“When Stuart Christie put it to me a few weeks ago that I might jot something down in writing by way of a foreword to a re-publication of García Pradas’s ¡Teníamos que perder!, I had no hesitation in taking up the challenge. That re-publication is needed if we are to unravel, with all protagonists and agents to hand, what the history of republican Spain was like during the closing days of the war.
“And the book comes along at an important time. In recent years we have seen the publication of valuable works which have tried to get to grips with the end of the Republic. We might single out a book published in 2009 by the historian Ángel Viñas and Fernando Hernández Sánchez, El desplome de la República (Crítica, Barcelona 2009), coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the ending of the war. A comprehensive and well documented book on what the ending of the war meant. When the 75th anniversary of the war’s end rolled around, a further two important books appeared. Ángel Bahamonde, professor at the Carlos III University in Madrid, published his book Madrid 1939. La conjura del coronel Casado (Cátedra, Madrid 2014), focusing essentially on the military side of things and on the person of Segismundo Casado. Professor Paul Preston released El final de la Guerra. La ultima puñalada a la República (Debate, Barcelona 2014), in which he goes into a detailed analysis of key figures in the conclusion of the war and of the stances of the different, conflicting organisations. Preston’s book has two great assets. For a start he analyses the backdrop that led to the ending of the Civil War, the fierce clashes within the republican camp and the various points at issue in the weakened republican Spain of March 1939. Besides, Preston in his book offers an analysis of three of the protagonists in that finale: Juan Negrín, prime minister of the Second Republic, Segismundo Casado, a soldier loyal to the Republic but ambitious, and Julián Besteiro, one of the most important figures in Spanish socialism during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.
“However, what no monograph has tackled or what has been pushed into the background is the role played by the anarchists at that time. Maybe because the complexity of the topic could fill a book. Maybe because some of the individuals who were protagonists of those events in the libertarian camp have been, with the passage of time, eclipsed. José García Pradas was one of these.
“Before we get down to teasing out a few key points regarding the anarchists and the Casado coup, we ought to note that the re-published book is a book of memoirs. And, like all memoirs, they plead the author’s case. That said, memoirs are important if we are to establish where the matter stands. A sort of a jumping off point for further research. A way of keeping all the cards on the table. Later, on foot of these memoirs, we must use the documentary evidence to reconstruct the libertarian movement’s performance.
“In this foreword we mean to try to get to grips with what the libertarians’ stance was vis à vis the Casado coup. And to delve into the lives of a few of the leading lights, such as José García Pradas, Eduardo Val, González Marín or Cipriano Mera, the idea being not to misrepresent them and to analyse them in the round rather than partially.
“Anti-communism” within the libertarian movement
“One of the axioms applicable to all history-writing is that the events must be boiled down. And solid, monolithic blocks be made with an eye to constructing a more manageable history. But the facts are very different and, above all, highly complex. There was certainly a strong strain of anti-communism in some anarchist quarters. But we ought to say anti-PCEism, rather than anti-communism. There are various reasons for this, but they can be summed up very simply. Ever since its inception in 1921, the PCE had been a minority force on the Spanish labour scene. Even under the Republic, the Communist Party had only a token presence, with just the one deputy in 1933 and 16 by 1936, thanks to the Popular Front coalition. However, the Spanish communists’ strategy was gradually bearing fruit. A far cry from the orthodoxy of its early days, the PCE was gradually opening up to other segments of society and come the coup d’état in 1936, it was a cohesive party encompassing within its ranks workers’ groups dissatisfied with the policy of the PSOE and libertarians, as well as a few segments of the bourgeoisie who looked upon the PCE as a party of order and the State. In fact, the only organisations which made it through to the opening of the civil war united were the PCE and the CNT (the latter having achieved reunification at the Zaragoza congress in May 1936). Communists and anarchists found themselves bolstered against their socialist and republican rivals who were increasingly divided. The communist strategy of unification emerged triumphant in the case of the youth scene as the Socialist Youth and Communist Youth amalgamated to form the Unified Socialist Youth (JSU), or, in Catalonia, with the formation of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC). This triggered a battle for control of the labour movement. Communists and libertarians competed to get the bulk of the Spanish proletariat to sign up to their positions. Whereas the communists’ great shortcoming was in the trade union field, in that it failed to float a communist trade union and its attempt to hijack the CNT at the beginning of the 1930s had come to grief, communist militants turned towards the UGT with a view to capturing control of that trade union organisation. Which was a complicated undertaking, for they had competition from the Caballero-ists and Besteiro-ists. The CNT, by contrast, embraced a significant fraction of the unionised working class.
