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Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova)

Spain Betrayed

How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco

5. The Ideological Factor in the Civil War

You should know, and I have been able to test it in the trenches and during the attacks at the front, that the best weapons do not amount to much when there are no men ready to sacrifice themselves and bury themselves rather than yield the terrain to the enemy. Obviously, as I have already explained, we must have men in the General Staff, but also men on the ground to wield rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, mortars, light and heavy artillery, and tanks – not to speak of aircraft.

In a civil war most of all, material without men does not amount to much. I must insist on this above all when a government which has before it the task of struggling against reaction does not, as in an imperialist war, have an apparatus of coercion that has been functioning for decades, and it must create a new organisation from scratch. In a civil war the soldier must know why he is fighting. He must be convinced that it is for his class, and that his wife and his children will experience a new world, a better one. Then will he charge grenade in hand against a better armed enemy, capture impregnable positions and inflict mortal blows on an enemy amongst whom he sows panic and demoralisation.

Yes, I can recall my battalion comrades during the assault at the time of the Belchite offensive, for example. I saw Ferrer, my lieutenant, who was killed at Codo [29], leading his section in the attack on the parapet of the Requetes. [30] I heard his orders “Fuego”! (Fire!) and “Adelante!” (Forward!) addressed to our section, which in its majority was composed of Libertarian Youth. Yes! Artillery and machine gun fire are not sufficient to capture a trench. If the enemy is obstinate and does not abandon his position after bombardment from artillery and machine guns, the infantry arm has to dislodge him with gunfire, grenades and bayonet thrusts.

My comrades of the Libertarian Youth knew why they were fighting. They hated the old Spain from the bottom of their hearts. They hated the bourgeoisie, and especially the church and the priests, the symbols of medieval oppression, and they were fighting for a world where their fathers – metalworkers, locksmiths, turners or simple dockers – would be the masters. They went to the attack singing Hijos del pueblo, (Sons of the People) and Arroja la Bomba! (Explode the Bomb!), Anarchist songs.

But we should also recall that our adversaries were not mercenaries, as in other sectors – Italians, Germans or Moroccans who had come to Spain to find villages to sack and women to rape. They were Requetes, moved by a flame and by the fanaticism inspired by their profound Catholic faith. They were fighting for ‘Cristo Rey’ (Christ the King) and for the Blessed Virgin against the red devil incarnate in the ‘Marxists’.

These are the inscriptions that I noted down after the ‘cleaning up’ of Codo on 26 August 1937, when we were on guard in the captured trenches. “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ the King!), “Vienen los marxistas! Coraje!” (The Marxists are coming! Courage!), and then this one, “Quando matas un rojo tienes un ano de purgatorio de menos!” (When you have killed a red, you have one year less to do in purgatory!) They defended themselves to the end, to the very last bullet, though there were only about 300, completely surrounded, defending Codo, and we were perhaps 2,000 or more.

They recited their prayers several times a day and awaited the help of the Blessed Virgin, as well as the more material assistance of the Moorish cavalry. When on Wednesday night they saw that help would come from neither heaven nor earth (the cavalry they had sighted approaching Codo from afar was not Moorish, but Republican cavalry) they tried the last resort – a break-out. We saw a rush of men in a bunch coming out of the church and racing down the hill. Our machine guns began to work. Many were killed or made prisoners. [31] I have allowed myself this digression in order once more to emphasise that in a civil war, which is the only just and holy war, fought on behalf of the oppressed, who are the bearers of progress and the new human values, killing occasionally takes place with particular zeal and unexampled fanaticism.

So, I must repeat, men and ideas, and particularly ideas, play a primary rôle. Revolutionaries should never forget this in the battles to come, and not allow themselves to be influenced by self-styled realists, who in a know-all way only put the problem of military technique to the fore.



29. The attack on Codo took place on 23-25 August 1937. [Author’s note]

30. The Requetes were the militiamen of the Carlists from Navarre, the most extreme Catholic reactionaries in the Francoist camp.

31. In Codo we found a large quantity of ‘bojnes rojas’ (red berets), along with French munitions as well, delivered to Franco in spite of non-intervention, and under the government of Léon Blum, if you please! [Author’s note]

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Last updated on 27.7.2003