Richard Price

The GPU Murder Machine in Spain


Written: 1987;
Source: Workers' News, No. 4, September 1987, pp. 6-7.
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski.
Online Version: 2023.

'THE task of the GPU was to prevent the masses from going beyond the limits of what was acceptable to King George, Chamberlain, President Lebrun, etc. This great goal could not be reached except by suppressing the workers' and peasants' movement, destroying the revolutionary party, and organising kangaroo courts.
Leon Trotsky, October 22, 1938.

THE murderous, counter-revolutionary activities of Stalinism in the Spanish Civil War were, predictably enough, left out of the majority of books which flooded onto the market to cash in on the fiftieth anniversary of its beginning, last year.

Amid the 'celebrations', the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain reissued the war correspondence of Claud Cockburn, which faithfully upholds Stalin's line that the Trotskyists, left-wing anarchists and members of the POUM were agents of fascism, in league with Hitler and Franco.[1]

One of the most honest accounts of the Spanish Civil War, by Burnett Bolloten, assesses the role of the GPU/NKVD as follows: '... the Soviet secret police, operating in intimate association with Spanish and foreign communists, with crypto-communists in the ranks of the socialists and the republicans, and with the communist-controlled Spanish secret police, became the decisive force in determining the course of events in the anti-Franco camp.'[2]

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the unleashing of counter-revolutionary terror in Republican Spain. The summer of 1937 saw the kidnap and murder by the Stalinists of POUM leader Andres Nin. It was accompanied by the imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of left-wing opponents of the Stalinists and the Popular Front republican government. The full extent of the actions of Stalin's gravediggers of the Spanish Revolution may never be completely established.

The Trotskyist movement has never published a systematic account of the GPU's activities in Spain. Yet they form a crucial interconnection with the high-water mark of Stalinist counter-revolution - the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940. Almost all the members of the gang which planned Trotsky's murder were trained as GPU operatives in Spain. Other Stalinists in Spain took leading positions in the 'People's Democracies' in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. Today, world Stalinism remains the most counter-revolutionary tendency in the workers' movement, armed with the same treacherous Popular Front policy it pursued in Spain. Far from being dry, purely historical questions, the lessons of Spain must be learnt afresh by a new generation of workers and youth.

The fascist rebellion launched by Franco on July 17, 1936, caught the Popular Front government, which had been swept to power five months previously, entirely unprepared. It opposed arming the workers, who besieged it demanding guns. As the fascists advanced, the hastily formed CNT militias heroically stormed army barracks with a few hidden weapons they held and anything else that came to hand.

The Spanish Popular Front was an alliance of four capitalist parties - the Republican Left, the Republican Union, the Catalan Left and the Basque Nationalists - with the Stalinist Communist Party, the Socialist Party and with the support of the anarchist CNT leadership. The task of the Popular Front was to prevent the working class from overstepping the limits of 'democracy' by subordinating it to the leaders of the 'liberal' capitalist parties. The only party which could have given an independent revolutionary leadership, the POUM, was formed in 1935 out of a merger between the former Spanish section of the Trotskyist Left Opposition with the Spanish Right Oppositionists -supporters of Bukharin. The POUM had a substantial working-class base, particularly in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia. Its strength grew from 8,000 on the eve of the civil war, to over 30,000 after the first few months of fighting.

Its leadership, however, which had broken decisively with Trotsky, transformed the POUM into a 'left' appendage of the Popular Front. In February 1936 it had entered into the Popular Front electoral bloc. In September it entered the regional government of Catalonia in coalition with the republican capitalist parties.

In the opening months of civil war, a regime of dual power developed within Republican Spain. Workers' militias were improvised, factories were seized and placed under workers' control. The giant CNT militia columns, notably that led by the left-wing anarchist Durruti, uprooted landlordism, handing over great estates to the control of peasant collectives, and destroyed the power of the Catholic Church.

