Sherry Mangan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Terence Phelan

Spanish Militants Describe Escape From Barcelona

Bolshevik Leninists Tell of the City’s Fall

Escape With Gorkin and Other P.O.U.M. Leaders;
Stalinist Police Left Them To Be Slaughtered

Say Fight Will Go On

(March 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 12, 3 March 1939, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Terence Phelan, special correspondent in France of the Socialist Appeal, met and talked to leaders of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists and the P.O.U.M. (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) who managed to make a miraculous escape from Barcelona a few hours before the Fascists entered the city. Having barely escaped the executioners of Franco, these Spanish militants now face the constant menace of arrest by the police of Daladier, erstwhile hero of the French People’s Front who has recognized Franco’s government.

PERPIGNAN (near the Spanish Frontier), Feb. 16 – Deliberately left locked up in prison, at the mercy of Franco’s bombers and executioners, and saved only by a daring escape that reads like the wildest adventure story, the POUM leadership and part of the leadership of the Fourth Internationalist Bolshevik-Leninists are temporarily safe in France. They are scattering rapidly for cover before the police bloodhounds of French capitalism, which persecutes them as ruthlessly as did the Stalino-bourgeois government of Spain.

Moving with the greatest caution, this correspondent of the Socialist Appeal was able to interview Julian Gorkin, General Secretary of the POUM, and Casanova, courageous Bolshevik-Leninist leader who, since the frame-up arrest of the entire previous leadership of the Spanish section of the Fourth International, has directed the underground work of our Spanish organization.

From comrades Casanova and Gorkin, it was possible to determine that among the known saved are: Manuel Fernandez Grand-izo (Muniz), General Secretary of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists; “Casanova,” his successor; Julian Gorkin, General Secretary of the POUM; Juan Andrade, of the PCM UM Executive Committee; Pedro Bonet, POUM Trade Union Secretary; “Gironella,” POUM Propaganda Secretary (already arrested by the French Police and now in Senlis prison); Wilebaldo Solano, General Secretary of the POUM Youth; Juan Farre, Secretary of the Lerida Province POUM Organization ; Jose Rodes, former POUM “Governor” of Lerida Province; Juan Guer, Secretary of the Gerona Province POUM Organization.

Bolshevik-Leninists Still Missing

Still missing, among others, are: Adolfo Carlini, member of the Bolshevik-Leninist Executive Committee, and Luis Zanon, the young Bolshevik-Leninist comrade who courageously revealed how Stalinist torture had been applied to obtain a bogus confession from him, and was thereupon taken back to worse torture.

* * * *

Within the State Prison in Barcelona lay 24 of the POUM leadership, condemned to long years of imprisonment; two leaders of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists, whose much-postponed trial on a similar frame-up charge was scheduled by a historic irony for the following day (a week before, the unbreakable Bolshevik-Leninist leader Muniz, because he had organized a hunger strike among the revolutionary prisoners, had been removed to the fortress of Montjuich); 250 members of the International Brigade arrested on various protests; and a great mass of convicted fascists, whose known presence was all that protected the jail from bombardment.

On that last wild night, certain that the fascists would enter Barcelona on the morrow, the conscientious Prison Director, an Austrian Socialist, Vicente de Vincente, telephoned to demand of SIM – Servicio de Informacion Militar (Spanish G.P.U.) – in official charge of jails, a truck to transport his anti-fascist prisoners farther north.

“Let Fascists Finish Off the POUM Bastards”

On the other end of the wire, the SIM Director, a Stalinist, Garces, snarled: “No trucks for the POUM leadership: let the fascists finish the bastards off.”

Vicente was indignant. He had the strictest orders that, whomever else he had to let go, he must hold on to the POUM prisoners. He was prepared to follow these orders faithfully, but certainly not to leave his prisoners to be butchered by the fascists.

He set out on his own and at last found, at about 2 a.m., a small open truck, and had it brought to the prison gate. Knowing that the fascist prisoners would be released anyway by the entering troops, he paid no attention to them, but hastened to turn loose the International Brigadiers and to get his special prize prisoners off to some jail farther north.

Suddenly the POUMists realized that the two Bolshevik-Leninists were not with them and demanded that they also should be transferred north. Vincente replied that another truck was coming in a few minutes, on which Carlini and Zanon would be placed together with other anti-fascists. It was later learned that, almost immediately after the first trucks departure, fascist elements seized the jail.

