The framing of Joaquín Ascaso, the break-up of the Defence Council of Aragón and the destruction of the Aragón collectives

AscasocoversmallerThe following account of the treacherous dealings that led to the framing of Joaquín Ascaso. the tragic break-up of the Defence Council of Aragón and the destruction of the Aragón collectives — by August 1937 the sole surviving beacon of anarchist integrity — is from ¡Pistoleros! 3:1920-24 – The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg. The extract highlights the infamous moral, political, and military compromises made in the rearguard by the CNT’s so-called ‘notables, particularly general secretary Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez “Marianet”, and ‘anarchist’ ministers García Oliver, Federica Montseny and her partner, Germinal Esgleas.

Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez — 'Marianet' (1909-1939)
Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez — ‘Marianet’ (1909-1939)

“In May 1937 Spanish carabineros at the Puigcerdá border post stopped and searched a CNT staff car carrying two passengers, Máximo Peris García and Aurelio Pernia Álvarez of the CNT National Committee. The driver was Gregorio Elías Soriano. In the car they found suitcases containing gold bars and precious stones to the value of 700,000 pesetas. Threatened with instant execution unless they admitted to whom the haul belonged the pair made a written statement to the effect that the gold and gems had been given to them by CNT general-secretary ‘Marianet’ to sell in France. The proceeds of which, they claimed, were to be used to purchase goods and equipment for the organisation.

“When the National Committee learned of the arrests, and the damning confession made by its two members, ‘Marianet’ instructed CNT lawyer Benito Pavón to extricate them from the embarrassing predicament in which they now found themselves. His advice was to find someone of good moral standing within the organisation, to act as scapegoat and take responsibility for the contraband. That someone, at ‘Marianet’s’ and Esgleas’s suggestion was Joaquín Ascaso, the president of the troublesome and embarrassing — to the CNT’s National Committee that is — independent Council of Aragón. The choice of Ascaso as criminal fall-guy served a double purpose of course, with the likelihood of the CNT’s exclusion from the incoming Negrín government, in spite of ‘Marianet’, Montseny and Esgleas’s hard lobbying for ministerial positions in the new administration. A now desperate National Committee was ready to seize upon any excuse to demonstrate its respectability, especially if it was at the expense and to the detriment of the reputation of the Council of Aragón whose radical programme of socialisation had caused it and the regional committees serious political discomfort.

Germinal Esgleas and partner Federica Montseny
Germinal Esgleas and partner Federica Montseny

“When Esgleas first proposed the idea to Joaquín Ascaso in May 1937, he played on the awkward situation it would create for the CNT when the matter came to court, promising Ascaso that if he agreed to be the scapegoat the case would be dealt with quickly, and he would be in no danger. García Oliver, who was then the outgoing Justice Minister in Largo Caballero’s government, would ensure that the files disappeared. So, as a good militant, and against my advice as well as that of Antonio Ortíz, head of the Confederal 25th Division in Caspe, Ascaso naively and selflessly agreed to carry the can for ‘Marianet’ and Esgleas in order to spare the CNT’s good reputation.

1937, Caspe, Aragón: Councillors of the Consejo de Aragón — Ruiz Borau (carrying his coat). Luis Montoliu, Miguel Chueca, Joaquin Ascaso (with suit and tie). Standing next to him, with the glasses, is Francisco Ponzán Vidal who after the Council’s dissolution went on to head up the SIEP (Servicio de Información Especial Periférica), the guerrilla sabotage and intelligence organisation of the Xth Army Corps). He later went on to set up one of the most successful escape and evasion networks during WWII. He was murdered by the Nazis in 1944.

“Ortíz warned Ascaso that he was being set up: ‘Can’t you see what you are doing?’ he said. ‘You are handing over Aragón, the Council, the collectives and everything we’ve achieved over these past twelve months just to keep these miserable, cowardly sons of bitches out of jail. “Marianet” and Esgleas should have the good grace to admit what they have done and resign from the National Committee.’ But our protests were to no avail. The file, a big fat one, didn’t go astray; it went straight into the hands of the incoming Minister of Justice, Manuel de Irujo, a deliberate act by Esgleas and “Marianet” to incriminate Ascaso who, in spite of everything, continued to insist on shouldering responsibility for the smuggling operation. As a result he was finally arrested on 12 August leaving Valencia to return to Caspe, shortly after a CNT plenum of regional committees. His arrest coincided precisely with President Azaña’s public announcement of the dissolution of the Council of Aragón. Both the examining magistrate and state prosecutor in the case, Eduardo Ortega y Gasset, were fully aware that Ascaso was innocent of the crime to which he had confessed and urged him to defend his good name and integrity by refusing to take the blame. But Ascaso, loyal comrade that he was, stuck to his confession, claiming the gold and jewels came from the revolutionary committees of Aragón and he had given them to the two National Committee representative to arrange government permission to sell them in France to buy much needed agricultural equipment for the Aragón collectives.

