Although Spain remained neutral in World War I, Madrid, Barcelona and the country’s ports were nonetheless clandestine proxy battlefields for the espionage services of the Allied and Central Powers. Here the belligerents waged a ruthless war of terror, sabotage and black propaganda in which agents of each country pursued their national interests no matter what the cost. This desperate secret struggle involved the subornation of the trade unions, the police and security services, murder, intimidation, gangsterism, sabotage, port and maritime blockades, submarine warfare, the supply of bellicose materiel, the spreading of insidious rumour and lies,etc., etc. Of particular interest to ChristieBooks in this story — because of their activities targeting the anarcho-syndicalist CNT on behalf of the Catalan employers’ associations — are the roles of police inspector Manuel Bravo Portillo of the Social Brigade, who was an asset of German Intelligence, and of the false Baron de König (referred to here as Baron Koening), a crook, boulevardier and agent of the French intelligence services until his death in mysterious circumstances in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The careers of these lowlifes we have explored at length previously in the three volumes of Pistoleros! The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg (1 ; 2 ; 3 ) and The False Baron von König by Raymond Batkin
“The clandestine ‘dirty war’ fought on the streets of Barcelona in the immediate post-WWI years by the belligerent European powers was directly connected with the aggravated social and industrial tensions in the Catalan capital. Nor is there any doubt that some CNT union leaders, sponsored by the German secret service, actively targeted Allied interests, justifying their activities in the name of class struggle.
In an audience with Thierry, King Alfonso remarked on the venality of some CNT leaders:
“[…] once the libertarian syndicalists and French anarchists have broken and bewildered the labouring mass sufficiently, the Germans move in, taking over and orchestrating sabotage, or bringing to a standstill the industries that are working for you people.”
The French consul in Barcelona was more nuanced:
“Since the war I have seen a significant role ascribed to German propaganda across the various labour movements in the peninsula. I am not denying this is the case, but I do not regard it as decisive […] our enemies have bought many ‘leaders’ in Catalonia; their subsidies are behind many of the strikes that have led to such extensive disruption of the delivery of goods intended for the Allies.”
Sources refer to pay-offs made by the German Consul in Barcelona during the closing years of the war to promote seditious propaganda among the working class, and to fund gangsters whose sole raison d’etre is to eliminate employers manufacturing war materiel destined for the Entente. Others say that consular officials such as Frederick Ruggeberg and, above all, Baron Von Rolland, were in secret contact with jaimista leaders, with the Radicals Alejandro Lerroux and Joan Pich i Pon, separatists like Francesc Cambó and a number of trade union leaders.
Despite his promise to have nothing further to do with these groups, Von Rolland maintained his informal network of connections after the war. When it ended, with the dismantling of many of the belligerent nations’ spy networks and local agents losing their lucrative incomes, the social tensions and labour crisis provided the opportunity for criminality and for some politico-trade unionists to hire themselves out as pistoleros to the highest bidder.
The best known example of an armed gang linked to Barcelona’s “hoi polio” was the “Banda Negra” led, initially, by Inspector Manuel Bravo Portillo and, later, by the “Baron” Koening (also known as Rudolf Ställmann). While some of his colleagues described the police officer as an elegant, educated polyglot, his boasting, his unconscionable activities and the harshness of his methods earned him the nick-name “the chulo from district V”.
The connections Bravo Portillo and his Social Brigade agents had with corrupt and compromised elements within Barcelona’s trades union underworld allowed them to manipulate groups on the fringes of the labour movement. These were used to ‘eliminate’ irksome pro-Allied employers and foment disunity within the anarcho-syndicalist CNT labour union, and provide pretexts for repression. “Action groups” of supposedly anarcho-syndicalist affiliation such as the one led by Eduardo Ferrer, president of the CNT Metalworkers’ Union in 1917, were used as agents provocateurs by Von Rolland, through Bravo Portillo, to stir up labour disputes or threaten bosses supplying the Entente powers.
In some cases the aggression went beyond mere dissuasion. On 8 January 1918, Josep Albert Barret, chairman of the Metalworking Employers;’ Association and manager at the Industrias Nuevas plant that had a contract to manufacture fuses for the French army, was murdered by gangsters of the Banda Negra. For this ‘sabotage’ of the Allied war effort they were paid 15,000 pesetas by the police officer [Portillo] linked to the German embassy.
