May Days in Barcelona (1): Prelude to tragedy

The May Days (03 May – 07 May 1937) were one of the central events at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The ideological differences of the republican forces unleashed themselves in a “war within a war”: government and Communists loyal to Moscow against anarchists and Communists close to Trotsky. But the events were preceded by a long prehistory in which tensions had built up over months.

The Partido Obrero de Unficación Marxista (POUM) in the year 1936

On August 28, 1936 the Russian diplomat Marcel Rosenberg arrived in Madrid. There he took over the Soviet embassy and was thus the intersection between the Spanish Republic and the Soviet Union. The office of Consul General in Barcelona went to the Bolshevik Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko. Even though diplomatic relations between the two countries were slowly taking shape, historian Stanley G. Payne assumes that Stalin and the Soviet leadership at the same time first had to develop a precise strategy for Spain.1 Payne, Stanley: The Spanish Republic, The Soviet Union, And Communism. New Haven & London 2004, p. 127

Situation in Catalonia

The Soviet ambassadors soon turned out to be interested in interfering in the military or political affairs of the republican government. The Partido Comunista de España (PCE) did not have a great influence neither in the Spanish Republic nor in Catalonia, but with the Soviet Union a mighty ally that supplied the Republic with weapons. The Soviet leadership therefore had to use a clever strategy to increase the communist influence. This was achieved by seizing not only the PCE but also the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC).2 Sochy, Augustin: The Tragic Weeks in Barcelona 1937. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937, Chicago 1987, p. 25

The latter had only emerged in July 1936, shortly after the coup, from socialists, communists and other left-wing workers’ movements.3Hermet, Guy: The Communists in Spain – Study of an Underground Movement. Westmead & Lexington 1973, p. 25 The proximity to the UGT arose firstly because the union had emerged from the PSOE and secondly because the UGT had worked more closely with the communist union CGTU since the founding of the Frente Popular.

The communist counterpart to the PSUC was the Trotskyist communists of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). However, the political situation in Catalonia was noticeably steered out of the central government. In December ’36, Stalin wrote a letter to the socialist Prime Minister Largo Caballero (PSOE) in which he gave him political advice: instead of supporting the revolution, he should protect the petty bourgeoisie. Thus, Stalin hoped that the Western democracies would reconsider their non-intervention.4Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 12 – 15

“We were in a situation where we were in an armed struggle, and there was no controversy on this issue: revolution or war. It was clear to me that if we do not win the war, no revolution will be possible.”5Carrillo, Santiago: Dialogue on Spain. London 1976, p.49
Santiago Carrillo
Partido Comunista de España

For the POUM, as well as the anarchist trade union Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Iberica (FAI), this was out of the question. They took the view that the war against the nationalists could only be won through revolution. In October, for example, the POUM said

“We are not fighting for the democratic republic. A new day dawns that is the socialist republic!” 6La Révolution espagnole, 1. Year, Nr. 6, 14.10.1936
Andreu Nin
Partido Obrero de Unifación Marxista

The political conflict was thus pre-programmed. But as yet the PSUC was still in the worst possible position.

Preparations for the crisis

Ever since the end of the antifascist militia committee, the regional government in Catalonia had consisted of Esquerra Republicana Catalana (ERC), PSUC, POUM and the CNT. The head of government was provided by the ERC with Lluís Companys and Prime Minister Josep Tarradellas. While the CNT held four ministries, the POUM only provided the Minister of Justice in the person of its founder Andreu Nin. Control of the streets was effectively in the hands of the militias, which were patrolling security forces. In Barcelona they were divided as follows:7Souchy, Augustin: Beware! Anarchist!. Chicago 1991, p. 97

  • CNT/FAI: 325 people
  • ERC: 185 people
  • UGT: 145 people
  • POUM: 45 people

In November 1936, the CNT and UGT finally came closer together. They agreed on a minimal programme of principles, which the Communists took as an opportunity to paint a great union conspiracy on the wall. The campaign was launched.

“First Barcelona, then Zaragoza”

On 24 November 1936, the PSUC presented a document to members of the CNT government calling for the POUM’s exclusion from the regional government of Catalonia. The CNT did not agree to this plan.8Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 410 Three days later, the Soviet Consul General Antonov-Ovseenko published a letter in which he accused the POUM party newspaper (La Batalla) of selling itself to “international fascism. This was followed by a calculated government crisis which, according to the Spanish anarchist José Peirats, had only one goal: the elimination of the POUM from the government.9Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 15

On 12 December, the PSUC publicly called for the POUM to be expelled from the government and the displacement of the Secretariado de Defensa and the Junta de Seguridad – both CNT posts – to resolve the crisis. The latter was responsible for the patrolling militias that competed with the official police (Guardia de Asalto) in Catalonia.

It was in the interest of the PSUC to remove the militias from the security apparatus and to control the police centrally. For the time being, however, it was content to throw the POUM out of the government, which happened on 16 December, partly because of a previous meeting between the Soviet Consul General and the regional president Lluís Companys. In the end, the PSUC left its posts to the CNT and announced its own withdrawal from the government. In terms of personnel, however, this changed little: the PSUC ministers now sat in government for the UGT.

