The enigmatic Juan Negrín y López. Stalin’s ‘Golden Boy’, visionary, crook, or man of straw?

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Juan Negrín y López (1892 – 1956)

At this eightieth anniversary of the Spanish Revolution that thwarted, initially at least, the fascist coup of 18 July 1936, it is worthwhile focusing on the character of one of the key players responsible for the suppression of that revolution and the subsequent defeat of the Republic: Juan Negrín López, the last president of the Second Spanish Republic.

Unfortunately, there is a vindicative trend in mainstream social-democrat historical circles1 to exalt Negrín’s ‘visionary’ right-wing, counter-revolutionary, ‘socialist’ premiership while calumnifying and denigrating the role of the Defence Committee of the CNT-FAI for the Central Region and the Madrid Defence Junta that on March 5 1939 ousted the compromised President Negrín: Eduardo Val Bescós, Manuel Salgado Moreira, and José García Pradas —supported by Cipriano Mera Sanz, commander of the IVth Army Corps, and others — to prevent a Communist Party coup and to try to avoid needless further bloodshed when the Republic was clearly defeated.

Dr Juan Negrín López (1892–1956), a middle-class physician and Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) member from 1929, was appointed finance minister (proposed by Indalecio Prieto without any experience in setting fiscal policy) in the Republican government headed by Francisco Largo Caballero in September 1936. In this role he quickly set about building up the strength of the carabineros (armed, highly mobile customs guards) to around 20,000 men, primarily to retake control of the French border posts from CNT members who had seized them after the defeated military coup of 18 July. The following month, in October 1936, he transferred 510 tonnes of Spain’s gold reserves — 72.7 per cent of the total! — to the Soviet Union in return for Stalin’s promise of arms and other war materials to continue the war against the fascists.

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The bodies of 12 members of the San Andreu district Libertarian Youth, ambushed on their way to the center of Barcelona and taken to the Voroshilov barracks, the headquarters of the Communist Party in Barcelona The bodies were found in a pit the following with clear signs of having been tortured. The bodies of two other anarchists, Camilo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri were dumped next to the Generalidad.

In the wake of the events of 3-8 May 1937 in Barcelona when the Stalinist-led PSUC (United Socialist Party of Catalonia) and Catalan nationalists carried out their coup against the social revolution, President Azaña sacked Largo Caballero, replacing him as prime minister with Negrín, a man compromised by his dealings with the Soviet Union and now heavily reliant on the support of Stalin and the small Spanish Communist Party, all of whom demanded his political compliance in return for that support.

In August 1937 — at the height of Stalin’s purges of the Red Army and the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow— the Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (FAUD), the German section of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), received information which they passed on to the CNT about a secret deal between Stalin and Negrín. The agreement was that the USSR would ship war materials to the loyalist government in Valencia in return for the conduct of the war in Spain being entrusted to Soviet advisers and South American NKVD agents (communist specialists in counter-revolutionary state terror) — and for the elimination of all anti-Stalinists (i.e. anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and anti-Stalinist socialists of the Catalan Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, POUM)

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Andrés Nin Pérez (1892 – ‘disappeared’ June 20, 1937)

One who paid the price for Negrín’s infamous quid pro quo with his Soviet sponsors was the POUM leader Andrés Nin who was ‘disappeared’ on 16 June 1937 following the Negrín puppet government’s decision to outlaw that organisation. Militants among the anti-Stalinists and the anarchist youth were being seized, tortured and murdered not only in the reargard, but also in the front lines, especially following the disbanding of the POUM’s 29th Division in the Republican army and the outlawing and dissolution of the POUM itself. Throughout this period (1937-1939) confederal (anarcho-syndicalist) anarchist, poumist and other anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist committee members and activists were arrested, jailed and frequently tortured and shot in jail in their thousands for supposed pro-fascist sympathies.

