Georges Kopp and the POUM Militia
The following contribution was written especially for this book. Its author, Don Bateman, joined the Labour Party in South Leeds when he left school at the age of 14 in 1934. He grew up in a Socialist-pacifist Independent Labour Party family; his father had been a war resister in the First World War. He joined the ILP early in 1939, and later on became its National Treasurer.
It was in the ILP over 50 years ago that he met George Orwell, John McNair, Ted Fletcher, Bob Edwards and his oldest surviving friend Staff Cottman, who had been Orwell’s staff sergeant in the POUM militia. During the years after the Second World War he took on the responsibility for maintaining contacts between the ILP and the exiled POUM leaders in Paris. It was then that he met Wilebaldo Solano, who during the Spanish Civil War had been head of the JCI (Iberian Communist Youth), the youth wing of the POUM, and later became leader of the POUM in exile and editor of La Batalla.
The ILP tried to help the beleaguered POUM by smuggling duplicators and printing equipment into Spain under the noses of Franco’s agents. An additional hazard was the treacherous conduct of the Stalinists, who had no hesitation about betraying to the Fascists those whom they deemed to be “enemies of the working class”. This enterprise was funded in its entirety by voluntary donations and the willing help of Socialist holiday-makers.
Don Bateman has remained a committed Socialist all his life. He is an honourary life member of his trades council, and of two trade unions, the NGA and NATFHE. He has played an active part on the Executive Committee of the South West Regional TUC, and, when the ILP decided to rejoin the Labour Party, in his local Labour Party. A printer by profession, he has lately retired from lecturing in the technology of printing, and lives in Bristol.
The Spanish Civil War and Revolution produced an infinity of original characters, adventure stories and sparkling literature. It was such a watershed in history that it remains a rich mine for historians to dig into. Official bibliographies reveal over 1500 titles on the subject in the English language alone. The sheer horror of some of the events is almost breath-taking, and there is an abundance of evidence that many of the men who volunteered to go and fight for the Republican cause fared as badly at the hands of Stalinists as many did from Franco.
As the Russian and NKVD grip tightened on all aspects of the Republican government, so did the repression against all other groups increase. The Moscow Trials and the purges in Russia were repeated in the International Brigades, within the Madrid government, and in other areas of Spanish life. After Spain, Heinz Neumann, a leader of the German Communist Party, was deported from Switzerland and executed in Russia without even a trial.
Margarete Buber-Neumann was jailed for having been his wife and having been in Spain. In 1940 she was to be swapped for high-ranking Russians under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She exchanged a Gulag for Ravensbrück.  This was the pattern for most of the German Communists who fought in Spain, and Stalin killed more of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party than did Hitler.
Much of this has been chronicled by emigrés such as Orlov, the leading GPU agent in Spain who defected and wrote in 1953 The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes  and Jésus Hernández, Spanish Communist Party Secretary during part of the period and Minister of Information in the Republican Government, who produced La Grande Trahison.  As early as 1976 Monty Johnstone wrote in the journal of the Young Communist League that “great harm was done by the way in which at the height of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union NKVD agents were sent into Spain and carried out measures of repression against honest revolutionaries such as Andrés Nin, the leader of the leftist POUM”. 
History is not only written by the victors, but also by the primary losers. The repression of groups such as POUM would have gone almost unnoticed and unrecorded but for Orwell and the ILP’s The New Leader. Homage To Catalonia was published by Secker and Warburg only because of Orwell’s persistence (and his hunger) and the use of Fenner Brockway’s influence with Fred Warburg. Boycotted by ‘the Left’ the first edition did not sell well, it was remaindered and I remember the 1940 Easter Conference of the ILP selling copies off at half price on its bookstall ... which is where I bought my own. It remains the major authentic and popular work recording a unique part of the chronicle of the period. Buttressed by John McNair’s Spanish Diary it carries the story of the May-June 1937 events in Barcelona.
It is an irony of the period that many of those who fought for the POUM did so partly by accident – it happened to be the fighting unit closest to hand and was shorn of the bureaucracy of the International Brigades. Men who went to Spain under their own steam invariably went through France to Barcelona, which was the POUM stronghold. Without theoretical discussion they often joined the first units they met which were fighting Franco, and this was sometimes the POUM militia. Additionally the ILP in London did not hide its recruitment of volunteers, as may be seen in the columns of The New Leader. Under the terms of the Non-Intervention Act, the recruitment of men “for foreign wars” had been banned by law, but men going individually to France or Spain, who called at supplied addresses in those countries, were technically not in breach of British law. In any case many of the British recruits for POUM went from London (under the eyes of the Special Branch, as described by Brockway) before the new law became operative.
