Chapter 13: The tragic events of May in Barcelona

13

The tragic events of May in Barcelona

Despite the appeals for sanity, sense and rectification of their conduct that were directed from every corner of the world at the cenetistas and faístas, the latter remained unperturbed, implementing their new doctrines and operational methods and exercising great care not to hurt “the feelings of their ‘anti-fascist’ allies”. The term “social revolution” was expunged from the Spanish vocabulary. It was replaced by the phrase “we must win the war”, a phrase that was very flattering to the Marxist politicians, while they publicly declared that they were fighting for a democratic republic.

In the meantime, there was a hand, invisible only to those who suffered from an equally “circumstantial” myopia, that pulled the strings of the plan that was hatched by the central government of Largo Caballero—in connivance with the diplomacy of the “democratic” nations—whose purpose was to completely eliminate the now greatly diminished influence of the anarchists in Catalonia and Aragon. The same plan that was later carried out by Negrín, Prieto, etc.

One month before the events that we shall describe below, the Generalitat had undergone a government “crisis”, which was “resolved” by the “democrat” Companys in a most capricious way—according to Souchy—because he was seeking to reduce the number of CNT “ministers”. Since these CNT ministers, however, demonstrated their complacency and a great capacity for patience, “in order not to break the anti-fascist front, they also swallowed this bitter pill” (Souchy).

At the end of April 1937, Antonio Martín, an anarchist militant from Puigcerdá, along with several of his comrades in that locality, were assassinated.

The CNT, however, made overtures towards the UGT regarding a joint celebration of May Day by the two trade union centrals, but its “unionist” proposals did not meet with success.

***

During the first few days of May, comrade Camillo Berneri—along with his comrade Giovanni Barbieri—was found dead, who, already in November 1936, had engaged in a violent critique of the deviations whose existence he had confirmed, and said “that it was a matter for regret, that a certain process of Bolshevization was underway within the CNT” and in the newspaper Guerra di Classe, during the same month, he published a prophetic article, from which we shall reproduce a few paragraphs full of evidence that is relevant for our time and for all those who observe things with the eyes of reality and not with the smoke-tinted lenses of “special circumstances”. Berneri said:

“The republicans, the socialist leadership and the communists are now united on the ‘constitutionalist’ basis. The Executive Committee of the Spanish Communist Party declared recently that in today’s struggle, it called for the defense of democracy and of private property. This is beginning to smell like Noske. Were Madrid not in flames we would be forced to think of Kronstadt. But the policy of Madrid will be victorious. It will not arm or finance revolutionary Catalonia.

“Perhaps this was done only as a message to the USSR that it should send arms and cadres for the purpose of controlling the revolutionary struggle and stopping the development of the social revolution, forcing it into the channel of the armed struggle against fascism? The blackmail: Madrid or Franco, this is what has paralyzed Spanish anarchism. Today Barcelona is between Burgos, Rome, Berlin, Madrid and Moscow. A siege.

“Black clouds are gathering on the horizon; the haze blinds us.

“We concentrate our gaze and hold the rudder in a grip of steel. We are on the high seas and there is a storm. But we know how to perform miracles. Between the Prussians and Versailles, the Commune set alight a beacon that illuminated the entire world.

“Between Burgos and Madrid, lies Barcelona.

“Keep that in mind, Gaudets of Moscow.”1

(C. Berneri)

Berneri had signed his own death sentence, which was to be carried out by the mercenaries working under the orders of the “anti-fascist front”, or more accurately, the emissaries of Stalin.

***

In order to find out what took place during the May Days and during the subsequent period in Barcelona, there is no better place to look than the archives of the CNT and the FAI. We shall read some fragments from the long report published in the “Information Bulletin” of the CNT and FAI, which we obtained from an issue of Solidaridad of Montevideo published during the civil war, along with commentary by the editors of the latter newspaper, in which the editors accurately outline an explanation of the causes that led to the events of May:

“We shall take from the ‘Information Bulletin’ of the CNT and FAI, of Barcelona, the communiqué dated May 17, published by the National Committee of the CNT, relating an account of the events in Catalonia and their causes. We think this report is interesting because it is the official statement of the National Committee of the CNT, which provides the comrades with evidence upon the basis of which they can interpret the meaning of the events and understand the motives that guided those who did everything in their power to provoke them.

