A Story of Canadian Anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War: Ron Liversedge and the Publication of Mac-Pap

David Yorke

 

Introduction

            In the summer of 1936, the democratic Republic of Spain was only five years old. For centuries, a powerful triumvirate of grandee landowners, unreformed church, and warlord military had kept Spain in poverty and feudal backwardness. On July 18, 1936, refusing to accept modest reforms or the clear result of Spanish elections held only months earlier, Generalissimo Francisco Franco unleashed a vicious and bloody rebellion against the new republic. In his war against Spain’s democracy, Franco had the unquestioning support of Spain’s traditional rulers and the country’s fascists, but that coalition had yet more fearsome allies: the rising powers of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

            It is now 80 years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, but the heat and fire of that struggle still resonates with a sustained power to bring forth a continued stream of new writing, art, and analysis. Today I am going to be talking about a Vancouver connection to the war in Spain and a local contribution to that continuing stream of new information.

            First I am going to talk about the book: Mac-Pap: Memoir of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War. Next I will tell you something of Ron Liversedge, the author of that memoir. Finally I will say something about how his book came to be published and available to you.

Mac-Pap

            In the spring of 1937, two Canadians travelled to Europe and wrote up their experiences. One of these Canadians was Ron Liversedge. However, to put his story in context, I must tell you a bit about the other Canadian: William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was the Prime Minister of Canada. Unlike Liversedge, Mackenzie King did not go to Spain; rather, he went to Germany to pay an official visit to Hitler. Now, by the spring of 1937, there was not much mystery about fascism. It had clearly shown its hand. Here is a brief recap of the rise of the Nazis to that point:

1933     Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
                Trade Unions banned
                Non-Nazi political parties destroyed
                Jews and socialists purged
                Opponents jailed and murdered

1935    Nuremburg Laws enacted
              Illegal militarization of Germany:
                       - establishment of conscription
                       - establishment of the Luftwaffe
               Italian Invasion of Ethiopia

1936    Hitler occupies the Rhineland
              Territorial claims on Austria and Sudeten Czechoslovakia

            You might think that this record would convince any reasonable person that fascism was involved in the destruction of democracy and human rights, virulent anti-Semitism, state violence against its citizens, offensive militarization, aggressive territorial expansion, and savage disregard for the value of human life. Only two months before Mackenzie King’s tea with Hitler, the German Luftwaffe unleashed the mass terror bombing of the civilian population of Guernica, Spain. Around the world, people reacted in horror to this experiment in fascist barbarity, and they knew that it was a warning of what was to come.

            So we really have to ask why Mackenzie King needed to do the Nazis the honour of a state visit on behalf of our country, yet he did. On June 29, 1937, our Prime Minister spends the morning with Herman Goering, who is, among other things, the head of the Luftwaffe. In the afternoon, Mackenzie King presents himself at Hindenburg Castle and has a lengthy personal meeting with Hitler himself. He makes small talk and happily accepts Hitler’s personally autographed portrait on behalf of Canada. He writes in his diary that evening that his host is “really one who loves his fellow man.” He finds Hitler to be “deeply sincere” and a “genuine patriot.” More than a year later in August 1938, he writes that Hitler “would seem to have within his power to be, literally, the savior of mankind.”1   

            What was going on here? First, Mackenzie King’s friendly meeting with Hitler and the Nazis was absolutely in line with the consistent British foreign policy of appeasement of the fascist powers that lasted from Hitler’s seizure of power to the tragic Munich Agreement and beyond. Second, a large part of that policy of appeasement was the incredibly shortsighted prospect that the fascist powers could be a positively useful force to combat communism, and to militarily weaken or destroy the growing power of the Soviet Union. Third, Mackenzie King and a number of other Canadian political leaders were fascinated by fascism. They saw the fascist regimes as success stories in those countries, and a number of them went to see if there were aspects of it that could be of use at home.

