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Katia Landau

Stalinism in Spain



Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.2, Summer 1988. Used by permission.


This article first appeared as a pamphlet under the title Le Stalinisme en Espagne in Paris in 1938, and was republished in 1971 and 1986 as Le Stalinisme, Bourreua de la Revolution Espagnole, 1937-1938. This first English version restores the original title, as well as the text censored during the Second World War to avoid giving away the names of resistance fighters to the Nazis (footnote 15 below).

The sole reference to the brochure in any of the thousands of pages devoted to the Civil War written by English bourgeois historians lies in a single footnote implying that the ‘horrible stories’ it contains remain in doubt (H. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 3rd Edition, Harmondsworth 1977, p.703, n2). This blanket of silence is not accidental, since official as well as Communist fellow-travelling history has all to lose and nothing to gain by the revelation that behind the democratic facade of Negrin’s government lurked a Stalinist police state, set up with the express intention of liquidating Spain’s half-finished revolution.

But there can be little doubt that, with the exception perhaps of the testimony of Pauline Dobler (note 3, below), the depositions of the ex-prisoners given here can be relied on, for it is a matter of a few sentences to demonstrate that the techniques they reveal con be paralleled in other accounts of GPU interrogations. A whole science of such tortures evidently existed in the USSR, taught with a rigid methodology and applied with that unfailing lack of originality of which only policemen are capable.

They can be simply listed:

Systematic deprivation of sleep by frequent night interrogations (E. Loebl, Stalinism in Prague, New York 1969, p.2; M. Buber-Neumann, Under Two Dictators, London 1949, p.29).
Forcing the prisoner to remain standing during long interrogations (Loebl, p.21; M. Slingover, Truth Will Prevail, London 1968, p.24).
Interrogation continuing beyond mealtimes to furnish an excuse to deprive the prisoner of food (Loebl, p.22).
Simulated executions, or executions halted by a pretended reprieve (Loebl, pp.25-26; Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, London 1979, p.158).
Attempts to extract confessions by using fraudulent statements supposedly signed by one close to the accused (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford 1963, pp.294-5; Hugo Dewar, The Modern Inquisition, London 1953, p.52).

Katia (Julia) Landau (1895- ) accompanied her husband, whose political biography appears in this article, in all his work in Austria, Germany, France and Spain. When the authorities refused to release information about the fate of Kurt Landau she led a hunger strike of 500 in the women’s prison in Barcelona, forcing the Minister of Justice to visit her in person, as recounted in the pamphlet. John McGovern described her in the following terms:

Our next visit was to the General Hospital, where Katia Landau was a prisoner and patient after her hunger strike. She had been in prison for over five months; it was during her imprisonment that her husband was seized by the Cheka, tortured and murdered. In spite of her ordeal we found her full of fight. She was fierce in her antagonism to the Comintern and its Cheka in Spain. She is a little woman, only four feet ten inches in height and five stone eight pounds in weight, but full of idealism and energy. Katia had two armed guards at the hospital and no one could visit her without a permit (Terror in Spain, ILP pamphlet [1938], p.10).

After her second arrest such distinguished Socialists as Otto Bauer, Friedrich Adler, and Marceau Pivert interceded with the Comintern for her release, and this was apparently secured in exchange for French aircraft (Hans Schafranek, Kurt Landau, in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, No.5, 1980, p.94). She left for France and, like so many of the other exiled Spanish left-wingers, then departed for Mexico. Our last information was that she was still alive two years ago, at the incredible age of 91.


This is not the first time that an account of atrocities, tortures practised on prisoners in jail, murders undertaken by ordinary police or by mercenaries trained in the systematic repression of working class activists, has come to us from Spain. In the course of the sharp struggle that the revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists carried on without respite against the monarchy and the semi-feudal dictatorship, the repression often developed in such a savage manner, the violence committed against prisoners was so ferocious and the tortures were so sadistic, that news of them aroused the anger of the working class in every country. That section of liberal and democratic opinion which refused to become an accomplice of the hangmen by remaining silent was outraged. So powerful a movement of solidarity in the unfortunate victims’ favour was provoked that the clerical and monarchist functionaries were obliged to end their abominable work.

But it is the first time that such repression, the similar recourse to the most refined methods of torturing prisoners, and the assassination of militant workers in Spain under the guise of the defence of democracy and the struggle against fascism amid the indifference, silent complicity, or even the open approval of those groups and organisations which formerly denounced the crimes of governments and their execution agents.

The facts reported in this pamphlet are already known, in essence if not in their odious detail, by all who wish to know about what is happening in Spain. They are not challenged, and cannot be. But they may not be talked about. Speaking about them will assist Franco to sow dissension in the anti-fascist ranks. First of all, it is necessary to defeat Franco. But there will be an accounting amongst the victorious anti-fascists after victory, and the revolution will resume its onward march. What wilful blindness or treachery on the part of those who have allowed themselves to be corrupted by power and no longer have any faith in the working class! How, in fact, can it be imagined that a repression so clearly directed and carried out with such implacable perseverance could only be a secondary, isolated affair, relegated to the margin of the general conflict? On the contrary, it is obvious that it forms an integral part of the deliberate policy of the Republican government, and this policy is explanation of it. A simple account of the events that have unfolded since May 1936 suffices to show this.

The anarchist, socialist and POUMist workers, and they alone, practically without weapons, saved Madrid and Barcelona, and the whole country would have been saved along with the two capitals if the government had not been so frightened by the socialist character that the defence of the Republic immediately assumed. The workers did not throw themselves against the machine-guns out of love for the Republican leaders – whose work they had already witnessed from 1931 to 1933 – but because revolutionary faith inspired them. It rapidly became evident that the struggle was no longer between Azaña’s impotent democrats and the rebel generals, but between socialism and fascism. The great industrial and feudal agrarian exploiters had no illusions, and all went over to Franco. Mussolini also understood this. Immediately he sent reinforcements, helping to assure a clear passage between Morocco and Francoist Spain that permitted Franco to build up his shock troops of legionaries and Moroccan riflemen, without which he would have been rapidly forced to surrender.

The government in France, which is the popular Front, adopted the policy of so-called ‘non-intervention’ in agreement with the British government.

And the other ‘democracy’ – the Stalinist one? Mussolini sent his aircraft without losing a moment. But to begin with, a month later in the middle of August, Stalin himself only gave the Spanish working class the ‘moral support’ of the first Moscow Trial. He was totally taken up with staging this at the end of July 1936, along with Yagoda, the ‘traitor’ of 1938. And until the end of September that was all he sent to the Spanish workers, poorly armed and equipped in the face of an adversary that was dangerously advancing. Even then, he did not give, but sold weapons to the Republican government. And he did not do this without imposing conditions; it was necessary to accept his policy along with the weapons. This essentially consisted in the most rapid liquidation possible of the socialist revolution. For Stalin, in fact, it was not a matter of a decisive struggle between socialism and fascism. Whilst working for its complete destruction, it was necessary to conceal everything that indicated socialist revolution, to talk about no more than the defence of democracy, and above all to switch the conflict onto the terrain of anti-Hitlerism, so alarming France and Britain, and by inciting the worst chauvinism to induce these countries to intervene and transform the great working class conflict into a clash between rival imperialisms. If there were obstacles in Spain, men who placed themselves in the way of this liquidation, it was necessary to suppress them, precisely according to the method that had just been installed in Moscow with the first trial of the Old Bolsheviks. To this end special personnel arrived along with the tanks and aeroplanes, and were placed under the direction of Antonov Ovseyenko – a ‘traitor’ according to the latest news [1] – who had been designated consul-general in Barcelona, precisely where the ‘obstacles’ were most numerous and disposed of imposing working class power along with the prestige they had acquired by their conduct in the course of the heroic days at the start of the uprising. Antonov gave his instructions and planted his agents in the movement; a state within a state was built up in the whole of Republican Spain, but particularly in Barcelona and Catalonia, with its own police, its own prisons, and its own executioners, functioning alongside the police and the regular authorities with absolute power. It is these whose work can be seen in the accounts reported here, of torturing men and women after effecting the kidnapping and disappearance of Berneri, Barbieri, Andrés Nin, Kurt Landau, Marc Rhein (Abramovitch), Erwin Wolf, Hans Freund (Moulin), and many others less well known – anarchists, POUMists, socialists, and members of the Fourth International, who had come from everywhere to struggle at the side of the Spanish workers, experienced revolutionaries who were far more reliable anti-fascists than M. Azaña.

