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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

2. Why Barcelona Was Given Up Without A Fight

We must say that the French workers were surprised to learn of the taking of Barcelona after the military authorities had proclaimed resistance to the death.

I understand your surprise and I shared it. All of us, the ex-volunteers awaiting repatriation and all the militants too, were tragically shocked at the ease with which the Fascist advance moved toward Barcelona. True enough, we had no illusions and we took full account of the tragedy of the situation. But nevertheless we expected a desperate resistance in front of Barcelona and we cherished in our hearts the hope that heroic Barcelona would be a second Madrid. As long as a position has not been taken by the enemy, a revolutionary has no right to consider it as lost.

In an article, Can We Avoid The Debâcle?, written five days before the fall of Barcelona, which unfortunately did not get through to you, I put forward a plan of action to save Barcelona and the revolution. I put the opinions and slogans of the Spanish comrades more or less as follows:

Barcelona, can be saved. The province of Barcelona [5], the most industrialised region of Spain, with its industrial strongholds of Manresa, Sabadell and Tarasa, is not yet in the hands of the Fascists. It must not be. Barcelona must be fortified and transformed into an impregnable fortress. There is no lack of speculators and slackers to work on the fortifications in Barcelona. It is time they were made to swing some pickaxes! “Resist!” – this is the slogan of our Comrade Munis, spitefully charged with assassination and imprisoned for a year in the state prison of Carcel Modelo and now at Montjuich. Resist, as García Moreno resisted. [6] But our slogan, “Resist”, is different from Negrín’s. [7 In order to resist, the working class must raise its head, must regain confidence in itself, must create its committees for the defence of the revolution and its own organisations independent of the bourgeois state power, as it did on 19 July 1936 – but this time it must go further.

Such was the sort of spirit of our Spanish comrades some days before the fall of Barcelona.

True, the situation was critical. The Fascists were advancing by as much as 15 or 20 kilometres a day. Positions of the utmost strategic importance were systematically surrendered almost without a fight, such as the fortifications around Balaguer which took eight months to build, those at Segre, the important position of Las Borgas Blancas, whose conquest by the Fascists allowed them to march towards the sea and the encirclement of Tarragona and, at the eleventh hour, the chain of mountains around Igualada, whose conquest had already opened the road toward Barcelona.

We witnessed a repetition of the March catastrophe on the Aragon front, only on a still greater scale: betrayals by the high command, going over to the enemy with the defence plans, and even desertions to the Fascists of entire units of the carabineers. [8]

But Barcelona still remained. By the sea there were still the Garaf Hills, which could have been made a line of resistance. It is true that the main roads that lead to Barcelona, the one that comes from Villafranca de Penedès, and the other from Igualada, which join some 20 kilometres from Barcelona, cross a plain. But even in the event of a Fascist advance upon the town itself, there were still the mountains that surround the Catalan capital. Barcelona is encircled by Montjuich and Tibidabo. We could have fortified these hills and transformed them into a line of defence at the very gates of the city.

But they nevertheless say that Barcelona was indefensible from a strategic point of view?

That is a lie. Obviously it was easier to defend Barcelona in front of the chain of mountains near Igualada, or at the Garaf Hills than at the gates of the city itself. But it is more defensible than Madrid, for example. Neither the undoubted superiority of the Fascist armaments (a result of the passivity of the international proletariat, which had been lulled to sleep by the policy of the Popular Front) nor strategic reasons suffice to explain the fall of Barcelona, especially a fall so rapid and almost without a fight. The Fascists entered Barcelona after a brief engagement at Hospitalet, a suburb of Barcelona on the seaward side.

So what?

Well, it is simply that, especially in a civil war, strategy and military technique are subordinate to politics. Barcelona was abandoned because there was nobody to defend it, nobody, or scarcely anyone, who was ready to give his life to defend it against Franco. That is the tragic reality.

The less said about the sinister “Gobierno de la Victoria” [9], the better! It met on Monday night, three days before the entry of Franco. A message read by Uribe [10], the Communist Minister of Agriculture, informed us of the officially announced decisions and of the measures decided upon: firstly, to declare martial law in what remained of governmental Spain, that is to say, to try to muzzle the proletariat (though in reality it was powerless to do so); and secondly, to continue to hold out in Barcelona. That was the official declaration.

And the reality?

The reality? At the same time as they were making this announcement, Messrs Ministers already had their bags packed, their furniture and a surprising quantity of mattresses were already loaded onto trucks, and the aristocratic flight in Rolls Royces and Hispano-Suizas was beginning.

Filled with panic – above all for their own dangerous personal situation – the Messrs Ministers wanted to make an appeal to the CNT workers of Barcelona, in order that the workers should once again generously shed their blood and save the situation. These gentlemen believed that the same trick could be repeated an infinite number of times. According to their view, the proletariat should normally be held down, should respect bourgeois legality, should continually do the dirty jobs, should watch its militants mistreated, etc. Then at the moment of danger the chain could be loosened a bit and the proletariat could be generously permitted to die in defence of the legitimate government and for the democratic republic.

