The ‘Spanish doctors’ who revolutionized medicine in the Civil War

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During the Civil war, around five hundred volunteers from around thirty countries around the world traveled to Spain to help the republican medical services that were acting at the front. Some joined the International Brigades; others, like the famous Norman BethuneThey decided to act on their own. His adventures are less well known than those of his military comrades -or the correspondents-, but they contributed to outstanding medical advancessee the improvement in the technology of the conservation and transport of blood for transfusions or of the ambulances trained to carry out surgical interventions at the front.

“There is a lot of talk that Spain was a field of experimentation for aviation and aerial bombing, but less of these innovations that were produced from the contact of medical traditions from very different places and the presence of very good Spanish doctors,” he explains. Carles Braso Broggi. The researcher, a doctor in Economic History from Pompeu Fabra University, has just published The wandering doctors (Crítica), an interesting essay that biography in group form the altered lives of a team of doctors who were baptized in the fire of the peninsular fields and ended up at the other end of the globe collaborating with the Chinese Red Cross during the conjuncture of the occupation Japanese.

Specifically, Brasó focuses on the adventures of seventeen doctors and two nurses born in the bosom of ancient European empires whose lives were governed mainly by nomadism, for not finding a fit in that destructive Europe of the 20th century. All but two came from educated, cosmopolitan Jewish families, and were able to attend university despite the barriers imposed against their community. They grew up in the years of the rise of anti-Semitism, in a constant insecurity about the future that would end up conditioning their decision to travel to Spain and face their ghosts there.

Doctors Baer and Kriegel.

Doctors Baer and Kriegel.

Courtesy of the Schön/Somogyi family archive

What was it that mobilized them? the communist creed or humanitarian impulses? “In the beginning, in the 1930s, they had a vision of European politics where communism was the strongest way to fight anti-Semitism and fascism, and the Spanish Civil War was their means for this fight. In addition, the path they took to travel to China was through the networks of the communist parties.However, letters and archival documentation reveal different positioning: some were great believers in the revolution and in more repressive policies, especially in the field of the Brigades, and others with a much more humanistic, integrating mentality”, answers the author. Some contradictions that clearly emerge in the framework of the War Cold: from those who made up governments of the Soviet satellites to those who were purged.

Spanish hinge

One of the characters that best articulates these complexities is the Czechoslovak —although born in the later Polish region of Galicia— Frantisek Kriegel. After surviving fierce clashes such as the Battle of Brunete and embarking on the Aenas On his way to China, upon returning home after World War II, he would play a relevant role in the Stalinist government of the country in the late 1940s. However, he would later evolve towards the more reformist postulates of the Prague Spring of 1968. Along with other leaders, led by Alexander Dubček, was taken to Moscow by the Russian authorities to sign a document legitimizing the Soviet invasion and to restore socialist ‘normality’. Kriegel was the only one who refused to ratify it, challenging his captors saying that they could either shoot him or send him to Siberia.

“From a historical point of view, he is the most important of the nineteen doctors, Kriegel became one of the relevant figures of the 20th century”, points out Carles Brasó, and adds a curiosity: “Then he claimed it Santiago Carrillo —the PCE opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—, with whom he corresponded, and already in the Transition he appeared in Francoist newspapers because he was someone who had opposed the USSR. He was an interesting character as a hinge between the regime and the world of republican exile. I think there are few people who could be endorsed by these two sides”. Another peculiarity is that the group of doctors was nicknamed the “Spanish doctors”, simply because of their having acted in the Civil War.

Cover of 'The Wandering Doctors'.

Cover of ‘The Wandering Doctors’.


Especially dramatic was the case of the Polish brigade members, especially those who sympathized with communism and were of Jewish origin, such as Szmul Mosze Flato. They were persecuted from all areas: by the Government of their country, which saw them as traitors for allying with the Soviets, by the Stalin and by the Nazis. His only way out of the concentration camps and the impossibility of being repatriated was to respond to the international appeal of China, where medicine was very precarious, when the war with Japan broke out. “The flight of these doctors to Asia was a bit of their lifeline”, summarizes the researcher.

Brasó, whose grandfather was a surgeon in the International Brigades, offers in his book an intimate view of the great conflicts that devastated the world in the 20th century. He does it from a personal perspective, focusing on the biographies of a group of idealists who decided to save the lives of others and on many occasions were pushed just to survive. After going through the archives of half the world for a decade, the stories of the Kriegel, Fritz Jensen, Mania Kamieniecki or Friedrich Kisch emerge in all their rawness and with valuable lessons to transmit.

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