Basically, the Negrín-Stalin plan was aimed at breaking the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT labour union, curtailing and rolling back the revolution of 19 July, restoring power to the central government, and fortifying and controlling the Republican army. One consequence of this was that the many autonomous communes that lived and worked in libertarian communism2 from July 1936 to August 1937 — many of them large agrarian villages such as Barbastro, Villanueva, Pina de Ebro, Gelsa del Ebro, etc., — were forcibly wound up on Negrín’s orders.

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Joaquín Ascaso (centre) with Antonio Ortíz (in the leather coat)

That fate was shared by what was, perhaps, the Spanish Revolution’s most outstanding success story, the Regional Defence Council of Aragón. This was suppressed in early August 1937 by the communist general Enrique Lister’s 11th Division of the Republican Army, which took over 700 anarcho-syndicalist labour unionists prisoner. Only days before, the politicians of the governing Popular Front had committed themselves to defending the Council as a body genuinely representative of the people of Aragón. Now, they went along with its destruction after it became, overnight, an obstacle to Soviet hegemony and the creation of a war machine. Included among the wretched and treacherous turncoats were the members of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT’s National Committee (Montseny, García Oliver, Mariano Rodríguez, etc.) who had long since betrayed their comrades4 and any anarchist principles they laid claim to by collaborating with the machinations of the Caballero/Negrín governments.

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Indalecio Prieto Tuero (1883 – 1962) Negrín’s patron and War Minister

The ‘War Materials Purchasing Commission’ set up by Negrín and and his war minister, Prieto, was run by two PSOE (Socialist Party) apparatchiks: Alejandro Otero and Prieto’s son, Manuel Escudero, both paragons of inefficiency and criminality who acted throughout the war according to their own whims and to their personal advantage. The Commission, for example, hired five ships in a Polish port which they loaded with war materials purchased by the Republican government. As it turned out, however, the murderous chancers Otero and Escudero had then sold the armaments to Franco’s agents, and only when they were at sea did the crews discover that the port they were bound for to unload them, Ceuta, was in Franco’s hands.

Escudero had one ship, the Roma, loaded with material intended for the Republican government; it was under sealed orders, its course and port of delivery being disclosed by the political delegate only once the vessel was on the high seas. The Roma’s fate, however, was sealed before ever putting to sea. As it approached El Ferrol in Galicia, the captain slowed the engines as if expecting to be met, and sure enough the Francoist navy appeared and escorted the Roma into harbour and saw to its cargo being seized. A similar fate awaited the Sylvia, carrying some 154 million pesetas’ worth of war materials. Even after the arms purchasing commission was wound up, substantial sums remained unaccounted for. According to historian Francisco Olaya Morales, author of ‘El Oro de Negrín’, the Commission’s records are missing and are nowhere to be found in any republican or Francoist archive.

Negrín’s anti-anarchist apologists claim he was the only man capable of securing Russian military supplies — aircraft, tanks, artillery and machine guns — and that his secret diplomacy was in fact successful. Unfortunately, the weaponry he negotiated never reached Spain as, allegedly, the French refused to allow it through the Pyrenees, something Negrín must have been aware they would do beforehand. Other than Sergio Millares of the Juan Negrín Foundation, however, none of the anti-anarchist historians has produced any confirmatory evidence or documentation.

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Cipriano Mera (centre, wearing alpargatas), with Lt. Colonel Segismundo Casado (the formally dressed officer with glasses to the right of Mera). Antonio Verardini Diez de Ferreti, Mera’s chief of staff, is standing with his legs apart and his hands in his pockets. Both Verardini and Mera played important roles in the anti-Francoist Defensa Interior in the 1960s.

By October 1937 with popular morale and will to resist undermined — largely I would argue by the anti-anarchist policies and the increasingly Stalinist behaviour of the Negrín government, such as the suppression of the Defence Council of Aragón — the Francoists were able to occupy most of the Northern territories. In May 1938 with the military situation deteriorating rapidly, Negrín published his famous Thirteen Points (Trece Puntos), his proposals for a negotiated peace, which Franco promptly rejected. He came up with another wild offer to surrender if Franco promised to respect Republican lives and hold a plebiscite for Spaniards to decide the type of government they wanted. By November the Republican army had been forced to retreat back across the Ebro having failed to re-connect the two Republican-held areas and by February 1939 Catalonia had fallen to the fascists.

