Part 3 - The Death and Funeral of Durruti

3

The Death and Funeral of Durruti

“Cui prodest scelus is fecit.” (Whoever benefits from the crime is the one who committed it.)

Seneca, Medea

“We anarchists can go to jail, or die the way Obregón, Ascaso, Sabater, Buenaventura Durruti and Peiró died, whose lives are worthy of a Plutarch. We can die in exile, in the concentration camps, in the maquis, or in a hospice, but to accept the position of government minister, this is inconceivable.”

Jaime Balius, “For the Record”, Solidaridad Obrera, September 2, 1971.

FROM NOVEMBER 4 TO NOVEMBER 22, 1936

On November 4, many people were eagerly waiting to listen to a surprise speech by Durruti that was to be broadcast by Radio CNT-FAI from Barcelona to all of Spain. On that same day the press reported on the accession of four anarchist Ministers to the Madrid government: Federica Montseny, Juan García Oliver, Juan López and Joan Peiró. The Durruti Column had not captured Zaragoza. The difficulties with regard to the supply of arms comprised the main problem at the front. Durruti had tried everything in his power to obtain weapons. He even sent a detachment of militiamen in early September on a punitive expedition to Sabadell, in order to force them to deliver the arms that had been stored there in anticipation of forming a Sabadell Column that had not yet been organized. Furthermore, on October 24 the Generalitat had approved the Decree militarizing the Militias, which re-imposed the old Code of Military Justice, effective as of November 1. Both the friends as well as the enemies of Durruti eagerly awaited his speech.

Even before the speech started, people gathered in the vicinity of the speakers that had been installed in the trees of Las Ramblas, which usually broadcast revolutionary songs, news and music. Wherever there was a radio in Barcelona, people were impatiently waiting for the announcement: “Durruti Speaks”.

The Militarization Decree had been passionately discussed in the Durruti Column, which had voted not to comply with it, because it could not improve the combat conditions of the volunteer militiamen of July 19, nor could it resolve the chronic shortage of weapons and ammunition. Durruti signed, in the name of the Committee of War, a text1 rejecting the militarization demanded by the “Council”2 of the Generalitat, significantly datelined from the Osera Front on the same day (November 1) that the hated Military Code was supposed to become effective. The Column denied the need for barracks discipline, to which it opposed the superiority of revolutionary discipline: “Militiamen, yes; soldiers, never.”

Durruti, as the delegate of the Column, sought to evoke the indignation and protests of the militiamen of the Aragón front against the clearly counterrevolutionary course that was emerging behind the lines. The broadcast of Durruti’s speech3 began at 9:30 p.m.:

“Workers of Cataluña! I am speaking to the Catalan people, to the generous people that four months ago defeated the soldiers who tried to crush them beneath their boots. I send you salutations from your brothers and comrades fighting on the front in Aragón, who are only kilometers from Zaragoza, within sight of the towers of Pilarica.

“Despite the threat that is closing in on Madrid, we must always remember that the people have risen, and nothing in the world can make them retreat. We shall resist on the front of Aragón, against the Aragonese fascist hordes, and we call upon our brothers in Madrid to resist, because the militiamen of Cataluña will know how to do their duty, just as they did when they went into the streets of Barcelona to crush fascism. The workers organizations must not forget their imperative duty at the present time. At the front, as in the trenches, there is only one thought, one goal. Our gaze is fixed, we look forward, with the sole purpose of crushing fascism.

“We ask the Catalan people to stop the intrigues and bickering. You must rise to the occasion: stop quarreling and think of the war. The people of Catalonia have the duty to support those fighting on the front. We have to mobilize everyone, but don’t think that it will always be the same people. If Catalan workers have assumed the responsibility of going to the front, it’s now time to demand sacrifices from those who remain in the cities. We have to effectively mobilize all the workers in the rearguard because those of us who are at the front need to know that we can count on the men behind us.

“To the organizations: stop your rows and stop tripping things up! Those of us who are fighting on the front ask for sincerity, above all from the CNT and FAI. We ask the leaders to be genuine. It is not enough for them to send encouraging letters to us at the front, and to send clothing, food, rifles and ammunition. It is also necessary for them to face the facts, and plan for the future. This war has all the aggravating factors of modern warfare and is proving to be very costly for Catalonia. The leadership has to realize that we’ll need to start organizing the Catalan economy, and imposing rules on the economic order, if this lasts much longer. I do not feel like writing any more letters so that the comrades or the son of a militiaman can have one more crust of bread or pint of milk, while there are Ministers who do not have to pay to eat and have no limits on their expenditures. We call upon the CNT-FAI to tell them that if they as an organization control the economy of Catalonia, then they must organize it as it should be organized. No one should think of wage increases or reduced working hours now. It’s the duty of all workers, especially the workers of the CNT, to make sacrifices, to work as much as necessary.