Andres Nin’s Widow Saved at Last Moment

Perhaps in the general disorder, Carlini and Zanon escaped anyway. This happened in other prisons. Commandant Rovira of the 29th Division, POUM leader, for whom the Stalinists had demanded the death penalty a week before, miraculously managed to escape in the general wild yelling confusion when the fascists opened the Model Prison. The widow of the murdered Andres Nin, arrested ten days before for bravely continuing the issue of the POUM’S illegal bulletins, escaped from nothing less that a G.P.U. secret prison. When the young G.P.U. prison officers fled that midnight, an old non-political prison functionary, his simple logic untouched by the fancier Stalinist slanders, released her with the words: “You’re a genuine anti-fascist; and these soldiers that are coming here are genuine fascists; so I think maybe I better let you out, eh?”

Northward rumbled, the truck with its mixed load of prisoners and guards.

“It was a strange relationship on that ride,” said Gorkin with a tight-lipped smile. “The guards were armed to the teeth, and we well knew that if we attempted to run for it, they’d shoot us down without a tremor. Yet we were all jammed up together, man against man.”

Next day this strange load was deposited in the tiny isolated coastal town of Cadaques.

But Franco’s troops were rolling inexorably north; it was obvious that the village of Cadaques would be cut off in a day or so. Their conscientious jailor again started phoning government headquarters in the next town to get a truck for their transport further north.

Again the answer from the SIM was the same: “Leave the bastards to be finished off by the fascists.”

Three times Vicente made a personal telephone appeal to Negrin himself. Negrin’s final remark in hanging up was: “Forget your truck. Keep them there. I don’t want even to hear about the POUMists.” The situation seemed desperate, for Vicente was equally determined not to free them.

At that moment, on the afternoon of the 28th, there marched up to the improvised prison, in defiance of their officers, the Loyalist garrison of Cadaques, led by a corporal.

“Is it true,” their spokesman asked, “that your prisoners are the POUM leadership?”
“It is.”
“What can we do to help them?” the soldiers cried.
“Because,” specified the corporal, “they are the real revolutionists.” And he added, after a pause, “Ah, if they had taken power during those days in May, we wouldn’t have been smashed and defeated now.”

Those simple words, spoken by that rank-and-file militiaman, are deeply true summary, and an unanswerable accusation – an accusation that cuts both ways. It will be long engraven on the memory of those POUM leaders; it deserves to be equally engraven on many another memory.

Learning that a truck was the immediate need, the soldiers rushed back to quarters and brought round the garrison truck. Again the strange load crept off to the north.

In the dark just before dawn, under a cold penetrating rain, the open truck reached its goal, the small town of Agullana, 6 miles from the French frontier. Shortly after, the guards found the town jail, and duly locked their prisoners up.

This village contained, they discovered next morning, not only the Soviet embassy, but also the GPU headquarters, the Communist Party Military General Staff, and the temporary office of Premier Negrin.

“That was a pretty nerve-racking discovery,’’ said Gorkin. “Had they had time to learn of our presence and identity, they’d certainly have sent their killers right over to wipe us out.”

But the various Stalinist organizations cleared out almost immediately; as Franco’s bombers began to demolish the town.

A Friendly Prison Doctor Helps Liberate Them!

The evening of the 31st, as the bombardment got worse and worse, their jailor Vicente set doggedly out to obtain further instructions wherever he could find them. He left behind him in the jail office his brief-case, containing his official seal and blank forms of various sorts.

Aided by the sympathetic prison doctor, Gorkin got hold of this treasure, and by the light of a candle in his cell, with cool daring filled out and officially stamped liberation orders for himself and his 23 companions. The guards presented with these documents were puzzled but persuaded: the papers were certainly official. So at midnight, the 24 revolutionary leaders walked out of the jail and set off through the night for the French frontier.

The French Gardes Mobiles expelled them back over the border again, where by this time, Spanish Republican Guards had already started a man-hunt after them.

Hiding for days without food or shelter in the mountains, first from these and then from the even more dangerous man-hunters, they finally succeeded, in one group of ten and smaller knot of two or three, in getting secretly over the frontier into France.

A last meeting at Perpignan to settle methods of communication and these two dozen men, over whom the Damoclean sword of Stalinist assassination (on Nin it had fallen already) had hung for 21 months of imprisonment, scattered to temporary hiding all over France.

Fourth Internationalists have grave political differences with the centrists of the POUM; but when they are ruthlessly hunted by the bloodhounds of French imperialism at the very time it is making friends with the butcher Franco, it is not these political differences, but our class solidarity which is uppermost in our minds.

