The 50th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War - Eduardo Vivancos

Lecture given at the World Anti-national Association (SAT) congress held in Sant Cuget del Valles in Barcelona in July 1986.

Submitted by Reddebrek on March 12, 2021

It is an interesting fact that the 59 congress of SAT is taking place in Barcelona in 1986 coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, because it is precisely in this city that the revolutionary events of 1936 gave the workers the greatest hopes of complete emancipation. It was in Barcelona where the seed of the most audacious revolutionary movement of those times was found. When on the 17th of July when General Franco with other military officers and the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the Spanish plutocrats with support from foreign Fascist governments launched a rebellion against the republican government found themselves on the unexpected (unexpected for them) side against the majority of the people who were mainly organised in labour unions and democratic associations. The active struggle between two opposing and irreconcilable conceptions of life had begun.

Over the last 50 years thousands of books about those days have been written tracing and analysing these events, representing every opinion, some favourable others not were expressed, and were almost always subject to subjective opinions. Very often it is obvious that many authors interpreted these events according to their own views and preconceptions. Many do not understand either the significance nor the causes of the popular reaction. For these authors the features of civil war, blood, terror, tragedy, are the same as in all wars civil or not. But the battle of the Spanish people was more than just a war, it was a fight for the most profound and original social transformation of our century. A new society had just started to be constructed, the unjust society was disappearing, and some historians completely blind to the positive achievements, insisted on disgust and disorder, whether supposed or real, very often exaggerated, but in no way better or worse than any violent activity that took place or was taking place all over the world, most often sanctioned by governments, religious orders and unscrupulous political leaders. Many of these historians not only have demonstrated a lack of objectivity in their descriptions of these important events, but did everything possible to ignobly and maliciously discredit the positive achievements of the revolutionaries. In 1936 I was fifteen years old; the events of that time influenced me greatly, like many other young people at the time, in my future developments and longings. 50 years have passed, but I still feel the atmosphere of that epoch. Truly remembering is to live again, and even though I now live abroad when I see again the streets of Barcelona, the Ramblas, the Parallel, Ronda, Placa Catalunya and others, I cannot avoid seeing those memorable days again, between the 17th and 23rd of July, 1936. Enthusiasm and euphoria was seen on the faces of the people. I noticed that during the revolutionary period the streets were safer for the inhabitants than the streets of cities in the US and other countries during peace time.

Before I continue describing the events that happened during those days it is necessary to sketch out the causes which led to that stressful situation. Because it did not happen spontaneously or without cause, as some claim, due to recent labour strikes. The preparations for the putsch began almost immediately after the ballots on the 16th of February when the political parties of the Popular Front formed a government and very moderate social reforms began to be seen. But the concept of a dictatorship already existed in the minds and goals of the Fascist coalition that had been established in 1931when the Republic was proclaimed. That coalition was built out of three major forces, that throughout the century have utilised and controlled the life of every Spanish person: the Army, the Ecclesiastic authorities and the Plutocracy. They were the inheritors of the absolutist regime of the Middle ages, and could not tolerate even the slightest challenge which could potentially, little by little nullify their privileges, the privilege of the ruling powers. These forces grew and became omnipotent as a direct consequence of the so-called Christian Reconquest of Spain in the 15th Century. The Reconquest created a military caste that along with the Church divided up the lands taken from the Moors. The Moors who had cultivated vast tracts of land were expelled. We should note that the Moors just like the Jews who were also expelled were Spanish and had roots in Spain dating back many generations. Another consequence of the Reconquest was great religious intolerance which has continued for several centuries. The Christian nobility were contented with the possession of the land, but would not cultivate it. Instead preferring to transform fertile fields into grazing for bulls, in the process preparing the conditions for the poverty of the Andalusian fields. From this situation developed two classes of people. A few (the extreme minority) landowners, rich aristocrats, and the vast majority made up of the landless, hungry peasants. That explains and justifies the rebellious spirit of those peasants. Later the development of industry in the 19th Century created a similar situation between the inhabitants of the city which was responsible for the appearance of the proletariat and at the same time consciousnesses of class.

Even before the middle of the 19th century there already existed "asociaciones obreras" (workers associations) that organised strikes to defend their rights. In 1869, after the visit of Giuseppe Fannelli a follower of Bakunin the Spanish section of the First International was founded, this movement would continue under several different names due to the situation at the time, the Spanish Regional Federation, Pact of Unity and Solidarity, Workers Solidarity and finally by 1910 the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) was founded. Also in 1888 the General Union of Workers (UGT) was founded by the Socialist party leader Pablo Iglesias. These associations, created by workers to defend their rights, were soon persecuted bloodily by unscrupulous characters, and General Weyler, sent by the Barcelona government to crush a labour strike boasted "I have ordered the hospitals and prisons closed; only the cemeteries shall be open!" . Similar acts occurred a few years later under Generals Arelgui and Martinez Anido, they created an atmosphere of terror in the Barcelonan streets targeting the activists of the CNT. Worth mentioning is the famous rebellion of 1892 in the city of Jerez del Frontera, where 4,000 peasants armed with clubs occupied the city and demanded agrarian reform.