“Of course we’re fighting for something greater and the militiamen will prove it. They blush when they read about fund drives to raise money for them in the press, when they see those posters asking you to make a donation. The fascist planes drop newspapers on us that publish lists of donations for their soldiers, and they are neither more nor less than what you give. That is why we have to tell you that we are not beggars and therefore we do not accept charity in any form. Fascism represents and is in effect social inequality, and if you do not want those of us who are fighting to confuse those of you in the rearguard with our enemies, then do your duty. We are waging war now to crush the enemy at the front, but is this the only enemy? No. Anyone among us who is opposed to the revolutionary conquests is also an enemy, and we must crush them as well.

“If you want to neutralize the threat, you must form a granite front. Politics is the art of obstructionism, the art of living [like parasites], and this must be replaced with the art of labor. The time has come to invite the trade union organizations and the political parties to put an end to this business once and for all. In the rearguard we need capable administrators. The men at the front want responsibility and guarantees behind us. And we demand that the organizations look after our women and children.

“They’re mistaken if they think that the militarization decree will scare us and impose an iron disciple on us. You are mistaken, Ministers, with your militarization decree. Since you have so much to say about iron discipline, then I say to you, come to the front with me. At the front we do not accept any discipline, because we are conscious of doing our duty. And you will see our order and our organization. Then we shall return to Barcelona and we shall ask you about your discipline, your order, and your control, which does not exist.

“Remain calm. There’s no chaos or indiscipline at the front. We’re all responsible and cherish your trust. Sleep peacefully. But remember that we’ve left Catalonia and its economy in your hands. Take responsibility for yourselves, discipline yourselves. Let’s not provoke, with our incompetence, after this war, another civil war among ourselves.

“Anyone who thinks that his party is strong enough to impose its policy is wrong. Against the fascists we must marshal one force, one organization, with a unified discipline.

“The fascist tyrants will never cross our lines. That is our slogan at the front. To them we say: ‘You will not pass!’ To you: ‘They will not pass!’”

Hours after having listened to Durruti’s radio address, people were still discussing what he had said with his usual energy and integrity. His words resonated with force and emotion in the Barcelona night, embodying the genuine thought of the working class. It was a cry of alarm that reminded the workers of their condition as revolutionary militants. Durruti did not recognize any gods, nor did he see the working class as gods. He took it for granted that the militiamen who were fighting fascism at the front were not going to allow anyone to rob them of the revolutionary and emancipatory content of their struggle: they were not fighting for the Republic or bourgeois democracy, but for the triumph of the social revolution and the emancipation of the proletariat.

His entire address did not contain even one demagogic or rhetorical phrase. His words were a spur to the great and the small of the earth. For the workers and the CNT leaders comfortably settled into responsible positions, for the ordinary citizens and for the Ministers of the Generalitat or the glamorous anarchist Ministers. A diatribe against the bureaucratic deviations of the revolutionary situation that arose on July 19, and a condemnation of government policy, with or without CNT leaders to provide a façade. In the rearguard there was an unfortunate confusion between duty and charity, administration and command, function and bureaucracy, responsibility and discipline, agreement and decree, and example and orders and commands. The threat to “return to Barcelona” caused the resurgence of terror among the political representatives of the bourgeoisie, although it was already too late to remedy the inexcusable and naïve error of July, when the revolution was postponed “until after Zaragoza is captured”, as a result of theoretical shortcomings and a lack of perspective on the part of the libertarian movement. But these threats against the ruling powers were not in vain: his words, directed at his class brothers, possessed all the value of a revolutionary testament. A testament, rather than a proclamation, because his fate was already sealed, a fate that his posthumous deification transformed into an enigma.

