The May Days, Barcelona, 1937: A Revolution Betrayed

Once a great Imperial power Spain had long since fallen into decline and much like the peninsular upon which she lay had become isolated and ignored; a country of paradoxes and extremes where great wealth sat alongside grinding poverty, it was in some places deeply conservative in others a hotbed of revolution, at one and the same time devoutly Catholic and wedded to tradition, violently anti-clerical and desperate for change. Indeed, so sharply divided along regional and political lines was she with powerful separatist movements in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalonia that by the 1930’s Spain as a sovereign entity seemed close to falling apart, its politics not those of compromise but of bitter and irreconcilable hatreds hidden beneath the thin veneer of unity provided by a deeply unpopular Monarchy only kept in place since 1923 by the relatively benign dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. Following the fall of his Government in 1930 the Royalist Party was resoundingly defeated in municipal elections and King Alfonso XIII forced to abdicate. On 10 May 1931, the Second Republic was formed and all of the political divisions that had been suppressed under Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship would quickly come bubbling to the surface.

Spain was the only country in Europe where Anarchism had taken a firm hold but even here it was not a national phenomenon but restricted to certain regions. It was most politically significant in the city of Barcelona and the industrial regions of Catalonia but at its most popular in the barren wastes of Andalucia and Extremadura where among the poor workers of the latifundia its appeal was more messianic than political providing its adherents with an almost quasi-religious commitment to shed blood in purging Spain of the poison of oppression, poverty, and inequality.

In an attempt to provide direction for the rapidly expanding but by its very nature poorly organised movement in 1910 the Confederacion Nacional Del Trabajo, or C.N.T was formed. It was in effect a Trade Union and though it did not keep any formal membership list by the mid 1930’s it was believed to number about 500,000.

The Federacion Anarquista Iberica, or F.A.I founded in Valencia in 1927, though formally independent of the C.N.T was in effect its militant wing.

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The F.A.I which would deny its own existence was dominated by men of violence such as Buenventura Durruti, Francisco Ascaso, and Juan Garcia Oliver responsible for such criminal activities as bank robberies, factory bombings, drive-by shootings, and political assassinations. Estimated to have never numbered more than 30,000 even at its peak, it was to form the backbone of the Anarchist Militias that opposed the Nationalist forces in the opening months of the Civil War.

The first test of the new Republic and any attempt to heal the rift between Left and Right occurred in October 1934 when miners, members of the socialist Union Generales de Trabajadores, or U.G.T, in the northern region of the Asturias withdrew their labour and established Russian style Soviets. Violence soon followed in the wake of the industrial unrest as Churches were burned, priests murdered, and Civil Guards attacked. Rather than negotiate the Government in Madrid chose instead to meet violence with violence and sent in the army to restore order.

Transported on a railway system run by the C.N.T who refused to support their fellow workers in the rival U.G.T troops flooded into the Asturias where after a week of bitter fighting that left 3,000 miners and 250 soldiers dead the strike was suppressed but in acting as it did the Republican Government had exposed itself to be no less willing to ruthlessly clamp down on worker protest than any previous regime. Indeed, the reactionary policies of the Republic merely served to widen the split between Left and Right to the point where the contending parties appeared to be representing two different countries. It came as no surprise then when two political blocks one from the Left and the other from The Right were formed to contest the forthcoming election.

The Left leaning Popular Front was a coalition of Socialists, Communists, and Republicans whilst the Right Leaning National Front was composed of Conservatives, Fascists, Catholics, and Monarchists. The Anarchists chose to abstain though they tacitly supported the Popular Front.

Spain simmered like a tinderbox as the people went to the polls on 16 February 1936 but the result it provided was so close it seemed less likely to douse the flames than it was provide the spark. The Popular Front had polled 4,654,116 votes or 47.03% of the vote to 4,503,505 or 46.48% for the National Front. Yet despite the narrowness of the victory there was to be no coming together and with a majority in the Cortes the Popular Front were determined to use it.