According to these gentlemen’s schema, the proletariat, taking advantage of the happy opportunity offered it, would mount the barricades, sacrifice some tens of thousands of its own people, and save the day. The Fascist danger having passed, the chain could be pulled tight again and the bullying could begin again as before. That was their plan. Ingenious, surely, but the same trick succeeds only a limited number of times.

Seized with panic, the ministers then called for García Oliver [11] to take control of six military divisions and direct operations.

But García Oliver is no soldier!

I wouldn’t like to recall the ‘services’, he has rendered the Spanish proletariat during the 1937 May Days in Barcelona! [12] In any case he was above all an agitational orator, but he represented the CNT and particularly the FAI, and the ministers thought that summoning him would also mean rallying tens of thousands of the militants of the CNT. But the Barcelona workers were demoralised. They remembered the days of May 1937. To understand the tragedy of 26 January 1939 we must remember that of 3-6 May 1937. There is a logical connection between these two dates. By destroying the revolution they lost the anti-Fascist war.

The Stalinists provoked and organised the events of May 1937, that is to say, they carried out the disarming of the proletariat, the destruction of its combat organisations, the assassination of its militant workers, etc. They instituted a regime of terror against the working class. All this was justified by the policy of the Popular Front: that is to say, “Win the war first of all!”, and to do this by winning the support of France and Britain. We now see the result. They did not win the goodwill of the French and English bourgeoisie, but whilst waiting for it they disgusted and demoralised the workers of Spain and those of Catalonia most of all. That was the quickest way to lose the war.

Of course the Barcelona workers understood that Franco was the worst evil, and, in spite of the fact that their confidence in Negrín was extremely low, they wished for the defeat of the Fascists and the victory of the Republican armies, but they no longer had any active participation in the struggle. After May 1937 they no longer felt themselves to be the masters. After all, they no longer were.

They were told many times a day that they were not fighting for their social emancipation (God preserve us from such Trotskyist ideas!) but merely for the return to a democratic republic – which had already nourished the Fascist insurrection. That hardly favoured a spirit of sacrifice or enthusiasm for the war; on the contrary, it was the source of the indifference towards it.

But in far more difficult circumstances Madrid had nonetheless defended itself, and in the month of November 1936 had successfully thrown back Franco’s advance. And yet the Fascists were at the very gate of the capital.

I know that old tune. Catalans are, so it seems, cowards, and Madrilenos are heroic and chivalrous. That is one answer, but it doesn’t stand up. It is obviously put out by the Communists, who use it to try to give themselves a boost: the majority of the Barcelona proletariat is Anarchist, but in Madrid it is the Communists who predominate.

Yet the Catalan workers showed what they could do on 19 July. Within 24 hours they had nipped the military rebellion in the bud. If the workers in the rest of Spain had followed their example, the Fascists would have been completely driven out of the Iberian peninsula. Barcelona also showed what it could do when in barely a few days it produced 200,000 volunteers, and when it sent off the famous ‘columns’ led by Durruti, Ortiz, Domingo Ascaso, Rovira, etc. [13], during the first week that followed 19 July.

Everything was done to break the militancy and the enthusiasm of the Catalan workers. The Popular Front, and most of all the Communists, did all they could to demoralise the Barcelona workers and push them into passivity. Unfortunately, they succeeded all too well. In addition, the glorious epic of Madrid dates from November 1936 and the first months of 1937, and not from January 1939. The spirit of revolution still dominated the whole of anti-Fascist Spain in the month of November 1936. The workers’ committees called for by José Díaz and Comorera [14] at that time had more say than the Republican and ‘legitimate’ government. Madrid radio was playing The Internationale and Hijos del Pueblo [15], and not patriotic songs as in 1939. Red and red-black flags were flying. They have since been replaced by tricolour rags (obviously it is not a question here of the flag itself, but of what it represents).

The Barcelona workers were in no hurry to give their lives for the tricolour flag and the hated Negrín government. What’s more, we do not know how Madrid will resist in 1939. Will it be able to repeat the epic of November 1936? I fear not.

But the rank and file workers of Barcelona could not fail to understand the imminence of the danger. They knew what a Franco victory had in store for them: the ruin of all their hopes. We have so often insisted on the spontaneous character of the struggles of the Spanish, and especially the Catalan proletariat, which is for the most part Anarchist in tendency. Why did the Barcelona workers not act against the will of their leaders?

The ‘spontaneity’ of the Catalan workers has, in spite of their impulsive temperament, its limits, you see. Everything was done to break their morale and their fighting spirit. They were preached calm and patience, and confidence in the leaders of the Popular Front and of the government, and above all they lulled them to sleep with illusions about the intentions of the British, and especially the French, bourgeoisie. Workers were constantly told: “At the eleventh hour Britain, and especially France, will intervene and will not permit the German and Italian Fascists to get a foothold on the Pyrenees, for we are fighting for the safety of the democratic empires.”