“Inevitably, this situation triggered a clash between the libertarians and the communists. A clash that very plainly showed itself during the civil war. They were rivals in politics, rivals in matters military, rivals on the economic terrain, rivals in their visions of the war, etc. In normal times that rivalry would have led to an out-and-out political confrontation, but against the backdrop of the war, it was taken to criminal lengths. There was instance after instance of clashes between communists and anarchists which crystallised in the events of May 1937. And, all in all, it was the libertarians who came off worst, initially. The May Events signalled a set-back in libertarian plans that was exploited in order to winkle them out of the organs of government and undermine their revolutionary position. Something of which the libertarian movement was very acutely aware come the Casado coup in March 1939.
“We need to clarify something here. The anarchists’ stance vis a vis their participation in government and in the Army was not monolithic. There was one segment of the anarchists who were against such collaboration. But there was a sizable majority of the libertarian movement which embraced it, making concessions in terms of its anti-statist and anti-militarist stances. Because such collaboration carried on after the May Events and libertarians secured themselves a fifth minister in Juan Negrín’s cabinet: Segundo Blanco took up the portfolio at the Ministry of Public Education. Even so, the anarchists’ view was the communists were to blame for the position in which they found themselves. Likewise, communists held that the anarchists were sabotaging the prosecution of the war on account of their stance. These attitudes were irreconcilable and further clashes became inevitable.
Casado and the “Casado-ists”
“The May Events of 1937 were neither the last word nor the last of the confrontations. Whereas the communists at that point felt more at home in Negrín’s government, the fact is that they were beginning gradually to lose influence among the military and within the commissariat. For its part, the CNT tried to counter the growing communist clout in the trade union area by flirting with the Caballero-ist fraction of the UGT in order to set up a UGT-CNT liaison committee that would bolster the position of labour. That Caballero-ist faction had also taken a knock after May 1937 when Largo Caballero was removed as prime minister and replaced by Negrin. The rapprochement between the CNT and the UGT with an eye to regaining lost power was not looked upon kindly by some sectors within the anarcho-syndicalist ranks such as the CNT general secretary Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez who, whilst oppressing for union with the UGT, was also a supporter of the Negrín government.
“However, geographical differences once more proved crucial in the libertarians’ stance. And the Madrid CNT had always seen itself as subordinated to the communists. When, in the days leading up to Casado’s coup d’état, circles close to that serviceman approached the libertarians, lots of them saw in this anti-Negrín government operation a chance to settle scores regarding past events.
“Set alongside each other, it is plain that Casado’s shopping list was very different from the aims of the libertarians and Caballero-ists. Actually, nobody believed in unconditional surrender. The libertarians had their doubts about a military figure like Casado who was offering them something akin to a “Vergara embrace” in order to go down in history as the soldier who had brought about an “honourable” ending of the war. “Honour” was not something with which the anarchists associated Franco or any of the rebel military. They were well aware that the Fifth Column had a foothold even within Casado’s military circles – José Centaño de Paz being one example. But the anarchists also reckoned that the Negrín government was doomed, that the promises of arms from France and England had been laid to rest when those countries recognised the legitimacy of the Franco government that February. As far as the anarchists were concerned, the Negrín government was unsustainable. Their view was that the communists were bringing pressure to bear on Negrín and that Negrín was wholly in pawn to them. As Cipriano Mera shows in his memoirs, the idea of backing Casado, ousting communists from the agencies of leadership and power, granting Casado some time to see what he was suggesting and, if things went against them, to carry on resisting the rebel onslaught. These calculations, though, never worked out for the libertarians nor for the Caballero-ists who in the end found themselves overwhelmed and the Casado coup hastened such an ending to the war as no one would have wanted to see.
“What is plain is that the motives of Casado and his circle were very different from those of many who backed them. In the libertarians’ case, as is plain from many memoirs and documentary evidence, that support was circumstantial and they did not share their aims. How things ended in a conflict that was very complex as far as antifascist Spain was concerned is a separate issue.