And have these crimes prevented the inexorable advance of Franco? Can it not be seen, on the contrary, that there is a certain parallel between committing them and the repeated success of the enemy, who today is even installed in Catalonia, which everyone in the first months of the revolution would have considered absurdly impossible? Betrayals there certainly have been, but they are never on the side the Stalinists pretend to find them, but always among their own allies and troops; Republican generals placed by Stalinist ministers in front of the enemy in the most critical position have gone over to Franco ... The Fifth Column is no myth, but the traitors and spies who compose it are always at liberty and can operate with complete impunity; the Republican police never discover them – that is, when they are not protecting them – and the Stalinist police are looking only for revolutionaries.

Stalin sold weapons to Republican Spain. But at the same time he disseminated demoralisation among the workers and peasants of Spain. Many were grateful to the USSR to begin with for the aid provided, but could not understand that the despatch of arms brought along with it as a prime condition the abandonment of the socialist revolution that had already been realised in what had been done. Demoralisation and passivity are spread among the working class of every country. Thus it is that the Federation of French Railwaymen, whose leadership is Stalinist, has confined itself to watching the munitions trains pass that Franco’s supporters are directing to him, content, so it seems, to note ironically: ‘what a good thing non-intervention is’. The bourgeoisie, even of the democratic sort, acts according to type when it intervenes against a socialist revolution. This is what it did against Soviet Russia, Soviet Hungary, and the German Revolution. There is nothing that ought to surprise us there. But when the representatives of the great working class organisations confine themselves to platonic denunciations of non-intervention without making an appeal for direct action from the workers, asking the government instead to take note of ‘French interests’, it can clearly be seen who, in the last analysis, is helping Franco. This, which is real betrayal, is the poisoned fruit of Stalinist politics, a policy of defeat backed everywhere at this time by the murder of activists who remain revolutionaries. The pages that follow contain fresh proof of it. Whoever wishes to contribute to the victory of anti-fascism must speak out.

Alfred Rosmer


The workers of the whole world are following the advance of the fascist bands in Spain with anguish. But despite the gravity of the military situation in Spain, we are publishing a statement of accusation against the leadership of a party that calls itself anti-fascist. We know for a fact that there are some good comrades who agree with us about the character of this party, but feel that the time has been ill-chosen to accuse it, as it is necessary to concentrate on one question alone: how can we help our Spanish brethren?

Whoever has firsthand experience of the Spanish Civil War knows that effective help is only possible if the causes of the present setback are understood. We would prefer only to talk about victories and fraternal unity. But the facts force us to speak about the guilty ones to be found in our ranks; otherwise, unity will never come about.

The Spanish Civil War made us understand that only the revolutionary working class will fight fascism. And we know that the proletariat can only be victorious if it follows its own independent class policy.

Till now, the reformists were the only ones to oppose this independent class policy; today, Stalinists are no less opposed to a revolutionary policy, but they hide behind the traditions of the glorious October Revolution. In fact, they have abandoned revolutionary Marxism, and the experiences of the October Revolution are a dead letter for them. They have lost faith in the revolution and in the revolutionary strength of the masses. By virtue of an alliance between the USSR and the imperialist democracies, mortal enemies of the proletarian revolution, they have sacrificed their international policy.

In the USSR itself the Stalinists have murdered all the old collaborators of Lenin, the entire Bolshevik Old Guard. They were murdered after being defamed and dishonoured. The present leaders of the Communist International did not take account of the fact that by so doing they were dragging their own political past in the mud, the Bolshevik Party and the entire October Revolution. Only international fascism can rejoice and profit from this.

All socialists or communists who dare to oppose the sinister policy of Stalinism are accused of being agents of the Gestapo, Mussolini and Franco, and the Stalinist press is demanding their ‘physical liquidation’. Beginning with calumny, Stalinism does not recoil in the face of any crime to silence the voice of the opposition. Naturally these Stalinist methods are leading to the disintegration of the anti-fascist front in the whole world. Substituting confusion and violence for ideological struggle, Stalinism is pushing the international working class towards inevitable defeat. The working class must realise that to fight fascism it must break with these methods. For this reason we are denouncing publicly those who are guilty on account of the tragic events that are happening in Spain.

Why have the Stalinists unleashed this campaign of calumny, this struggle to the death, in the first instance against the POUM?

Because as far as they are concerned, at this point in time the working class must renounce an independent revolutionary policy, it was only natural that the Stalinists would of necessity move on to the attack against the POUM, the most conscious representative of this policy. Two irreconcilable political systems are opposing each other. One uses the weapons of ideological conviction, whereas the other proclaims the physical liquidation of its opponents.

The Stalinists are accusing the POUM, Franco’s bitterest enemies, of being his agents.

The POUM comrades, the most intransigent supporters of revolutionary war, are being described as defeatists.

The POUM comrades, who are the revolutionary vanguard, are being treated as counter-revolutionaries.

In such a way the Stalinists are playing the game of the liberal bourgeoisie, who are using them to liquidate the revolutionary elements in order to destroy completely the last of the proletarian conquests of July 1936.

Profoundly attached as we are to the heroic struggle of the Spanish working class, we cannot keep silent about the methods the Stalinists have used in the fratricidal struggle that they desired.

Of those who think that it is necessary to keep silent so as not to provide the reformists on the one hand, and our class enemies on the other, with arguments, we ask:

Who is providing our opponents with arguments?

The one who is killing off the Bolshevik Old Guard, or he who condemns these assassins?

Who is providing our opponents with arguments?

The one who is accusing revolutionaries of being agents of Franco, the Gestapo, Mussolini and Japan, or he who wishes to eradicate these slanderous methods from the working class movement?

Who is providing our opponents with arguments?

The one who is arresting, kidnapping and killing off the revolutionaries in Spain, or he who says: Enough of the use of these fascist methods against revolutionary activists?


I. Stalinism, Hangman of the Spanish Revolution

Russian Weapons: Fraternal Aid or Political Blackmail

19 July 1936 – Unforgettable days of struggle and triumph against the fascist insurrection in Catalonia: unforgettable heroism of the comrades of the CNT – FAI and the POUM, who were the first to take to the streets, armed with revolver, old hunting gun, or often bare hands, and throw themselves against the enemy. Thousands, dozens of thousands fell, sacrificing their best fighters in street battles, in Majorca, on several fronts. But no sacrifice seems too great for them to defeat Franco and lead to the victory of the Spanish Revolution.

The international working class, and above all the workers in the fascist and semi-fascist countries, are following with enthusiasm and hope the struggle of the Spanish comrades in all its phases. But neither in France nor in Britain is the pressure of the working class movement upon the ‘democratic’ governments strong enough for arms to be delivered to Red Spain in sufficient quantities. Whilst Hitler and Mussolini unceasingly send Franco weapons and troops in abundance, the international working class more or less contents itself with demonstrations of sympathy and platonic protests.