Large sections of the bourgeoisie had fled to join Franco's fascists. Those sections which remained on the 'wrong' side of the lines in republican territory were powerless to prevent this development. Unlike the workers' parties and trade unions, they had no life-or-death interest in the defeat of fascism. The capitalist state and its government, however, remained.

The role of the Communist Party was to act as the most energetic defender of the policy of restoring the rights of private property and the capitalist state. With only a few thousand members in July 1936, it rapidly recruited from the middle class, officers from the old army and bourgeois elements.

Stalin's policy in Spain was to prolong the war as long as possible, but to ensure that Republican Spain remained a bourgeois republic. Stalin's foreign policy was aimed at securing an alliance with the so-called 'democratic' imperialist powers, France and Britain, in order to gain them as allies against the threat posed to the Soviet Union by Hitler's Germany. To this end, both a fascist victory, which would menace France's southern border and Britain's trading routes, and a socialist revolution, which would ruin the chances of such an alliance, were to be avoided for as long as possible.

The role of the GPU, therefore, was to crush all opposition in the republic to the Stalinists on behalf of the liberal bourgeoisie. Trotsky wrote that 'the GPU acted in this instance only as the most resolute detachment in the service of the Popular Front'.[3] Through their control of the supply of armaments, the security services, their growing grip on the army and their suppression of working-class opposition, the Stalinists made themselves indispensable to the bourgeoisie.

Stalin did everything possible to disguise and deny Soviet intervention in Spain, under the slogan 'Stay out of range of the artillery fire',[4] in order to avoid being directly drawn into the war.

With the march of Franco's forces on Madrid during August 1936, the republican government established close contact with Arthur Stashevsky, the Soviet trade envoy, to explore the possibility of arms shipments from the Soviet Union. Three republican officials were then despatched to Odessa. According to Walter Krivitsky, the senior Soviet intelligence officer who defected in 1938, Stashevsky was secretly charged with manipulating the republic's finances.

On August 26, Alexander Orlov was detailed to head the GPU's operations in republican Spain, where he arrived in early September.[5] At the Politburo meeting in Moscow on August 31, arms shipments to, and purchases on behalf of the republic government were approved. But Stalin was giving away nothing. Payment was made in the form of the shipment of the vast bulk of Spain's gold reserves of Ł140 million to the Soviet Union on October 22. This highly secret operation was supervised by a GPU detachment led by Orlov.

Meanwhile, a network of arms purchasing companies was established in Western Europe by GPU agents who included Krivitsky, Uritsky, Umansky, Slutsky, Zimin and Ignace Reiss. Among this group were a number who, in spite of their service with the GPU, had preserved their revolutionary beliefs and sincerely hoped for a victory in Spain which would reverse the Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union.[6] All of them would die at the hands of Stalin.

The chief task for the Stalinists in restoring the capitalist state lay in breaking the power of the militias. The Fifth Regiment was established in September 1936, with the aim of restoring a regular army. Into it flowed all the element hostile to the actions of the CNT and POUM militias, to factory and land seizures. Its chief political commissar was Italian Stalinist and future senator Vittorio Vidali, who later helped plan the assassination of Trotsky. Once Soviet arms shipments began to arrive in early November, the cream of the weapons were diverted to Stalinist-controlled units, notably the Fifth Regiment.

The POUM, despite a substantial militia of its own, failed to provide any alternative leadership. Together with the right-wing CNT leaders, it agreed to the formation of regular regiments under the old military code and opposed the election of soldiers' committees - bodies which could have rapidly developed as soviets.

In a further move to strengthen its control over the army, the Comintern issued the call for the formation of the International Brigades. This was approved by President Azana and Prime Minister Caballero on October 22. Recruits were carefully vetted. All non-Communist Party volunteers were interviewed by GPU officers and doctors at the French border, and checked for political reliability.

The structure of the GPU in Spain was comprehensive. In addition to Soviet units operating directly under Orlov's command, there was a unit attached to each of the International Brigades. These units came under the command of leading European Stalinists. These included André Marty (a leader of the French party), Vidali, Walter Ulbricht (future leader of East Germany), Heinz Neumann and Ernö Gerö (police chief and butcher of the 1956 revolution in Hungary).[7] This group in turn liaised with Orlov, and controlled the system of political commissars appointed to Brigades. Ramon Mercader, Trotsky's assassin, is known to have served as a commissar on the Aragon Front.