The immediate consequence of the radio address, was the convocation by Companys on the following day, November 5, at 11:00 p.m., of an extraordinary meeting4 in the Palace of the Generalitat of all the Ministers and representatives of all the political and trade union organizations, in order to discuss the growing resistance to compliance with the Decree militarizing the militias, as well as to the Decree proclaiming the dissolution of the revolutionary committees and their replacement by Popular Front municipal government bodies. Durruti was the cause and the target of the debate, although everyone avoided mentioning his name. Companys proclaimed the necessity of putting an end to “the uncontrollables”, who, outside of all political and trade union organizations, “were ruining everything and compromising all of us”. Comorera (PSUC) stated that the UGT had expelled from its ranks those who did not comply with the decrees, and invited the other organizations to do the same. Marianet, secretary of the CNT, after boasting of the sacrifices made by the anarchists with their renunciation of their own ideological principles, complained of the lack of tact demonstrated by the attempt to immediately enforce the Code of Military Justice, and assured those present that after the decree ordering the dissolution of the committees, and thanks to the efforts of the CNT, there were fewer and fewer uncontrollables, and that this was not so much a matter of groups that had to be expelled as resistance that had to be overcome, without provoking revolts, and of individuals who must be convinced. Nin (POUM), Herrera (FAI) and Fábregas (CNT) praised the efforts carried out by all the organizations to stabilize the situation after July 19, and to reinforce the power of the current Council of the Generalitat. Nin mediated the dispute between Sandino, Minister of Defense, and Marianet, concerning the causes of the resistance to the Militarization Decree, saying that “everyone basically agreed” and that there was a certain amount of fear among the masses “about losing what they had gained”, but that “the working class agrees that a real army must be created”. Nin saw the solution of the current disagreements in the creation of a Commissariat of War in which all the political and trade union organizations would be represented. Comorera, much more intransigent than Companys and Tarradellas, claimed that the fundamental problem resided in the Generalitat’s lack of authority: “groups of uncontrollables are still doing whatever they want”, not only with regard to the question of militarization and the conduct of the war or the issue of a unitary command structure, but also with regard to the dissolution of the committees and the formation of municipal governing bodies, as well with respect to the collection of arms in the rearguard and recruitment, which augured disaster. Comorera even said that this lack of authority extended to the collectivizations, “which are still being carried out capriciously, without observing the Decree that regulates them”. Companys accepted the possibility of modifying the Military Code and creating a Commissariat of War. Comorera and Andreu (ERC) insisted that it was necessary to comply with and to enforce compliance with the decrees. The meeting concluded with a joint appeal to the Catalonian people to exercise discipline in complying with all the decrees of the Generalitat, and to all the organizations to make a commitment to declare their support for all the government’s decisions in their press.5 No one at this meeting opposed militarization: the problem for the politicians and bureaucrats was merely how to make the people obey the government’s decrees.

On November 6 the Council of Ministers of the Republic, including the four anarchist Ministers, voted unanimously to evacuate the Government from Madrid, which was besieged by fascist troops. The scorn for this decision on the part of the Local Federation of the CNT of Madrid was reflected in the publication of a belligerent manifesto that declared: “Madrid, free of Government Ministers, will be the tomb of fascism. Onward, militiamen! Long live Madrid without a government! Long live the Social Revolution!” On the 15th of November elements of the Durruti Column were already fighting in Madrid under the command of Durruti, who had resisted leaving Aragón, and who was finally convinced by Marianet and Federica. On November 19, a stray bullet, or perhaps not so stray,6 struck him while he was at the Madrid front, where he died the next day. On Sunday, November 22, in Barcelona, an endless, chaotic and disorganized funeral procession7 advanced slowly through the streets, while the two bands that were unable to harmonize their music only contributed to the augmentation of the confusion. The cavalry and motorized troops who were supposed to lead the procession were prevented from doing so by the enormous crowds. The cars that bore the funeral wreaths had to be driven in reverse. The members of the cavalry escort attempted to make their way forward separately. The musicians who had been dispersed in the crowd tried to regroup amidst a confused mass of people bearing antifascist placards and waving red flags, red and black banners, and the striped flags of the republic. The procession was led by numerous politicians and bureaucrats, although the limelight was monopolized by Companys, the president of the Generalitat, Antonov-Ovseenko, the Soviet consul, and Juan García Oliver, the anarchist Minister of Justice of the Republic, who addressed the crowd from in front of the Columbus Monument in order to display his oratorical gifts before the multitude. García Oliver rehearsed the same arguments of sincere friendship and fraternity among antifascists that he would later use in May 1937 to help to smash the barricades of the workers insurrection against Stalinism. The Soviet consul initiated the tradition of ideological manipulation of Durruti by depicting him as a champion of military discipline and unitary command. Companys delivered the most dastardly insult when he said that Durruti “had been shot in the back as all cowards die … or as those die who are murdered by cowards”. All three of them coincided in their praise for antifascist unity above all else. Durruti’s funeral bier was already a tribune for the counterrevolution. Three orators, excellent representatives of the bourgeois government, of Stalinism and the CNT bureaucracy, disputed among themselves for the popularity of the man who was yesterday’s dangerous uncontrollable but today’s embalmed hero. When the coffin, eight hours after the beginning of the spectacle, now without its official cortege, but still accompanied by a curious crowd, arrived at the cemetery of Montjuic, it could not be buried until the next day because hundreds of wreaths blocked the way to the site of the grave, which was too small, and a heavy downpour prevented it from being enlarged.