“It used to be argued that the die-hard resistance championed by the communists might have had a chance of working because the Second World War erupted six months later. The jury is still out on that one. Because whilst nobody knew in March 1939 that the World War was about to break out the same year, the question needs to be asked: What would the PCE’s stance have been vis à vis that war once Stalin and Hitler had concluded their Nazi-Soviet Pact? In any event, fictional history or counter-factual history is pointless. Above all because whereas Casado was pro-surrender, the libertarian movement believed in resistance too. The problem grew out of historical squabbles that expedited things. So Casado and Casado-ist are not the same thing.
Some libertarian protagonists
“The last theme to outline is the protagonists in these events. Because, as a rule, there are people who come out of things badly. The reason for that is that their performance in March 1939 is judged whilst their whole career in labour activism and under the repression that came afterwards are overlooked. For the sake of balance, I mean to focus on a few of these personalities: José García Pradas, Eduardo Val, González Marín, Cipriano Mera and Melchor Rodríguez.
“García Pradas*, the author of the book that follows, was born in a village in Burgos in 1910. He came from a well to do family and so was able to study. In the 1930s he moved to Valencia where García Pradas came into contact with libertarian circles and wrote for La Tierra newspaper, eventually relocating to Madrid as a staffer for the paper. He then left the paper and started working as a bricklayer, joining the powerful CNT Construction Union. He also belonged to the Madrid FAI. Come the outbreak of the war, he acquired a certain charisma within the CNT, becoming director of the newspapers CNT and Frente Libertario. He was on the front lines and his stance was unmistakably pro-Popular Front and for concerted action alongside the UGT. Albeit that in his writings he was scathing in his critique of soviet communism. After the war he went into exile in France and finished up in London where he worked as a waiter, a labourer and at the literary tasks that made García Pradas one of the libertarian movement’s most prolific writer in terms of the huge number of texts he produced. Although he appears to have been drifting away from the CNT he never lost his libertarian ideals.
“Eduardo Val Bescós* was born in Jaca in 1908 and remains one of the great unknowns of Madrid anarchism. He was involved in the revolt headed by Galán and Hernández in 1930 before moving on to Madrid where he became chief organiser for the Madrid CNT’s Catering Union, spearheading many strikes demanding decent conditions for waiting staff. Alongside Construction, Catering was the other great stronghold of the Madrid CNT. A member of the CNT’s defence committees, his work was crucial to the defence of Madrid as was his role on several battle-fronts. Information about Val is sparse but it looks as if he was an organiser in the rearguard and in surveillance of the Fifth Column. Val backed the Casado coup and at the end of the war was forced into exile, arriving in Great Britain. From there he kept in touch with García Oliver and with Largo Caballero, with whom he appears to have been very friendly. He was arrested in France and jailed in Toulouse. He did manage to escape during the trek to a Nazi concentration camp, though. When the World War ended he helped refloat the CNT but eventually drifted away from it, put off by the internal bickering. Val’s life remains quite a mystery due to the sparseness of what we know of it.
“Manuel González Marín was born in Cieza (Murcia). He was involved in the workers’ movement from a very early age, implicated in strikes and mobilisations that led to his being jailed more than once. The coup came in July 1936 he was in prison and it was a number of weeks before he was freed after taking part in as prison riot. Once out, González Marín served on the City Council and Madrid Defence Junta alongside Amor Nuño (recently and unfairly accused of having orchestrated the butchery in Paracuellos del Jarama). His clash with José Cazorla was more noticeable. González Marín was a member of the confederal defence committees. After the civil war he left for exile and took part in the resistance, ending up behind bars in Toulouse. He managed to escape to Paris before the Nazis could ship him out to a concentration camp. He helped refloat the CNT and was aligned with the collaborationist faction. It appears that in the end he was expelled from the CNT, albeit that he kept on contributing to the libertarian press.
“The towering figure among the Madrid anarcho-syndicalists was without doubt Cipriano Mera. Born in Madrid in 1897, Mera was very soon linked with labour activity, first through the UGT and later the CNT. He was the organiser and driving force behind the CNT’s Construction Union, in competition with Edmundo Domínguez’s UGT-affiliated Building Federation. The outbreak of the civil war found Mera in prison. He came out and quickly engaged with the militias that defeated the rebels in Alcala de Henares and Guadalajara. From then on Mera became the textbook example of the working man-turned-serviceman through the militias. He came to command the 14th Division and headed the IV Army Corps, taking part in the battle of Guadalajara. His units were vital in defeating the communist units in the wake of the Casado coup. When the war came to an end, Mera left for exile in Oran. He was arrested and deported back to Spain where he stood trial and was sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to a thirty year prison term. On emerging from prison he helped in the clandestine rebuilding of the CNT before eventually going into exile. There he kept up his connections with the libertarian movement, working as a bricklayer. And even played a part in the Parisian events of May ’68. He died in modest circumstances in exile in Paris in 1975.