GPU agents were also sent into the Socialist and republican parties, the Assault Guards and the Civil Guards. According to Felix Morrow, local GPU units were formed from the dregs of Spanish society - ex-members of the fascist CEDA movement, brothel racketeers, passport forgers and sadists.[8]

Other Stalinist officials involved in overseeing the GPU's work were ambassador Rosenberg, consul Antonov-Ovseyenko, 'Pravda' foreign editor Koltzov and General Akulov (alias Kotov), who organised military intelligence in Catalonia, and was the lover of Ramon Mercader's fanatical Stalinist mother, Caridad.[9]

By December 12, 1936, the Stalinists felt sufficiently strong to demand the removal of the POUM from the regional government of Catalonia. Five days later, 'Pravda' showed the significance of the move: 'As for Catalonia, the purging of the Trotskyists and the Anarcho¬syndicalists has begun; it will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the USSR.'[10]

With the activities of the GPU proceeding unchecked under the patronage of the 'Socialist'-republican coalition government, the exiled Italian libertarian Camilo Berneri wrote: 'A certain smell of Noske is floating in the air.'[11] (Noske was the right-wing social democrat who organised the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919). Berneri would himself be murdered by the GPU.

Arriving back in Spain in February 1937, Franz Borkenau - certainly no friend of Trotskyism - was astonished to note the changes since the previous August: '... the GPU have exterminated dissident socialists and communists ... The man who was trembling every hour to see himself arrested, tried, possibly executed, was in August the aristocrat, the priest, the industrialist, the rich merchant, the wealthy peasant. Today, besides direct agents in the pay of Franco, he is the man who disagrees with Communist policy, even on minor items.'[12]

Early in 1937, Ignace Reiss in Paris received a letter from Slutsky which stated: 'Our whole attention is focussed on Catalonia and on our merciless fight against the Trotskyite bandits, the Fascists and the POUM.'[13] This letter finally persuaded Reiss to break with the GPU and attempt to contact the Fourth International.

In March, Victor Serge met a young woman in Brussels who told him: 'A prominent Communist from Spain has been to see my husband. I heard him say that in Barcelona they're getting ready to liquidate thousands of anarchists and POUM militants, and that it's going along very nicely.'[14]

In Catalonia, the Stalinists, having liquidated the Central Militias Committee, carried out a purge of the socialist youth in the Stalinist-controlled United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), evicted the POUM from the government and begun disarming workers who held weapons, now prepared a major provocation aimed at battening down the counter-revolution within republican territory.

On March 15, sixteen CNT members were murdered by a Stalinist gang in Villanueva de Alcardete in Toledo province. The CNT forced the arrest of another Stalinist gang in Murcia on April 8, and had the civil governor removed for maintaining private prisons and torture chambers. During the same month, the CNT charged two members of the Stalinist Central Committee, José Cazorla and Santiago Carillo (later to become the 'godfather' of Euro-Stalinism) with illegally seizing workers already acquitted by popular tribunals. Its paper, 'Solidaridad Obrera' wrote on April 25: It is becoming clear that the Chekist (GPU) organisations recently discovered in Madrid ... are directly linked with similar centres operating under a unified leadership and on a preconceived plan of national scope.'[15]

On May 3, 1937, the PSUC police commissioner, Salas, with three truckloads of assault guards, launched an attack on the CNT-held central telephone exchange in Barcelona. A detailed account of the week of barricade fighting, which became known as the 'May Days', lies outside the scope of this article.[16] While the working class took to the streets to defeat the counter-revolution, the CNT and POUM leaders betrayed their own members. The Trotskyist Grandizo Munis wrote afterwards: 'Betrayed by their organisations, abandoned and handed over to the Stalinist scoundrels, the Barcelona workers made a heroic attempt in May 1937 to defend the conquests of 19 July ... Once again, a revolutionary party had a magnificent opportunity to join the rising revolutionary movement, to drive it forward and lead it to victory. But while the leading anarchists placed themselves right from the start on the other side of the barricades, the POUM joined the movement only to hold it back. In this manner victory was presented to the Stalinist hangmen.'[17]