“We must, however, emphasize once again, that they are the natural consequence of that ‘alliancist’ tendency that sometimes arises in our movement, enticed by the illusion of numerical growth, without understanding that from the moment that we make an alliance with an enemy, we no longer treat him as an enemy, and consequently the workers who are members of an institution that we are fighting and who have begun to feel the effect of our preaching, instead of abandoning that institution because they feel a sense of brotherhood with our principles, once again feel at peace with their consciences, because our action has valorized the enemy institution to which they belong, and much worse, from the moment that, inevitably and by virtue of this alliance, we no longer say that that institution is bad, they are the ones who will make sure that we are silent, to preserve UNITY.

“This is more or less what has happened to our Spanish comrades, with their alliance in an ‘anti-fascist front’, with the worse, and unjustifiable aggravating factor of their intervention in the institutions of the government.

“THE REPORT OF THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE:

“Esteemed comrades: the events that have taken place in the Catalonian region oblige us to provide to the organization a report on the events, and most especially, concerning the way those who compose this National Committee have intervened in these events.

“On Monday we heard the news that something serious had taken place in Barcelona. We did not decide to intervene, because for several days abnormal conditions had prevailed there, and we were convinced that it would not be easy to act in such a way that our intervention would bring the events to a halt. Aware of the fact that the Organization in Catalonia was undergoing a stage of experimentation, which consisted in applying under existing circumstances the same methods that confer life and consistency to the CNT, without the comrades recalling that today, in a plan of government interventionism and obligatory collaboration, these methods require a change, one that coincides with the change from opposition to intervention. On the other hand, the political adversary acted in a provocative manner, for the obstinately pursued purpose of making the Confederal Organization return to its old street fighting ways. The process was a long one, and we could have intervened but we saw that our efforts were useless, since the discussions at the plenums and meetings framed the question in an INOPPORTUNE MANNER.

“On Tuesday, the 4th, the comrades who participated in the Valencia Government were summoned by the President of the Government, who informed them that the situation in Barcelona was serious, that decisive intervention was required, in order to bring a halt to the civil war that had broken out with such great violence. Largo Caballero explained that the Councilor of Internal Security of Catalonia had sent a request to the Minister representing the Central Government for the urgent dispatch of 1,500 assault guards, a force that was indispensable to suppress the movement. The Government could not do this because this would mean sending forces to operate at the service of elements that may have had something to do with provoking the conflict. Rather than agreeing to send the assault guards, he proceeded to institute an emergency draft of the Services of Public Order, as stipulated in the Constitution. It was necessary for the National Committees of the CNT and the UGT to immediately proceed to Barcelona in order to attempt to persuade the fighters to disarm, with assurances that, afterwards, the causes of the events would be discussed and solutions would be sought. The National Committee met and decided to go to Barcelona in order to fulfill its primary mission of bringing about a cease-fire, in order to prevent the emergency draft of the Services of Public Order by the Central Government and to carry out as much damage control as possible, to mitigate the disaster the civil war that had broken out implied with regard to international and domestic affairs.

“We appointed comrades Juan García Oliver and Mariano Vázquez, directing them to proceed to Barcelona. On behalf of the Executive Committee of the UGT, comrades Hernández Zancajo and Muñoz were appointed. The journey was made by airplane.

“… The constant PROVOCATIONS had led to the clashes in the streets. The last provocation was the dispatch of public forces to the Telephone Building, in order to seize it and thus strike a blow at the UGT-CNT Control Committee. At the most recent meeting of the Council of the Generalitat, everyone agreed in acknowledging that Ayguadé had exceeded his authority as the commander of the public forces. But no one wanted to accept responsibility for replacing or punishing the responsible parties, Ayguadé and Rodriguez Salas.