The Communist Party recruits for the International Brigade were filleted first for political reliability, and the district Communist Parties were charged with this task. Originally Orwell himself was among the category of men who went to Spain in an individual capacity. Staff Cottman likewise had grown up in the Socialist Sunday School and a Socialist home in Barking. When the family moved to Bristol he joined the Young Communist League there. After going to Spain and joining the POUM he was expelled from the YCL with the usual accusations of being an “agent of Fascism”. In 1988 John Sullivan arranged a meeting in Transport House in Bristol to commemorate the War. I had the pleasure of taking the Chair for Staff Cottman (a friend of mine for 50 years), and the elderly characters who had expelled him from the YCL turned up in the audience ... all very contrite, friendly and affable. If there are such things as national characteristics, this was a very English event.
Spain was a gigantic melting pot at a time when Socialists were being hounded out of their own countries by Fascist and near-Fascist regimes. Stateless men went to Spain in the hope of adding their own twopennyworth to the anti-Fascist struggle, but their own political ideology was often undeveloped. It matured under Fascist and Stalinist repression.
One such character was Georges Kopp, a Belgian Socialist born in 1902. He was too young for service during the First World War but had lived under the German occupation. His track record included service as an officer in the Belgian army, as a volunteer officer in the POUM militia, as a member of the French army and French Resistance, and as a field operator for British Intelligence before taking up postwar residence in Scotland. He died when still a comparatively young man. His service is unrecorded. Hugh Thomas, in his standard work on the Civil War, like most similar books, does not even mention him. 
Kopp was somewhat unusual inasmuch as he was a professionally qualified engineer, and very few left wingers have come from these ranks. He was a committed Socialist with some military experience from his conscription period. He had been commissioned and was still a member of the Officer Reserve. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he helped to organise the buying of arms and gun-running for the Republic in Western Europe. He also formed a small engineering firm producing cartridges and bullets which were shipped out to Spain. Complementing this he bought the ingredients for explosives and exported them so that live ammunition could then be manufactured in Spain itself. Once the Non-Intervention agreement was signed this became illegal, and the western powers became gamekeepers for Franco, who got all the arms he needed, to start with from Mussolini and later from Hitler. It did not take the intelligence services long to trace arms supplies back to Kopp, and the Belgian government began nosing around his blockade busting activities. He then realised that his usefulness in that field was over. He left in a hurry for Spain, arrived in Barcelona and volunteered for the POUM militia.
He was a powerful man weighing 15 stones and very athletic. With his military training and qualification as a member of the Belgian Army Officer Reserve, his coolness and experience, he was a bounty to the raw volunteers. He quickly rose through the ranks and was elected head of a POUM Centuria. A POUM Centuria contained only 80 men, which was rather inconsistent, but he rode a black horse and made an impressive figure.
When Orwell arrived in Barcelona at the end of December 1936 he was sent to the Aragon front and joined a column of which Kopp was then in charge. His official title was Commandant of the Third Lenin Division. The rifles were old and decrepit. Orwell had a Mauser from 1896, and each man had only 50 cartridges. The grenades they had were crude and so primitive that only half of them exploded when used, and they often proved a greater hazard to the thrower than the target. Had the POUM been part of Franco’s Fifth Column (as the Stalinists later insisted) he would surely have seen that they had better equipment issued to them.
Both horses and men were short of food, and as the reserve stocks were gradually used up in Catalonia they were never replaced. The Russians made quite sure of that. In 1937 they were almost the sole suppliers of munitions and food going into Catalonia, and an embargo was placed on supplies for either the CNT or POUM. The big offensive there, which Largo Caballero had planned for taking the pressure off Madrid, was never mounted. Victories were not wanted which could boost the prestige of organisations the Stalinists did not control. Kopp led a hungry and almost weaponless militia. They had no artillery and, as the POUM members have all endorsed, with any kind of offensive equipment they could have taken Huesca. McNair outlined the situation where neither side had any artillery, and with a couple of field pieces and machine guns they could “have taken the place within 24 hours”. Orwell described the nonchalant bravery which Kopp always displayed and which set such a good example to the column. When on the move he rode in front carrying a red flag, and was a symbol of reliability which Orwell obviously admired.
