Dr. Norman Bethune, Spanish civil war, 1937

Dr. Norman Bethune volunteered on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war and returned to Canada for a widely-publicized speaking tour in 1937.
Dr. Norman Bethune in Spain

Dr. Norman Bethune left his medical practice in Montreal in 1936 to join the Republican forces fighting the fascists under General Franco in Spain. There Dr. Bethune pioneered a portable blood transfusion unit that was used at or near the front and it saved thousands of lives. In 1937, he was asked by the Republicans to return to Canada to raise money and support for their cause. He embarked on a popular speaking tour, and these remarks are taken from his speech in Montreal on June 16, 1937.

“Democratic Spain must live”

I went to Spain as a matter of honour. I have come back because there are some things that need to be said in reply to those outside of Spain who speak in the name of dishonour.

I am a doctor, a surgeon. My job is to sustain human life, in all its beauty and vigour. I am not a politician, but I went to Spain because the politicians betrayed Spain and tried to drag the rest of us into their betrayal. With varying accents, and with varying degrees of hypocrisy, the politicians ruled that democratic Spain must die. It was my belief, as it is now my conviction, that democratic Spain must live.

To the Spanish people, and to anyone who has seen Spain for himself, the position is clear. So clear, in fact, that Franco and his fascist backers urgently need a diversion to conceal their aggression, just as the Tory bleaters of non-intervention need a fig leaf to dress up the naked shanks of their miserable policy. They have found one, to their mutual relief. It is nothing more than the bastard child of the Austrian paperhanger and the Italian turncoat. It is “the menace of communism.”

Mussolini and Hitler

Fourteen years ago, Mussolini was shipped into Rome in a parlour car and installed in office to destroy the “communist menace.” He promptly proceeded, in the name of his holy mission, to destroy the living standards of the people and the very right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More recently, no doubt as part of the same holy mission, he has militarized Italy and brought Abyssinia into the grip of fascism and bloodshed.

Four short years ago, in Germany, Adolf Hitler was installed as chancellor, also to save Germany from the “communist menace.” He proceeded, as you will remember, with even more dispatch than Il Duce. In the name of the holy war against Bolshevism, he made unholy war against every democratic German grouping, communist or anti-communist, ruined and murdered “non-Aryans,” drove out some of the finest minds of the century, filled Germany with the horrors and brutality of the concentration camps, and fastened on the people the most terrible tyranny the world has ever seen. Herr Hitler is still raging against the “menace of communism,” but already the guns of his new armies are pointing towards the territories of the leading noncommunist governments of Europe.

And now Franco and his Moors and his German and Italian backers announce the same theme: they, too, are saving Spain from the communist menace. And in Downing Street, and at our own capital, and among learned American senators, it is sagely opined that it is of course deplorable about Spain, but the Reds are back of it, after all, and the present fighting is merely an alleged national reaction to Moscow’s conniving’s.

Let Spaniards decide

Now I am not the least bit interested tonight to discuss the merits or demerits of the communist program and philosophy. If the people of Spain wanted communism, it would be for them and nobody else to decide when and how they should have it. But I must say that the attempt to paint the invasion of Spain as a crusade to save the country from the “communist menace” is not only a wretched lie, it is a calculated and vicious insanity.

Is it not clear that if this insanity is to prevail, it will strike a mortal blow at all the rights and liberties of non-communists as well as communists? For, if you are unfree, as the Spanish people were unfree, and you defend your freedom, you will be struck down as a communist. If you are hungry, as the Spanish people were hungry, you will be overwhelmed with cries of the “communist menace” when you ask for bread. If you long for a decent, peaceful life of minimum abundance, again like the Spanish people, you will have to face the vengefulness of those scouring the earth with fixed bayonets for the contamination of communism. Every sincere word, every desire for a better life, every protest against injustice, every plea to improve an imperfect world will be suspect, dangerous, an invitation to reprisals, an act to be put down as the rankest subversion.

Aiding Spain

There are some who argue, of course, that the Soviet Union is assisting the Loyalist regime and the communists inside and outside of Spain are supporting the Spanish government. This argument, presumably, is supposed to prove the existence of the “communist menace” in Spain and thereby to disqualify the Loyalists. I fail to follow the logic. I fail to follow the argument that because the Soviet Union, or the communists elsewhere, approve of something it is thereby necessarily proven bad. I further cannot accept the suggestion that because the fascists and their “neutral” Tory friends everywhere say something is good, it cannot therefore by quite bad.

Yes, the Soviet Union has sent aid to the Spanish Republic. So has Mexico, which is not communist. That is an undeniable fact. Is that to the discredit of Spain? I would revise the question: I would say that it is to the credit of the Soviet Union and Mexico that they have lived up to their obligations to the Spanish government, which represents Spain’s people. The Soviet Union and Mexico, by according the Spanish government its legal rights, are aiding the government elected and supported by the people themselves. The western powers, by embargoing the Loyalists and shutting their eyes to the flow of arms and armies from Italy and Germany to Franco, are supporting the choice of Hitler, Mussolini, and the clique of Spanish financiers and feudalists who mint their wealth out of the poverty of the people.

Rank dishonesty

Let us have done, then, with the miserable deception of anticommunism. It has served Hitler and Mussolini well, but not the enslaved German and Italian peoples. It may have a pleasing sound in Tory ears, and salve the consciences of some spinsterish British Labour leaders, but it is rank dishonesty nevertheless. It is the great lie of our decade. It is the last refuge of the reactionary whose political arsenal is empty, whose world is bankrupt, and whose patrons’ thirst for power is desperate and undiminished. That is one of the lessons of Spain. I hope we will never forget it.

Spain can be the tomb of fascism. History will someday take full revenge on those who fail her.


Bethune later went to China to serve as a doctor with the communist forces in the civil war, and he died there of blood poisoning. He remains a hero and an icon in China and one of the most famous Canadians ever.

Source: Ted Allen, The Scalpel and the Sword (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1989), revised
edition, pp: 159-162
More information: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Norman Bethune
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada
Note: I welcome your comments. Please leave one below.



2 thoughts on “Dr. Norman Bethune, Spanish civil war, 1937

Add yours

  1. Dennis
    I want to share this with a friend in Spain. How can I do this? Can I somehow simply email it? Very inspiring and I think pertinent to today’s world.
    Best wishes,


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