“At the Generalitat a meeting was convened that was attended by representatives of all sectors. Once this meeting had begun, we immediately proposed, as the first issue on the agenda, the benefits that would come from the representatives of the organizations broadcasting via radio an address calling for a cease-fire. It was necessary to gain time, to prevent more victims. And foreseeing that the discussion could be a long one, we cut our presentation short, and also made it clear to the attendees that all of us were united and ready to find a solution to the very serious problem posed in the streets. Our proposal was accepted by the other representatives. The meeting was adjourned. We spoke over the radio. And we met once again. After a comprehensive debate, we proposed the formula that a Provisional Council should be constituted, with four representatives, to which no individual who had participated in previous Councils would be admitted…. This Council would have a provisional character and would be presided over by Companys. Its mission would last 10 to 15 days, during which time the organizations would engage in discussions of their points of view and elaborate action programs that would oblige each organization, in a responsible way, to fulfill the terms of their action programs and not to repeat what had been the usual case up to that time, i.e., the fact that pacts and agreements were a dead letter. This proposal was also accepted, after extensive debate. We defended the view that this Council should be constituted immediately in order to make public the fact that the conflict has been resolved, and to impose the condition that everyone should go home. The representatives of the UGT—the Communists in Catalonia—expressed their opposition to this proposal, claiming that it was first necessary to immediately achieve a cease-fire in the streets; it was better, according to them, to allow some time for the situation to normalize…. We exhausted all the arguments in defense of our position. We thought it was necessary to gain time, in order to prevent the Government from being obliged to draft the Services of Public Order. But there was no way to make them understand. The Ezquerra and the Rabassaires, although they did not participate in the debate, supported the Commuinist position. Finally, at two in the morning, the meeting concluded with the decision to make another speech on the radio, emphasizing the fact that we had to make ourselves understood and that it was necessary to bring about a total cease fire, and to normalize the situation. The next morning Companys announced the constitution of the new Council of the Generalitat, a provisional Council for pacification. At the end of the meeting, we notified the Government that things were going well. The Government had been meeting in permanent session, addressing the problem of Catalonia and debating whether or not to issue a Decree to draft the Services of Public Order. Comrade Federica Montseny led the opposition for four hours against the Communists and Republicans who advocated the drafting of the Services of Public Order and Defense. This was a heated debate; when it came up for a vote, we lost, the draft was ordered with the stipulation that the Government would wait until the last possible moment to dispatch the troops. The Council remained in session until two in the morning when we were informed that the situation was returning to normal.

“… In Barcelona, early in the morning, we observed that the situation had gotten worse. Our first radio address had an impact. But in a few hours the fighting resumed. And at dawn on Wednesday, the situation in Barcelona presented a very grim panorama.

“… We could clearly observe the concealed satisfaction with which everyone had welcomed the decision of the Government. The news soon reached the Generalitat that several French and English warships had anchored in the port of Barcelona. In spite of everything we were still trying to put out the fire.

“… On Wednesday night, in agreement with all the comrades who were at the Generalitat, we decided to speak over the radio together with Vidiella from the UGT in order to issue one last appeal making it clear that the CNT was ready to expel from its ranks any persons who continued to bear arms in the streets after the passage of one more hour.

“The Federation of Trade Unions, in agreement with the Local Federation of the UGT, drafted the order to return to work. We agreed that the directors of the daily newspapers of the CNT and the UGT would order that the Thursday editions of their papers would issue an appeal for concord. Thursday dawned relatively peacefully on the streets; people began to go about their daily business. The transport union issued the order to return to work; but since the transit lines were not operational, it was necessary to dispatch repair teams. These teams departed in train cars from the repair shops, but as the morning progressed they had to return to their shops because snipers were shooting at them. Any trolley car that tried to depart from the stations was shot at. The metro had to suspend operations because at some entrances the Communist police and police from the Estat Catalá assailed the passengers. At the checkpoints and barricades manned by the other sectors that were members of the front arrayed against us, people were detained and searched, and membership cards of the CNT were torn up. At some locations, large quantities of destroyed Confederal membership cards were found. In other places, our comrades were attacked. Our offices were attacked. Our enemies seized strong points, taking advantage of the truce voluntarily complied with by our comrades, who were anxious to put an end to the fratricidal struggle. This situation had the result that by mid-day the situation had gotten worse and the fighting had once again become generalized. That evening, the Secretary of the National Committee arrived at the headquarters of the Regional Committee, where a meeting was held. We were immediately informed that the situation had become worse than ever. The comrades were ready for anything….