            This fascination with fascism is exemplified locally in the Vancouver Liberal mayor’s warm welcome of a German warship. In March 1935, mayor of the day, Gerry McGeer, welcomed the German warship Karlsruhe to our port and attended a lavish civic dinner for the ship’s Nazi officers. The event did not go unnoticed by the left in the city. The Province headline the next day was: “Rocks fly at German welcome.”2 The Karlsruhe would later assist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and play a major part in Germany’s invasion of Norway at the outset of World War II. There you have a flavour of Canada’s official reaction to the rise of fascism. Later, during the Cold War years, the international volunteers who went to Spain were actually termed “premature anti-fascists” in official circles. From these events, you see that in 1937, official Canada, at a minimum, was willfully blind to the threat that fascism posed to Western democracy, and completely hostile to the idea that in the end, it would have to be resisted by force of arms.

            When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Mackenzie King again followed the British government’s lead and enacted a law called the Foreign Enlistment Act, by which Canadians who sought to fight for democracy in Spain were threatened with two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Well, that kind of threat was not enough to deter Ronald Liversedge. He had a very different response to the events in Europe. Unlike Mackenzie King, Liversedge and about 1500 other Canadian volunteers did understand the necessity of resisting fascism early and everywhere. They went to Spain and put their lives on the line to fight on behalf of the democratic government of that country.

            Liversedge went to Spain in May 1937 and served in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps) for two years. Unlike hundreds of the other Canadian volunteers, he lived to tell that tale. In fact, he has written a fascinating and powerful memoir of that whole experience. Mac-Pap is a unique book because it is the only published memoir of a Canadian in that battalion and is a significant addition to the unfortunately sparse writing to date about Canadians in Spain.

            I hope you will have the opportunity to read Mac-Pap for yourself. You will get an insight into how the Mac-Paps dealt with the government’s hostility and the outright illegality of Canadian participation in the fight for democracy in Spain. In a wry narrative, Liversedge describes the recruitment of volunteers for Spain and their clandestine journey out of Canada and onto the battlefield. This journey started, and ended two years later, at the CPR station across the street from SFU Harbor Center in Vancouver.

            For Liversedge, the danger of Spain begins before he lands there. He describes, in gripping detail, the sinking of his ship by a fascist submarine, a tragedy in which scores of his fellow volunteers, including six Canadians, were killed before even reaching Spain.

            In stark detail, Mac-Pap lays out the incredible disparity between the war materiel available to the two sides. Franco had the full and direct support of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which supplied him with the latest high-tech weaponry, tanks, and military expertise. In particular, Hitler sent the dreaded Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe, which gave the fascists immediate air superiority and military advantage. Franco also received direct support from Mussolini, who supplied more than 100,000 Italian troops in addition to materiel. The Spanish Republican side, on the other hand, was faced with a blockade erected by the Western powers. It had some Soviet support, but often its military equipment was antiquated and so scarce that many international volunteers had no training with real weapons before they were sent to actual battles. Typical of the lack of supplies was that Liversedge was issued nothing but Spanish rope-soled sandals (alpargatas) for the whole of the war.

            One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with the formation of the Canadians’ Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion over the resistance of the primarily American leadership of the English-speaking 15th Brigade. Liversedge is right in the middle of that, and he actually becomes the very first Mac-Pap.

            The Mac-Paps have their baptism by fire at the ill-fated battle of Fuentes De Ebro. Liversedge gives a full trench-level view of the horrors of that battle and of his later experiences in an artillery unit. His outfit stubbornly but vainly resisted the fascist drive down the Ebro valley to the Mediterranean, which cut the Republic in half and set the stage for Franco’s ultimate victory.

             Mac-Pap paints a vivid picture of Spain at war, showing not only the grim conditions in the military, but also the savage effect of the war on the civil population, who were victims both of the fascists’ warfare and of the Western blockade that produced conditions of near starvation.  In Liversedge’s memoir, you will meet scores of interesting personalities he encounters who were drawn to the struggles in Spain. You get his assessment of some famous visitors and of the commanders running the show. Most movingly, he paints a picture of the many other Canadian working-class volunteers who had been long-time comrades of Liversedge and who, day by day, fall victim to the ferocious death rate in that desperate war. Perhaps most importantly, in Mac-Pap you will get a sense of why the fight was so important to Liversedge and his comrades, what they felt was at stake, and how they developed such a respect and connection with the beleaguered Spanish people that they maintained their passion and commitment in the face of overwhelming odds, right to the end and always after.