His courage became legendary, and Orwell describes him calling for 15 volunteers to attack a Fascist redoubt and then explaining the situation to them, first in Spanish and then in English. In the heat of the attack he waited for them, pacing up and down inside the parapet: “Even the fat folds at the back of his neck were pale; he was paying no attention to the bullets which streamed over the parapet and cracked close to his head.”
In April 1937 the POUM was in action, and Kopp wrote a description of the period in a letter dated the 16th to the parents of Bob Smillie. Bob (the grandson of the Scottish ILPer and miners’ leader) died later, after being taken ill with appendicitis. He was a leading light in the ILP Guild of Youth in Scotland. He had been arrested and was allegedly in the prison hospital. McNair believed the Stalinists murdered him.  Staff Cottman (always a generous soul) thinks Bob died of neglect and peritonitis. Kopp said in his letter:
Paddy Donovan died in London in 1971, and was still active in the labour movement to the end.
After this action Kopp went on leave in Barcelona with other members of the British POUM contingent when the Communist-controlled Civil Guards and Salas, the Chief of Police, made the attacks on the telephone exchange, the Hotel Falcón and the POUM Executive Committee building. It was in the chaos of these days that Bob Smillie was arrested. Orwell told of the surprise the attacks were to them and of his fear at the explosion of hand grenades and bullets flying around them. Kopp glanced out of the window, “cocked his stick behind his back, said ‘Let us investigate’ and strolled down the stairs in his usual unconcerned manner”. Such sang froid is popularly supposed to be a British quality, but Kopp had a double ration.
Next door to the POUM building was a café with an hotel above it. The day before, a party of Civil Guards had seized it and held it as a strong point for attacking the POUM offices in an outflanking operation. When on the following day they tried to come out, the POUM shock troops drove them back inside with rifle shots and grenades. Kopp strode in, hauled off a German POUM shock trooper and told the crowd in a variety of languages to avoid all bloodshed. Orwell, who was no coward himself, said:
A Civil Guard came out and pointed to two unexploded grenades on the pavement: “I came back and told them to touch them off with pistol shots.” Such cool courage has a very special quality of its own. Back in the POUM building, Kopp told them to defend it if attacked, but the POUM leaders had in any case sent instructions to play a purely defensive part and not to open fire at all costs if it could be avoided.
Back in the front line besieging Huesca, life was becoming tough for the POUM battalions, who could feel the attacks of the Communist Party and government forces closing in upon them. It was bad enough having Franco in front of them, but the attacks from the rear they could do without. News came through to them of the arrest and then the death of Bob Smillie. Kopp continued to lead them and was promoted to the rank of major, which replaced the ad hoc one of commandant in the revolutionary army.
The Russian control was becoming more apparent and political influences were being removed. The Lenin Division was renamed the 29th Division, and POUM political control was being broken. It was part of the Communist somersault on the Popular Front and the attempts to build military alliances with France and the democracies. The regular army was ousting the political militias. No-one was now allowed to rise from the ranks higher than major, and all senior posts had to come from the Central Military School of War. This institution was controlled by the Communist Party and in such a manner that it secured a tight grip on the army.
On 15 June 1937 Kopp was sent for by the Ministry of War in Valencia (Madrid having been evacuated of all government departments when the Fascists closed in) and given a pass describing him as “a person of confidence”. He was transferred to a new appointment on the grounds that his specialist skills as an engineer were needed. The date is ominous. 15 June was the day when Andrés Nin was arrested, the POUM was suppressed, other members of its Executive Committee were arrested, the POUM offices were raided, and La Batalla and other papers suppressed.
Kopp had been sent to the eastern front with a letter of recommendation to the commander of engineering operations. He called in at the Hotel Continental to collect his baggage, which was being stored there, and he was arrested. This dragnet operation was cleverly organised and POUM people were being picked up all over the place. By the end of the month, General José Rovira of the 29th Division (the POUM military unit) had been arrested, and when his men protested to the Ministry of War, they disclaimed all knowledge of the affair.  By this time the Communist Party was openly behaving as a state within a state and ignoring judicial procedures. Such a display of dual power was not for ushering-in a workers’ state but for crushing one. Kopp was jailed by the people whom he had come to help in their battle against the Fascists. He had given up his job and career for people who had flung him into prison. In his period of service he had been wounded once, and was in the front line almost continuously for eight months under the most hazardous conditions where his personal bravery had won the respect of all who knew him.