July, August, September, October, long months pass of vain and anxious waiting, deeply compromising the principles of international solidarity. Only one exception: Mexico sends a cargo of weapons, as a gesture of solidarity with the Spanish Revolution. And when the Russian arms arrive at last, at the tragic point where the fascist bands have already invaded the Madrid avenues which already seem lost, the Spanish workers throw themselves on these weapons like a drowning man onto a plank. They paid in gold for these Russian weapons, and swallowed the political conditions of Stalinist support.

We shall not hold back from any sacrifice to save Madrid, they said. And it was not only in Madrid, but also on the Aragon front, that arms were lacking. On the Aragon front it was the militias of the CNT-FAI and the POUM who were waiting. With modern Russian weapons they could have gone on to the conquest of Saragossa, so contributing in a most effective and decisive fashion to what would have broken the encirclement of Madrid. And on this occasion, the weapons are no longer a remote dream; they are there – in the port of Cartegena.

But the militias of the anarchists and the POUM wait in vain on the Aragon front; slowly, they understand the cruel reality; Russian weapons are political weapons, directed against the revolutionary elements in the CNT, the FAI, and the POUM. They are there to help the political intervention of the USSR into the affairs of Spain; they are assisting in the development of the miserable little group that the Catalan Communist Party represented at the start of the revolution; they are helping to strangle the revolution and its most fruitful and intransigent defenders.

The first blow is effected by the pressure of Russian weapons; the expulsion of the POUM from the Generalitat. Then the struggle is directed at the base, against all the conquests of the revolution, the committees, the revolutionary militias, and the street patrols. The atmosphere in the whole of Catalonia becomes more and more tense. The workers feel themselves deceived and provoked. When Rodriguez Sala, police chief and member of the PSUC, on 3 May unleashed an assault upon the Barcelona telephone exchange, which had been controlled by the workers of the CNT and UGT since the revolution, the revolutionary workers took this action as a cold and calculated provocation; resistance was organised immediately with unexpected vigour. A general strike broke out, and shortly afterwards barricades were set up everywhere.

And the POUM? The POUM did not abandon the proletariat in struggle, nor did it restrict itself to giving it good advice, but placed itself fraternally by its side, following the finest revolutionary traditions. Marx and Engels were not unaware that the [Paris] Commune isolated could not be victorious, but they did not hesitate for a minute in solidarising themselves with it. The Spartakusbund understood that the January [1919] Insurrection in Berlin was only the isolated struggle of a minority; but that did not prevent it from taking part in it. But the Stalinists misrepresented this defence of a spontaneous revolutionary movement (which is all the POUM did in the May days); they made it into a putsch prepared and organised by the POUM on the orders of the fascists.

Immediately after the May events a gigantic campaign of calumny began against the POUM, a campaign preparing for the outlawing of the party, the arrest and the most furious persecution of its leaders and supporters.

June 1937 – Hardly a year after the outbreak of the revolution, thousands and thousands of anti-fascists fill up the prisons of Republican Spain. The slogan is Moscow’s: Physical liquidation of the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat. Stalin mobilises his international press and his international GPU apparatus. The socialist press keeps silent; it cannot risk the weakening of the Popular Front simply over the interference of Stalin into the affairs Of Spain! Veteran revolutionaries are cast into prison, physically and morally tortured, and murdered. But this time it is not happening in mysterious Russia, hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, but in a neighbouring country of the great French democracy’. The self-styled independent press of the bourgeois left, keeping a shameful silence over all this, becomes an accomplice of Stalinism.

What Are Our Comrades Accused Of?

The Negrin government has set some foreigners at liberty to show the outside world that it is not covering up the crimes of the Stalinists, as one of its ministers has said. We ‘Trotskyite fascists’ have been released to bring to an end the annoying interventions and campaigns in our favour, and finally to show the Stalinists that they are no longer absolute masters in Spain.

Two dozen comrades have been released: but 15,000, of whom hardly less than a thousand are from the POUM, remain in the official and clandestine prisons of Republican Spain. The same accusations they raised against us are held against them – high treason, ideological and military preparation for the May Days, relations with Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, and preparing attempts, not even directed in the first instance against the leaders of the PSUC or the PCE, but against the ‘Father of the Peoples’, the ‘Sun of Socialism’, Stalin.

A thousand times even more dishonest are the accusations against the comrades of the FAI, and above all against the commanders and the political commissars of the glorious anarchist battalions. Many of them have been for long months in the Stalinist prisons of Santa Ursula, Vallmajor, etc. They are not treated as political prisoners, but as common-law criminals, accused of theft, pillage and murder.

We know only too well what the crimes of our comrades consist of. They were the first in the struggle against Franco, and they were the most far-sighted and courageous defenders of the idea that the war and the revolution are inseparable. During the May Days they demonstrated that they would not keep silent in the presence of the destruction of the gains of the revolution by the Stalinists.

Calumny, defamation, murder and assassination; such are the weapons of the Stalinists against the Spanish comrades. We shall not silence then lying, venal press, and we are under no illusions about their international GPU apparatus. We ourselves dispose of very few means of expression and protest, but we denounce murder as a political weapon; for us there is only one weapon: the truth.

When we were expelled from Spain we were very kindly asked what we would do, and not to make a scandal. Whoever thinks that we are wanting to create a scandal is deceiving himself. We wish to tell the truth, and no more than that. That, so it seems to us, is the most effective way of defending our Spanish comrades and at the same time is an elementary duty of solidarity towards them.

Here we provide the account of comrade HL. The falsity and ludicrousness of the accusations levelled against the EC of the POUM come out clearly in it. Along with him, many foreign comrades belonging to the POUM are ready to appear before any legitimate court to testify that all the accusations are the product of Stalinist imagination. Some of them were with the POUM militia at the front from the first day of the revolution. Among them are some who occupied important posts at staff headquarters. Would they not have noticed any acts of sabotage or continual relations with the fascists? That would be too grotesque!

