Towards the end of February 1939 I was summoned to attend an ‘invitation only’ plenum of militants of the Madrid CNT, the word being “this was a very important plenum at which decisions would be made regarding the war and Dr Negrín’s policies.” I remember that I was, initially, reluctant to attend the plenum, not because I had no interest in organisation business, but rather because I was swamped by the problems on the front lines. At the time I was acting chief of staff of the 50th Mixed Brigade under Alfredo Pérez and was personally involved in the intense fortification works being carried out in the sector with an imminent enemy attack in prospect. We were, to all intents and purposes, in a state of alert, since our own observers plus the intelligence from the 12th Division and IV Army Corps were reporting unusual vehicle movements and troops mustering in the enemy’s rear.
Besides the “squeeze” with which we were threatened, there were other reasons for alarm in the front lines. Defeatism was beginning to wreak havoc with the morale of the Republic’s fighters. The loss of Catalonia, the failure of the Republic’s offensive in Extremadura and the nomadic life led by Dr Negrín and his government were the focus of a certain scathing sarcasm in the trenches. No one, of course, had any belief in victory any more. The political commissars searched for signs and yearned for signs of success as a way of keeping a lid on the grumbling and criticism. Desertion into the rearguard or to the enemy were the order of the day. There were even a few instances of outright insubordination, although it must be conceded that most soldiers obeyed, in a disciplined way, the orders of their officers. Another daily cause for concern was rations. Our supply lines were starting to fail. Rations were running very low and it took a thousand stratagems to secure supplementary supplies from the villages in the rearguard. This was hard going, for the villagers too were hardly swimming in food supplies and it took real battles with the mayors and those in charge of the collectives and, occasionally, threats as well, to get them to hand over a little flour, a few sheep or some of their animal fodder. Having phoned through to the comrades in Guadalajara with the news that I would not be attending the plenum, the Brigade commander Alfredo Pérez arrived and told me that Cipriano Mera and Feliciano Benito had been very insistent that we should not miss the plenum.
“Didn’t they say what it is about?”
“Feliciano Benito told me that the orders come from Val and that because of the seriousness of the matters to be dealt with only those militants implicitly to be trusted have been asked along..”
For the first time in many a month there I was talking with my superior officer with complete confidence. Military discipline and a sense of rank had introduced something of a chill into our dealings with each other, but right at that moment we were once again comrades in the trade union struggle and we felt free to comment on the political and military situation and the crisis that we were headed for at any moment. In the IV Army Corps there had been a lot of talk around this time about the talks that Mera had had with Dr Negrín and a few of his ministers. The “old man” was as inscrutable as ever but we were all aware that he had not minced his words in his analysis of the prospects of resistance.
Manuel López painted a chilling picture of the international support for the Republic.
The following day we travelled down to Madrid and, shortly before 11.00 a.m., entered the Public Entertainments Union meeting rooms in premises in the Calle de Miguel Angel. There were no more than a hundred of us gathered there, but these included the heads of the regional and local committees of the CNT, FAI and Libertarian Youth, the directors and a few of the editors of CNT, Castilla Libre and Frente Libertario and all the secretaries of the Unions and regional committees. Prominent among the military personnel were Cipriano Mera and his faithful comrades Rafael Gutierrez Caro, commander of the 14th Division, and Luzón who commanded the 70th Brigade; the all-powerful “Regional Defence Committee”, with its secretary Eduardo Val, discreetly acting as chairperson, alongside Gallego Crespo, secretary of the regional committee and Manuel López, the secretary of the Valencia-based national sub-committee and, at the time, the number one Libertarian Movement leader in the Centre-South zone. The tension and urgency at the plenum was palpable. There was none of the long-winded, polemical and even jocular atmosphere of run of the mill meetings. We all pretty much knew what the subject matter was going to be and every single one of us was worried.