The summit of wisdom from the pen-pushers and orators of the Popular Front in their papers and meetings was to remind Chamberlain and Daladier [16] of their imperialist duties – which were to preserve the Spanish working class from Fascism! These illusions, or rather these criminal deceptions, were mostly propagated in particularly critical situations. At such times the diplomatic tensions between the two alliances were immeasurably exaggerated, and the international situation was portrayed as if war was on the point of breaking out between the democratic and the Fascist powers, and as if the British fleet and the French army were poised to intervene at any moment. The worst thing about it was that they stubbornly strove to shut the eyes of the working class, and they succeeded in this.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the short-sightedness of the ‘realistic’ leaders of the Popular Front. Several weeks ago Barcelona was told that hundreds of French aeroplanes and tanks had arrived. This was meant to boost morale! Another example: just a few days ago, before the fall of Barcelona, a foreign comrade, who was a left Anarchist in a relatively important post, told me whilst begging me to keep it secret (the usual way of spreading news) that several French divisions had crossed the Pyrenees and were coming to our aid. He had heard this from a member of the Regional or perhaps the National Committee, who had seen them (the French divisions) cross the frontier.

In the Middle ages ascetics and saints saw the blessed virgin in ecstasy, and sometimes even heard her voice. True, they had to mortify their flesh in order to do so. But the leaders of the Popular Front, without either mortifications or ecstasies, managed to see French divisions coming to their aid.

Unfortunately, these criminal fables were heard and put the proletariat off guard. Lenin once said that truths, even harsh truths, must be told to the proletariat in order to educate it; but wasn’t he, after all, also a ‘Trotskyist’?

Let us be more concrete. The Communist Party, in spite of its policy, must have known the danger that was threatening it. Surely it was a question of saving its own skin. What did it do for the defence of Barcelona?

Of course it kept repeating “No pasaran!” [17], but it did everything possible to make sure that they did. Its central slogan, advanced with a fury and a spirit worthy of a better cause, was: “Close ranks around Negrín’s Government of Victory!” Some government ... which was already packing its bags, or rather having them packed. Thus any independent initiative, and every attempt, however timid, to set up the independent workers’ organisations that alone could have brought back confidence, were described as Trotskyist and Fascist.

It is true that Frente Rojo, (Red Front), the organ of the Communist Party, published on Tuesday an appeal which was headed: “Everyone on the Barricades! As on 19 July!” But the barricades remained in the columns of the paper. These heroes of the PSUC [18] were only capable of mounting the barricades once. That was during the month of May 1937 against the Barcelona workers, to drive them out of the Telephone Exchange, the sacred property of American capitalism, and in order to help the bourgeois police machine-gun the workers.

It is true that if they succeeded it was only because the CNT, or to be more precise, the leadership of the CNT, allowed them to do so.



5. The importance and specific weight of the proletariat of the province of Barcelona is equal to that of the rest of Spain. [Author’s note]

6. García Moreno was a sergeant who stopped four Italian tanks single handed. [Author’s note]

7. Dr Juan Negrín López (1889-1956) was the right wing Socialist manoeuvred into office as Prime Minister of Republican Spain by the Stalinists after they had removed Largo Caballero in 1937.

8. The Communist leaders, and the ‘Anarchists’ along with them, kept this corps, which had been formed under the monarchy, intact. [Author’s note]

9. ‘The Government of Victory’ was the name given by the Communist Party’s publicist, La Pasionaria, to the Negrín government that replaced that of Caballero in May 1937. It wore its name uneasily. La Pasionaria was a name given to the Communist speaker Dolores Gómez Ibarruri (1895-1989) on account of her fervent oratory.

10. Vicente Uribe Caldeano (1908-1961) was Communist Minister of Agriculture in the Popular Front Government.

11. Juan García Oliver (1901-1980), a former supporter of Anarchist terror and a member of the group around Durruti, was Minister of Justice in the Caballero government, and played a most important part in disarming and demoralising the workers of Barcelona during the fighting in May 1937.

12. Because of his speech on 4 May 1937, which ended with the appeal “¡Alto el Fues!” (Cease firing), García Oliver, the honourable Anarchist Minister of Justice, handed over the militants of the CNT to massacre by the Stalinists. The workers of Barcelona remember this speech all too well. [Author’s note]

13. Buenaventura Durruti (1896-1936), Antonio Ortiz and Domingo Ascaso were Anarchist commanders. José Rovira Canals (1902-1968) was the commander of the Lenin battalion of the POUM.

14. José Díaz Ramos (1896-1942) was General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, and Juan Comorera (1884-1958) occupied the same position in the PSUC, its equivalent in Catalonia.

15. Sons of the People.

16. Arthur Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) and Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) were the Prime Ministers of Britain and France at the time.

17. “They Shall Not Pass”, a slogan made popular by La Pasionaria.

18. The PSUC, the United Socialist Party of Catalonia, belonged to the Communist International. It is the pseudonym of the Catalan Communist Party. [Author’s note]

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Last updated on 27.7.2003