“Finally let us single out Melchor Rodríguez. Born in Seville in 1893, he moved to Madrid and embraced anarchist ideas very early on. As a member of the CNT and promoter of the FAI, Melchor came to be acknowledged as one of the big hitters of Madrid anarchism. He took part in many strikes that resulted in his going to prison. And he was prominent in the Jaca revolt in 1930. Under the republic he was critical of its labour and political measures and took part in strikes and demonstrations alongside his inseparable friend Celedonio Pérez. Not that he was not a figure of some controversy after entering into a dialogue designed to secure the release of prisoners at one point, leading to his engaging in negotiations with the Interior Minister Eloy Vaquero; this earned him some criticism and he was thrown out of the FAI for several months. When the war broke out, Melchor stood out as the best example of humanistic anarchism. As Director-General of Prisons, he put the brakes on the removal (sacas) of the batches of inmates who were being executed arbitrarily in Paracuellos and right-wingers came to nickname him “The Red Angel” as a result. His humanitarian efforts were unstinting during the war. When the war ended he stayed on as head of the Madrid City Council as the city’s last mayor and handed her over to the rebel troops. After the war he was arrested and given a thirty year jail term. He was forever in and out of prison, helping to rebuild the underground libertarian movement. He was arrested and jailed up to 34 times. However, his war-time performance had earned him the respect of many on the winning side whose lives had been spared thanks to Melchor Rodríguez’s efforts. He died in Madrid in 1972.
“There were lots of other individuals as well, like Mauro Bajatierra, Eduardo de Guzmán, etc., but these are representative enough for us to know that their lives were given over to labour and libertarian activism. Not that being “Casado-ists” spared them anything and repression and exile were all that they could have expected after the war ended. Some of them never returned to Spain. In Mauro Bajatierra’s case he was murdered on his own doorstep on 28 March 1939. Feliciano Benito was shot in Guadalajara cemetery in 1940. Franco’s vengeance showed the vanquished no mercy.
“The history of anarchism during the events of March 1939 has yet to be written. This book is but a grain of sand in a great desert as yet unexplored.”
Julián Vadillo Muñoz, Doctor of History, Complutense University, Madrid
Translated by Paul Sharkey
* Relations between Casado and the Madrid anarchists were unquestionably friendly. On Admiralty orders (specifically Rear Admiral John Tovey who said “care will be taken to exclude undesirables”, i.e. anarchists) the captain of the British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Galatea sent to evacuate Casado, initially refused to allow García Pradas, Eduardo Val, Pedro Falomir (with his wife and children), Manuel Salgado and other members of the CNT’s Defence Committee of the Centre to board. Only Casado’s insistence saved them from arrest and certain death. [S.C.]
FOOTNOTE: On page 69 of his biography “Papa Spy: Love, Faith and Betrayal in Wartime Spain” (New York 2009), Jimmy Burns, refers to his father Tom Burns (first secretary and press attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid) and states that “his superior” Denis Cowan “was later implicated in a plot by Colonel Segismundo Casado (..) to wrench control of Madrid from the communists and negotiate with Franco. Just over a year later in February 1940, Cowan’s role in helping secure safe haven in Britain for Casado and others who had fought for the Republic embroiled him in controversy as he set off by car on his journey to Madrid with Burns.” Another British SIS (MI6) officer who played a key role in facilitating the evacuation of Casado and other members of the National Defence Council (NOT the anarchists!) was the ubiquitous Captain Sir Alan Hugh Hillgarth Bt., OBE. Hillgarth was one among many zealous Catholic pro-Francoists operating at the time in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Information and the Madrid Embassy under Tom Burns. Burns, a director of the rabibly pro-Francoist Catholic newspaper The Tablet, and a member of the Catholic Evidence Guild (formed in 1918, the year after the Russian Revolution), resisted and subverted every allied attempt to overthrow Franco during WWII.