Also during these years the disastrous wars, the loss of the colonies (Cuba, Peurto Rico, the Phillippines), and economic chaos broke the creditability of the established political institutions. In the following years the constant discontent amongst the workers, the disappointment of a fraction of the bourgeoisie and many intellectuals, the participation of the King in the conspiracy that allowed the formation of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923, everything contributed to the collapse in the popularity of the Monarchy. As a consequence, in the elections of April 1931 Republican candidates triumphed, and a Republic was quickly proclaimed.

In the beginning the Republic aroused a little hope, but there was no question of a social revolution. The new government was made up of liberals whose idea were strictly about mild reform. We can concede that this represented an improvement when compared to the pre-republican period, but not nearly enough to end the exploitation of the bosses; miserable conditions continued to persist in the fields. Although one of the positive intentions of the new government was to limit the influence of the army and Church. According to the historian Gabriel Jackson, in the year 1931 the Spanish army had 800 Generals, both in active service and in the reserves. According to the needs of the army, they could make do with as few as 80 Generals. In total there were 26,000 officers. The new government proposed a new reformed army which would have just 7,600 officers. The unnecessary officers would have to be retired with full salaries, even with an increase if they had achieved high rank. Briefly I should mention that the government was not so generous with the workers who had to make do with small salaries. The majority of these officers, especially the ones of high rank came from aristocratic families; their thoughts were the same as those of their ancestors, the Hidalgos of the Middle Ages. Their privileges were untouchable and the most moderate of reforms that could potentially limit their power was considered a serious and unjust attack on their traditional rights. Consequently, with a few honourable exceptions, they were natural enemies of the Republic and every kind of societal transformation.

It was a similar relationship in regards to the Church. The Bishops had a lot of power, also inherited from the Middle ages, and its reach extended to the remotest and smallest villages. To get a job or a special favour it was very useful to be a friend of the priest. On the other hand opposition to this power could cost the nonconformist his job, face persecution or even force him into exile. In 1931 there were 20,000 monks in Spain, and 60,000 nuns and more than 30,000 priests. Relationships between Church and State were still based on the Concordance of 1851, according to this agreement Catholicism was the only official religion of Spain. Marriage must be absolutely a religious ceremony, with no civil marriage permitted. And schools whether public or private must be in agreement with Church doctrine. However in 1913 the government decreed that religious (Catholic) instruction was no longer to be enforced on the children of parents who belonged to other religions, but Primo de Rivera reversed this concession when he became dictator in 1923. And suppressed teachings that were unacceptable to Catholic doctrine.

The Republican government wanted to change this situation, and by legal decree on the 6th of May 1931 declared public school teaching would be secular, with religous teaching only given if parents specifically requested it. There were some further reforms to advance the seperation of Church and State, such as legislation allowing divorce, and secular marriages. The reaction to these reforms was lightning fast. The following day 7th of May, Cardinal Pedro Segura the Archbishop of Toledo publsihed a provocative letter against the republican reforms. According to him these reforms were a vicious attack on the rights of Spanish people. The Cardinal's letter was in reality a declaration of war on the Republic.

The other major force in the anti-republican block was the Plutocracy, the possessors of the massive estates and industries. They were generally more reactionary and hostile to social change than the capitalists in other countries. While a few owned most of the largest farms there were over 2 million landless peasants whom depended for their survival on the good will of the employers. In many villages, especially in Andalusia, Extremadura and Castile, many landless peasants gathered in one place, in a manner very close to the old slave markets and would present themselves to the landowners for purchasing, who would hire as many or as few workers as he pleased. This system was still in existence until July 1936. Understandably the labourers who showed their rebellious spirits or left-wing sympathies were rarely chosen. It was evident that agrarian reform was absolutely necessary. In 1931 a few steps were made in that direction, but still there was no attempt to suggest revolutionary changes in the system. According to the adopted program the government would buy plots of land from the big landowners if they were not using them for cultivation, these would then be divided up into plots and given to peasants. That program however was not enough and its application was so slow that under this scheme it would take several centuries to complete. These very mild steps toward social reform angered the landowners and failed to satisfy the workers, who continued to be exploited and persecuted in the same manner as before the change of regime. As I said previously, the people who had achieved political power and established a Republic in 1931 were mainly bourgeois intellectuals, liberals theorists, mild reformers, but they were not capable or brave enough to seriously challenge the coalition of traditional reaction.

