Part 2 of a 3-part series on the life of Norman Bethune: Canadian doctor, internationalist, and revolutionary hero.
by J.D. Benjamin Basics Issue #12 (Jan/Feb 2009)
In 1936, civil war broke out in Spain between the democratically-elected government and foreign-backed fascist rebels. Wanting to help in the fight against the rising tide of fascism, Norman Bethune joined the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy and agreed to head the Canadian Medical Unit in Madrid. Travelling by steamship, Bethune arrived just as the fascist forces were launching a savage offensive against the city.
As a renowned surgeon, Bethune was offered a post at either the military hospital or the training centre for the International Brigades. Instead, he refused both and took the radical step of creating a new form of medical team – a blood transfusion unit that would operate where it was needed most, right on the front lines of the conflict. The anti-fascist Spanish Republican forces already had blood transfusion units, but they were centralized in Barcelona, far from the front. At the time, it was standard practice in warfare for wounded fighters to be transferred into the rear before receiving treatment. Many would die during the trip from shock as a result of blood loss.
Bethune and his team quickly organized a mobile medical unit, which was the first of its kind in the world. It contained enough medical equipment to dress 500 wounds and perform 100 operations and had its own delivery service that collected blood from thousands of donors in the rear and delivered it to the unit on the front. This unit saved countless lives and was so innovative that it would be used as the model for war-time medical care all over the world. It was a major accomplishment and Bethune was honoured by the Spanish government with the rank of major, the highest rank held by any foreigner in the medical service.
While a skilled organizer, Bethune could also be harsh, impatient and demanding and his translator frequently had to soften Bethune’s words when dealing with Spanish authorities. While these qualities were helpful in the initial establishment of the unit, they did not serve well later on when managing political conflicts and dealing with petty personal rivalries. With tensions within the medical service rising and his most important tasks completed, Bethune believed that he could be of better use to the anti-fascist cause back in Canada where he could carry out propaganda work.
Bethune had already shown a flair for publicity and promotion of the anti-fascist cause. His work had attracted extensive press coverage and he helped produce Heart of Spain, the famous documentary about the Canadian Blood Service. On his return to Canada, Bethune went on a tour to raise money, material supplies and volunteers, speaking before tens of thousands across the country. Even though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the people responded enthusiastically. In the spirit of international solidarity, they gave tens of thousands of dollars to Bethune’s blood transfusion unit and rushed to join the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to go fight in Spain. (For more on the Mac-Paps, see Basics issue #8)
The Canadian state, rather than supporting the heroic work of Bethune and his team of medics, went out of its way to undermine the anti-fascist movement. Enlistment in the International Brigades was made a criminal offence under the 1937 Foreign Enlistment Act. The government even went so far as to amend the Act to ban participation in any humanitarian agency that did not assist the fascists as well as the Republicans – deliberately making Bethune’s work in defence of Spanish democracy illegal.
The final chapter in Bethune’s life was to begin with the invasion of China by fascist Japan. In China, Bethune would join the next flashpoint in the world wide fight against fascism and for revolution…