            In a nutshell, Mac-Pap tells the story of an amazing collection of Canadians who, against the policy of their government, did their utmost to stop the rise of fascism in Europe and who tried to prevent the victory of a fascist dictatorship that would go on to oppress the Spanish people for the next forty years. This is a story that more Canadians should know, and those that already know much of the story will still learn enormously from Ron Liversedge’s telling.

Ron Liversedge

            Who was Ron Liversedge and how did he come to write this memorable memoir?

            Rowland Liversedge was born in England in 1899. He would become Ronald much later, when he came to Canada. His father was a skilled dyer in the textile trade that flourished in his hometown of Keighley, in Yorkshire, not far from Leeds. They lived in the poorest area of the town, despite his father’s craft status in the mill. Rowland was the second youngest of nine children. His mother also worked in the textile trade, and she returned to work when the last of the nine was born.

            Rowland started school at six. He received a very basic and very British education, but he left school at age 12 to help support the family. That was all the formal education he would ever receive. Liversedge worked in the cotton industry until he was 15, when the First World War broke out. Initially he was enthusiastic about the war, and he joined the West Yorkshire Regiment as soon as he could. But that enthusiasm cooled quickly. He was at the front in France for over three years, wounded first at Ypres and again at the Second Battle of the Marne. He returned from World War I in poor health, aghast at its bloody obscenity, and a committed Marxist.

            Back home he studied politics, joined the British Communist party, and looked unsuccessfully for work. In 1921, he married Lavinia Boucher and they had a son. His search for employment took him to Australia in 1923, where he had some work as a swagman in the sheep sheds, but he returned to Britain in 1926. There he was able to find some factory work, but then participated in the general strike of that year, urging soldiers not to fire on the workers. In the aftermath of the strike, he found himself seriously backlisted.

            With no prospects in Britain, Liversedge immigrated to Canada in the spring of 1927, leaving his family behind. His wife died of influenza within a year, and his son remained in England to be raised by an aunt. Liversedge’s arrival in Canada coincides with the actual onset of Canada’s depression years, two years before the famous crash. That depression, for him, was to last a decade.

            With only sporadic farm labour work, Liversedge spends the Dirty Thirties like thousands of Canadians, riding the rods and bumming handouts. He spends time in flophouses, soup kitchens, relief camps, and more than one jail, but he is also drawn into the protests against the conditions: he becomes active in organizing the Relief Camp Workers’ Union. As a consequence of his union affiliation, Liversedge gets blacklisted from the camps. He becomes the editor of the union’s feisty mimeo newspaper and joins the Communist Party of Canada in 1933.

            In 1935, Liversedge is an organizer of the mass strike of British Columbia relief camp workers and participates in the eight solid weeks of protests in Vancouver supporting the strikers. Then in June 1935, with more than a thousand people, he takes part in the legendary On to Ottawa Trek, getting on the boxcars as far as Regina. There the Prime Minister, RB “Iron Heel” Bennett, orders the protest to be broken by force of arms: Dominion Day 1935. It was a watershed event in Canada’s social history, and we will see later the part that Ron Liversedge played in the preservation of that story.

            Back in BC, Liversedge spends more time in the new relief projects and then finds work in the North, both as a miner and as a mine union organizer. It is there in the spring of 1937 that he learns of the fascist insurrection in Spain and determines to go. Serving in Spain with the Mac-Paps over the next two years is what is described so well in his memoir.

            No sooner does he return from Spain in 1939 when the Second World War breaks out. Liversedge, for the first time since coming to Canada, finds steady work in the Vancouver shipbuilding industry. He had met Mildred Dougan, a skilled telephone operator, prior to going to Spain, and they married in Vancouver during the war. In 1947, they move to Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, where Liversedge finds work mostly in the lumber camps. They build a modest home and live a modest life. He kept in touch with the Mac-Pap vets and their organization, and remained a supporter of the Communist Party. With the help of a few pints, the Liversedges toughed out the worst years of the Cold War in a quiet retreat.