According to French employers’ sources, in 1915 the German consulate had a blacklist of factories working with the Entente. These included the Catalan Chemical Product Company, Foret or Barret. Each of these industrialists had their own security and were provided with police guards by the Civil Government. From 1917, however, labour unrest grew and with it came a rapid expansion in trade union membership.
In 1918 the unrest, honed by, among others, the newspaper El Maximalista, increased. Among the attacks on French firms there were the 22 October incidents outside the Hijos de Emilio Destouche metallurgical plant in Barcelona’s Gracia district. Following an altercation with about a hundred trade unionists on a recruitment drive there was a shoot-out that left five workers wounded, one of whom subsequently died. It was two hours before the police put in an appearance.
On 2 December, Destouche, who, during the Great War, had been head of the local propaganda agency, visited the civil governor with the president of the French Chamber of Commerce in Barcelona, to complain about the ongoing death threats issued by the CNT. On 16 December a foreman at the Chassaignes Frères piano factory (which produced a half of all pianos manufactured in Spain) was murdered in the street. This led, on 28 December, to the factory’s closure and the sacking of its 200 employees. When his nephew was seriously wounded, the owner, fed up with the threats, abandoned Barcelona. “This closure” – the French intelligence service noted – “is indicative of the growing power of the trade union movement which gets its way by resorting to violence. The Spanish authorities offer not the slightest protection.”
In the wake of this incident, the Chamber of French Industries met in Barcelona and unanimously voted for an employers’ lock-out. The decision was conveyed to the consul-general so that he might pass on the resolution to the minister of state and head of government, the Conde de Romanones.The employers complained that civil governor Carlos Gonzalez Rothwos could only offer platitudes about orders that had been issued to the police. “On the other hand, what should we expect from these starveling police who only yesterday were spying on Germany’s behalf? When an attack is mounted, the killers are invariably acquitted. Under threat, the jury caves in and can never muster the courage to convict.”
Towards the end of 1918, attacks on French interests were so frequent that the French Chamber of Industry asked its consulate in Barcelona for protection from the inept civil governor Gonzalez Rothwos, who issued an order allowing the industrialists to arm their staff. This permission, however, was never passed on due to the lack of coordination between the police and the local courts.
The French employers launched their own investigations into the labour movement, passing on their findings to the French secret services. Their report concluded that there was no Bolshevik connection, it was a myth. Local Service de Renseignements (SR — French Intelligence officers] insisted that the anarchist actions were down to German intrigues; another reason for the large number of attacks against foreign firms was the impunity with which the saboteurs operated due to police and judicial corruption.
In 1919, after his release from prison for espionage and having his application to rejoin the Social Brigade rejected, former Inspector Bravo Portillo was recruited by the ultra-rightist industrialist and Lliga politician Josep Bertran I Musitu to advise on the organisation of the Barcelona paramilitary Somaten. The Lliga leader recommended him to General Manuel Tourne Esbry, the regional chief of staff, who took him on as a private agent in the service of Captain-General Jose Marina Vega and later of Joaquin Milans del Bosch, who apppinted him as a superintendent attached to the Captaincy-General. In statements to El Sol in early May 1919, former chief inspector of police Gerardo Doval pointed out that the Bravo Portillo gang, effectively overseen by General Tourne, was “the very same which, previously, had been the mainstay of German espionage in Barcelona, the men guilty of the craven torpedoing of our merchant marine”. Doval accused Tourne of being responsible for the discrediting of the government police by awarding his friend Bravo Portillo authority that should only be wielded by persons of unblemished record.
Meanwhile, German friends of the former police officer were advocating practical bolshevism “… a constant feature in the employer murders.” Bravo Portillo and his gang maintained an ambiguous double relationship with both the German and the French secret services, manipulating the labour disputes convulsing the city for their own advantage. When the war ended, the French Deuxième Bureau placed the former policeman and his henchmen under close surveillance. The French secret service suspected the gang’s links to workers from the Barcelona Traction, Light & Power Company (known as “La Canadiense”) were intended to hobble industrial activity that benefitted France and Great Britain. Some months later, the Controle Generale de Recherches (General Investigation Board) contacted Bravo Portillo to ask him for the names of German agents operating as agents of influence in revolutionary movements in Barcelona. Within the gang linked to French espionage was a certain Rud Konig or Koening.
According to the sworn testimony of police superintendent Manuel Casal, Koening was actually an adventurer by the name of Friedrich Stallmann, born in Potsdam in 1874 into a family of merchants. A gambler and swindler in Europe and South America, he had, it seems, been sentenced to death as a spy in Verdun in 1915 but had, curiously, ‘escaped’ (perhaps in return for offering his services to France), moved to Bidasoa and settled down as the director of the lucrative Fuenterrabia Casino, a stone’s throw from the border.