Evidence of Comrade HL

I personally was accused of participation in the May events whilst I was actually a militiaman in the Rovira shock battalion. I was accused of having thrown a hand grenade into the Moka Cafe, a building next door to that of the executive committee of the POUM. As during all this time I was at the front, it was really quite impossible for me to be throwing grenades in Barcelona. When the investigator claimed that there were witnesses to prove my participation in the May events, I asked to confront them. I was told that on principle, witnesses would not be summoned.
In the interrogations the POUM was accused of the following crimes: preparation by the executive committee of the POUM of the May insurrection and open participation by the Rovira shock battalion, acts of sabotage by the POUM militiamen at the front, refusal to fire on the fascists, disobeying orders by going on leave, abandoning their posts, and acts of sabotage against agricultural collectives near the front.
It was asserted that long before the May events the EC of the POUM had fully prepared for an armed insurrection; that tanks, armoured cars, cannons, machine guns, rifles and ammunition had been transported unceasingly from the front to the rear, that the arms transportations had been going on since the start of the month of April, and that the local committees, the executive committee and the editorial board of La Batalla had a great number of hand grenades, machine-guns and cannons at their disposal.
On the Aragon front General Pozas ordered the suspension of all leave, but the POUM militiamen took no notice. On the contrary, the Lenin Division sent comrades to Barcelona so that they might devote themselves to the tasks of fortifying party buildings, erecting barricades, etc. The POUM was accused of giving the order not to fire on the tower of Huesca church, on the pretext of the historic character of this monument; but the truth is that it was not the POUM, but the People’s Army and the Valencia government who gave this order.
It was supposed that whilst the fascists made speeches to the militiamen, the POUM officers forbade opening fire, adding cynically that, as the Valencia government had not provided ammunition, it should not be wasted.
On the other hand, it is alleged that on the occasion of the offensive against Huesca on l6-l9 June l937 the POUM militia, that is to say the Rovira shock battalion, made an attack on the Green Hill, an attack that amounted to a real act of sabotage. Instead of providing 700 Assault Guards to reinforce the lines, they were used as substitutes for the POUM militia. Moreover, two hours before the start of the offensive the fascists were alerted by the explosion of a hand grenade.
I replied: No preparation for the May events took place; the POUM buildings were without weapons, with the exception of some rifles belonging to the permanent guard. In replying to these accusations invented out of whole cloth, I recalled the theft of 11 tanks by the PSUC in the month of April in full view of the whole of Barcelona. It wasn’t the places of the POUM that resembled fortifications, but those of the PSUC, as anyone can easily perceive.
The POUM disposed of very little war material at the front, and would never have dreamed of transporting whatever there was to the rear, as this would then have weakened the front.
And as far as the suspension of leave goes, it is very easy to verify that ail the comrades who went to Barcelona at this time had special permission from staff headquarters.
POUM officers never forbade firing on the fascists. There are thousands of witnesses who will testify that all these accusations are mere intentions of the GPUists!
With reference to the accusation that the POUM wished to spare its militiamen to the detriment of the Assault Guards, this is equally false. The 700 guards were armed to the teeth with good Russian rifles and machine-guns, weapons that the POUM militiamen had never seen. But the guards never even dared stick their heads out of the trenches. The hand grenade was indeed thrown, but when the militiamen of the shock battalion were already at a distance of some metres from the Green Hill occupied by the fascists. In vain did they wait for support from the Assault Guards.

Who Are the ‘May Criminals’?

Not only is the executive committee of the POUM accused of having close relations with Franco and Hitler, but it is above all said to be the originator of the May events of 1937. The mass arrests of POUM activists equally are justified to this day by their participation in the May Days. But at the same time the Stalinist press is foolish enough to show that the coup against the POUM has been carefully prepared for a long time by itself giving the date of the preparations as the month of April. We have known the preparation date for some time now: The destruction of the POUM, and the persecution of our anarchist comrades was one of the political conditions of the first shipments of Russian weapons.

In its May Day appeal the POUM warned the proletariat not to allow itself to be provoked into a putsch, an isolated action. But it did not abandon the workers when they had taken up arms. With all its forces it tried to transform the armed struggle into a political struggle for the defence of the gains of the revolution.

The PSUC openly defended the slogan Win the war by giving up the Revolution, and placed itself immediately on the side of the state power. Although it gave orders not to interfere in the conflict, bursts of fire issued from the building of the Catalan Communist Party which mortally wounded numerous revolutionary workers.

But the PSUC did not limit itself to so little; we firmly declare that its party buildings, such as the Pedrera and the Paseo di Gracia for example, and its Carlos Marx and Voroshilov barracks, were real death-traps and dens of murderers. It was in the Pedrera that witnesses saw for the last time the two comrades from POUM radio who had ‘disappeared’. It was to the communist barracks that the anarchist youth were taken, to be tortured in a most hair-raising manner, to mutilate them, and finally to kill them off. Their bodies were found by accident. Those of many others were never recovered. The CNT-FAI leadership, faithful to its ill-fated policy of retreating in front of the Stalinists, was forced to submit to mass pressure and decide to publish the simple facts at least of the kidnapping and murders of the 12 comrades of the Anarchist Youth.

Thus we read in the Soli (Solidaridad Obrera) of 12 May:

A Macabre Discovery

Close examination of the 12 bodies proves that their deaths were not only brought about in a violent manner, but that they had been clearly subjected to horrible tortures, to judge from the mutilations, bruises and terrible blows that their bodies exhibited.
From the diagnosis made by forensic experts it transpired that it was a matter of these young people having been dead for at least two days. It was established at the same time that before dying they had been tortured in a barbarous fashion, as was proved by the fact that the bodies showed serious bruising and blood clotting on the abdomen, which seemed inflamed and deformed. In particular it should be added that certain traces upon one of the bodies showed clearly that it had been suspended by the feet; the head and neck appeared to be very purple. The head of another of these unfortunate young comrades bore obvious signs of blows from a rifle butt.
When the identification of these unfortunate young people was undertaken in Barcelona, it was established that they had all been members of the Libertarian Youth of the old district of San Andre (now the Armonia de Palomar).

Let us quote Marcel Ollivier on the murder of Berneri and Barbieri:

In its own good time the press has announced the death of the Italian anarchist Professor Berneri, a victim like so many others of the bloody days of Barcelona. What it didn’t say is that Berneri, along with Barbieri, his companion, had been cowardly murdered by the Stalinists, on whose orders can only be surmised. When their bodies were found it was noticed that the former had been disembowelled and the latter had been so frightfully mutilated that his wife could only recognise him by the colour of his socks.

In such a way did the Stalinists proceed during the May Days, and thus did self-styled communists conduct themselves towards anti-fascist revolutionaries. For the first time in the history of the working class movement methods were used that in principle we reject towards fascists – not out of pity, but because we fear the ill-fated effects and repercussions of them upon our own movement. For the first time a party calling itself anti-fascist and revolutionary has resorted to methods that we only knew from the Nazi cellars of fascist Germany, from Mussolini’s prisons, and on the occasion of the destruction of the Hungarian Commune in 1919.

And if anyone should one day dare to put our comrades on trial for taking part in the May Days, they will reveal all these crimes. And it will not be the first time in the history of the working class movement that accused revolutionaries will become transformed into the prosecution. If they are not to be tried behind closed doors they will proclaim at the top of their voices who are the real ‘May Criminals’.

The Infiltration of the GPU into the State Apparatus

Hardly six weeks after the May events, on 16 June, Nin was arrested with Maurin, the most well-known POUM leader, and the most popular and well-loved militant of the Catalan proletariat.

At noon on 16 June policemen came into the building of the executive committee of the POUM at 10 Rambla de los Estudios, with a warrant for the arrest of the members of the executive committee of the POUM. They made no search, in the course of which they could easily have found Gorkin, Arquer, and other leading comrades. They were ‘satisfied’ with Nin.

Almost all the members of the executive committee were arrested on the same day and taken to the police prefecture, and then transferred to Valencia, from where they were taken to Madrid for them to disappear into the prisons of the GPU for some weeks.

During the night of 16-17 June mass arrests were carried out of the supporters and sympathisers of the POUM. The Stalinists boasted afterwards that we had been picked up like rabbits. In a word, like real spies!

Did we not know that they were preparing a decisive blow against the POUM? To be sure, we did take account of the fact that given the policy of retreat of the CNT-FAI leadership, the POUM could not escape illegality. The only thing that we can reproach ourselves for is that up until 17 June we were like naive children, who in spite of the Moscow Trials and all that had happened in the May Days had not grasped that the Stalinists were no longer political adversaries, but political gangsters, ready by any means to suppress us.

We were prepared for normal illegality, such as the Spanish comrades had already lived through more than once. The PSUC knew this. Its agents, who had infiltrated the ranks of the POUM, had given them all the necessary information and had prepared blacklists, by means of which much later they were able to proceed against us, on 17 June, and had handed over photographs to help identify us.

The Stalinists not only came to arrest us, they looted us, they stole all our clothing and books (we possessed no other riches); they did not hesitate to break open the cases of comrades who were at that time at the front, and fought among themselves over the division of the spoils. All sorts of documentation, passports, and certificates, etc, were taken from us. For months to come we ran the risk of being arrested for the future crimes of such and such a GPU agent who was travelling on our passports.