Accusations and propaganda

In the following weeks the situation became even more critical. Party leader Juan Comorera (PSUC), as Minister of Supply, ordered the dissolution of the regional committees responsible for the distribution of goods. The price monopolies were abolished, to the displeasure of the anarcho-syndicalists.10 Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 410 – 416 As a result, the prices of basic food rose. In some cases, food was even knowingly withheld. After protests by the population, the anarchists were blamed for the price increases and food shortages.11Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 16

As late as December, Eusebio Rodríguez Salas, who was detested by the anarchists, was appointed police chief of Catalonia12Alexander, Robert: The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. London 2007, p. 786 The PSUC and UGT finally officially demanded the dissolution of the militias and their integration into a unified police unit and the Republican army. In February, the PSUC announced

“We have said repeatedly that without a regular army, without a single command, without discipline and without revolutionary order, there is no possibility of victory.”13Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 418

The POUM, in particular, was accused by the Communists of being Trotskyists who secretly made pacts with the fascists. Their aim was to ignite a war within the Republican zone and thus to destroy the Frente Popular.14Ibárruri, Dolores: Historia del Partido Comunista de España. Paris 1960, p. 150

In February, Francisco Largo Caballero finally had to vacate his seat and Juan Negrín was appointed his successor by votes of the PSOE and PCE. The reason for the change, which was necessary from a communist point of view, was Largo Caballero’s resistance to the founding of a single party, as Stalin had suggested in a second letter.15Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 12

At the corresponding time, the trust between anarchists and communists had reached a low point. Since the beginning of 1937 there had been repeated clashes between the two groups. On 5 March, a group of Communists attempted to steal twelve tanks from an anarchist depot, but this was finally unsuccessful and was discovered. The CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera wrote two days later

“If these tanks were not stolen to take them to the front, what was the point of such a brilliant operation? We suspect here a sketch of dictatorial intentions against which, as you all know, we would immediately rise up against”.16Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 17

To the anarchists’ dismay, the existence of secret Soviet prisons, so-called “Chekas”, became known in the spring of 1937. An unusual alliance was formed for a short time: PSOE and CNT protested against the torture prisons. In Castilla Libre, another CNT newspaper, it was said

“We have not and we will not oppose that a fascist, whoever he is, should be shot. But we will always resist torture. In Murcia not only fascists were tortured, but also individuals belonging to revolutionary organizations and popular front parties were sadistically tortured in the famous secret prison. And even a comrade from the CNT (…) suffered a terrible torture in which they gouged out his eyes before they made his wounded body disappear.”

From one crisis to the next

In March, the Catalan government finally had to decide that the militias would be taken under the command of the central Spanish Ministry of War. In protest, thousands of anarchists left their posts at the front. This was followed by another government crisis, in which the CNT tried to maintain its independence as much as possible.

The PSUC, however, went a step further and finally demanded the rapid establishment of a regular People’s Army as part of the Republican Army, the nationalization of the war industries, the formation of a single internal security group and the surrender of all weapons into the hands of the government.17Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 419 – 422 The ERC, too, advocated the formation of a unified police force at the end of March. For the anarchists, the final stage was reached when they had to hand over their weapons. They resigned from the government on 26 March 1937.[/mfn]Thomas, Hugh: The Spanish Civil War. New York 1989, p. 637[/mfn]

The following government crisis lasted until April 3, 1937, when Companys was able to put together an emergency government consisting of six ministries.18Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 419 – 422 Two weeks later, on April 16, the CNT returned to the government table, after which the parties and unions were allowed to keep their weapons.19Thomas, Hugh: The Spanish Civil War. New York 1989, p. 637 But the supposed peace lasted only momentarily: On April 24, unknown persons attempted to kill the police chief Rodriguez Salas, but the assassination failed.20Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 425

The conflict escalates

The next day, PSUC Secretary Roldán Cortada was assassinated. The PSUC accused anarchists of committing the murder. However, Spanish anarchist José Peirats denies this and assumes that Stalinists shot Cortada from a vehicle. Cortada was formerly active in the anarchist movement and the CNT would hardly have taken revenge on “defectors,” Peirats said.

However, the murder of Cortada served as a pretext for continuing repression against the anarchists. House raids were carried out and anarchists arrested, although there was little evidence against them. Cortada’s funeral was designed as a large propaganda rally, in which, according to Peirats, the police and army also took part. The demonstration, which lasted several hours, chanted slogans against the “internal enemy” – the anarchists.21 Peirats, José: Prelude to the May Days. in: The May Days Barcelona 1937. Chicago 1987, p. 19 -21

On the day of Cortada’s funeral the anarchist mayor Antonio Martín and three other anarchists were murdered. Republican soldiers, sent from the new capital Valencia, eventually replaced the militias at the front. Talks between the UGT and CNT on a joint rally on May 1 were broken off.22Bolloten, Burnett: The Spanish Civil War – Revolution & Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill & London 1991, p. 425 – 427 Tension was in the air, which was soon to be released in the tragic May Days.

“In Barcelona, during all the last few weeks I spent there, there was a strangely evil feeling in the air – an atmosphere of mistrust, fear, uncertainty and veiled hatred… there was an everlasting vague sense of danger, an awareness of something evil that was about to happen. However little one conspired, the atmosphere forced one to feel like a conspirator.”23 23Davison, Peter: George Orwell – A Literary Life. Houndsmill & New York 1996, p. 83
George Orwell
Writer and witness of the May Days

(translated by Valentin M. Kuby)