Back home in Belgium he had burned his boats, and been sentenced ‘in absentia’ to 15 years in prison; five years each on the three charges of “making explosives for a foreign power”, leaving Belgium illegally, and joining a foreign army when he was still holding a reservist officer commission. Despite all this he was now branded as a ‘Fascist agent’ like the men who were being tried in Moscow. June 1937 was the month when the Red Army was purged and its top brass executed. In January the ‘Trotskyite Anti-Soviet Centre’ had been unmasked, followed by mass executions. The previous August had seen the Zinoviev Trial and the judicial murder of the old Bolsheviks.
Orwell (and Eileen) visited Kopp in prison, but had to be careful not to recognise too many of the inmates, for to do so would have put the finger on them as people who should also be arrested. Kopp was living in miserable conditions of great squalor in what was really the ground floor of a shop. There were a number of such premises which had been commandeered as private Communist prisons. Andrés Nin was held in such conditions. Kopp was one of about 100 prisoners who were jammed into two rooms about 20 feet square with dirty windows, murky light, stone floors, one bench and a permanent stench of dirt and human bodies. Many of the men held there had been wounded, they were poverty-stricken and their wives brought in food for them.
Through the clutter emerged Kopp, still a commanding figure in a military uniform and smart bearing. The news of Nin’s murder was in the air, and Kopp said to Orwell with abnormal cheerfulness: “I suppose we shall all be shot.” Orwell himself had been wounded by a bullet through his neck and could hardly talk, but Kopp explained that all his army papers and documents sending him to a new assignment had been taken away from him. Most important of all was the missing certificate guaranteeing his personal integrity. Orwell rushed away (leaving Eileen with Kopp) to the Department of War in an attempt to see the colonel who had issued it and would vouch for his friend. He found only an aide-de-camp there, but he battered his way through the protocol and bureaucracy. When he mentioned the dreaded word “POUM” a wave of fear swept through the proceedings. It was rather like swearing in a nunnery. In the atmosphere of the day it was almost like an admission of espionage.
After some persistence the letter was found and delivered safely to the Chief of Police. It had not the slightest effect. He was powerless to take any action – even if he had wanted to. All the efforts of the army to free Kopp were to no avail. He was in the hands of a force more powerful than they were; like Nin he was a victim of ‘the Moscow process’ and the police had become a part of that supra-national force. Orwell spent the next few days with McNair and Staff Cottman, writing letters and trying to force interviews which might free him. It was all to no avail. After harassment, police searches, bullying and sleeping rough, Orwell and his two friends left Spain convinced that Kopp was by now dead or beyond saving. The campaign on his behalf could best be conducted from Britain. In any case he was being held incommunicado, and they would not be able to contact him.
Kopp was later able to take up the narrative – unusually so, for few men lived to tell their story after such experiences. He was repeatedly interrogated by two NKVD agents – one Russian and one Belgian in origin. Using the techniques chronicled by so many interviewees, they took him repeatedly through his story, day after day after day, looking for slight inconsistencies, but also attempting to weaken his resistance so that he would sign documents incriminating the POUM leadership. The ILP paper The New Leader printed material brought back by McNair. It was assumed by then that Kopp was dead. Brockway recorded details of this in Inside the Left. The NKVD interrogators wanted Kopp to sign a statement saying that the POUM had been a willing tool of Franco, and had conspired with his military leaders for the POUM militia to retire at critical times during the battles, thus giving Franco victory. Also included was a statement that John McNair was an agent of the British intelligence services. He was told he would be shot unless he signed, and was given 24 hours in which to make up his mind.