To placate its own supporters, and further outrage its opponents, one of the Popular Front Government’s first measures was to release from jail left-wing political prisoners. It then implemented a programme of agricultural reform for the redistribution of land, and proceeded to ratchet up its anti-clerical rhetoric. The wealthy responded by taking their money out of the country sparking an economic crisis.

Having failed to find salvation through the ballot box many on the Right looked to the Army to save them from what they perceived to be a Government of atheists, thieves, and freemasons. Even worse, the new Government seemed incapable of maintaining law and order and in the months immediately following the election there were 113 strikes, 160 religious buildings burned to the ground, 1,500 people killed or seriously injured in street violence, and 330 political assassinations.

The Government knew full-well how the political Right were likely to react in the face of such anarchy and were aware that a military coup was imminent. Yet when it came on 17 July 1936, it took them completely by surprise, so much so that for the first few days they appeared paralysed and unable to respond.

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, had been the cradle of political discontent and revolution long before the outbreak of the Civil War. By far the wealthiest region of Spain with its heavy industry and lush agricultural land its strongly independent people had long resented domination from Madrid, but It had recently won a degree of autonomy and had its own Government, the Generalitat, and this hard won independence it was determined to hold onto.

On 26 July, 1909, in what became known as La Tragica Semana, the Tragic Week, the people of Barcelona took to the streets of the city to battle with police over the Government’s policy of conscripting young Catalans to fight in the Moroccan War. By the time the riots were suppressed a week later 125 people had been killed, many more injured, and thousands arrested. Though most of the arrested were later released the Government took the opportunity to rid themselves of a number of those they considered dangerous militants. One of these was the famous anarchist educationalist Francisco Ferrer, who was publicly garrotted, even though he had not even been in the city at the time of the riots.

Following the brutal suppression of La Tragica Semana revolutionary sentiment in Barcelona only increased and tit-for-tat killings became commonplace. Prominent businessmen, factory managers, and Government officials were murdered as also were trade unionists and leading militants as the police responded in kind.

The recent past was not easily forgotten and when the Civil War finally broke out in the summer of 1936 no city was better placed to respond than Barcelona.

On 19 July 1936, General Manuel Goded flew into Barcelona to take control of the troops there and secure the city for the Nationalist cause but unlike elsewhere the Police and Civil Guard remained largely loyal to the Popular Front Government and handed over its weapons to the workers. Greatly outnumbered the garrison in Barcelona was soon forced off the streets and made to take refuge in their barracks.

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What Barcelona underwent during the next few weeks of fighting was less resistance to a military coup than it was a social revolution and the working people of the city appeared to embrace it totally but it was no less violent for that. When on 11 August, General Goded was captured and broadcast to his troops calling upon them to give themselves up instead of being rewarded for his cooperation the following day he was taken into the courtyard of Montjuich Castle and shot dead. Fearing that a similar fate now awaited them many of the troops holed up in the Atarazanas Barracks now refused to surrender.

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The soldiers could have been starved into submission but Buenventura Durruti demanded that the Anarchists of the F.A.I be allowed to storm the barracks, to them it was a matter of honour, that they should be able to prove to their enemies that they were the more courageous. So Durruti led a quite unnecessary assault upon the barracks that was to cost the lives of hundreds of his men including that of his friend, Francisco Ascaso but the barracks were eventually taken and those inside not killed in the fighting were led away and executed.

The workers of Barcelona had liberated their own city from fascist oppression and revolutionary fervour now took over. Patrols were organised to maintain order on the streets as the workers took over the running of their own factories, public amenities were collectivised, and militias hastily formed and rushed to the front to defend Catalonia from invasion.

It was a time of great joy, hope was manifest, and the atmosphere was intoxicating unless you were a bourgeois removed from his job and frightened to leave home. But there was little sympathy for them – the anarchists were in charge. But there was a flaw in all this.

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When Juan Companys, the President of the Generalitat, met the Anarchist leaders to inform them that he intended to resign and was handing to them the levers of power, they demurred. They were after all Anarchists devoted to the destruction of government and the dismantling of the structures of power. They may well be in de facto charge but to take formal control ran contrary to their core beliefs. They declined his offer and Companys remained as President, but by doing so they had effectively ceded power. It was a decision that was to come back to haunt them, for it was this duopoly of power that was to prove their undoing.