            In the mid 1950s, Ron was persuaded to start writing about the important events of his life. Working almost completely from memory, his writing captured the spirit and the urgency of his 1930s adventures accurately and in a style that is feisty, straightforward, thoughtful, and at the same time straight on partisan. His first book is completed in 1959. It is his Recollections of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. Up to that point, twenty-five years after The Trek, no historian, academic, or journalist had written the story. If not for Liversedge’s book, that Canadian chapter might have been lost. It was published, initially in a mimeograph edition, by the BC wing of the Communist Party in 1961. It was the first full recounting of The Trek and its origins, and many would say it is still the best. On to Ottawa soon came to the notice of university historians, and McClelland & Stewart professionally published it in its Carleton University series in 1973. That launched the flood of articles, books, and videos about The Trek that subsequently appeared, and Liversedge has been heavily relied on by just about all of them.

            Liversedge’s second book was his Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, which was completed in 1966. Like On to Ottawa, it was the very first major writing by a Canadian on a significant event in our social history. Unlike On to Ottawa, it would not see publication in his lifetime. Ron Liversedge, at age 75, died in Cowichan on May Day in 1974. Why Mac-Pap did not appear at the time, and how it did come to appear some forty years after his death, is what I will tell you about next.          

The Publication of Mac-Pap

            As soon as his Spanish manuscript was finished, Liversedge sent it to the publishing house of the Communist Party of Canada, Progress Books in Toronto, despite the fact that, for unknown reasons, Progress had declined to print On to Ottawa. Progress Books initially made a public announcement that it would publish the Spanish Memoir, but instead sat on it for two years before abruptly returning the manuscript.

            At that point, about 1970, Ron turns to Irene Howard, a Vancouver social historian, and hires her as his literary agent. She first edits his original manuscript extensively, and submits it to a raft of Canadian publishers in 1971 and 1972. Despite her enthusiasm and relentless efforts, I am sad to report that the Canadian publishing industry of the time was not interested. Howard sent the story to at least 14 publishers and received an equal number of polite and not so polite rejections. She went back to Progress Books, which said no for the second time.

            In retrospect, the rejection by mainstream and even soft left publishers is not all that surprising. The Canadian publishing industry of the day was not noted for an adventuresome character, and the lingering chill of the Cold War probably had its effect, especially in light of the unapologetically red hue of Liversedge’s writing. Irene Howard wrote in despair:

The publishers who have read the manuscripts agree with me; it is indeed a fine,   authentic document. Unfortunately it won’t make money for them. It seems to me too bad  that this episode in Canadian history should be so little known and that this story shouldn’t find a publisher because it doesn’t meet the needs of the market.3

Be that as it may with the commercial mainstream, the reception by Progress Books remains a different kind of mystery that I have been asked about a lot. They certainly gave no reasons at the time or later, so all I can offer is speculation.

            One possibility is that it was too much work for them. As you will recall, Ron did only have a grade 5 education, and he was not too troubled by punctuation, paragraphs, or spelling and such. The original manuscript did need a lot of that kind of editing. But it was not all that bad; when I eventually came to do it, I enjoyed the process immensely. However, Progress Books was a small operation, with other fish to fry, so maybe it was just too much trouble.

            The other possibility that has occurred to me is that Ron committed some political error in the book from the Party’s point of view. Liversedge was always a loyal party guy, but that never stopped him from calling things as he saw them, and there are a couple of places where he might have offended. One of the areas may have been in his remarks regarding the relationship between the Canadians and Americans in Spain. The Canadian Communist Party has often seemed to me to be unduly deferential to its counterpart in the United States. When Liversedge is describing the fight to establish a Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, he says:

[‘The Americans’] argument usually went thus: well fellows, we’re all in this together.  We’re practically one people. There are more of us Americans here. The people of Europe don’t know very much about Canada, they actually think we’re one nation… and   so on. There was a tendency on the part of a certain section of the American political and  intellectual coterie to regard the Canadian cousins as poor relations.4