It was in that period he managed to smuggle out a letter, using the services of a young boy who brought in food for one of the Spanish prisoners. The letter bore a charmed life. He sent it to an Italian anti-Fascist journalist, Georges Tioli, who was friendly towards the POUM and lived in the Hotel Continental. Tioli never received it, for he had been abducted by the same strong-arm squad which had kidnapped Kurt Landau, the Austrian Socialist. Neither of them were ever heard of again. They were presumed shot and buried in an unmarked grave. A POUM member of the hotel staff, acting on instructions he had previously had from the Italian, destroyed Tioli’s papers but posted off the letter to London. By a miracle it arrived at the ILP office. This saved Kopp’s life, for he had told his interrogators that he had sent out a letter which would be published if he died or disappeared. The letter he said was by then “at Toulouse airport” – a gross exaggeration.
Coincidentally, however, McNair had got back to London and the campaign started for Kopp’s release. The three ILP MPs went to the Foreign Office with the story, and NKVD agents found diplomatic pressure being applied to the Russians, which percolated through to them. The last thing the Russians wanted was hostility from the Western powers, whom they were by then cultivating as potential allies. This was the reason for the attacks on the POUM; they wanted to convince the West that they had no revolutionary pretensions.
What was assumed to be Kopp’s last letter was reprinted in the New Leader of 6 August 1937, and in it he announced his intention of going on hunger strike – his last means of self-defence.
This was a letter not without commitment and sincerity, but it did him very little good, for the interrogations continued and he remained in jail for a further 18 months. In December 1938, when the Russians were winding up all their commitments in Spain to prepare for the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he managed to get out and into France. From there he came to England, making contact with Orwell, McNair and Brockway. He was a new slimline version of Georges Kopp, for in jail he had lost seven stones in weight.
He was nursed back to health by Laurence and Gwen O’shaughnessy, the brother (and his wife) of Eileen Blair (Eileen Orwell). When, in less than a year, the Second World War broke out, Kopp went to France and volunteered for the army. He could not return to Belgium without being jailed, and the French army appeared at the time to be an extension of the war against Fascism. In June 1940 he was wounded and captured by the Germans south of the Marne. For a good period he was in a French military hospital, and when well enough to be mobile he escaped to unoccupied France and lived in Marseilles. It was here in the south of France that many units of the Spanish Republican army had been interned, and he was able to make contact with them. He joined the French Resistance, which grew rapidly after Russia entered the war in 1941, and escaping Spanish Republicans joined up with them. In Marseilles he linked up with British intelligence, monitoring shipping and other activities. Details of his work are obscure. We know that he was working as an engineer and enrolled in British naval intelligence. He must, however, have been important, for when the Gestapo alerted the Pétain secret police, the British flew him out in September 1943.
This was the end of his active political service. He spent the last years of his life in Britain, and married Doreen Hunton, the sister of Gwen O’Shaughnessy, and so became a distant relative of George Orwell, the man he first met on the Aragon front in Spain. He lived out his few remaining years as a hill farmer in Scotland, and in 1951, still a young man of 49, he died of his war wounds sustained in Spain and France.
The labour movement has been well served at various levels of activity by men and women who gave to it everything of themselves which they had to offer.
George Orwell, Homage To Catalonia, London 1938.
John McNair, ed. D. Bateman, Spanish Diary, Manchester 1978.
New Leader, London 1937-38.
Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left, London 1942.
Oral evidence to Don Bateman; Staff Cottman and John McNair.
Don Bateman, series of articles in New Leader, August-November 1974, which stimulated letters and information.
1. Margarete Buber-Neumann, Under Two Dictators, London 1949.
2. Published by Jarrolds in London in 1954.
3. First appeared as Yo Fuí un Ministro de Stalin, Mexico City 1953.
4. Monty Johnstone, Trotsky and the World Revolution, Cogito, 1976, p.12.
5 55. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, third edition, Harmondsworth 1977. After the appearance of the first edition of this work the author discovered that in fact a revolution had occurred in Republican Spain, and as result the third edition contains a section entitled The War of Two Counter-Revolutions. Cf. his rather frank admissions to Richard Gott in The Guardian, 9 February 1977. How easy it is to maintain a reputation among the ivory towers!
6. Cf. the pamphlet issued by the ILP at the time, Dan McArthur, We Carry On: Our Tribute to Bob Smillie, ILP Guild of Youth, 1937.
7. José Rovira Canals (1902-1968) was an old member of the Bloque and the POUM. Arrested by the Stalinists, he was subsequently freed by the intervention of the War Minister, Indalecio Prieto. During the Second World War he led a unit responsible for maintaining contacts across the Pyrenees with London via Portugal.
Updated by ETOL: 31.7.2003