With the close of the May Days, the Stalinists moved to eliminate all revolutionary opposition. Camillo Berneri, the Italian left-anarchist, was murdered on the night of May 5-6. The Friends of Durruti, a dissident left-anarchist grouping, reported thirty comrades found horribly mutilated.[18] Acting according to a preconceived plan drawn up by the GPU, the Premier, veteran left-Socialist Largo Caballero, was targetted for removal. At a cabinet meeting on May 13, at which the Stalinists demanded the immediate suppression of the POUM as 'agents of Franco', Caballero resigned and a new pro-Stalinist cabinet headed by right-Socialist Negrin was installed.

The punishment for the vacillations of the POUM leadership was swift and terrible. On May 28, its paper 'La Batalla' was suppressed and, on June 16, all forty members of the POUM Executive Committee, unprepared for illegal work, were arrested. The POUM headquarters in Barcelona, the Hotel Falcon, was turned into a prison for those who had previously controlled it. Other POUM leaders were conveyed to St Ursula's Convent in Barcelona - 'the Dachau of republican Spain'[19] - and to underground prisons in Madrid. Their party was outlawed the following day. According to the account published in 1953 by former leading Stalinist Jesus Hernandez, Andres Nin was abducted, driven by car to Alcala de Henares and there tortured by Orlov and Vidali. Having refused to talk or submit to a show trial, a 'rescue' mission was simulated on June 22 or 23 by German members of International Brigades posing as Nazis. Nin was murdered north of Madrid, although his body was never found.

Further repression rounded up other leading cadres, so that by mid-July the POUM had virtually ceased to function. Rovira, commander of the POUM 29th Division on the Aragon front, was lured back to Barcelona and arrested. Georges Kopp, a Belgian serving with the POUM's Lenin Division as a major, was jailed in Barcelona and then murdered.

The CNT leadership in Catalonia remained silent throughout, despite 8,000 of its members being imprisoned and sixty reported missing between mid-June and mid-July. On July 24, 'Solidaridad Obrera' reported that 150 foreign volunteers had been imprisoned in Valencia for 'illegally entering the country'.

With the main task of crushing the POUM and the left-anarchists well underway, Stalin moved to destroy those of his own officials who knew too much of the GPU's operations. Consul-General Antonov-Ovseyenko, who had led the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, General Berzin, head of the Soviet military mission, with a brilliant record in the Russian Civil War, and Stashevsky were recalled to the Soviet Union in August and promptly liquidated.[20] José Robles, Berzin's interpreter, was executed in Spain.

The number of victims of the terror of the summer of 1937 cannot be accurately estimated except to say that it probably runs to several thousand. They include Erwin Wolf, former secretary to Leon Trotsky, murdered in Barcelona in August; Winter (alias Moulin), a German Trotskyist of Czech origin and editor of 'La Voz Leninista', the paper of the Bolshevik-Leninists, arrested by GPU and disappeared in August; Kurt Landau, a POUM supporter and former leader of the German Left Opposition; POUM militants José Cullares, José Navarro Lopez and Marciano Mena, shot after courts-martial packed with Stalinists; Marc Rein, son of Menshevik exile, Rafael Abramovich; Bob Smillie, son of the British miners' leader, who died in a GPU prison in Valencia under mysterious circumstances.[21] Those imprisoned number several thousand more. According to the POUM leader Gorkin there were 1,500 anti-fascists imprisoned in Valencia alone in late 1937. Two leaders of the Bolshevik-Leninists (Trotskyists), Munis and Carlini, were arrested in 1937 and held until the collapse of the republic in 1939. Walter Schwarz, a German exile serving with the POUM, was arrested in August 1937 and charged with being a Gestapo agent.