Well, that might have done it. Interestingly, when the Mac-Pap memoir was reviewed in the journal of the Americans’ Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 2013, that was the very issue they zeroed in on.5

            The other political possibility had to do with André Marty. He was a French communist and the political commissar of the entire International Brigades in Spain. In France, he was a revered hero for leading the Black Sea Mutiny in 1917, when French sailors refused to fight the Russian revolutionaries. However, in Spain he was very widely regarded as paranoid and often vicious, finding spies everywhere and ordering executions indiscriminately. Despite that, he remained a communist leader not only during the Spanish Civil War but also during the Second World War, where he was the party’s representative on De Gaulle’s Free French Council. After WWII, his actions became so bizarre that he was finally expelled from the French Party. But for some reason, both the French Party and the international communist movement clung to the position that everything he had done in Spain was just fine.   Ron wrote:

[In the International Brigade Headquarters at Albacete] quite often I would see the silent, brooding, grey figure of André Marty coming into our building. He was then already exhibiting the signs of mental deterioration brought on by his hard life as a revolutionary.6

Now you might not think that would be enough to get Liversedge in trouble, but in the late 1950s, even Ernest Hemingway was put on the communist “do not ship” list for writing that Marty was crazy. In the end, Ron himself never received any particular reason for the rejections by Progress Books. He was growing old, sick, and discouraged. I also think he was not completely happy with the extent of Irene Howard’s revisions. In the spring of 1972, he asked for his original manuscript back, and she put it in a big brown envelope and mailed it to him.

            That is where I stumble into the story. In the summer of 1972, just before I started Law School at UBC, I went to Lake Cowichan to interview Ron. I had written an undergraduate paper at SFU about the Workers’ Unity League and because the league played such a big role in The Trek, I wanted to see if Ron could tell me more about it. Well, he could, and he did, in his wonderful, welcoming way. But somehow I just did not know that Ron had been in Spain. I asked him nothing about it. After the interview, we were standing on the porch saying goodbye, and he suddenly said, “Just a minute,” went back into the house, and returned with the brown envelope. He gave it to me and said, “Please have a look at it. I think people would want to read it if it were published.”

            Well, Ron was absolutely right, but it took me 40 years to get to it. I did not get to read it before I was hit with the trauma of first year law that fall, and I did not read it before Ron Liversedge died two years later. The manuscript remained untouched in my files for many more years. When I did read it, I knew at once that it had to be published, but my best intentions always fell victim to work, procrastination, and inertia.

            It was not until 2010 that I got the push I needed. A group of us, including Joey Hartman and Am Johal, worked on a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the On to Ottawa Trek. It had gone quite well. We were having a bit of a wrap-up celebration and wondering what to do next. Ron Liversedge and his book about the Trek came up, and I confessed that I had the manuscript for his other, unpublished book in my basement. Well, Am and the others employed what can politely be termed social pressure to get me to commit to getting Mac-Pap out of my filing cabinet and into the daylight. There were basically four things needed to do that, and with a lot of help from so many good people, all four came together.

            The first was editing the manuscript. That was not hard because Ron was such a good storyteller; his text just had to be tided up a bit. I tired very hard to keep Ron’s voice because I had the feeling that the earlier revision had lost some of that. So I started from what he had written and did not stray very much.

            My second task was writing annotations. I felt I should do that because the background to what Liversedge wrote would have been well known in the period of the Spanish Civil War, and much of it would still have been known when he wrote the memoir in the mid-60s. But now, more than 75 years after the events, a lot of that had been lost. So I set about to write background information about the fascinating people, the exotic places, and the military events that you will encounter in Ron’s book. For example, not many people today remember Dr. Lyle Telford, who helped Ron and many other Mac-Paps get to Spain. In that day, he was a fabulous radio orator and a CCF socialist MLA who was decades ahead of his time in advocating for Medicare. Telford was also the Mayor of Vancouver who was there to welcome the Mac-Paps when they returned home in 1939.