In the 1933 elections right wing parties returned to power and began a two year long period that became known as the Black Years. During this period the government nullified every reform, regardless of how limited that was passed by the previous government. 28,000 farmers were evicted from the land given to them by the Republic. When they appealed to the landowners the latter arrogantly replied "Are you hungry? Than eat the Republic!" (reported by a parliamentary deputy). The labour unions were also targeted, with many Union activists especially members of the CNT imprisoned. On the 7th of January 1936 the government was forced to dissolve after multiple financial scandals, and new elections were called. This immediately spurred on two vast political coalitions, on one side was the reactionary coalition which wished to establish Fascism by legal methods, like Hitler did in Germany in 1933, and the Popular Front, which promised to restart the land reforms and free 30,000 prisoners. We should note that the Church actively campaigned against the Popular Front. The Bishop of Barcelona, Manuel Irurita publicly declared: "It is a great sin to vote for the Popular Front. Voting for the conservatives is a vote for Christ". And from many pulpits the priests threatened eternal damnation to anyone who would not do everything in their power to ensure a victory for the right wing candidates. The Anarchist movement, although sceptical with the parliamentary system as a way to emancipate the working class advise its members to support the left wing parties. Indeed the majority of the imprisoned where members of the CNT. It was this attitude of the Anarchists that guaranteed the victory of the Popular Front.

On the other hand the coalition of reaction refused to accept their defeat, and immediately incited offenses against the Republic. According to statements made during a subsequent parliamentary session by the then head of government, Portela Valladares, when the result of the election was known, he received a visit from the head of right-wing political party CEDA, Gil Robles (at 4 am) and a little later by general Franco proposing cancellation of the voting and establishment of a dictatorship with the support of the army. But Portela refused.

From February until July the situation continued to worsen. Fascist groups caused provocations daily. Having foreseen the electoral defeat before it happened General Sanjurjo who was the main mover of the plotted coup, travelled to Germany and appealed for airplanes and other military aide for the conspiracy being organised. But even before that journey the monarchist politician Antonio Goicoecha and General Barrea had met with Mussolini and Marshal Balbo as early as March 1934. The Italian dictator was ready to help overthrow the Republic and promised to provide immediately help including 20,000 rifles, 20,000 grenades 200 machine guns and a considerable sum of money. This was agreement was made two years before the explosion of the war. In Spain itself, during the whole of Spring the conspirators moved about freely and many occupied important positions: Franco in the Canary Islands, Goded in the Balearics, Mola - the coordinator of the plot- in Pamplona. During this time the promises made to the workers organisations made slow progress. And often the Unions had to push for even the slightest gains; the land reform question remained without a satisfactory answer. We can summarise the situation by considering three clearly specific elements.

1:The forces of reaction, which adopted more and more explicitly Fascist methods, including the use of uniforms similar to those of Hitler's forces.

2:The working class, which organised within the two great Union federations, CNT and UGT, were losing patience.

3:The Republican government, which was far too hesitant, even when the danger of the conspiracy was clearly visible.

One week before the putsch the atmosphere was already electric. Everywhere one heard that the Army Rebellion was just about to break out. Fascist provocations and attacks happened every day, especially in Madrid, but also in other cities. On the 12th of July a group of Falangists stormed and captured the radio station in Valencia and broadcast a threatening proclamation. Meanwhile activists in the unions were in constant alert, and relations between the unions and defence groups in many different cities grew more effective. In the evenings groups of workers gathered along the central boulevards of the major cities and discussed hotly the news of the evidently near Fascist putsch. The desire to resist fascism was very strong, but the workers lacked weapons. The government which could have provided arms stubbornly refused, insisting that it had the situation well in hand and that no serious danger existed. When most of the army stationed in Morocco under Franco effectively rebelled the government could no longer pretend that nothing abnormal was happening and sent out the following communication: "The Government is certain that the rebel movement is limited to a few areas of Morocco and that no one, absolutely no one in the Metropole is part of this absurd enterprise". The government lied, because it already knew about the constant contacts and activities between the army and fascist groups. Commissions from both the CNT and UGT urgently requested arms from the government, but the Prime Minister Casares Quiroga refused, because he know that an armed working class would mean social revolution, and he, loyal to his bourgeois principles feared the possibility of social revolution more than he feared a fascism.