When John McGovern, Independent Labour Party MP, visited a jail in Barcelona in November 1937, he was greeted by 500 anti-fascists, predominantly anarchists and POUM members, singing the Internationale. These included many women, among them Landau's widow, Katia.[22] When the POUM executive was reformed, its leaders were again arrested and put on trial in 1938. George Orwell wrote to a friend in February 1938 that he estimated that there were 3,000 political prisoners in republican jails.

From 1938, a new Spanish secret police force was formed - the Servicio de Investigación Militar (SIM) - which increasingly took over the GPU's role. With the recall to the Soviet Union and liquidation of many GPU operatives, Orlov took the opportunity to defect to the United States.[23]

Parallel to the ruthless operations against the POUM, left-wing anarchists and Trotskyists, were those conducted within the International Brigades. Operating through spies within every unit, the GPU ruthlessly uprooted even the mildest opposition to Stalinism. Heinz Neumann, who was himself later liquidated in Moscow, headed the hunt for Trotskyist elements among the German volunteers.[24] Americans George Mink and Steve Nelson also worked as top level agents. Of Bill Rust, who was to become editor of the British 'Daily Worker', it was said: '... any anarchist and any socialist were the enemy to him, and he was prepared to shoot anybody who didn't carry out instructions.'[25]

Andre Marty, Stalinist boss of the International Brigades, admitted to having executed 500 volunteers. Ernest Hemingway left a chilling portrait of Marty (barely disguised as 'Massert') in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls': 'He is as crazy as a bedbug. He has a mania for shooting people.'[26]

But neither Stalinism nor its GPU murderers were crazy - they acted as the saviours of the 'liberal' bourgeoisie from the socialist revolution. 'Only from this broader point of view can we get a clear picture of the angelic toleration which such champions of justice and freedom as Azana, Negrin, Companys, Caballero, Garcia Oliver, and others showed towards the crimes of the GPU,'[27] wrote Trotsky. In doing so, they made certain the victory of Franco and fascism.



[1] Ed. J. Pettifer: Cockburn in Spain. Lawrence and Wishart, 1986.

[2] B. Bolloten: The Spanish Revolution, University of N. Carolina Press, 1980, p.208.

[3] L. Trotsky: The Spanish Revolution (1931-9), Pathfinder, 1973, p.366.

[4] W. Krivitsky: I Was Stalin's Agent, p.95.

[5] Bolloten, p.207.

[6] See E. Poretsky: Our Own People, Ann Arbor, 1969.

[7] R.D. Richardson: Comintern Army, Lexington, 1982, p.163.

[8] F. Morrow: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spain, New Park, 1976, p.73.

[9] H. Thomas: The Spanish Civil War, Penguin, 1984, p.447.

[10] Morrow, p.73.

[11] A. Paz: Durruti, The People Armed, Black Rose, p.280.

[12] F. Borkenau: The Spanish Cockpit, Pluto, 1986, pp.254-6.

[13] Poretsky, p.211.

[14] V. Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford, 1980, p.335.

[15] A. Brenner: 'Class War in Republican Spain' and 'Dossier of Counter Revolution', Modern Monthly, September 1937.

[16] See Bolloten, pp.403-30, Morrow, pp.86-113; for an eye-witness account see G. Orwell: Homage to Catalonia, Penguin.

[17] Bolloten, p.418.

[18] The Friends of Durruti: Towards A New Revolution, 1938 (reprinted 1985).

[19] See Ed. M. Ollovie and K. Landau: Les Fossoyeurs de la Revolution Sociale, Paris, 1977.

[20] Thomas, p.703.

[21] See H. Dewar: Assassins At Large, Wingate, 1951.

[22] J. McGovern: Terror in Spain, n.d.

[23] A. Orlov: The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, Jarrolds, 1953, introduction.

[24] Richardson, p.163.

[25] H. McShane: No Mean Fighter, Pluto, 1978, p.224.

[26] E. Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Penguin, 1971, pp.387-404.

[27] Trotsky, p.312.