervention, imposing an arms embargo upon the official government and the fascist rebels alike. The war ended in a rebel fascist victory on April 1, 1939, after 32 months of fighting and some 500,000 deaths.
Republican International Brigade volunteer soldiers came from abroad and the recruitment of some 45,000 volunteers were organized world-wide.
These soldiers not only rallied to the defence of Madrid at a moment of crisis in 1936 under banner of “No Pasaran!,” but continued to serve as shock troops for the Spanish government until late in the war.
Canada contributed a higher percentage of its total population to the international brigades than any other country but France. Some 1,600 Canadians volunteered and more than 400 died.
The Canadian volunteers originally fought in American units, or in other brigades associated with a language of origin. But by early 1937, the campaign had coalesced to form a separate grouping. The Mackenzie-Papineau battalion was officially established on July 1, 1937 as a component of the “English-Speaking” XVth International Brigade.
In April 1937, the Canadian Parliament passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, making it illegal to join the army of any foreign state at war with any friendly state. In July, the act was interpreted as prohibiting any participation in the Spanish war.
Although the Canadian government impeded efforts to assist the Spanish Republicans, there was considerable support for their cause in Cumberland. For example, three meetings were held in town in 1937 to provide information and to solicit aid. In August, the Montreal surgeon Norman Bethune spoke about the mobile blood transfusion service that he had set up in Spain. In October, the Cumberland branch of the United Mine Workers co-sponsored a meeting with the Vancouver Spanish Defence Society. Then, in November, Canadian volunteer Walter Dent spoke on behalf of the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.
At least three Cumberlanders joined the Mac-Paps: Archie Keenan (1898-1967), Gordon “Moon” Keenan (1908-1938), and Arthur Hoffheinz (1909-1988). Archie had been born in Scotland but came to Canada as a very young child when his father William emigrated. Gordon was born in Cumberland. The three men travelled together and arrived in Spain with fellow British Columbia volunteer Terrence Cunningham on November 19, 1937.
They were immediately cast into intense fighting. The tide of the war had turned decisively in the Nationalists’ favour. The Cumberlanders likely participated in the devastating defence of Teruel at the end of the year and then would have been caught up in the turmoil associated with the so-called “Retreats”, as the fascists drove into the Ebro Basin in March 1938 in an effort to cut Republican Spain in two. Arthur Hoffheinz became a prisoner-of-war during these months. There was one last desperate counter-offensive across the Ebro River in July and August. The battalion successfully advanced into the enemy lines until encountering stiff resistance at a strategic hill near Gandesa. It was here in late July that Gordon Keenan was killed with many of his comrades.
The International Brigades were declared disbanded in September 1938 as part of one last futile attempt by the Spanish government to facilitate Fascist German and Italian withdrawal from the war.
Archie Keenan arrived back in Cumberland on November 11, 1938, well in advance of most of the other Canadian volunteers.
“Given an enthusiastic welcome by his Cumberland friends” (Comox Argus, November 17), he declared that his brother must be dead and feared for Arthur Hoffheinz as well. Hoffheinz had survived, however. He would be released by Franco’s government after the end of the war and became one of the last of the Mac-Paps to return home. He was a long-time Comox Valley resident, living in Cumberland and Comox until his death in 1988.
At the end of the Spanish Civil War, the RCMP lost an internal governmental struggle to deny Canadian return to the Mac-Paps. The volunteers nonetheless remained suspect in many officials’ eyes, and some were denied entry into the Canadian military during World War II for being “premature antifascists.” Suspicion of Mac-Pap political affiliations continued throughout the Cold War era, with the RCMP keeping files on aging veterans until at least 1984.
Appeals that ex-volunteers be granted Canadian veteran status never gained strong mainstream support. But the push for official commemoration had more success. In 1995, Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government endorsed the bringing of a monumental stone from Gandesa, where Gord Keenan fell in 1938, to Queen’s Park. Three years later, B.C. received its own Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion monument outside the Victoria legislature. Finally, in 2001, a privately funded national monument was erected in Ottawa. It lists the names of the 1,546 known Canadian volunteers. By that time, Spain had granted honorary citizenship to all the surviving members of the International Brigades.