Although the Toulon SR assumed that he was spying for the special superintendent in Hendaye, it regarded “Robert” Stahlmann as “one of our most dangerous foes”. Section No 1 of the EMGM expressed surprise at the nature of the intelligence from Hendaye, as well as the unlikely aerial bombardment of the Boucau factories in the Lower Adour, or the arrival in Bilbao of the Austrian embassy advisor Weitzberger accompanied by one of Maura’s sons. It suspected that the phony intelligence supplied by local agents was designed to cover up his real operations, carried out thanks to the shortcomings of the border control agency.
Under the cover of his gambling activities, Koening made frequent trips to Madrid by car where the French suspected he had the protection of some leading politician. He also travelled regularly to Barcelona. His activities were typical of a bon viveur, but the crisis cost him money and necessitated a relocation of his business to San Sebastian. In the spring of 1917, the French military attache reported that “Koening is being monitored. I do not believe he is involved in propaganda activities nor espionage.”
Suddenly, in late August and coinciding with the resurgence in submarine warfare, intercepted reports began arriving which suggested that Koening had access to a clandestine telegraph office with which he corresponded with another station in the vicinity of the San Sebastian courthouse. In September a Spanish-born agent made enquiries of the German consulate in San Sebastián into the real identity of “Albrecht” Koening. There, a Captain Von Voss was evasive in his responses, but he did express doubts as to [Koening’s] alleged aristocratic title. Later he visited him at his villa ‘Aice Eder’ in Fuenterrabia where Koening claimed he was married to a French woman, Renée Lemoine. With regard to his connections to the intelligence services, he insisted that “he is on the best of terms with the Sûreté Générale, one of the official agents of which he invited to dinner in his home just a few days earlier.”
When the agent said he wanted to cross into France without the consulate’s knowledge, on the pretext that he wanted to do a little smuggling, Koening placed himself at his disposal: “He told me that on the day of my choosing I had only to give him a little prior notice and he could take me across, without its costing me dearly.” In view of this suspicious activity, he suggested that surveillance on the adventurer be increased; the latter left Fuenterrabia shortly after due to his mismanagement of the casino.
After separating from his wife he moved to Madrid where his business interests, linked to gambling and prostitution, thrived once more. Intelligence reports indicate that by the beginning of 1918 he had bought a car valued at 40,000 pesetas. Around February, the gang moved to Palma de Mallorca where Koening passed himself off as an Englishman naturalised as Spaniard. He was surrounded by women of questionable profession, like Mariette de Kapri (alleged lover of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), Rita Guiillaume, Captain Ivanoff (retired Russian Navy officer, widower of a Spanish wife) Alexandre de Manara (an Italian regarded as dangerous) and Renée Lemoine, Koening’s ex-wife who shared an apartment in Barcelona with one Martin, a lieutenant serving on the transatlantic liner Infanta Isabel de Borbon.
These all seemed to be polyglots with refined and distinguished manners who lived the fast life, continually shuttling between Barcelona and Palma. Although there were grounds for believing that Koening was no longer working for Germany, there were regular reports indicating that he had rejoined either that service or some other that might cover his lavish lifestyle.
His departure from the Grand Hotel in Palma to an apartment at No 59, Calle Armadans overlooking Palma bay raised more suspicions. He later rented a villa belonging to the wife of Theodore Knott, AEG engineer, and although Madane Guillaume was identified as a Belgian citizen working for the enemy, the allied intelligence services used her to turn the gang in Madrid in May 1918, to extract more details about Koening’s activities. Through her it was discovered that the ex-croupier had sold the Germans French papers for 130,000 pesetas, The Germans quickly realised that the papers were fake and went after him, even putting a 100,000 peseta reward on his head. Guillaime had no doubts that Koening was linked to the French SCR, that he enjoyed special licence when it came to crossing the border and that he had rendered significant services to the French government. Guillaime herself had, at the outbreak of the war, been linked to the SR and played the spy. The conclusuion was:
“Koening’s specialty is organising casinos, with every game imaginable and he appears to have no equal when it comes to fleecing people at cards. In short, this is a man not only with German connections but who is, on the other hand, ready to do them all possible harm and who might even prove very useful.”