            Few people, then or now, know the story of Ivor Anderson. He was a young Danish immigrant who worked in the BC lumber camps, and who rode the freights with Liversedge in the Dirty Thirties. Anderson also travelled with Liversedge to Spain, survived the sinking of their ship by Franco’s submarine, and fought in countless battles in Spain right until the end, when he died tragically and heroically in the very last days of the fighting. For sure, Ron’s actual memoir is by far the best part of the book, but I think you will find a lot of good detail in the background annotations. I had a really rewarding time doing that research and writing.

            The third problem was taking up from where Irene Howard left off: finding a publisher. However, forty years had passed since her hard work, and that made it infinitely easer for me. I started by sending the manuscript package to only four publishers, and two (one in BC and one in Ontario) immediately said they would like to publish. So I talked to Rolf Maurer, the human whirlwind head of New Star Books in Vancouver, and we very quickly came to an agreement to publish Mac-Pap. I hope you all know New Star Books. It is small but an incredibly active publisher of a range of quality books that speak strongly to the social history, art, and politics of British Columbia. You should check out New Star’s publication list. They have a treasure trove of works by BC authors that are always exciting when they appear and, like Mac-Pap, have an amazing ability to stay relevant and readable through the years. I was very happy that New Star was taking this up and ready to roll, but there was just one more problem.

            The fourth issue was answering the question regarding ownership of the manuscript: who actually owned the Mac-Pap Manuscript and had the right to publish it? That involved some detective work. I spent a long time tracking down Ron’s few living descendants, and I did find them. Even so, it turned out that they were not the answer to the ownership mystery. I discovered eventually that Liversedge had officially copyrighted the book in the registry in Ottawa before he died, and after he died, his widow Mildred had again formally assigned those rights to the organization of Mac-Pap veterans that existed back in 1975. But as the veterans were dying, that group changed form a number of times. Its legal successor, it turns out, still exists in Ontario: The Mackenzie Papineau Memorial Fund. It was that group that raised the money for a wonderful memorial to the Canadians in Spain on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In 2012, I was able to get in touch with that group, which at the time included Jules Paivio. They were extremely co-operative, and readily granted formal permission to publish. As Ron would have wanted, the arrangement is that all royalties from the publication go to the Mac-Pap Fund.

            Jules Pavio was the last living Mac-Pap veteran, and a lucky guy to be that. In 1938, as a nineteen-year-old Finnish-Canadian kid who had volunteered for Spain, he was captured by Franco’s troops and taken with others to the wall of an olive grove where they would be shot. That is what the fascists did. Summary execution of prisoners was standard procedure for them, and Jules knew it. Then, at the last moment, fascist brass drove up in a Mercedes-Benz and ordered that Paivio be used as a prisoner-exchange hostage instead. So, he lived to tell the tale, and he campaigned for recognition of his fellow Spanish vets all his life. His life came to an end in September 2013, and the last Mac-Pap was gone. It was in that very month, with the help of Jules Paivio and so many others, that Ron Liversedge’s memoir was published at last.

            Neither Jules, nor Ron Liversedge, nor any of the 500 Canadians who died fighting fascism in Spain, nor any of the thousand more who survived, ever received the slightest official recognition or thanks for their sacrifices. Much too late and much too little, fine monuments have been erected in some of Canada’s capitals that give passersby a glimpse into the window of the their story.

            I think we can and should pay honour to those fighters at the very least by ensuring that the full meaning of their story is not lost to the living memory of this country, and that must mean knowing the story. We have a lot to discover, and a lot to learn. Ron Liversedge’s memoir of the Mac-Paps is a fine place to start.

Endnotes

Mackenzie-King Diaries, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa; entries for June 29 1937 and August 30 1938.
Vancouver Daily Province, March 16 1935: see also Serge M. Durflinger, Canadian Reaction to the visit of the German Cruiser Karlsruhe”, The Northern Mariner XVI No. 2, April 2006 at p. 8.
Irene Howard Papers, UBC Special Collections, Box 3 File 8, Howard to Palmer February 19 1973.
Liversedge, Ronald, Mac-Pap–Memoir of Canadian in the Spanish Civil War, New Star Books, Vancouver, 2013, p. 66.
The Volunteer, New York, March 2014. 
Liversedge, op.cit.  p. 122.