With nowhere left to go, Negrín moved to Madrid claiming that with the Francoists refusing to negotiate any peace deal he had no choice but to call for uncompromising resistance. According to him he had hoped to hold out long enough for a European war with Germany to intervene, but the Munich agreement of October 1938 put paid to that get-out for him. Despite his many much publicised denunciations of political opponents as ‘defeatists’ and calls for the Spanish people to resist, indefatigably, ‘to the death’ — ‘with bread or without it’, ‘with guns or without them’ — the reality was that he and his sponsors had opened up channels to the enemy and were arranging for their families and themselves to slip quietly out of the country with their moveable assets before the collapse. During a visit to the Guadalajara front at the end of February 1939, anarchist army chief Cipriano Mera confronted Negrín on his hypocrisy in calling for ‘resistance to the death’ when he knew full well they lacked the wherewithal to carry this through, especially while he and his cronies were gathering their valuables and goods to sell abroad and getting their own families out of Spain.3

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Negrin (second from left) , General Rojo, Cipriano Mera (right) and President Azaña at the Guadalajara front.

By 5 March 1939 Negrín’s politicking reached its climax. Faced with a hopeless situation, the CNT’s Madrid Defence Council and Cipriano Mera, the anarchist commander of the IVth Army Corps of the Centre, joined forces with Colonel Segismundo Casado, a cavalry officer and commander of the Republican Army of the Centre, and the PSOE leader Julián Besteiro to form an anti-Stalinist National Defence Council and oust Negrín in the hope of obtaining better terms of surrender for the Army of the Centre than any Franco might offer to a communist-led regime.

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Part of Negrin’s treasure displayed for Francoist newsreel (No-Do)

Apart from the hopelessness of the military situation and the desire to avoid a needless bloodbath, for the anarchists the chief motive behind the anti-communist coup was the loss of morale after two years of Stalinist repression of the revolution which had seen constant attacks on the anarchist movement and the betrayal by the anarchists’ own National Committee, not to mention the terror of the chekas and the turning of the workers’ militias into elements of the regular army, in which they, the poorly armed and equipped front-line troops, were the cannon fodder, commanded, mainly, by anti-anarchist Republican and Stalinist staff officers while the security guards, assault guards and Negrin’s carabineers in the rearguard were issued with the most up-to-date weaponry and enjoyed the best of facilities.

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18 March 1939: Cipriano Mera broadcasts on Madrid Radio announcing the ousting of Negrin. Lt. Colonel Casado is standing on his left and José García Pradas (CNT editor and Defence Committee member), with the moustache, is directly behind him.

Negrín, who was based in Figueres at the time, conveniently close to the French frontier, ordered the communist-controlled 1st Army Corps of the Centre to wrest power from the ‘Casadist’ National  Council of Defence, (the name derives from their commanding officer, Lt Colonel Segismundo Casado) but without success, and on 6 March he crossed into France with his jewels. The Casadist NationalCouncil of  Defence continued in its attempts to negotiate peace terms with Franco, who refused to entertain anything other than unconditional surrender of the Republic.

The final meeting of the Confederal Defence Committee of the CNT-FAI in Madrid was held on 28 March 1939 — the day Madrid fell. Those present at the meeting — Joaquín Delso de Miguel, José García Pradas, González Marín, Cipriano Mera, Eduardo de Guzmán, Eduardo Val Bescós and others then had to rush to Alicante and Gandía to make their escape.5 Even at that time, with Franco’s forces in the city, they were still discussing how to deal with Franco and looking for ways for the most significant people to escape from Madrid. Three days later, on 31 March, the war was over and Franco’s victory was announced to the world on 1 April 1939.

There is much more yet to say about the Negrín regime and its apologists!