As secretary of the Regional Confederation of the Centre, Gallego Crespo opened the proceedings before handing over without further ado to Manuel Lopóz, a softly spoken man with a rare capacity for summing things up. He was plainly unwell and exhausted (he died of TB within a few months of the end of the war). For almost an hour López droned on, cataloguing the difficulties encountered by the three comrades commissioned by the anarcho-syndicalist organisations in the Centre-South zone to establish contact with the CNT national committee, initially in Catalonia and later in France. The members of that commission were Juan López, erstwhile Minister of Trade and the figurehead of the most moderate wing of syndicalism; Manuel Amil, who had served on the CNT national committee on several occasions and was national leader of the Transport Union, a shrewd man well versed in trade union struggles; and Eduardo Val, leader of the Catering Union, a man who had the confidence of the confederal defence groups. Att that time Val was the most powerful man in the CNT, even though he was barely known to outsiders. Manuel López reported at length on the situation of the refugees in France, our government’s lack of foresight and the attitudes of the French authorities. Not given to dramatics, he presented us with a spine-chilling portrait of support internationally “Socialists, Communists and Freemasons in France enjoy the toleration of the powers that be and help from their French brethren, but we can expect none because the French anarcho-syndicalists wield no influence.” In order to illustrate the actual circumstances of the thousands of CNT personnel who had fled Catalonia, he recounted the odyssey of Marianet, the secretary of the CNT national committee, who was living like a fugitive in order to avoid arrest and incarceration in a concentration camp. As to the war, he argued that we had to stick it out until the end, but not at any price, not carried along by false hopes peddled by “Dr Negrín and those who asked the people to sacrifice itself utterly for a lost cause, even as they themselves were making ready to flee with all of their pomp and all their lucre.”
Then he said something that hit everyone present like a lightning bolt. On the plane that brought Juan López, Eduardo Val and Manuel Amil back to Spain, the latter had overheard an exchange between two communist servicemen, to the effect that Dr Negrín was planning a coup d’etat in the Centre-South zone and to stand down all military commanders upon whom he could not rely. Although Manuel Amil had a reputation for being standoffish and given to intrigues, nobody queried his eavesdropping. Gallego Crespo focused the discussion on a single point: what should the CNT do in the event of Dr Negrin engineering a coup with the connivance of the communists in an attempt to seize total power
Role of the Army and Navy
One of the first to speak was Manuel Salgado who had for a time been head of Special Services at the War Ministry and who was familiar with the disposition of the commands. It was to Salgado that General Miaja had turned back in 1936 to seek admission to the CNT, only to be told by Salgado that “the CNT had no generals’ union”. Naturally, his speech was a rant against dictatorship of any description and he declared that we were not the only ones opposed to Dr Negrín’s dreams of dictatorship but that most republicans and socialists also rejected the personal authority of a man incapable of running the war and respecting the democratic principles of the Republic. Oracle-like, he declared: “It is plain to me that if we have the gumption to stand up to him, many Army and Navy commanders and officers who still believe in a peace with honour will side with us.”
Salgado’s comments triggered a huge argument. Quite a few queried what was meant by “peace with honour” since it was taken for granted that Salgado was speaking on behalf of the Regional Defence Committee. I think it was the FAI leader, Ramos, who seized upon what Salgado had said and ripped it to shreds. “As I see it, peace with honour is another way of saying treachery or compromise and I do not think we should even consider that. Furthermore, if Dr Negrín and the communists are witless enough to try their hand at dictatorship, what we should be thinking about is death with honour rather than peace with honour, because everything will go belly-up.”
Even before Ramos finished speaking, the fiery director of CNT [García Pradas] spoke up, uninvited, and launched into one of his headiest anti-communist harangues, bluntly stating that we had lost the war anyway and that if the communists were to seize power they would visit upon us the greatest massacre in recorded history.
“Worse than anything the fascists may have in mind if we persist in our internecine squabbles?” someone interjected.