“Regardless of how many provocations were aimed at us, and no matter what we did, it was not possible for us to close our eyes and decide to wage the final battle…. We could not forget that a glance at the facts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we would thus be playing the enemy’s game. They wanted us to surge into the streets, they wanted responsibility for Public Order to pass into the hands of the Government, convinced that the latter, in the interest of prosecuting the war, and of domestic and international necessities, would have to crush the movement. In this way, the Central Government would fight against us and afterwards they would appear, once the CNT had been eliminated and if foreign intervention did not take place first, washing their hands and masters of the situation in Catalonia, since no one would be able to say that they were responsible for the repression…. We understand perfectly well the tragedy of the comrades who felt they had been driven into a corner and provoked. The fact is that they contemplated the downfall of their friends and comrades. But ABOVE ALL ELSE there is the need to prevent the resounding collapse of everything that the Spanish proletariat had achieved since July 19, handing victory to Franco on a platter, on the one hand, and playing the enemy’s game on the other….

“The National Committee immediately departed, together with a Commission, for the Generalitat, in order to contact the Government by telephone. Upon speaking with the Minister, we explained as clearly as possible just how serious the situation was. We denounced the attitude of the commanders of the Service of Public Order. We pointed out that Rodriguez Salas was still the chief of the Commissariat of Public Order, which justified the provocations of the public forces, since they were still under his command. We clearly suggested that the problem of Barcelona was not a problem to be resolved with public force, but with tact. In order to put an end to the fighting, the establishment of a truce was indispensable. Three hours would be enough. It was of urgent importance that during this period of time the public forces must not intervene at all; that they must not conduct searches; that they must not arrest anyone; that they must do absolutely nothing. Then those who are armed can abandon the barricades, the buildings they seized and any other places they have occupied. Galarza accepted our suggestion. It was agreed that from six to nine in the morning on Thursday the public forces would not interfere with anyone. And that as of that moment final orders would be issued for a cease-fire. As for the commanders, we were told that the next day the new officers would arrive by airplane with written orders that would be issued … so that we would be assured that they were engaging in a plan of pacification rather than repression. As for the Commissariat of Public Order, it was ordered that Rodríguez Salas should be IMMEDIATELY discharged. It was necessary, according to Galarza, that the public forces that were coming from Valencia must be allowed to pass unhindered to Barcelona. Their presence in Barcelona was essential, since the guards that were on duty were a partisan, biased force, and represented a danger for pacification. Under these conditions we came to an agreement with the Minister of the Government. But we specified, because it was of such importance, that the public forces should not enter Barcelona until after nine in the morning, in order to avoid incidents. Galarza accepted this idea and promised to see to it that it was observed.

“We informed the Catalonian organization of the conclusions we had reached, ordering the comrades to be prepared to withdraw from their positions at six in the morning.

“The Local Federation of Trade Unions, together with the Local Committee of the UGT, drafted another notice ordering a return to work. Furthermore, we spoke with Arrando, in order to iron out the details concerning the orders issued by the Minister of the Government. At the same time we suggested, and Arrando concurred, that the control patrols, a public force that had been placed under the orders of the Delegate of Public Order, and which had not been involved in the events, should leave their barracks at six in the morning in order to patrol the streets of Barcelona, in order to prevent any incidents.

“This was a hard blow to their calculations. The whole plan collapsed, at the very moment we reached an agreement with the central government.

