Chapter 5: July 19

5

July 19

The assassination of the right wing politician Calvo Sotelo hastened the pace of events. The conspirators gave the order to revolt and on the dawn of July 19, 1936 there was fighting on the streets of all the cities in Spain. The great majority of the units of the Spanish army joined the revolt.

It seems unnecessary for us to describe the harrowing episodes, the bloody clashes, and the heroic deeds of the Spanish people and the anarchists that took place during the morning of that hallowed day; we also lack the skill to depict them in a realistic way that would immortalize them. The spirit of struggle, sacrifice and heroism was once again in evidence, recalling the events of past eras. Sublime epics by acclaimed authors. Another Numantia and another Saguntum.

Once again, the suffering and valiant people took to the streets, constructed barricades, assaulted the barracks, burned churches and monasteries and public offices, without any other weapons, in many cases, than their ideal of redemption and in other cases with antiquated or useless arms. Bared breasts confronted the machine guns. Men, women and the elderly, gasping for breath and full of enthusiasm and holy hatreds, defied death without second thoughts or cowardice.

What was certain was, with the end of the day, news had already arrived from many cities on the Peninsula. In some, the people had been massacred and defeated, with countless victims. In others, the people had overcome the rebel military forces.

Everywhere, the comrades of the CNT and the FAI displayed prodigies of valor and audacity and risked their precious lives.

We shall allow their leaders to speak for themselves, and describe a few scenes of the struggle:

“Madrid was like an inferno. The bravery of its children during those dramatic hours deserves to be inscribed in lines of gold; down the Gran Vía came some cavalry troopers towards the barracks at La Montaña. They are sons of the people who come from Vicálvaro, with a few artillery pieces. The people do not allow them to pass. They surround them, embracing them. Many cried for joy. Automobiles, numerous automobiles were racing down the streets, with people clinging to them on their running boards!

“Large columns of smoke rose above the buildings of Madrid into the sky….

“Around all the churches and monasteries a beautiful ‘buzz’ was heard. There is not a moment for rest. The people seem to be motivated as if by a single will. The fever has embraced all of them. One could say that all of Madrid is out on the streets. As the seriousness of the situation becomes more apparent, the revolutionary ardor of the people grows. It is as if they had a single brain and a single will. No power, one thinks, can defeat this tempest. Those who revolted will have to taste the dust of defeat.

“La Montaña barracks has fallen. The CNT fighters in the lead, scornful of death, with some assault guards and young socialists, entered like a hurricane and swept away all resistance. It was the power of the people who were ready to take justice into their own hands. The only creative and fruitful justice.

“At that solemn hour (12 a.m. on July 20, 1936), an entire regiment died at the hands of the people in arms. The bullets that ended the lives of the officers and commanders of the army in the barracks of La Montaña, did not just kill a handful of men, but killed a whole society….

“A group of comrades arrived in a troop at the headquarters of the National Committee on Calle de Silva. They came armed with rifles and machine guns. We took them with our own two hands, they said, crazed with joy, and they are for the Organization. They were soon mounted on cars and sent to other locations in search of new rebel strongholds.

“After the barracks of La Montaña, the other fascist strongholds in Madrid fell one after another. The people of Madrid, with an exemplary heroism, joined the assault on the barracks with their breasts bared, which made great historical deeds possible.

“Once the rebellion was defeated in Madrid, reinforcements were dispatched to the Sierra del Guadarrama, where the troops of the bloody general Mola were cornered. On the next day, July 21, our forces took Alcalá de Henares, breaking the siege of Madrid and forcing the fascists to flee towards Guadalajara.”

(David Antona)

“… things were getting organized. While the struggle continued and the military uprising was being liquidated, the people in arms, the absolute masters of Barcelona, the CNT and the FAI; every sector fought against the rebels, but it was the impulse of our men, it was the unequaled example of the bravery of our militants, which galvanized the multitudes, it is necessary to say this loud and clear—they began to prepare for the dawning of a new day, now that Barcelona, now that Catalonia were in the hands of the victorious revolution. The Committee of Antifascist Militias, formed on the 20th and on which all the sectors that had joined the fight against fascism were represented, was, in fact and legally, the real government of Catalonia. The Generalitat disappeared in the face of the force and the majesty of the new revolutionary institution that had arisen from the popular will….

“In the outlying counties of Catalonia the same thing happened. The fascist uprising was immediately suppressed; the municipal governments were in the hands of the workers; Local Committees of Antifascist Militias were formed, the revolution was now a fait accompli, unstoppable, imposing and formidable. And if affairs had proceeded in the rest of the Peninsula as they had in Catalonia, if in the other parts of Spain the people’s victory had been as definitive and as overwhelming, how soon we would have embarked upon the road to socialism!