Was 17 June an act of violence on the part of the PSUC in the sense of an illegal action on behalf of a stronger political party against a weaker one, with the more or less tacit approval of other parties? Basically, it was that, and no more, from a formal point of view.

From a formal point of view, insofar as it was the official police who moved against us in Barcelona, it was possible to permit us the luxury of not being conducted, as formerly, into the buildings and barracks of the Communist Party, but instead into the police prefecture, the ‘Brigada Criminal’ section. But whilst the best militants of the POUM and the CNT-FAI had been giving their lives in the struggle against Franco, the Spanish Communist Party and the PSUC had been conquering the police. Then, dominating the police apparatus and leaning upon the structure of the state, they moved quietly, firstly against us, and then some weeks later against the revolutionary elements in the CNT-FAI.

The Stalinists not only used the official police apparatus. As in all other countries, there was in Spain a secret state police, a counter-espionage. At the beginning of the revolution all the anti-fascist parties were represented in it. The Russians had not despatched their weapons without imposing political conditions. One of these had been to hand over the state secret police to the Stalinists. What was called in Spain the ‘cheka’, and which we called the GPU, and what was none other than the Communist Party’s secret police could, under the pressure of Moscow, be integrated into the state apparatus. The GPU became a division of the Ministry of the Interior bearing a very simple and colourless name, the ‘Grupo de Informacion’, or better still, the ‘Departmento Especial de Informaciones del Estado’ (Special Section of State Information). Its centre to begin with was at 24 Puerta del Angel Street; at the end of September it was moved to l04 Paseo San Juan; and since 18 December its offices were to be found at 321 Muntaner Street. Each of these official buildings of the ‘Ministry of the Interior’ was at the same time a secret prison. And these clandestine prisons cellars, garages, or better still, the first floor of the block served as prisons.

Secret Prisons – Official Prisons

On 17 June many foreign comrades were arrested. Here are the stories of these comrades.

The foreign comrades who were members of the POUM only spent a few hours at the prefecture of police. In the morning we were at once separated from our Spanish comrades, and each of us, flanked by guards armed to the teeth, was led in single file at a distance of 10 metres apart along narrow and gloomy alleyways to our first secret prison at 24 Puerta del Angel.

There we traversed luxurious offices with upholstered armchairs and silk curtains. Down we went; a floor below it was already little less hospitable – filthy and bare cellars, with grills before the windows, no daylight, air, beds, mattresses or coverings. But a large portrait of Stalin right in front of the door of our cell compensated us for a certain lack of comfort. We no longer doubted that we were, as had so often been repeated to us, in the hands of the Spanish state police, but what seemed to be rather strange was that in this curious state police, strangers of every nationality played a dominant role, often without speaking a single word of Spanish.

From our cells we went down yet another storey lower. This building was really a secret prison, expressly designed as such. There was even less ventilation, and the conditions of hygiene were intolerable. To each of our protests they replied by discharging revolvers, or by giving the guards the order to fire if we did not immediately keep silent.

At the end of 10 days we were led into another secret prison. This time it was a more official building than the other, one that each of us had already seen and visited at least once; for these were the offices of the foreign police, the official service for delivering passports which is at 299 Corcega Street.

Apart from the offices there was a garage. What we did not know was that before our arrest there had been constructed in great haste, a sort of little box inside it, almost without any ventilation, along the main wall. We were locked up in this garage, both men and women, for weeks and months. There was only one wash-basin and one WC, the stench of which filled the entire garage. Lice and fleas were not lacking, and made us suffer a great deal. Our sole contact with the outside world consisted of food provided for us by the POUM Red Aid twice a day. Who can tell what this meant to us, and for our morale, this help from our ‘party!

During the first months a very few people were let out. First it was a question of the American comrades alone, then the Dutch, and then the English. The French consul himself refused his support. In the jails remained scapegoats without a nationality, Polish, German and Austrian emigres, with whom they hoped and thought that they could do whatever they wished.

At the end of the third month we began to be transferred into the official prisons. We were taken away with papers saying that we were spies and we were brought before the special espionage tribunals in Madrid.

Doubtless in the official prisons our position was more favourable. The conditions of hygiene were better, and we had some small rights, for example, those of receiving newspapers, and visits, etc. Above all the Barcelona women’s prison, under the direction of Gironella, a POUM comrade, represented a real model prison from the point of view of hygiene and good taste. Felicien Challayé did not fail to mention it in his pamphlet about Spain.

But something had changed from the judicial point of view. We were outside the law, and we realised that our position could only change with a drop in the influence of Stalinism and a new rise in the revolutionary movement.

Here are some remarks from Comrade Witte [2] about the ‘care’ provided for the sick in Stalinist prisons:

My case is only of interest from the point of view of the treatment of the sick in the prisons of the GPU. Many militants entirely lost their health there, and, alas, their lives as well without the greater part of these matters becoming publicly known.
On the same day as our arrest – June 1937 towards midnight, we were taken to the “cheka”, 24 Puerta del Angel. Two other comrades and myself were thrown into a cell in the cellars without a window, right at the side of the WC whose pipe passed by the cell. Since this pipe had large holes in it, an asphyxiating stench filled the cell. The door was always locked, and the police received strict orders not to leave the door open, or even ajar.
The WCs were used by 35 prisoners, and in addition the numerous guards who were watching us used it as well. The suffocating stench was so unbearable that we suffered terribly from headaches and nausea.
After two or three days I felt stabbing pains in the lungs, and I realised that my old chest illness would not be long in coming back. I lost my strength at an alarming rate, the pains got worse, and at the end of the first week fever and blood spitting began.
As I was in a state that led me to expect the worst, I had to struggle for many weeks to be transferred to a hospital. And this is not only a question of the Puerta del Angel, but I have experienced several other Stalinist prisons by now with similar conditions. I declare that I escaped what already seemed certain death, as though by a miracle But we should not forget that hundreds of other comrades have died in the dungeons of the GPU, in inconceivable hygienic conditions and a complete absence of the most elementary attention which sick people need.

Some Details about Methods of Interrogation

We spent weeks and months in the secret Stalinist prisons. During this entire time we did not see a single guard who was not a member of the Young Communists of the PCE [Spanish Communist Party], nor an agent who did not carry a PCE membership card, most often with a very recent date upon it. We had no papers other than the Stalinist papers, such as Frente Rojo, Treball, Mundo Obrero, L’Internationale and La Correspondance Internationale.

The grotesque side, if you like to call it that, of all the cross-examinations, was that we had nothing to confess.

Had we really been fascists or spies, the normal police methods would have been sufficient. But what explains the cruelty and brutality used towards us to a certain extent is that they wanted to force us to incriminate our comrades, and in spite of the physical and moral tortures, it all came to nothing. We deprived the agents of the GPU in Spain of any hope of forcing us to make confessions after the manner of Moscow. They never forgave us for it. All the comrades known to us, whether socialists, anarchists or POUM members, preferred all the suffering, to allow themselves to be beaten up, or to be shut up in the notorious cubicles of the Santa Ursula (copied from the ‘Bunkers’ in the Nazi prisons) rather than betray a single comrade. Even the youngest and least experienced gave moving proof of their faith in our ideas and their steely contempt for the pseudo-communists of the GPU.