“That morning, the comrades, having read the orders, immediately withdrew to their homes. Long before the expiration of the three hour truce, none of our comrades remained armed at barricades. However, the other contending parties took advantage of every opportunity to carry out provocations. In some cases it was difficult to contain the outrage of the comrades who were the targets of machine gun fire, despite the orders that were issued. This constituted yet more evidence that our enemies did not want a truce. They sought to continue the fighting at any price. That was their premeditated plan. But they failed because good sense was inculcated into our comrades and they did not respond to the provocations. In this way a serious problem was liquidated in Barcelona.

“In the outlying towns, the comrades allowed the forces coming from Valencia to have free passage; in some places, however, our enemies, always acting according to their plan of provocation and revenge, took advantage of the withdrawal of our armed comrades as soon as the problem of Barcelona was resolved. In other places they engaged in repression. This was due to the fact that the commanders of the public forces acted in the towns under the orders of the Party that had brought the war to Barcelona, against the CNT. No provocations were enough to overcome the sense of responsibility and the good sense that our movement exhibited.

“… This is the situation. Now all that is necessary is for the Organization to engage in profound reflection on what has taken place. It is one more experience that clearly indicates that good will is not enough. It specifies the need for us to never situate ourselves on the plane of playing our enemy’s game. The political situation is increasingly more complex. Only a careful analysis, carried out by those of us who know the complications and hidden characteristics of these situations, can help guide us by the road that is in the interest of the movement, to progress and victory in the war. Above all, so that we must never proceed unconsciously to the place that we want to reach, a place that we have to reach and which is to our benefit.

“We restrained our impulses. And now we can attend to what really matters.

“And now they are all acting like idiots; the parties have lost their sense of direction, especially the communist party, amidst the overwhelming failure of their maneuver. We shall orient the offensive on the plane of good sense and an orderly explanation of the facts, abandoning an aggressive tone and letting them all shout and cry as much as they want. Give them enough rope. And the libertarian movement will clear the way with its ability and great sense of objective reality.”

***

With carefully chosen words and without any kind of precautions, this report of the National Committee of the CNT expresses as clearly as possible the most absolute negation of its anarchist roots and the suicidal proposals of surrender that the governmental cenetistas and faístas cherished and continued to implement in a cowardly and incompetent manner, going so far as not only to disavow the armed resistance of the anarchist comrades, which was so bravely displayed on the barricades built on the streets of Barcelona, but even, availing themselves of the unjustified prestige and influence they had among our comrades, undertook by means of underhanded maneuvers, to cause them to desist from their dignified attitude and surrender themselves to the mercy of the authoritarian bloc that, with its outrages had provoked the indignation of the anarchists and the people of Barcelona.

“… the comrades were ready for anything….” “Regardless of how many provocations were aimed at us, and no matter what we did, it was not possible for us to close our eyes and decide to wage the final battle….” “We restrained our impulses. And now we can attend to what really matters.” This is what the “ministerialists” have the nerve to say. “The barricades must be torn down…. One stone for each citizen, and down with the barricades, which are memorials to a tragic time, memories that must disappear, that it is necessary for them to disappear as a sacrifice to the unity and fraternity that we have to preserve, arm in arm….” That is what they broadcast over Radio CNT-FAI.

And in this way, with speeches on the radio and leaflets saturated with words of the same kind, once again, the redemptive impulses and the just indignation of the anarchists and a sensible part of the Spanish people were suppressed, who, reacting most energetically against the deception by which they had been victimized by the cenetistas and faístas, and seeking to prevent their own comrades from being murdered and wanting to resist the authoritarian arrogance of all the politicians, had poured into the streets to risk their lives for freedom. And even more importantly: if it were possible for us to devote more space to recounting other unfortunate and disagreeable episodes that occurred during this short period, we could fully expose the treasonous cancer that had undermined the morale, the courage and the goodness of the Spanish people. And if you have the opportunity to read the pamphlet by the fence-sitter A. Souchy, The Tragic Week in May: The May Days, Barcelona, 1937,2 you will be able to appreciate just how cowardly the behavior of the “ministerialists” really was; how shamelessly they concluded their adventures and flirtations with the “anti-fascist” politicians and to what extent they betrayed the noble cause of human emancipation.