“In Barcelona, Catalonia, July 19 came to a glorious end amidst the splendor of the fires, in the revolutionary euphoria of a day of popular victory. The horns of the cars that were racing all over Barcelona loaded with workers with rifles in their hands, played the marvelous symphony—FAI-CNT!—that would resound five days later in the chorus of the ragged yet heroic militias, drunk on illusions and enthusiasm, who left for Zaragoza with Durruti.

“The letters ‘CNT-FAI’ were written on every wall, on every building, on every door on every house, on cars, and on everything! The red and black flag flew in the wind, triumphant and fantastic, a marvelous image, that we contemplated with an enchanted soul and shining eyes, asking ourselves if we were only dreaming or if this was real! No, we were not sleeping. We were wide-awake. As we recall the harsh victorious reality, the great fruitful and tragic reality, then the widows and the orphans would come. How much noble blood was spilled. How many men fell in battle, in the heat of the struggle, mixed together in holy anonymity!”

(Federica Montseny)

***

As we can see, and as we honestly recall, in all the encounters in which the anarchist militants participated they verified with their dignity and brave conduct their past as gladiators of an ideal of love, justice and freedom, and faced death with their usual nobility and heroism.

Furthermore: thanks to their audacity, forged in countless social conflicts, they led the people, in the principal Iberian cities, to a resounding victory. Concerning the results obtained and the conduct of the anarchists, the following paragraphs from an interview conducted with the President of the Generalitat, the Catalan politician Companys, are most informative, as recounted by Juan García Oliver, later the Minister of “Justice”:

“First of all I must say that the CNT and the FAI have never been treated as they deserve in view of their real importance. They have always been harshly persecuted; and I, most regretfully, but forced to do so by political realities, who was once on your side, was later forced to persecute you. Today you are the masters of the city and Catalonia, because you alone have defeated the fascist military and I hope that you will not think it offensive on my part to remind you that you have not lacked the help of the few or many loyal men from my party and from the guards and the mozos….

“But the truth is that, although harshly persecuted up until just yesterday, today you have defeated the military and the fascists. I therefore cannot, knowing you and the kind of people you are, use any but the most sincere language. You have won and everything is in your power, if you do not need me or do not want me to continue to serve as the President of Catalonia, tell me now so that I can join the ranks as one more soldier in the struggle against fascism. If, on the other hand, you believe that in this post that only death could have caused me to yield to victorious fascism, I can, with the men of my party, with my name and my prestige, be useful in this struggle, which, if it has turned out so well today in the city, we do not know when or how it will end in the rest of Spain, you can count on me and on my loyalty as a man and as a politician, a man who is convinced that today an entire disgraceful past has perished, and that I sincerely desire that Catalonia should march at the head of the most advanced countries with regard to social questions.”

García Oliver comments on this interview as follows:

“At that time, Companys was speaking with an obvious sincerity. A malleable, more than malleable and realistic man, who profoundly experienced the tragedy of his people saved from age-long slavery by the efforts of the anarchists, he used the language demanded by the circumstances, and rose to the very difficult task of measuring up to them, in a unique gesture of dignity and understanding, qualities that have been so sorely lacking among Spanish politicians. Companys, without yielding to fear of the revolution, logically thinking that the revolution itself would come to understand what was possible and what was impossible under the circumstances, made an effort to assume a dignified position, as a Catalonian who understood that the moment of truth has arrived for his country, and as a man of advanced liberal opinions, who did not fear the boldest programs in the social domain, as long as the latter are based on the living reality of what is possible.”

And Santillán, in his book, The Revolution and the War in Spain, discussing the same interview, says:

“Once the revolt was liquidated in Catalonia, the President of the Generalitat, Luis Companys, called upon us to attend a conference in order to hear our proposals on how to facilitate victory. We came to the Generalitat armed with the weapons of victory, accompanied by a numerous group that served us as a bodyguard. We could have gone it alone, imposed our absolute dictatorship, declared the Generalitat to be abolished and instituted, in its place, the real power of the people; but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was exercised against us, nor can we desire it when we can ourselves exercise it to the detriment of others. The Generalitat continued to function with President Companys at its head and the popular forces were organized in militias to continue the struggle for the liberation of Spain, after having liberated Catalonia from the claws of the military.”

***

With the bloody scenes that unfolded on July 19, 1936, which are described in a summary form in the above passages, the shocking tragedy that the Spanish people endured for more than thirty months began, with the disastrous results that are now so well known, which I recounted in my “Introduction” above—endorsed by the militants who occupied posts of responsibility in the CNT and the FAI, who vied with each other with respect to the errors, backroom deals and sellouts they committed—the tragedy of one of the most disappointing chapters of the emancipatory history of the working class masses of Spain.