“The case, however, was dropped and Ascaso released after 32 days without bail or pending charges. Negrín had achieved his aim: ‘Marianet’, Esgleas and the National Committee were now firmly in his pocket. By which time, of course, it was too late to save Aragón. As soon as the August 1937 harvest was in, the Aragón collectives were forcibly dismantled and brutally plundered by Stalinist general Lister’s XIth Division, a pogrom which, shamefully, went unchallenged by any of the CNT’s national and regional committees who issued direct orders to the anarchist columns on the Aragón front that under no circumstance were they to leave their lines to come to the aid of the collectives. The so-called ‘notables’ connived at all this in order to protect their reputation, discredit a challenge to their confederal hegemony, and to bolster their candidacy for a Mickey Mouse portfolio in a Stalinist government. The same ‘notables’, especially la señora Montseny here, were simply repeating the treacherous and cowardly behaviour they had exhibited during the Communist coup d’état in Barcelona four months earlier, in May 1937, when they called on the militants to abandon the barricades and give up their weapons.

24 July, 1936, Barcelona: Joaquín Ascaso (second from left) and Antonio Ortiz (right), leader of the 800-strong ‘Second Column’ prepare to leave for Caspe, Aragón

“But that wasn’t the end of the matter. These ‘notables’, specifically ‘Marianet’ and Esgleas began spreading poisonous rumours that comrades Ascaso and Ortíz had, between them, accumulated a personal fortune in France worth millions — the mythical ‘Treasure of Aragon’. The gold and jewels discovered by the carabineros in Puigcerdá was a drop in the ocean according to the stories they fed the rumour mills at the time. Little wonder then, with threats growing against them from Negrín’s Communist-led military high command and a coordinated whispering campaign conducted by their so-called comrades on their own National Committee, that Major Antonio Ortíz, Joaquín Ascaso, former president of the Council of Aragón and nine other members of the 24th Army Division decided to escape into France, which they did in the early hours of 5 July 1938, where they gave themselves up to the Gendarmes in Vic. According to the French police report, the men were starving and none of them were in possession of any money or valuables. When Farquhar met them in Perpignan the following year neither of them had a peseta to their names.

“The story circulated by Esgleas and ‘Marianet’ was that the comrades had ‘deserted’ their posts and absconded to France with stolen CNT-FAI funds — and they had Ascaso’s ‘confession’ to prove it. Miguel García Vivancos, a vaultingly ambitious ‘comrade’ from the 1920s who had replaced Ortíz as commander of the 25th Division, was among the quickest to denounce them as traitors, ordering his men to shoot them on sight. There was to be no arrest, no hearing, and no trial.

“Astonishingly, and with the complicity of all the other members of the National Committee — including, shamefully, Farquhar’s former comrade-in-arms Juan Garcia Oliver — the National Committee issued a ‘capture and kill’ order to the Foreign Intelligence service, the Servicio de Información y Coordinación (SIC), who sent an eight-man team, led by two psychopaths José and Justo Bueno Pérez, into France to murder the ‘fugitives’. Ortíz and Ascaso knew too much about ‘Marianet’s’ and Esgleas’s financial dealings to live. The plan was to poison them with arsenic supplied by the FAI’s Paris representative, Facundo Roca Gascó, and administered, albeit unwittingly, by Durruti’s widow, Mimi, whom they would never have suspected. The plot failed, partly due to the killers’ incompetence, but mainly due to the fact that the French police arrested Ascaso and Ortíz on 10 September 1938 and held them in custody until April 1939, by which time the Spanish Civil War was over. The murder plot also proved expensive for the National Committee, with the would-be killers’ expenses exceeding 150,000 pesetas.”