Koening exploited his skills and experience relating to gambling and prostitution to earn money during the war, acting sporadically on behalf of France or Germany. In order to allay the suspicions of its US colleagues, the French SR insisted that Koening and his gang were employed by the French police in Fuenterrabia for a time, but the adventurer had been dismissed for lying, swindling and dubious dealings with the Germans. It was pointed out that “from the espionage angle, they are not to be trusted; their pranks have no purpose other than to swindle the intelligence services of both sides in the hope of extracting money from them.”
Koening arrived in Barcelona at the start of September 1918 where he struck up an acquaintance with Von Rolland and Bravo Portillo, while supplying French intelligence with reports on the illegal activities of the police, information which the embassy made full use of in its campaign to discredit them. Foreigners were also forwarned as to upcoming expulsions that could be averted on payment of a cash sum.
On 5 February 1919 the eruption of a labour dispute at the La Canadiense— one that turned into a massive general solidarity strike that brought the city to a standstill — opened the doors to social tensions and precipitated the most acute crisis in dealings between the civil and military authorities since the juntas de defensa affair back in 1917. The suspension of rights and declaration of a ‘state of war’ under army pressure, actions which the Conde de Romanones government deemed necessary in order to apply the brakes to the syndicalist offensive, led to the jailing of 3,000 workers and the conscription of the rest.
The arch-conservative French naval attache blamed the dispute on the shadowy intrigues of German agents. As for the monumental ‘back to work’ address delivered by Salvador Segui in the Plaza de Toros on 19 March, he insisted that “he has been paid no less than 40,000 pesetas by La Canadiense which has squandered 100,000 pesetas on negotiations of the sort.” In conversation with Romanones, the latter allegedly admitted to the French dipolomat that the recent strikes in Barcelona and Seville were financed by the Germans. However, the informer “Rex” — Koening’s code name — forwarded to the Deuxieme Bureau letters from CNT personnel such as Adolfo Bueso to the CGT headquarters in Paris, in which it was shown that the French union confederation backed the La Canadiense strike.
The negotiated settlement of the strike on 19 March was not to the liking of the army and pitted it against the government, while the provocative intrigues by the parallel police led by former superintendent Manuel Bravo Portillo — who did all in his power to poison relations between the garrison and the governing authorities — exacerbated the situation. The military authorities’ refusal to free the many jailed workers reignited the embers of the dispute.
Emboldened by its recent success, the CNT fell for the Captain-General’s provocations and on 24 March called a further general strike to press for the release of the jailed workers. The off-handed unleashing of another dispute was a serious tactical error that provided the pretext for yet another turn of the screw of repression. Under the supervision of Lliga leader Bertrán i Musitu, and supported by Bravo Portillo, the conservative classes revived the Catalan Somatén. This “armed citizenry” or posse comitatus forced stores to reopen and, together with members of the “Banda Negra”, arrested all the workers they found carrying CNT membership cards. The arrested workers, plus nearly a thousand German nationals arrested by the policía gubernativa for suspected collusion with the strikers, were marshalled in the Plaza de Toros. Members of that para-police organisation were outraged when they discovered Bravo Portillo was systematically freeing the Germans they were arresting. Feelings were running so high that the former police officer was confronted by the disgruntled somatenistas.
Against this backdrop, the French strategy was to play along with the governing authorities on intelligence-gathering work in the threefold aim of combatting a revolutionary offensive that risked crossing the border, eroding the Germans’ position by playing up their involvement on social frictions, and boosting their own position through a policy of honest collaboration with the formal and informal authorities in Barcelona. Bertrán i Musitu, for instance, through Fadini, the head of the Italian services in Barcelona, and the head of the French SR, asked for intelligence about German intrigues within the unions, with an eye to making some telling arrests.
The head of the Barcelona Somatén was instructed to supply intelligence to this end: “Make full use of this favourable opportunity” – the order went “to hamper these propaganda efforts and rid ourselves of foreign or Spanish agents deployed by the enemy as a pretext for his operating in Spain.” On 14 April, with the general strike a busted flush for the past week, Captain-General Joaquín Milans del Bosch, under pressure from the Juntas led by military governor Severiano Martínez Anido, decided to expel from Barcelona those whom he reckoned were unduly reluctant to implement his orders, such as civil governor Carlos Montañés and police chief Gerardo Doval, who had been trying to steer this second dispute in the direction of negotiations.