We may never find out how Durruti really died, since there are seven or eight different and contradictory versions; but it is most interesting to ask why he died fifteen days after having delivered his radio address. Durruti’s radio broadcast was perceived as a dangerous threat, which encountered an immediate response in the convening of the extraordinary meeting of the Council of the Generalitat, especially in the brutality of Comorera’s speech, which could hardly be moderated by cenetistas and POUMistas, who ultimately swore to devote themselves to the common task of complying with and enforcing compliance with all the decrees. The sacred antifascist union between working class bureaucrats, Stalinists and bourgeois politicians could not tolerate uncontrollables of the stature of Durruti: this is why his death was such an urgent and necessary matter. By opposing the militarization of the militias, Durruti personified the revolutionary opposition and resistance to the dissolution of the committees, the direction of the war by the bourgeoisie and state control of the enterprises expropriated in July. Durruti died because he had become a dangerous obstacle for the ongoing counterrevolution.

And for this very same reason Durruti had to die twice. One year later, at the commemoration of the one-year anniversary of his death, the all-powerful propaganda machine of Negrín’s Stalinist government worked at full capacity to attribute the authorship of a slogan to Durruti, invented originally by Ilya Ehrenburg,8 and later given the support of the bureaucracy of the superior committees of the CNT-FAI, in which he was made to say the opposite of what he always said and thought: “We renounce everything, except victory.” That is, Durruti renounced the revolution. We do not even possess a complete and reliable version of his speech broadcast over the radio on November 4, 1936, because the anarchist press of the period revised and censored Durruti’s live speech for publication.

Once he was dead, Durruti could become a God. And even a Lieutenant Colonel9 in the Popular Army.

  • 1. Buenaventura Durruti, “Al Consejo de la Generalidad de Cataluña”, Frente de Osera, November 1, 1936. See Appendix.
  • 2. “Council” was the word used to avoid using the word “Government”, which was taboo for the anarchists.
  • 3. The speech is reconstructed from various fragments published in Solidaridad Obrera and Acracia.
  • 4. “Acta de la reunió celebrada sota la presidencia de S.E. el president de la Generalitat pels conseller i representants dels partits i sindicats que tenen representació en el Consell, els dies 5 i 6 de novembre de 1936.”
  • 5. Marianet replaced the old and experienced anarchist Liberto Callejas with the young bureaucrat Jacinto Toryho as editor in chief of Solidaridad Obrera, which then published a censored version of Durruti’s speech.
  • 6. A stray bullet was also blamed for the death, in April 1937, of Antonio Martín, the anarchist leader from Puigcerdà. The memoires of Pons Garlandí disclose that his death was actually the result of a premeditated assassination, orchestrated by high level officials of the ERC in the Generalitat’s police force, who had contracted the services of two snipers, one of whom was known as “penja robes”, well known in La Cerdaña for his marksmanship. Posted in the bell tower, with the bridge that leads to Bellver in their sights, they had no other objective than to assassinate Antonio Martín.
  • 7. Concerning Durruti’s funeral, see Solidaridad Obrera (November 24, 1936) and the books by H. E. Kaminski, Los de Barcelona [1937], Ed. Cotal, Barcelona, 1977 [a partial English translation can be found online—in October 2013—at: http://misterscruffles.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/kaminski.pdf] and by Mary Low and Juan Breá, Red Spanish Notebook: The First Six Months of the Revolution and Civil War [1937], City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1979.
  • 8. Ilya Ehrenburg, Corresponsal en la Guerra civil española, Júcar, Madrid, 1970, p. 24.
  • 9. In April 1938 Negrín posthumously awarded this military rank to Durruti.