“Our plans?” echoed Gorkin as we separated. “Well, for one thing, we are determined not to be a futile emigre party. Only about one hundred of the most publicly recognizable have left Spain; and even they,” he added with a narrowing of the eyes, “only temporarily. Most deliberately chose to remain in Spain, invisible but present, working already on the long hard task of rebuilding a revolutionary party. Our day will come again. We must be readier next time.”

Collapse of Morale Main Cause of Defeat

So much for the story of their escape. Now for their description of the collapse of Catalonia’s defenses.

Stalinist Russia had sent no arms whatsoever since April 1938. But it was not overwhelming military supremacy that won for Franco.

“Though our inferiority in armament did not enable us to carry out a sustained offensive policy,” a non-political technician on the Loyalist Army Staff admitted to this correspondent yesterday, “there were nevertheless plenty of arms for the defense of unlimited duration. No, it just suddenly fell apart.”

What actually caused the rout was the final collapse of morale under the pressure of hunger and counter-revolutionary repression.

During the last year the food shipments from the Soviet Union had been cut down to a mere trickle consisting mostly of wretched canned milk and half-bad bully beef, paid for, like all Russian aid, not only in gold in advance but also in concessions to Stalin’s demand that the Spanish revolution be ruthlessly crushed. Food from other quarters grew less and less.

“Liberals,” Bureaucrats, Feasted While Masses Hungered

The masses might have borne this, as did Petrograd workers during the civil war in Russia, but recurrent and increasingly noisesome food scandals, proving that the “liberal” bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy and military leaders were greedily banqueting while workers and women and children came closer and closer to the line dividing hunger from starvation, became a major factor in breaking down waning morale.

An even more important factor in breaking down morale was the steady, savage repression of all workers’ organizations.

In the Stalinist concentration camps, to take one vivid and characteristic example, all revolutionary prisoners were divided into groups of five.

If one man out of such a group managed to escape, the Stalinists immediately executed the other four and the two groups nearest them: 14 murders to punsh one escape. “That’s to encourage the others to try it,” was the coldly sneering explanation of Assault-Guard-Lieutenant-Colonel Astorga in one of these camps at Omells de Nagaya in Lerida Province.

Thousands upon thousands of revolutionary fighters, who asked only the chance to get back to the struggle against Franco, were thus immobilized, terrorized, and slaughtered, lest their fight for socialism should compromize the Loyalist government in its mad clamor for the support of Anglo-French imperialism, which is at this very hour, of course, completing its work of strangling Loyalist Spain for the benefit of its own investors and Franco fascism. Such is the end-product of the Stalinist policy of “realism”.

Over 80% of these imprisoned workers had never even had a formal charge preferred against them. Four or five months passed before they could even get themselves brought before a judge for interrogation. And even when the judge and prosecutors had to admit that they didn’t know why they were being held, they were kept imprisoned. How this could occur is now being revealed by the escaped comrades. GPU terrorist pressure was equally exercised against the examining magistrates, who knew it was tantamount to suicide to issue an order for the release of revolutionary anti-fascists. This was the “democracy” being defended against fascism.

Signs of Capitulation Break Mass Morale

The last stage of degeneration of morale essentially began with the publication of Negrin’s famous 13 points which definitely pointed to capitulation to Franco. Like Negrin’s latest terms for “peace,” the 13 points asked only such empty formulas as “national independence,” and no reprisals. Those who were among the troops report that these fell like a bombshell among the last illusions of the Loyalist soldiers. In helpless rage, they stormed furiously, “What the hell are we fighting for? For those damn 13 points? Why, they might as well have been written by Franco! What’s the real difference between them and Franco’s program? No! No! No! We’ve been tricked and betrayed!” On the one hand, mutinies broke out; on the other hand despair set in. And the censorship smothered all.

It was in vain that such sadistic martinets as the notoriously brutal Stalinist General, “El Campesino,” tried to maintain discipline by terror, shooting his men by hundreds. Speeches about “democracy” were booed or received in stony silence. The tough veterans who had grimly stuck out two and a half years of a bloody and losing fight weren’t fighting for any abstract concept of democracy, and even less for the maintenance of capitalism as they had experienced it. Tricked into grudgingly accepting the abandonment of the struggle for socialism “until the war is won,” hoping blindly that it would somehow come out all right, they suddenly saw at last how they had been trapped and tricked into fighting the battle of their class enemies, and realized that whoever won, the Spanish workers had lost. And the heart and the fight went out of them.