The Romanones government collapsed the next day, a casualty of what in effect proved to be a military coup. With the military authorities victorious over the Civil Government, Barcelona became a mere appendage of the all powerful Captaincy-General. This was Bravo Portillo’s moment of glory.
The French secret service reported on his ascendancy within the military authorities running Barcelona:
“Bravo Portillo is once again all powerful in Barcelona; the is the military’s man, the trusted advisor with the ear of the Captain-General. He had [Ramón] Aguiló [the lawyer who had, on the CNT’s behalf, brought espionage charges against Bravo] arrested and it was he who was now holding him in prison out of vengeance, and in hope of his [Bravo Portillo] being brought to trial shortly. With Aguiló in prison he would be acquitted due to military pressure being brought to bear — and the fact he would no longer have to face his adversary. The press, muzzled by the military censorship (which is always at his beck and call) could raise no objection to an outrageous acquittal. Bravo Portillo has just been to Madrid in an effort to arrange a quick hearing of his case. In Barcelona, Bravo Portillo is all powerful, even more so than in the past. He is lord of the city and most of the disorder that has broken out is credited to his handiwork and, above all, to the inadequate or indeed non-existent repression.”
The battered German secret service began to reactivate itself from late May onwards; Rolland’s old agents were meeting in secret and Bravo Portillo resumed his dealings with them through a liaison agent by the name of Alphonse Fix. The services of Bravo Portillo’s gang, the ‘Banda Negra’ — the one preferred by the military authorities — were then “offered” to leading members of the Employers’ Federation as an alternative resource for enforcing the repression.
On 9 April, just as the Romanones government was insisting he should be barred from employment by the Captaincy-General, the Employers’ Federation of Catalonia commissioned Bravo Portillo to establish a private police force alongside the official force. The former police officer set up his bureau specialising in doing the employers’ “dirty work” at No 12, Calle de Septembrina. His gang of 40 to 50 people, largely foreign criminals, were organised into three specialist units reminiscent of Germany’s clandestine assets in Spain during the war; one group was tasked with intelligence-gathering, another infiltrated the workers’ organisations and the third consisted of agents provocateurs who hung around factory gates and workshops.
The intelligence-gathering and violent assignments were overseen by Antoni Soler (aka ‘El Mallorquín’) who enjoyed support from corrupt CNT union leaders like Eduardo Ferrer, prominent in his violent attacks on pro-Allied employers during the Great War.
French intelligence regularly monitored Bravo Portillo’s employer-funded and Captaincy-General/army backed parallel police, considering it “a very powerful organisation who responded to terror with terror.” The French secret service in Barcelona was directly in touch with this private police force and had its activities under constant surveillance.
Bravo Portillo’s henchmen were Terán, García Porrero, Domingo Martínez Morales and Emilio Navarro Follana. These last two mixed with workers in the vicinity of ‘La Canadiense’ and visited a brand new German intelligence, espionage and propaganda centre in the Ronda de San Pedro, while the leader of the gang continued to visit Ruggeberg and Baron Von Rolland’s agents. Bravo Portillo and his acolytes were at the gates of the Captaincy on a daily basis issuing instructions to a number of gangs of workmen who roamed the Ramblas and the working class barrios of San Martín, Clot and Sans. Their role was to gather information on the social temperature in the city. The French secret service reported that:
“German circles in Barcelona look kindly on Bravo Portillo’s return to the police force and on his influence over the Captain-General; they want him rehabilitated. In this regard, Ruggeberg enjoys reminiscing that he was the one who subsidised Bravo Portillo’s lawful wife and paid her rent while he was in prison, and that when the police officer was released, his first visit was to Ruggeberg; his second was to the very pro-German Carlist senator [ Miquel] Junyent, the director of El Correo Catalán.”
The indication is that [the Baron de] Koening joined the gang in the spring of 1919 and threw himself into the delivery of small “services”; arresting or beating up obstreperous workers, handing them over to police, operating as an informant or agent provocateur, harassing French companies and offering bodyguard-security services to employers.
According to Bastos Ansart:
“The baron made private overtures to the more pusillanimous [employers] offering them protection in return for money, which he said he needed if he was to free them from danger. The understanding is that in most cases the victims were under no threat […] The business idea was a simple one. Not so its execution […] But the baron was a real prince of lowlifes, an ace (as they say these days) in international banditry.”