A small brouhaha erupted between those who thought the communists worse than the fascists and vice versa. But García Pradas, who had powerful lungs, continued with his harangue, equally contemptuous of communists and fascists. Carried away by his heroic rhetoric, he even stated that, as the repositories of libertarian principles, we had no choice but to smash the communists’ dictatorial ambitions, first, before “breaking Franco’s sword against our pride”. That phrase was used again once everything was lost and after the Casado Junta was fighting all-out for a period of truce during which and orderly evacuation could be organised.
As might have been expected, the plenum agreed by an overwhelming majority to reject dictatorship of any hue. To that end, the Libertarian Movement’s committees received a vote of confidence and were empowered to enter into commitments and alliances with those antifascist forces still loyal to democratic principles.
With the plenum over, we servicemen were summoned before the Regional Defence Committee in the Calle Serrano to be issued with more specific instructions. After a bite to eat, around twenty of us commanders and officers gathered in Eduardo Val’s office.
The man whom La Pasionaria with her usual shallowness and sectarianism dismissed as “an obscure and sinister figure” briefed us in detail on Dr Negrín’s plans and, more objectively, on his meetings with military commanders and the authorities in the Centre-South zone. Apparently, both the main military commanders and the political leaders reckoned that we had had our fill of resistance and were against provoking disaster.
“Speaking for myself”, he said, “I think the Numantine opposition option and outright surrender equally senseless, so I reckon that the most important thing is to hold the antifascist front together as one. But if Negrín blindfolds himself and hands military power to the communist commanders who lost the battle for Catalonia after having blackened the CNT and the Catalanists, he will get the answer he deserves, even though we may all have cause to regret it later.”
Then he told us to await the dispatch that Union Radio would broadcast at midnight.
“The second you hear that a Junta has been set up to take on Negrín, seize command of your units and remove or lock up Negrinists without the slightest hesitation. From this moment forward, the entire Libertarian Movement should regard itself as being on a war footing.”
A few days later, the plenum’s resolutions were fully implemented. (From www.sbhac.net)
Translated by Paul Sharkey
* Gregorio Gallego García (1916 Madrid – 2007, Madrid). Writer and anarchist activist, the son of modest peasant socialists who had moved to Madrid. In 1933 he joined the CNT and the FIJL, holding positions of responsibility in both. His first short novel was published when he was 17. By 1935 he was editing Juventud Libre and he served on the FIJL Peninsular Committee headed by Eustaquio Rodríguez until July 1936 when he resigned because he reckoned anarchists should use their votes in elections. He was them made vice-secretary of the Puente de Toledo ateneo and, once war broke out, helped edit Castilla Libre and contributed to other publications. Although by nature a pacifist he represented the CNT on the first Madrid Defence Junta, taking charge of the Fortifications & Transport portfolio from September to October 1936 and fought on the Madrid front. In January 1937 he was in charge of propaganda for the Centre Regional FIJL Committee and by 1938 was a lieutenant with the 50th Brigade. When the civil war ended he was captured on the Guadalajara front and processed through a series of concentration camps and labour battalions from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar. He was then convicted by a court martial in Algeciras of “aiding and abetting the rebellion” and sentenced to 8 years, served in a variety of prisons before being freed 1943, only to rejoin the underground struggle, attending a CNT plenum in March 1944, rejoining the FIJL Peninsular Committee and joining the ANFD (National Alliance of Democratic Forces). He was arrested in December 1944 while serving as secretary of the CNT of the Centre region and on the underground CNT national committee. This time he was sentenced to 30 years, serving 19 years in a variety of prisons before being freed in 1963, after which he was involved in the cincopuntista affair. He turned his attention then to literature, winning a range of prizes as a novelist and historical biographer. After Franco’s demise he revived his interest in the CNT, but stepped back to make way for younger generations. His wife, Visitación Lobo was the sister of the renowned anarchist sculptor Baltasar Lobo. He died in Madrid on 2 December 2007.