A short biography of the shadowy and mysterious figure of Wilkens, intrepid Spanish anarchist who was one of the first in Western Europe to offer serious criticisms of the Bolsheviks.
“He had been an Anarchist and an active fighter for long. His tragedy was that he had never been able to inspire the organisations with complete confidence in him. He lived a strange life. Extraordinary things had always happened to him, and he was so intelligent, wise, and acute, and nearly always he made too much of his life, and put into his adventures such real and natural simplicity that hardly anyone believed him to be sincere. That was his tragedy with the organisations.” Counter Attack in Spain, Ramon J. Sender
Manuel Fernandez Alvar was born in the city of Oviedo in Asturias, Spain, on July 9th 1897. The son of a primary school teacher, Manuel Fernandez Tevar, he completed his baccalaureat at Oviedo and then moved to Paris where he studied electrical engineering. Apparently he worked as a taxi driver in Paris to supplement his income ( The Spanish socialist Fernando de los Rios, who met him in Russia told Ramon J. Sender that Wilkens was one of the finest pickpockets in Europe. Where did he learn this skill? Did he use it as a gimmick to amuse, or did he use it seriously to support himself?).
He left for Russia in 1920 and fought as a soldier in the Red Army as well as working as a correspondent for the paper Pravda. He was now operating under various pseudonyms, most often using that of Jack Wilkens or Vilkens. He had been pro-Bolshevik before and during the first part of his stay in Russia, but quickly saw what was happening there. It was most likely he who got the statement from ARCAS ( All Russian Confereation of Anarcho-Syndicalists) denouncing Bolshevik repression out to the West, as well as that by members of the Anarchist Black Cross to syndicalist delegates in Moscow in 1920.
He was arrested by the Cheka on 13th October 1920, and not released until 22nd November. He had been denounced by the Spanish communist Ramon Merino Garcia as suspect, purely on the basis of his public criticisms of the Bolshevik regime. He was given papers to return to France. In the meantime he had visited Kropotkin in December, an account of which appeared the following year in the French anarchist paper Le Libertaire (January 28th 1921). He wrote a series of articles for Le Libertaire called Six Months in Russia which were fiercely critical of the Bolshevik regime. In this he described his experiences with the Red Army both in the rear and at the front, his meetings with Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, as well as with oppositional revolutionaries, He was denounced by Pierre Monatte and by Joaquin Nin and Maurin who raved that he “only represented himself” -quite rich coming from Maurin who had turned up along with Nin, Arlandis and others in April 1921 in Russia where they claimed to represent the Spanish CNT, when they only represented the Lerida CNT in which they were invested. They had then affiliated the CNT to the Communist International, an action which was revoked at a plenum of the CNT later on! Monatte, who had been a pioneer of anarchosyndicalism in France, and now, at least for a few years, would have nothing said against the Soviet Union, tried to stop Wilkens speaking at a congress of the CGT in October 1921 and when a majority voted for him to be allowed to speak, he left the room.
It is clear that Wilkens/Vilkens was a pseudonym for Fernandez Alvar, but there were other disguises too. According to Arlandis, he was one Jaime Salan, a carpenter and founder member of the Wood Workers Union in Chauny in the Aisne district, northern France, who had written an article under the name of J. Galan in Russia in 1920 and had been mandated by the Trade Union Committee for the Defence of Spanish Workers in Northern France to report on the situation in Russia. Whether this was a real person , whose identity Fernandez Alvar had borrowed or was just another disguise, still remains to be cleared up. Arlandis was to admit that “certainly a great many of the facts cited by Wilkens are objectively correct”. It is certain that he was a member of the Intersyndicale Ouvriere de Langue Espagnole (IOE) a network of Spanish CNT exiles in France. As well as writing for Le Libertaire, he also contributed to the anarchist paper Les Humbles, edited by Maurice Wullens.
He was expelled from France to Belgium in early February 1922. Le Libertaire thanked him “ above all for his honest, impartial and courageous study of the Russian revolution, a study which made him many enemies, but which illuminated the darkness in which the the Bolshevik leaders like to hide their criminal undertaking: the smothering of a movement whose success would have changed the face of the earth and emancipated all workers”. He worked for the cinematographic press of the state film enterprise UFA (Universum Film AG) in Berlin, leaving Germany in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis. He began publishing books on cinematography, the first Tecnica de la cinematografia moderna, being published in Madrid in 1932.He returned to Spain and worked as a journalist with the Madrid daily Heraldo de Madrid. He produced further cinematographic works including En Pleno Nacionalismo Cinematografica , on the Nazis and the film industry (1933) and the book Cinematografia pedagogica y educative on the uses of cinema as a liberatory tool (Madrid 1936).
Often his passionately held views got him into many a scrape. One example was when he was expelled from the press enclosure at the League of Nations in Geneva because during the debates on Abyssinia he had called the Italian delegate a swindler, and Mussolini a murderer.
He volunteered for an anarchist column in 1936 and died defending the sierra of Guadarrama against the Francoists, his death being reported in Le Libertaire on 31st July 1936. He was struck by a shell near the pass of Alto de Leon and half his skull was blown off.
He remains a neglected and mysterious figure, on whom more research needs to be done.