Bravo Portillo and Koening also orchestrated and carried out the first anti-CNT outrages at this time, starting with the 23 April 1919 attack on construction workers’ union leader Pedro Massoni (who was seriously wounded), and the deadly attack on 19 July on the head of the Textile Union dye-workers’ section, Pablo Sabater Lliró (aka ‘Tero’). A few days earlier, on 15 July, Koening proposed the following to the French counter-espionage service:
“If there are Frenchmen in Barcelona whom you want to see expelled, you have only to let me have the names and Bravo Portillo will set the wheels in motion to ensure their prompt deportation.”
But the former policeman continued to maintain his links with Von Rolland, who had looked out for him when there was talk of bringing him to book for spying on behalf of the Central Powers.
Sabater’s death had lethal implications for Bravo Portillo. On 5 September 1919 he was shot dead in the Calle de Santa Tecla by an anarchist “action group” led by Fernando Castañer [see also Pistoleros! 2 — 1919. The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg]. The following day, his corrupt CNT henchman Eduardo Ferrer, allegedly the man responsible for the attacks on Barret and Sabater, suffered the same fate. Koening’s French secret service liaison officer reported the following:
“My informant, ‘Rex’ [Baron de Koening] was upset and I genuinely think hurt by the death of Bravo Portillo towards whom he appeared to entertain genuinely friendly feelings. Rather imprudently, perhaps, but bravely, ‘Rex’ immediately made a show of being a friend of Bravo Portillo’s and on the day of the funeral there was a resplendent wreath on top of the coffin with the message: ‘I shall never forget you. Baron Koening.’”
The unforeseen death of the head of the “Banda Negra” catapulted Koening into a position of leadership; he was still publicly considered by the French police as “an agent of Germany whom our government had expelled from France and who has finished up in the service of Spain’s employers.” In October, even as ‘Rex’ was being dispatched by the French secret services to negotiate with Bravo Portillo’s widow and retrieve any papers compromising Germany, especially the list with the names of the gang’s members, he was maintaining the dead man’s ties with Von Rolland, in concert with whom he published and smuggled revolutionary pamphlets into France.
Koening won the trust of the Catalan employers’ federation and kept up his activities as a double or triple agent, supported, on occasion, by the British consulate, the German secret service and the French Deuxième Bureau. After Bravo Portillo’s death, some members of the steering committee of the Employers’ Federation, such as Laureano Miro i Trepat indicated that they were in favour of the raising of a squad of volunteers who, with Somatén backing, would guard their firms’ premises and carry out reprisals against trade union leaders, if need be.
Félix Graupera, president of the Federation, declined the false baron’s offer to lead this “bosses’ police” and as the leadership of the Employers’ Federation refused to continue supporting the gang, Miro y Trepat took it into his own personal service sometime in September-October 19189, paying them with funds taken from the Federation’s treasury, despite firm opposition from Graupera.
The Madrid chief of the French services gave the following version of this “poaching” of the phony baron by the Barcelona Employers’ Federation:
“Since ‘Rex’, on account of his close friendship with Portillo, knew all of his informants and informers (as Señor Miro was perfectly well aware), Miro asked him if he would care to stick with the Employers’ Federation on the same terms and conditions as his lately departed friend. ‘Rex’ agreed with alacrity, making it plain that he was not looking for any financial benefit for himself, that he detested syndicalists and would take on the job ‘for the fun of it’. He merely asked Senor Miro, given the real dangers that he was about to face, to take out a 200,000 peseta insurance policy for the benefit of his two children and a woman (his lover), which Miro promptly agreed to do and did. From that point on, therefore, ‘Rex’ has been looking after the Employers’ Federation organisation instead of Bravo Portillo; he is the man who receives and passes on the wages of various of Bravo Portillo’s agents, informers and informants inside syndicalist and revolutionary circles and it is ‘Rex’ who supplies the Employers’ Federation with the various reports that are then forwarded to the Captaincy-General and the Spanish Interior Ministry in Madrid. Plainly, in his new duties, ‘Rex’ was soon unmasked and ‘blown’. In some circles, it was known that for some time now he was working for the French Sûreté Générale in Paris (this has been repeatedly said and within my hearing); thus far, however, neither the name of the French Sûreté Générale in Paris nor that of the Local Intelligence Service have been mentioned in my presence. As a result, I employ the utmost caution and discretion in my dealings with ‘Rex’.”
Koening kept up his special relationship with French intelligence, a relationship in which it seems that Miro y Trepat was also implicated. These links were common knowledge in Barcelona employer circles, and proved crucial to the phony baron’s being hired as Bravo Portillo’s replacement. It’s not going too far to suspect that Koening used this position to his own advantage, passing on intelligence to the Allied intelligence services. He was a shady individual, whose superficial respectability was a façade covering his special insight into the key workings of clandestine life in the city, especially among the underworld and international spies.