The interrogations generally took place at night, often between 11 o’clock at night and six o’clock in the morning. Otherwise the prisoner was woken up several times a night to wear him down, and they came to take him for questioning in the morning, when they thought that he had already been broken by fatigue. The interrogations always began in the same way. ‘Everything is going badly for you. Your friends have all confessed. You know that we can do whatever we want with you. You know that you will never come out of this building alive.’ A revolver was thrown on the table to emphasise these words, or was placed against the temples of the accused, or was fired into the air. If this was not enough the prisoner was put into a car. Once outside Barcelona, he was told to get out, a bandage was placed over his eyes, the guards cocked their rifles, and fired them. Then the bandage was taken off, the prisoner was put back in the car, and told: ‘We have time to kill this dog tomorrow.’ And the next day the same game was repeated.

Everything was put to use to intimidate and demoralise our comrades. Even corruption was tried. Young comrades, who had not been long in the movement, were told:

You’re an honest lad, a sincere communist. You don’t want to defend the fascists of the POUM or the FAI. Come with us. You will find real friends in our anti-fascist club. You must understand that it is necessary for us to win the war. We always need devoted young men who know how to work. You speak foreign languages. You could go a long way. We will set you at liberty, and you would have no more work to do than stroll round Barcelona, accompanied by a comrade, naturally, and you would help us to find these dirty POUM fascists. Here is L’Internationale, and La Correspondance Internationale. Read them. You will understand many things.’

When they understood that neither intimidation nor corruption had the slightest effect upon us, the tone changed.

‘So, you do not wish to tell us the names of these fascist criminals. Well then, you will rot in prison. And if by chance you escape from us, if you are set at liberty, and you think that you can all tell lies – our apparatus is international. You would be wise to understand this, for we have ways of making you keep silent.’

When nothing was provided to eat for 36, 48 or more hours to prepare for the interrogations, comrades were asked to sign a paper saying: ‘I certify that I have been well treated’. This reminds us of something that some comrades have experienced already once before; but that was in Germany, in the Nazi prisons.

Comrade H. describes:

At the start of the interrogation a revolver was always thrown on to the table and played about with, and bullets were brought out, making it appear as if they wanted to shoot. It was repeated: “You understand that we can shoot you whenever we wish”. Otherwise I would be told: “If you do not do what we want, revenge will be taken on your brother” (a militiaman in the International Brigades). When I refused to sign, they shut me up in a cellar without giving me anything to eat for several days.

He quoted for us a striking example of the methods of falsification:

A day before my release a piece of paper was given to me and I was asked to write out my curriculum vitae (my political career) – how I came to Spain, with the help of what organisation, etc. The paper was returned to me a little later, but with astonishment I read at the top:
“International Brigade, Barcelona Section, Calle Sicilia 22”, and I was coolly told that from then on I could consider myself as a member of the International Brigade. It was revealed, moreover, that next an article of mine would appear in the journal Libertad in Albacete. I asked, “About me, or by me?”. They replied to me, “One of your own articles, signed by you”.
I never had any intention of going to Albacete, or of writing articles for the Stalinist press. But following this falsification I have been considered as a deserter from the International Brigade.

Comrade PD [3] went through nearly 60 hours of questioning. It was found to be particularly suspicious that there was no contradiction between her first and her final statements. She was not forgiven because the brilliant career that had been promised her had not tempted her.

Here is her testimony:

I was also arrested on 17 June 1937. After spending 10 days in the Puerta del Angel, and nine weeks in the “Calle Corcega 299”, on the 28 August I was transferred to the women’s prison at Las Corta along with EH [4] and KL [5].
On 11 September two agents of the “Grupo de Informacion” came to look for me, under the pretext of setting me free. I refused to leave the prison before seeing a certificate attesting that I was free. After a long altercation I was shown a certificate made out by the prefecture, according to which I was not to be set at liberty, but was to be transferred to the Puerta del Angel. When I got there, I was conducted to a room that had previously been the building’s private chapel. The first night, and all the other nights, we were quite often woken up by rats coming from the older areas. All sorts of precautions had to be taken to safeguard the next day’s food.
If I wanted to go to the WC I had to knock and shout for a good long time, and on every occasion a guard came with me. I was not brought anything to eat on the third day. At 10 o’clock next morning I was called for and brought into an office, two floors above. There were four foreigners there, including the agents Anton and Benjamin. They asked me to sit on a chair in the middle of the room. A lamp upon the table behind which the four people sat, was illuminated in such a way that its light directly lit up my face. For five minutes the four men did not cease looking at me. Then they began to talk to me, and their first remarks were the following: “You are secretary of the POUM military committee, and you can tell us many interesting things”. I replied that neither at the time, nor previously, did I ever have that post. Then another said: “Be reasonable, if you wish to save your life”. I said that I knew that I was in the hands of the GPU and that they could ask me whatever they wished, but that my reply depended on me alone, and I would not be forced, even by threats. Then another added: “But you also know that we have ways of making you talk”. Saying this, he took his revolver and placed it upon the table. Then I was asked what my relations were with the executive committee of the POUM. After replying that I had none, I was told that this was a lie, that four members of the executive committee of the POUM had been arrested in my apartment, that every day I had been in the house where they were found, and that proved that I had direct links, and probably intimate ones with one, several, or even all of the members of the executive committee.
Every day of the two weeks that followed I was questioned for several hours, and that often, moreover, when the food distribution took place. When I was led back to my cell after questioning I found that there was nothing there for me. The food was very bad in general, and as often I didn’t even receive it, I suffered from hunger. I learned by chance that every day the POUM had two meals brought for three of the comrades who were also in this building and for me, but I never received anything. I protested at this treatment in the course of the questioning. I was told that we were involved in a full-scale war, that everyone had to make sacrifices, that the provision of supplies in any case was far better than in any bourgeois country, and finally, that I was not there for my health, but because I had done actions harmful to the Spanish state. I was asked why my party was doing nothing for me, and if I did not reckon that my comrades had abandoned me. Knowing that nothing of what the Red Aid of the POUM had brought for me had been allowed to pass, I replied: “If my party has done nothing for me, that does not mean that it has abandoned me, but that it needs the money for more deserving cases. But if; as I expect, food was brought for me, and has not reached me, I understand perfectly.” They did not return to the subject.
They questioned me on this basis, always pretending that I was the secretary of the military committee of the POUM. Questions were put to me about at least l00 people, and I was asked for information on them. It was a matter of members of the POUM, foreigners and Spaniards, and above all militiamen of the Lenin Battalion. At each name I was presented with a photograph [6] whilst they stared fixedly at me, and it was all too clear that they wanted to know the names of comrades who had not yet been arrested, and who would be the last to believe their accusations of espionage.
A letter for the Swiss consul in Barcelona had been found on me at the time of my arrest. Then I was told that all foreign embassies in Spain without exception were nests of fascists, and that my links with the consul were yet further proof confirming that I was a fascist.
During the interrogations I was often told that with my contacts and my knowledge of foreign languages I could render immense services to the world revolution. Above all, thanks to the intervention of my brother-in-law, a good Stalinist, who had intervened to save me inside the Spanish Communist Party, I would be fraternally helped to find the true path. I understood all too well the sense of this “fraternal” aid, so once and for all I asked that no further such offers should be made to me. I said that I did not fall into the hands of the POUM as a poor innocent victim, but that I had joined that party because I understood the POUM’s policy, the only revolutionary policy in Spain, and that none of us would betray the party, even to save his own skin.
At the beginning of October, we were transferred to another prison, Calle Vallmajor 5. As usual, nothing was provided there, naturally; there were no mattresses, no coverlets, and on the first day nothing to eat. We were shut up in the smallest little cells in threes and fours, with the windows and shutters dosed and barred, and were told: “If you try to open or break a window, the guards have orders to shoot immediately”. As there was no electricity we were without light starting at four o’clock in the afternoon, and it was impossible to read until the following day. We received neither newspapers nor visits, and we were rigorously isolated. Exit from the cell was only allowed for going to the WC. As there were only three of them in the entire building, they were always in a repugnant state. Despite everything, we were always being blamed for going too often, and we were threatened that we would not be allowed to go there at all. The guards, and the police above all, all of them communists without exception, showed extreme brutality towards us.
When I fell ill, the doctor of the “Grupo de Informacion” came to see me and diagnosed quite a serious angina. He gave me a prescription. I gave a policeman 10 pesetas with a request to buy me some medicine. I never saw the money again, nor did I receive the medicine.