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Juan Negrín

Footnotes:

  1. PSOE-friendly social-democrat historians associated with the Juan Negrín and Pablo Iglesias foundations such as Santiago Alvarez, Juan Marichal, Manuel Tuñón de Lara, Angel Viñas, Enrique Moradiellos and others.

  2. Literally thousands of industries were collectivized and socialized in Catalonia, Madrid, Valencia, Andalucia, Castilla-La Mancha, and Asturias. These included banks, power companies, automotive industries, transport, import-export, etc., etc.

See: Frank Mintz’s Anarchism and Workers’ Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain (AK Press)

Augustin Souchy Bauer: With the Peasants of Aragon. Libertarian Communism in the Liberated Areas (Kindle Edition)

  1. Prior to and during the withdrawal of the Republican army of Catalonia in January 1939, politicians and Republican leaders were shipping out large amounts of money, jewellery, precious stones, works of art, coins, stamps, gold, silver, bullion, securities, etc. The bulk of these were shipped on Negrín’s orders first to the Castle of San Fernando in Figueres, and thence to France in trucks and ships, overseen largely by General Enrique Lister. The French Communist Party is alleged to have purchased its Paris HQ with Spanish Republican funds. Franco subsequently appointed a ‘Comisión para la Recuperación de los bienes españoles en Francia’ under Colonel Antonio Barroso (later General and Minister of the Army) to trace and return these treasures.

During his five–year investigations in France in addition to locating much of the gold, silver, jewels, etc., Barroso located ownership documents of planes, ships and war materiel that had never reached Republican hands. Documents included numerous personal bank account details into which Republican funds had been diverted. During one raid in Paris, aided by the French wartime authorities, Franco’s agents recovered over 1,200 boxes of silver, old gold coins and hundreds of kilos of gold.

With the Allied advance the Francoist agents moved the documents and treasures south, ending up in 1944 in a chateau close to the Basque-French border. When the Nazis retreated from France the Francoists fled, leaving behind much of the treasure and documentation which fell into the hands of the Basque National Party (PNV), which they sat on for over 50 years. These documents, including a file on the Negrín treasure, are now in the Fundación Sabino Arana in Bilbao. The best and most accessible source on Negrín’s ‘treasure’ however, is El oro de Negrín by anarchist militant and historian Francisco Olaya Morales.

  1. Including the attempt to poison Joaquín Ascaso Budria (President of Consejo de Defensa de Aragón) and fellow anarchist Antonio Ortiz Ramírez, former head of the 25th Division. Sadly, Durruti’s wife, Émilienne Morin, was the person who, unwittingly, acquired the poison on the orders of Manuel Escorza del Val of the Servicio de Investigación de la FAI.

See: ¡Pistoleros! 3:1920-24 – The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg (Christie Books Kindle Edition)

  1. Eduardo de Guzmán and Amor Nuño were among the thousands arrested at Alicante docks and imprisoned in the Los Almendros and Albatera concentration camps. Pradas, Marín, and Val made it to Valencia with Lt. Col, Casado and from there to Britain in the same Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Galatea. Mera escaped to Africa where he was arrested by the French Vichy authorities and handed over to Francoist justice.

See Mera’s Guerra, exilio y cárcel de un anarcosindicalista, (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)

Eduardo de Guzmán’s NOSOTROS, LOS ASESINOS: Memorias de la Guerra Civil Española 1936-39 (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)

Eduardo de Guzmán’s LA MUERTE DE LA ESPERANZA: Primera Parte: NUESTRO DIA MAS LARGO (Asícomenzó la guerra de España) (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)

Eduardo de Guzmán’s LA MUERTE DE LA ESPERANZA: SEGUNDA PARTE – EL PUERTO DE ALICANTE (Así terminó la guerra de España) (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)

Eduardo de Guzmán’s EL AÑO DE LA VICTORIA: Memorias de la Guerra Civil Española 1936-39 (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)

Ignacio Iglesias The Final Weeks of the Spanish Republic (ChristieBooks Kindle Edition)