However, Koening never enjoyed the enthusiastic protection afforded his predecessor by the Captaincy-General and the pro-German faction among Barcelona’s employer circles. Even Miro y Trepat and the Renseignements Généraux’s representative in Spain doubted this one-time croupier’s integrity and the motives that drove his actions, and questioned, above all, the disparity between the funds he received from his employers and his ostentatious lifestyle. But neither the French spy agencies or the employers’ Federation showed any inclination to pursue their suspicions as long as the “gang of sixty” and its leader continued to operate effectively peddling anti-German information and targeting the trade union movement.
The gang, which until that point, had carried out half a dozen attacks on CNT leaders was shifting to intelligence-gathering activities at the behest of the Lliga’s Manuel de Foronda y Aguilera, the Marqués de Forona, organiser of the Somatén and a close friend of the king. According to some witnesses, Koening was supplying information to Captain-General Milans del Bosch through Bertrán i Musitu, swelling the “Lasarte dossier” of individuals targeted for murder. The preferential treatment accorded the phony baron undermined the standing of General Miguel Arlegui who, on 23 September 1919, had transferred from Chief of the Captaincy-General Police to become the Barcelona Police Chief. That November, civil governor Julio Amado and employer Félix Grapuera pledged to put paid once and for all to the outrageous actions of the “Banda Negra”, in fact so much so that on 9 December Koening had to fake an attack on his own life to make his actions in defence of the local employers credible.
After the failure of the reformist, conciliatory measures of prime minister Joaquín Sánchez de Toca and his interior minister, Manuel Burgos y Mazo, on 12 September the maurista Manuel Allendesalazar formed a new cabinet that was prepared to uphold public order and show no mercy. Despite the incoming government’s inflexible attitude to the CNT, there was no immediate improvement in the position of the “Banda Negra”.
Francisco Mestre Laborde-Bois’s — Count of Salvatierra de Álava, the incoming civil governor — hostility towards Koening, allowed Arlegui to order a search of the gang’s offices on 22 December, during which were found a number of sufficiently compromising documents allowing Arlegui to blackmail the phony baron. He offered Koening the use of his agents to turn the gang, once again, into a para-police unit with powers to arrest and question trade unionists, carry out raids and plant provocateurs in the pay of the Civil and Military Governments as Bravo Portillo had done previously.
With the escalation activities of the anarchist “action groups”, Koening’s agents intensified their operations: carrying out raids and house searches, planting spies and provocateurs inside the unions, arresting workers, protecting employers and backing up the Somatén. In fact since Koening had made the mistake of trying to blackmail his own financial backers by pressing the employers for cash for protecting them from attacks hatched by the gang itself, the pistoleros were getting less and less of a hearing at the Employers’ Federation.
Loyalties sustained during the war in Europe weighed heavily on the short term future of the gang. The offer he made to the Francophile Miro y Trepat and to the most radical faction in the Employers’ Association, long since afflicted by attacks in which it thought it could discern the long arm of a defeated Germany, had clashed with the view of Félix Graupera, the Federation’s president, a notorious Germanophile. Even though he had been a chief instigator of the army-backed late November lock-out, he had tried to steer the Federation away from supporting “white terrorism”. The reasoning behind his stance was explained by the French secret services:
“In addition, some members of the steering committee of the Employers’ Federation were actively engaged in setting up a group of volunteers which, at a given moment, with help from the Somatén, would take reprisals against the trade union leaders. The Federation’s president, Graupera, is said to be utterly opposed to this idea. Given all that we know about Graupera, a notorious agent of the Germans, in political as well as social terms, his behaviour ought not to surprise us.”
According to certain suggestions , Graupera was implicated in the provocation game and had ties to the international espionage networks set up by Von Rolland and Ruggeberg, which had the cooperation of Bravo Portillo and the enmity of Koening, who channelled his activities into smashing a CNT who pursuit of its demands was damaging to the interests of the French employers. In this respect, a report from a French source confirmed that Graupera and lawyer Tomás Benet, like the trade unionists Seguí and Quemades, met German diplomatic representatives such as Ruggeberg at the AEG premises in the Carrer Aragó and, at the instigation of the German government tried to contrive Koening’s expulsion from Spain, due to his suspicious closeness to the French espionage services. According to the French agents, “Graupera has had his orders from the German government to secure that expulsion, to which end Graupera and Benet even approached the king of Spain.”