In the Cheka of Corcega Street

In this instance it is not a question of the state authority, but of a particular building in the same street that had been transformed into a Stalinist private prison. We have since learned that it was here that the GPU agents led our comrade Kurt Landau.

Comrade J.H. Tr– [7] spent over two months there, and gives us the following account of it:

I fought for over a year in the ranks of the Durutti Column; I was wounded twice, in the left leg by shell-fire, and in the head by a bullet. On 11 September 1937 I was arrested in the Moka Cafe in Barcelona. I was taken to the secret prison of the Calle Corcega, where the head was Gaspar Daiman Carbonell, well-known for his extraordinary brutality. For 28 days I remained there; and in all this time none of my comrades succeeded in locating the place where I was staying. As they could find nothing against me, I was transferred to the “Lechera”, and later to the police prefecture. An order was sent to set me at liberty, but it was not carried out, because the police of the GPU were waiting for me at the door of the prefecture with a car to take me once again to Corcega Street.
About midnight I was led up to the third floor into the chiefs office and the first interrogation began. The setting was in harmony with the interrogator. I was seated on a sofa, and Dalmau was on one side of me, and one of his lieutenants, Calero, on the other, playing with an enormous tapering dagger; yet other policemen were there who at all times questioned me in chorus. At the same time an accusing voice behind a screen affirmed that I had been seen in a particular car in front of the Palace of Justice on the day of the criminal attempt upon Andreu, the president of the Court of Justice.
The spectacle was capable of crushing the nerves of the very strongest. Fatigue, weakness, questioning, insults, the enormous electric lamp that lit up my face, and the dagger that threatened me, all mingled together in my brain. Hoping to get through the nightmare more quickly, I swore: “Yes it was me. Yes, that was me with Azaña and Companys!” It was the breakdown of all their hopes to make me confess. So the time had come to change the procedures. Dalmau stood up. “You know what you have to do – usual”, he said. Down we went. I was made to go into a bathroom. They threw a piece of soap into the bath and turned the taps on. I watched the spectacle without being able to grasp the intentions of these men. When they had finished their preparations, the questioning continued. After about half an hour Calero spoke to his aides: “What do you think about it? It only remains to put him in.” And without my being able to understand why anyone should want to make me take a bath at night and in outdoor clothes, I was thrown into the air, with my head towards the floor and my feet towards the ceiling.
Then the real torture began. A fresh question was put with my head touching the surface of the water. Naturally my replies were similar to the preceding ones. I already had no more than vague memories. My head was submerged to the bottom of the bath. I remember that my wrists, swollen by the pressure of the handcuffs, made me suffer cruelly.
At the bottom of the bath I tried to resist as far as possible. For some seconds I held my breath, but then I could resist no longer. The air gave out on me. I began to take in water by the mouth, the nostrils and the ears. Then I lost control of myself. The instinct for self-preservation alone survived, which defended itself passionately.
I do not know absolutely how long I remained in this position. When I came to, I had been thrown on to a chair, with my head hanging down one side and my legs over the other. I had vomited up a great amount; the soap was an excellent emetic. My head spun round as if I were drunk. But when I regained my strength, the interrogation began. Before systematically launching the questioning, in the middle of police injuries, I was yet again plunged into the bath. The police had lost total control of themselves. They struck me with all the brutality of which they were capable, punctuating their hand blows and kicks with vulgar phrases: “Son of a whore! Pimp of an anarchist! We are going to finish with all of you!”
After long hours I was led into another room. The police undressed me and sat me on a mattress. They took away all my clothes, and there I remained, completely nude, for four days. I did not even have a covering when I went out to cater for my needs. Shortly after I recovered, again I was summoned to be set down on the third floor. It was repeated on two further occasions. I lived in a state of hyper-excitement, convinced that all these arrangements would end with me being sent to the bathroom. One night they ordered me to climb into a certain car. The car took Salmeron Street and led towards the Babassada. Once out of Barcelona, they forced me to climb out. “You may prepare yourself for death”, they told me. Again they offered me a reward if I would reveal the names of those responsible for the attempt on Andreu. Then they made me get back up into the car, and we returned to the prison. “We are going to give you one more day to repent”, they said.

After two months of such treatment comrade Tr– was transferred to the police prefecture and then to the Barcelona model prison. His body will bear forever the marks of suffering undergone in the Stalinist prison.
(Published in an illegal POUM pamphlet Los Antros del Terror Stalinista [Stalin’s Caves of Terror].)

Santa Ursula, the ‘Dachau’ of Republican Spain

It is impossible to talk about all the secret and semi-secret prisons of Republican Spain. A whole book could be written about the details of the famous ‘state prison’ of the Calle Vallmajor 5 in Barcelona. We are tempted to make a comparison between the prisons that the Stalinists prepared specially for us in the old monasteries with the prison for fascist ladies at Torrente, near Valencia, about which Madeleine Jacob has just composed a eulogy in an article that appeared in the Oeuvre of 24 February 1938:

Ah, it is so good in this prison! The pretty prison that lies there, at Torrente, an avenue of Valencia. The prison of the Cuas is lost in the midst of orange trees. An immense park, with sunlit terraces ... I have seen many prisons, in France and elsewhere, but I have never known more attractive, approximating less to the definition of a prison than that of the fascist ladies shut up in the beautiful college of Torrente ... They have nothing to complain of. In no way have they been better housed, better looked after, better treated ... better protected.

We do not wish to compare either the ‘care’ or the food. We are simply going to describe one prison: Santa Ursula, the ‘Dachau’ of Republican Spain.

The ancient convent of Santa Ursula, transformed into a prison and exclusively under the control of the Spanish Communist Party, has acquired a sad reputation even beyond the frontiers of Spain. It is not by accident that prisoners have called it ‘the fascist factory’. For many who entered it as anti-fascists left it as burning enemies of Republican Spain.

We shall refrain from speaking about conditions of hygiene, lack of beds, of mattresses and of covers. That is nothing out of the ordinary in Stalinist prisons. Let us rather take a look at the semi-medieval tortures practised all the time at Santa Ursula, and the treatment of prisoners that partakes of the fascist manner. It is in the interests of the cause of anti-fascism that all revolutionary workers should come out vigorously against the procedures of the GPU with regard to anti-fascist prisoners. Such methods should equally be condemned towards class enemies. The revolution may eliminate its enemies, but should not hand them over to sadistic tortures. We continue to affirm that the tortures at Santa Ursula were above all used against revolutionary workers, and not against fascists.

The interrogations at Santa Ursula took place at night. The interrogations were conducted by Russians, Germans, Hungarians, etc, all of them members of their respective communist parties. In view of the complete impossibility of obtaining confessions by the normal procedures, they have resorted to the most bestial brutalities. The hands of the prisoner are tied behind his back, and if the accused does not confess (generally there is nothing to confess) he is beaten. All night long the prison echoes with the groans and cries of tortured comrades. With broken teeth, holes in the head, lacerated sides and haemorrhages, in such a manner they are returned after the interrogations to their cells, sometimes carried along by guards. We spent six months in Santa Ursula. We did not know a single case of a real spy or a saboteur among those who were questioned in this manner.