On the 18th of July the CNT and UGT declared a general strike. Casas Quiroga was dismissed, replacing him was moderate republican Martínez Barrios, who instead of organising resistance he tried to compromise with the rebels, and even contacted General Mola by telephone and offered him a position in the government. During this lost time the conspirators exposed the weakness of the government and made preparations for the final strike. The hesitance of the government was fatal and its consequences were tragic. Between the 17th and 19th of July there was still time to arm the people and completely frustrate the fascist putsch. Strategic cities like Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo would not have falling into the hands of the fascists and the Spanish Civil War wouldn't have started. But an armed population meant social revolution, and the government did not want this, this fact made the work of the conspirators much easier.

In Barcelona there were more than 12,000 soldiers in the barracks under the command of fascist officers who were waiting for the order to occupy the city. On Saturday the 18th, Captain López Varela the contact man for Mola in Barcelona, received a telegram with the following message "Tomorrow you will receive five reams of paper". This sentence signalled the hour that the soldiers were to leave the barracks to occupy the places chosen by the staff. In effect at 5 in the morning the doors of the barracks opened almost simultaneously and the soldiers under the orders of fascist officers and supported by civilian members of the Falange set out to occupy government offices and the main crossroads of the city. They expected a simple march because few, very few officers opposed them and others who were undecided chose to wait and accept the result. But instead of an easy march the rebels found a great surprise before them. A few minutes after the conspirators had begun leaving the barracks the sirens on the factories sounded, the sirens summoned the workers to the defence; immediately groups of people gathered at several points to resist the fascists, barricades were constructed on the main crossroads to hinder the advance of the army. The rebels reached the centre of the city -Placa de Catalunya- and occupied some buildings, but they could not capture the government offices nor the capture the radio stations, both defended well by workers. Then the Fascists used artillery, they were certain that like what happened in 1934 the population would flee in disorder at the first shots. But the workers not only didn't flee but attacked the cannons with trucks. It was the professional officers who fled, while the confused soldiers surrendered, leaving behind cannons, rifles and machine guns. Now better armed the workers began counter attacking and one by one the strongholds of the conspiracy fell. By five in the afternoon General Goded, leader of the rebellion in Barcelona surrendered before the attacks of those who according to him were the Rabble, simple workers who he despised. By One o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th of July the fortress "Atarazanas" was stormed. That was the last fascist holdout. But so many victims! Francisko Ascaso one of the most valuable and energetic members of the Anarchist and labour movements fell before its walls. After 33 hours of constant fighting Barcelona was completly liberated. The barricades and many public barricades flew the red and black flag of the anarchists; even the police who remained loyal to the Republic took of their jackets, saluted with their fists and shouted revolutionary slogans; this was completely unbelievable as it was those same police officers who just days before had been obediently carrying out the orders of the government, and had been arresting and persecuting striking workers. But now the atmosphere was indescribable. Euphoria and contentment shined in the eyes of thousands of people. There was a sense that a new period had begun. The government of Catalunya which in its own way opposed the rebellion - though two days before had obstinately refused to give guns to the workers- was only a symbolic organism, because the real organisations of active resistance and the victory in Barcelona was the workers in the unions; all decisions, all initiatives came from the revolutionary committees whose leading figures were Durruti, Oliver, Santillan and other syndicalists. In fact the anarchosyndicalists controlled the whole city and the way to social revolution was opened wide, at least in Barcelona.

Immediately after the defeat of the conspiracy the workers organisations began re-organising all aspects of life. The state practically didn't exist, it only possessed symbolic power. In that exact moment there was no power in Catalunya that could halt the establishment of Libertarian Communism and the application of the program passed in the CNT congress at Zaragoza in May 1936. A hastily organised meeting of Libertarian organisations met in the evening of the 20th to discuss and analyse the situation and sketched the possible immediate steps. Two tendencies emerged, either to aim for the whole (go for everything) or to cooperate with the bourgeois anti-fascist parties and concentre all forces until the fascist rebellion was completely defeated and only later begin the implementation of the revolutionary program. The decision to co-operate was adopted on account of the fascists controlling nearly half of the country, they had a professional army, and that in other areas where the army had been defeated the Libertarian movement wasn't as strong as it was in Catalunya. Political collaboration was considered necessary, but it was also the first brake put on the revolutionary spirit. Anyway the views of the anarchosyndicalists and the left wing socialists was that the war and the revolution were inseparable, meanwhile other political groups used nebulous arguments to insisted that only the war mattered, and that later the population could decide if it wanted a revolution. However it was evident that these politicians did everything possible to nullify the current revolutionary reality, and that they were dedicated to making sure that no real revolution would ever happen.