On 5 January 1920, after pushing members of the Employers Federation to cut off all support for Koening, Graupera and his colleague Modesto Batlle were gravely wounded by an anarchist action group in retaliation for the previous days’ attempt on Salvador Seguí’s life. On 23 January the government gave in to to governor Salvatierra’s demands and outlawed the Regional Confederation of Labour of Catalonia.
Milans del Bosch again put the case for retaining the state of emergency, undiluted, as it had been enforced during the Figueroa government the previous spring. After four stormy cabinet meetings and a no less traumatic Royal Council, the liberal cabinet ministers forced Allendesalazar to put to the king the idea of dismissing the Captain-General. This news hit Barcelona’s “law and order” constituency like a cold shower. The situation was eased a few weeks later when a crisis occurred in the Allendesalazar cabinet, which split over the differences between conservative and liberal members over the most appropriate therapy for the chronic problems affecting Barcelona.
In the context of divisions within — and a haemorrhaging of — the CNT membership, a crisis in relations between the Captaincy-General, the central government and the political and social representatives of the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie, Koening’s meddling was growing increasingly irksome. With the Somaten in place and official supervision of the recently launched Sindicatos Libres formed in late 1919 in pro-German, Carlist circles, albeit that they had hush-hush connections with the employers’ gunmen, the “Banda Negra” represented a redundant, tension-heightening factor. Albeit that with the departure of Milans they had lost a great sponsor, Koening’s henchmen survived alittle longer, and between April and May his gang spearheaded several bloody clashes with CNT gunmen.
Until June, Dato’s incoming government, which took office on 3 May 1920, tried a new pacification policy by introducing reformist measures. Diminishing support for them in Barcelona and undermined by Madrid’s new compromise line meant the end for Koening’s gang: after one last attack on 17 May, the public outcry in Barcelona and the ripples it made in parliament were such that the phony baron’s loss of backing from the Employers’ Federation (which had disbanded its police agency at Graupera’s insistence) was irreversible. Koening wound up isolated from his benefactors in officialdom, especially after the civil governor, the Conde de Salvatierra, used government muscle to implement the expectations of the Catalan bourgeoisie; the approach adopted by the elderly, liberal Captain-General Weyler was light years ahead of that of Milans del Bosch.
In early June, Interior minister Francisco Bergamin ordered Salvatierra to arrest Koening. After the sham assassination bid cooked up by Koening on 9 December 1919, the general secretary at the Civil Government in Barcelona drew the minister’s attention to the need to expel the phony baron, arguing on the basis of the aforementioned report drawn up by General Arlegui. Suspiciously enough, the arrest warrant had been forwarded from Madrid nearly six months later.
The adventurer couldn’t have had too many doubts as to his future when on 3 June he reported voluntarily to Barcelona Police Headquarters, and found himself detained and taken to Madrid. By the end of the month he had been discreetly deported to France, unarraigned and still unaccountable. Following the proclamation of the Republic in 1931, the Spanish press (El Dia Gráfico, 7.11, 1931) reported that Koening held high office in the French police.
As for Miro i Trepat, Koening’s backer, he took a well-timed holiday to avoid any possible implications in the affair. The government also decided, on 22 June that it was time for governor Salvatierra to be replaced. He had already earned the enmity of the Catalanist bourgeoisie with his crackdown on the disturbances that arose from the Catalan home rule campaign, especially those triggered by the presence of Roussillon-born Marshal Joffre at the Jocs Florals in Barcelona on 29 April. Salvatierra’s place was taken by Federico Carlos Bas, who was more conciliatory and less disposed to put up with the uncontrollable criminal activities of the para-police gangs.
The most immediate implications of the switch were the release of prisoners held for social offences and the re-establishment of CNT activities, the lifting of the preceding censorship and the disbandment in late May of what remained of the “gang of sixty.
So ended the venture into parallel policing that for a year had turned Barcelona upside down. Nor did it lead to any falling-off in trade union violence, indeed it gathered strength due to the growing loss of trust in conciliation methods, such as the tribunals trialled by the civil governor Julio Amado after August 1919. From then until the advent of the Dictatorship, employers’ circles and the official authorities – especially the military authorities – would plump for other, no less expeditious tactics such as governmental repression and the violence imposed by yellow unionism.” — Translated by Paul Sharkey