Ever since the Negrin “Government of Victory” had been formed, it had been Stalinist practice to assassinate officers who would not follow out in complete detail the Stalinist military policy. For an officer to let his men, for example, dynamite a town’s armament and other factories before making a forced retreat from it was to sign his own death warrant; a shot in the back from some Stalinist planted in his regiment. At the last National Council of the Socialist Party, the situation had grown too horrible even for Prieto, who presented a list of more than 200 Socialist officers who had been thus assassinated. The CNT had an even longer list of well-documented cases. But the facts heretofore had never leaked out of well-censored Spain.

Revolt in International Brigade

Even in the Stalinist-dominated International Brigades, with their fierce discipline, a feeling of revolt mounted and mutinies broke out. The military observer mentioned above estimated that at least 50% of these internationals were in either secret or open revolt against the Stalino-bourgeois policy of crushing the workers’ revolution and supporting Spanish capitalism. Nearly 500 of them who had mutinied in favor of a workers’ revolution were in a prison camp under his immediate jurisdiction at Castel del Fels, near Sitges. Hundreds of others were scattered in concentration camps and prisons elsewhere in Loyalist Spain: there were 250, for example, in the State Prison at Barcelona, with the POUMists.

It was a moving and vivid picture that comrades Casanova and Gorkin painted of the feelings of rage and indignation of these revolutionary fighters at the counter-revolutionary uses to which the Stalinists put them. They had come from all over the world to fight for the socialist revolution against fascism! In the light of these revelations, it is easier to understand Premier Negrin’s “idealistic” haste to get these internationals out of Spain before they all began to wake up.

Destruction of Workers’ Gains

Nor has the terror ended. In Central Spain, thousands of revolutionary militants still languish in the prisons of Valencia and the concentration camps of Almeria province. In Valencia, for example, sentenced to 15 years, is Luis Portela, Secretary of the Valencia Province POUM organization, the man who, with Andres Nin (murdered by the GPU), Juan Andrade, and Julian Gorkin, was one of the founders, in 1921, of the Communist Party of Spain. Also imprisoned in Valencia are approximately 450 agricultural workers, representing 46 out of the 47 committees that in the early days of the war collectivized orange growing and other large-scale farming in Valencia Province. Long before the war, grouped in the UGT union, the Federacion de Trabajadores de la Tierra, they had fought against the reactionary large-estate owners belonging to Lerroux’s Partido Radical or the Derecha Regional Valenciana, affiliated with Gil Robles’ CEDA. After the farmers’ federation had collectivized the farms, the reactionary elements were rallied together again by the Stalinists to form a rival “union,” the Federacion Campesina. Aided by their private army, the Stalinists gradually smashed collectivization, jailed the collectivizing committees, and re-established the old bosses.

The final destruction of all the gains made by the workers – the Stalino-bourgeois return of property to even such self-avowed fascists as Portela Valladares – these facts filtering through to the front, finally sapped away the militancy and courage of the Republican Army. Hence although, as a matter of historic record, it was the inexplicable collapse of sections of the Stalinist Fifth Regiment which was responsible for the loss of Tarragona (involving such bad faith, not to use any harsher term, on the part of the Stalinist officers Lieutenant-Colonel Galan and Commandant Vega that they had to be removed), the real reason for the military defeat was not merely the fascists’ overwhelming material superiority, but the total collapse of Loyalist morale. The bravest men, if they finally don’t know for whom and what they’re fighting, sink into fatalism, apathy, and defeat.

When the Franco military juggernaut started to roll, the bourgeois ministers called on the workers to defend every inch with their lives, shouted that the “very stones of Barcelona will rise to defend it” – and rented apartments in the chic quarters of Paris.

So fierce was the Stalinist terror in the army that it was worse feared than that of the Fascists. This had sharp military effects. Voluntary enlistment fell to nothing. The severest military coercion was necessary to enforce conscription measures. Thousands of young workers, who were eager to enlist in the forbidden militia formations of the anarchist youth to fight against Franco for the revolution, simply hid from the draft into a republican army where shooting in the back seemed even more likely than in the front.

More and more panicky grew the bourgeois government as the defense disintegrated. It called desperately on the faithful anarchist hack, Garcia Oliver, to turn on again the faucet of militancy and confidence which he had so many times before turned on and off at the behest of his capitalist masters. It was useless.

Closer and closer pressed the fascists; and for Barcelona, long bombed at intervals from Majorca, there began the hell of constant uninterrupted bombardment, the Italian vultures shuttling back and forth from nearby Reus like commuting trains.