But thanks to the initiative of the urban workers and peasantry, industrial and agricultural collectives were established. In Barcelona especially, many industries were successfully socialised, metallurgists, carpenters, bakeries etc. These Collectives were a great success and were the most positive aspects of the Spanish Revolution. Aspects that were mostly ignored by the majority of authors who wrote about the events of the years 1936-39. In Aragon 75% of the land was collectivised. More than 3,000 collectives were established throughout the country, giving work to over 8 million people. Agricultural production increased by 46% and due to the initiative of the workers the Institute for Agricultural Exploration was founded with the collaboration of many agronomic engineers from many countries. Another aspect worth mentioning relates to pedagogy. Collectives, unions, workers associations and cultural athenaeums created a education system based in the principles of the famous pedagogue Francisco Ferrer, the founder of the Modern School who was killed in 1909 by the instigation of the church hierarchy, who could not tolerate his rational teaching methods. In many cities in Republican Spain "Workers Institutes" were created, high schools for workers which made it possible for them to gain a higher level of education, which before was only available to the wealthy. At the battlefront itself Cultural Militia groups taught reading and writing of the alphabet, mostly to members from rural villages who did not get an opportunity to go to school when they were children. This positive work in the rural and industrial collectives and in the field of culture showed to what degree a strong labour movement is capable of transforming an archaic society into a more modern and progressive manner. The revolutionary experiment of 1936 did not fail, it was forcible destroyed by fascist armies and international reaction, and sabotaged by underhanded politicians from every tendency. But even with the forcible destruction and ignoble calumny of its enemies, it remains and shall remain an example and proof that a progressive and just society can exist without the intervention of state and capitalism.

Before the end of the speech I wish to mention Esperanto Life in Spain during the revolution. In the part of Spain controlled by the "Nationalists" the Esperanto movement practically ceased to exist, because Esperantists were suspected of left wing ideology. In Cordoba which was occupied by the fascists since the beginning of the rebellion the Falangists executed the Esperanto group by firing squad. (Reported in the book "Dangerous Language - Esperanto in the hurricane of persecution" by Ulrich Lins; page 20 and in "Esperanto in perspective" de Ivo Lapenna). The whole movement was suspected, at least until 1947 when the Spanish Esperanto Federation was legally founded. But even in 1949 the university of Laguna shutdown an Esperanto course, because the language was still associated nebulously with left wing political ideas. For similar reasons in 1946 in Tarrasa permission for public courses were denied. (See the magazine "Esperanto", February 1968; page 15) .

In the Republican areas the Esperanto movement flourished and the language was used for international information. One of the reasons for the enthusiasm for Esperanto was the revolution itself. The Spanish youth, and not only the youth, especially in libertarian circles, were convinced that we were on the threshold of a new world, fairer, more rational, more humane, and that in that world Esperanto had a logical and preferable place.There were many teaching courses, not only in the cities and villages, but also in the trenches, some of the foreign volunteers who came to Spain to fight against fascism were Esperantists and Esperanto Circles existed in many battalions. I must mention the small Esperanto group within the 3rd Battalion of the 121st Brigade, 26th Division (Durruti Colomun), which I belonged to during the last year of the war. This group was around six members, among them was the Battalion Commander Ginés Martínez, an outstanding Esperantist and member of SAT. We always converesed in Esperanto.

When I spoke about the fascist sympathies of the professional officers I mentioned that there were a few honourable exceptions. One of the most well known was Colonel Julio Mangada, a loyal Republican, outstanding poet, and president of the Spanish Esperanto Federation. Mangada who from the begining of 19th July actively participated in the defence of Madrid, died in exile in Mexico in 1946. Until the end of his life he remained a faithful Esperantist and anti-fascist, collaborator with other exiles and published articles in the CNT's newspaper in Mexico "Solidaridad Obrera".

Between 1936 and 1939, many publications appeared in the international language. Amongst the most well known workers Esperanto newspapers I must mention: "Popola Fronto", en Valencia "Proleta Voĉo" in Barcelona, and "Informa Bulteno of the CNT/FAI", also in Barcelona with the assistance of the ILES (Iberian League of Esperanto speaking Anti-statists). It is also worth noting that workers collectives such as the dairy industry used Esperanto to announce their products.

Esperanto and the Spanish Revolution, two seemingly different things, but for a lot of young people in 1936 had a very close relationship, because both aimed at building a more rational and humane society.

Note: Eduardo Vivancos, a long time activist for the proletarian libertarian movement, was editor of "Senŝtatano"[Anti-Statist], the newspaper of the "Young Anarchist International" during the 1940s.

Translated into English from Esperanto by Reddebrek.