Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


How the NKVD Framed the POUM

Jesús Hernández
How the NKVD Framed the POUM
Pitt Productions, London 1995, pp. 27, £2.00

THIS PAMPHLET, which consists of excerpts translated from the memoirs of Jesús Hernández, is an insiders’ view of the repression of the POUM by the Stalinist secret services during the Spanish Civil War, and, as such, will be welcomed by all those concerned with the fate of the Spanish Revolution. The autobiography of Hernández has frequently been impugned; he was a founding member of the Spanish Communist Party in 192l, joining the Politbureau in the early 1930s, before serving as a loyal apparachik during the Civil War. Having proven his Stalinist credentials, in the immediate postwar years in exile, Hernández found his desire to become party leader thwarted by the old guard, and, as a frustrated arribista, embraced Titoism. Although Hernández wrote with the characteristic fury of a scorned bureaucrat, his account of the repression of the POUM, and in particular his version of the brutal interrogation, torture and eventual murder of former party leader and ex-Trotskyist Andreu Nin at the hands of the NKVD, has since been confirmed both by the memoirs of other Spanish Republican leaders, and by the most recent research conducted in the Moscow archives. This pamphlet, therefore, is a corrective to the hypocrisy of those apologists who, as Bob Pitt indicates in his valuable introduction, continue to obscure the nature of Stalinist terror by talking of Nin’s ‘disappearance’, which is little more than a euphemism for the scurrilous and groundless accusation that Nin fled Spain for exile in Fascist territory. Moreover, despite the leitmotifs of Comintern policy in Spain – the public celebration of unity and petit-bourgeois Republican legality – the memoirs of Hernández highlight the willingness of the Stalinists to spread disunity amongst the anti-Francoist forces, and to perpetrate bloody terror against their rivals on the left.

But it must also be recognised that Hernández’s testimony cannot be accepted uncritically. Firstly, it is extremely likely that Hernández exaggerated his opposition to the repression of the POUM. If he initially resisted the NKVD to the extent he claims, it is difficult to explain his recklessness in leaving for the USSR at the end of the Civil War, let alone how he survived his spell there. Secondly, his tendency to blame counter-revolutionary terror in Spain almost exclusively on the malign personality of Stalin – a view which received new currency in the 1970s following Santiago Carrillo’s conversion to Eurocommunism – ignores the manifest guilt of both the Spanish and Catalan Communist Parties in the repression of the POUM. Indeed, at times, the testimony of Hernández attenuates the fierce invective directed at Poumistas by local Stalinists to such a degree that the reader is left with the impression that fraternal relations existed between the official and dissident Communist Parties; in fact it was the unrelenting and virulent political campaign against the POUM in the Spanish and Catalan Stalinist press which was instrumental in creating the climate in which the physical and political elimination of Spanish anti-Stalinists could take place. Nevertheless, this does not detract from the unquestionable value of a pamphlet that reveals how the international isolation of the Republic and its dependency upon Soviet supplies facilitated the exportation of NKVD police terror to Spain and the murder of Nin.

The scale of Stalinist power in Spain during the Civil War is emphasised if we look at an earlier attempt to frame Nin. I am referring here to a little known episode in 1933, when Nin, then a leader of the Trotskyist Izquierda Comunista de España, was detained by the Republican police in Barcelona and charged with possession of explosives. At the time, Nin was highly respected in Catalan cultural circles for his translations of Russian classics, including the major works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. His arrest was, therefore, greeted with widespread consternation and indignation, and prompted a spirited defence campaign, which led to his release in a matter of days. What is noticeable here was the support lent to Nin by leading Catalan intellectuals and academics, not to mention some petit-bourgeois Republican politicians who, though as anti-Communist as the unreconstructed monarchist police, knew that Nin was a professional revolutionary in the Bolshevik mould, and not a backstreet Anarchist bomber of the sort that abounded in Barcelona at the time, and which provided the main inspiration for police stereotypes of revolutionaries.

The arrest of Nin in 1937 provides a sharp contrast. The charges – that a lifelong revolutionary was a Fascist agent in the pay of German big business – and the ‘evidence’ – that Nin, despite his long experience of clandestine organisation, had personally signed a secret message to Franco with his own name – were far more preposterous than those in 1933. Despite all this, not a single Catalan academic or intellectual publicly denounced the arrest of Nin, nor were there serious protests from Republican politicians. Later on, when it was too late, and with Nin almost certainly dead, some Republican and Anarchist leaders did ask some ‘awkward’ questions, but these were always muted by the need to appease Soviet ‘advisors’ at any price, a price which included the repression of the POUM by the forces of Stalinism in defence of the bourgeois republic.

Chris Ealham

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011