Retaliation Refused by Negrin

Revolutionaries demanded that Negrin take the only measure which even the fascists admit would have lessened the bombardments: retaliation on the bourgeois business and residential quarters of Salamanca, Burgos, and Sevilla. Bourgeois to the end, he refused; and the infernal rain poured down its steady death. Every bombing objective was known like the palm of a hand. For while the SIM (Stalinist-controlled intelligence service) was spending all its time and money on the persecution of the revolutionaries, the fascist espionage service flourished unchecked, even high in the government ministries, communicating with impunity with the enemy.

Having by its counter-revolutionary repressions imprisoned and murdered the most sincere and most intransigent fighters against fascism and drained the spirit of resistance from the rest, the government was finally reduced to summoning aid out of its own raving imagination. Comrade Casanova reports on the different wild rumors the government deliberately set afoot in the doomed city: “Three French divisions have just crossed the frontier.” “The British Navy is steaming at forced draft to bombard Ceuta.” “War between the democracies and the dictatorships is only a few days off.” “100 French Air Force planes have just landed, will take the air again immediately upon refueling.” “French tanks are at this moment rumbling through Figueras.”

The Barcelona population listened in silence and distrust. True news, filtering through, told them that the fascists were advancing 15 to 20 kilometers a day; that the fortifications, on which eight months’ effort has been expended, at Balaguer, the Segre, Las Borgas Blancas, had fallen almost without a struggle. On the last Monday night the “Government of Victory” met. It called on the CNT militants whom for 19 months it had been murdering and imprisoning, to fight to the last drop of blood, established a “state of war”, swore to stay in Barcelona to lead the resistance, and hastened home to pack valises and warm up automobiles. That night the governmental exodus began: high functionaries rolling north in their high-powered cars past the plodding thousands they had betrayed and led to disaster. On Tuesday, they did not even bother to get out the press; the radio grew spasmodic, broadcast more and more dance music and less and less news, dried up.

The doomed city, these eye-witnesses report, was curiously quiet, fatalistic, hopeless. As comrade Casanova grimly stated it, with a fierce, cold anger, “Barcelona, the city of barricades, died without a barricade being raised.”

For the departing government had not overlooked this point: by its last orders, Assault Guards patrolled the streets to prevent the raising of barricades, to protect private property, and to see that anarchists did not destroy arms stocks or munition works. This task – a dastardly act of treachery to the Central Front was carefully carried out: all Barcelona’s arms and munitions works were perfectly protected by the Assault Guards till they could fall intact into Franco’s hands.

Frente Rojo, organ of the Stalinist P.S.U.C., shouted speciously for resistance, for barricades, while the Stalinists saw to it that there were none. Those of its own International Brigaders who wanted to make a stand like that at Madrid, mobilizing every quarter, cleaning out sniping fascists, and making every house a defensible fortress, were publicly treated as “Trotskyite irreconcilables” and “scum of the Fifth Column.”

Tragic Scenes During Flight

“The roads, that night of the 28th,” said one of the eyewitnesses, “were something I shall never forget. I have been through various kinds of hell in my time, but never have I seen such a tragic sight. The bourgeois press has characterized it to the best or the literary powers of its star correspondents, but no words can even approximate it. If I could only convey to you somehow – well, things like the look on the faces of the plodding civilian refugees caught in the ghastly half-dimmed headlights as, in response to an arrogant horn, they stumbled deeper into the ditch to let pass a Hispano-Suiza containing some fleeing functionaries of ‘their’ government. But ...” he raised his hands hopelessly – “it’s just beyond words.”

It is equally impossible to convey in words the dismal, tragic, heart-rending spirit that pervades the whole area of the concentration camps, where, shattered and shelterless, the hundreds of thousands of refugee Loyalist soldiers lie coughing on the bare ground under the fine, cold, piercing rain their teeth chattering in the icy winds that sweep down from the snow-clad Pyrenees, their hearts heavy with defeat, their thoughts grim with the probability that “democratic” France will shortly send them back to Franco’s executioners. Towns like Perpignan and Bourg-Madame swarm with spies (both of the French police, of the Stalinists, and of Franco), and with a miserable half-world of harpies who batten on the misery of the internees, bartering for example a few hunks of bad meat for a treasured family gold watch. Here are infuriatingly and dramatically visible some of the final bitter fruits of the “Government of Victory,” which proposed to beat Franco by smashing the Spanish workers who were leading the fight against fascism.

Sherry Mangan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 1 December 2015