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The journalist and author George Orwell, arriving in Barcelona in January, 1937, long after the initial excitement at revolution had passed was still seduced by the atmosphere in the city. He wrote:

“To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed that even in January the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was a town where the working class were in the saddle. Practically every building was draped in the red and black flag of the anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and the initials of the revolutionary parties; every church had been gutted and its images burnt, every shop and cafe had an inscription to say it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. There were no private motor cars, all had been commandeered, all the trams and taxis were painted red and black. It was a place where the wealthy had ceased to exist. There were no well-dressed people at all. Everyone wore rough working class clothes, blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not like it, but I recognised it immediately as something worth fighting for. There was no unemployment and the cost of living was extremely low. There was a belief in the revolution and in the future, a feeling of having emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

Despite the revolutionary fervour and the overwhelming sense of optimism described by Orwell, political tensions remained. The Republican Government was desperate to wrest control of Catalonia, a region essential to its survival away from the Anarchists and they were goaded on to do so by the increasingly influential Communist Party who wanted those they saw as revolutionary opponents and enemies destroyed.

For the time being the Anarchists were still too powerful and their continued support was needed in the struggle to resist the fascist advance. So for now all the parties worked together, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time.

On 3 May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police of Barcelona and a Communist ordered the Civil Guard to occupy the Telephone Exchange. This was the centre of communications in the city and was essential to its continued smooth running. It was also its link to the surrounding countryside and the Northern Front. Whoever controlled the Telephone Exchange controlled Barcelona, and since July 1936, it had been in the hands of the Anarchist C.N.T.

The building was surrounded and those inside ordered to vacate the premises but its armed anarchist guards refused to do so. A little later firing broke out and the rumour soon spread that Government forces were trying to take back the city.

Anarchists on the ground believed that this was nothing less than a Communist coup and they were determined to resist it and by the following morning barricades had been erected and the fighting quickly spread as shots were exchanged and squads roamed the streets looking for people of opposing political parties to murder.

Their leadership however, did not agree and the Anarchist Ministers Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, who had denied their own political logic by joining the Government, arrived in the city to try and negotiate a settlement. They were largely ignored but still something had to be done the Republic was turning on itself.

The Socialist Prime Minister Francisco Largo Caballero was reluctantly persuaded to send 6,000 Assault Guards from Valencia to restore order. They were not welcome and a week of bitter fighting followed during which more than 500 people were killed but this was just the beginning as a Communist inspired purge now led to thousands of all political persuasions being arrested with many more forced into hiding.

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The main targets of their wrath however were the anarchist and members of the Trotsyite, Partido Obrero Unificacion Marxista, or P.O.U.M hose leaders were hunted down and murdered. One of those forced to flee for his life was George Orwell who had been serving in the P.O.U.M Militia.

The May Days fighting had seen the anarchists defeated in their heartland and their Militias were now forcibly incorporated into the Republican Army. In protest at this Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver resigned from the Government, but it was too late.

On 17 May, Largo Caballero was forced to resign as Prime Minister to be replaced by the Communist sympathising, Juan Negrin. Anarchism had been destroyed in Barcelona because by refusing to take formal power when they had the opportunity to do so they had created a political vacuum and sown the seeds of their own destruction.

But with their defeat also died the revolutionary fervour that had seen men and women take up arms to fight for a cause they believed in and when on 26 January 1939 the forces of General Franco entered Barcelona, once the hotbed of revolution and the beating heart of the resistance to fascism in Spain, they did so without a shot being fired.

But the thirst for revenge remained and in March 1939 the events of May 1937 would be replayed but this time on the streets of Madrid and this time the Anarchists were triumphant but unable to negotiate a settlement with Franco they were forced surrender the city soon after. Less than a week later he declared the Civil War to be over, its last bitter conflict having been between Anarchists and Communists supposed allies in the fight against fascism.

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