We will quote only one case among thousands. Engineer E was arrested for espionage by the GPU. He waited in vain for his trial for seven months. Gravely ill and tubercular, he was finally transferred to hospital. In the middle of his treatment he was led back into the prison, where there was nothing provided for sick prisoners. The comrade died in the month of August. He was not the only one to succumb to the tortures and the very special conditions in Santa Ursula.

An account of the tortures in the cubicles would make up a chapter all of its own. There are some where the prisoner can only stand upright, and others only crouched up. Two small holes in the door are the only openings for ventilation. When shut up there for several days without eating, the physical and moral state of the prisoners can only be imagined, for men as well as women, without our needing to describe it.

We would recall only the case of a young Belgian militiaman who had been wounded at the front; after some weeks spent in hospital he was to return to the front. The night of his departure he was arrested and shut up in one of the cubicles, one metre high or slightly less He spent three days crouched up there with nothing to eat; after this he was cynically returned to the front, saying that this punishment had been inflicted upon him because he had been found drunk in the street!

Comrade Th, who spent some weeks in Santa Ursula, had occasion to speak with many prisoners and to verify their statements. He adds the following cases:

The R case. R is a man of about 50 years old. He has been in Spain for 10 years. He is a German, but he left Germany 26 years ago. He has never been interested in politics.

One day he was arrested and taken to Santa Ursula. During the interrogation all his teeth were smashed, and he did not retain a single one. As he had nothing to confess, he was shut up in a cubicle for eight days where he was not able to stand upright,

One day, a GPU agent entered his cell. Comrade R refused to confess to what he had not done, so he was threatened with having his fingers cut off one by one, and having his eyes torn out. He was beaten up several times in a most brutal fashion. The interrogation was given up, but he was still not set at liberty.

The Br case. Br underwent the most terrible tortures. He had been weak all his life. He was twice shut up in a cubicle, on each occasion for several days. On 19 August I had occasion to overhear a violent altercation between Br and the head of the GPU. I saw Br only three days afterwards, fainting in his cell. He had to remain for three days and nights on a chair on the orders of the chief. The guards, who were changed every 10 hours, had the strictest orders not to allow him to sleep.

The K case. Immediately upon his arrival at Santa Ursula, K was shut up in a cubicle 1.8 metres high by O.8 metres wide. In the door was a hole with a diameter of four centimetres. K suffered greatly from lack of air and caught a fever that weakened him to such an extent that he could no longer even go to the WC alone. When he was already nearly dead he was finally put in a cell. That same night he was taken to the commissariat at Calle Salmeron 8, where for an entire night he was forced to listen to the cries of his fellow prisoners. He was beaten with iron bars and his hair was torn out in order to force his friends to sign falsified dictated statements.

In the cellars of Santa Ursula are to be found the coffins of nuns. A suffocating odour of decomposition fills the cellars when these are opened, and phosphorescent bodies everywhere lie partly exposed. And in the cold and damp cellars prisoners are shut up clad in shirt and underpants, without covering and without food.

On the other hand, prisoners who do not ‘wish’ to confess are warned that they are to be shot in an hour’s time. They are permitted to draw up their wills. Afterwards, they are led to the cemetery, and the guards cock their rifles; then the execution is countermanded and remitted to the following day. The report that burning paper is placed beneath the soles of prisoners to make them talk one would hope is a malicious invention of the fascists. But it equally is part of the interrogation methods in Santa Ursula.

We have no intention of complaining about the insufficient food; we know that supplying the front must take precedence over all other needs. But we cannot disguise our indignation seeing that fascist prisoners never lack for anything. Their families are allowed to bring them food, tobacco, soap, beds and covers, whereas the revolutionary workers are lying upon the floor, lacking practically everything. All this is taking place under a ‘Popular Front’ government!

What was the social composition of the prisoners in Santa Ursula? During the months of March and April they were for the most part doctors, priests, lawyers, and big businessmen, political adversaries of the Republican regime. But the greater part of these prisoners were soon released, even those who openly proclaimed themselves to be fascists. In their place have come workers, old Socialist Party members, syndicalists, anarchists, and POUM members. This change was so striking that even the bourgeois elements noticed it. Whereas real fascists were set at liberty, revolutionary anti-fascists were once more forced to go on hunger strike to protest against their arrests by the GPU and the tortures they had endured.

Airmen, journalists, specialists and volunteers also fill the cells of Santa Ursula. The Italian emigre B, who made the famous flight over Rome scattering anti-fascist leaflets is also there. And he came to Spain to work for the anti-fascist cause!

Yet another category of prisoners must be mentioned; aircraft and war materials suppliers, who often came as representatives of important foreign manufacturers of war materials. After delivering one, two, or several planes, the GPU arrested them as spies or saboteurs. Technicians coming from every country to offer their inventions, having reached the lobbies of the government departments, have been shut up in the private prisons of the GPU. We knew one such ‘spy’, a Norwegian trade unionist who got together a million pesetas in his own country and brought them to Spain. There was another such ‘fascist spy’ there, a French airman, a member of a pacifist organisation of veterans, who had brought to Valencia an aeroplane armed with a machine-gun. The representative of a great war materials manufacturer was arrested, among others, after the GPU had taken all his plans and designs for the most modern and up-to-date machine-guns. In this way the Minister for War never got to see them.

The guards, almost without exception, all members of the Communist Party, who were there were all corrupt and demoralised, and very often drunk. On more than one occasion they openly fraternised with the fascists in their cells.

The old convent of Santa Ursula belongs to the Spanish Communist Party. It is not listed among the official state prisons. It is one of numerous GPU prisons into which the Stalinists have caused our comrades to disappear. Strong pressure from abroad has put an end to some of the more scandalous abuses in Santa Ursula. But the Stalinist methods, copied faithfully from fascist methods, have not, however, disappeared.


Editors’ Footnotes

1. V.A. Antonov-Ovseyenko (1884-1939) had led the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, and at one time had been a supporter of the Russian Left Opposition. He was recalled from Spain in 1937 and died in prison at the end of 1938 or the beginning of 1939.

2. Witte – the pseudonym of Demetrius Giotopoulos (1901-1965), leader of the Greek Archeio-Marxists, at one time part of the Trotskyist movement. Comrade Rogers met him in Paris shortly after his release from prison in Spain.

3. PD – Pauline Dobler was a Swiss national. Considerable doubt hangs over the whole of her testimony. She was actually an agent of the GPU planted in the ranks of the POUM by her controller, Nerst (Leopoldo), and had been imprisoned along with Gorkin’s wife Luisa in order to avert suspicion. She was later denounced to Gorkin by the Menshevik leader Abramovitch (J. Gorkin, Les Communistes contre la Revolution Espagnole, Paris 1978, p.206, n14)

4. Else Honberger, a German companion of Kurt Landau’s wife (J. McGovern, Terror in Spain, ILP pamphlet, n.d. [1938], p.1l, n).

5. Katia Landau.

6. The extensive series of photographs of POUM militants in the hands of the GPU had been taken by the spy Narvitch. In February 1938 he was shot by four members of a POUM action squad in revenge for his betrayal of Andrés Nin. Grandizo Munis and one of the two Trotskyist groups in Spain were arrested and accused of the killing (Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.2, July/ September 1979, p.131).

7. J.H. Tr–. Juan H. Trepat (Gorkin, op. cit., n3 above, p.203).

Part II

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Last updated on 27.6.2003