The Murder and Burial of Camillo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri in Barcelona, May 1937 by Agustín Guillamón (Translated by Paul Sharkey)

  1. The Murder

Francesco Barbieri (1895-1937)
Camilo Berneri (1897-1937)

“At 10.00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday 4 May, two individuals wearing red arm-bands presented themselves at Apartment No 1, 2 Plaza del Ángel. They were received by comrades Berneri[1] and Barbieri[2], whom they told not to shoot as they were friends and there was nothing to fear. Our comrades replied that, as antifascists who had come to Spain to defend the revolution, they had no reason to be shooting at antifascist workers.

The two individuals then left and were seen from the window to enter the premises opposite belonging to the UGT union. At around 3.00 p.m. the same day, five or six individuals wearing the same red arm-bands as the ones who called that morning, plus steel helmets and shotguns called to the apartment again, stating that they had authority to effect a search. Seeing that the search was thorough, comrade Tantini handed three rifles over to them, stating that they had been left there for safe-keeping by three militians who had turned up on leave from the Huesca front. After collecting the rifles, the UGT personnel and policemen left, just two of the latter staying behind to complete the search. Papers found in comrade Fantosi’s room and a few books and maps from comrade Mastrodicasa’s room were taken away. As for comrade Berneri’s room[3], given the volume of the material there, they made off with only a portion of it, stating that they would be back with a car. As they left, they warned our comrades not to venture outside and to keep away from the windows, unless they wanted to get themselvers shot. The searchers, upon being questioned, replied that they had had reports of armed Italian anarchists in the apartment.

On the afternoon of the Wednesday, around 6.00 p.m., a dozen persons showed up, among them some UGT militians in red arm-bands, armed police officers and someone inplain clothes, stating that they were there to arrest Berneri and Barbieri. The latter asked why he was being arrested, and the response was that they were counter-revolutionaries. Whereupon Barbieri replied that in his 20 years as an anarchist militant, this was the first time he had had that insult thrown at him. The policeman replied that he was a counter-revolutionary precisely because he was an anarchist. Incensed, Barbieri asked for the name of the one who insulted him so that he could reserve his right, when the time came, to bring him to book, whereupon the policeman showed him his lapel on which he was wearing a metal badge bearing the number 1109 (which was jotted down by Barbieri’s partner who happened to be there at the time.)

Comrade Tantini objected that, whereas the arms had been left in her care and they were letting her go free, they had no right to arrest Berneri and Barbieri, on whom they had found nothing. That compañera, as well as Barbieri’s partner asked to be allowed to accompany the detainees, only to be told by the police that, if need be, they would be back to arrest them. At around 9.30 on the Thursday morning, two individuals in red arm-bands showed up at the apartment door to tell the two compañeras that the two detainees had been released the previous day at noon, after which they left.

According to the registers of the Clinical Hospital, Barcelona, Barbieri and Berneri were brought in, dead, on the Wednesday-to-Thursday night, having been collected by the Red Cross from the Rambla, in the case of the former, and from the Plaza de la Universidad in the case of the latter [this is a misatake: he was found in the Plaza de la República or de Sant Jaume, across from the Generalidad Palace.]”[4]

Barricade erected in May 1937 in the Plaza Dostoievski (Plaza del Ángel these days) at the end of the Calle Llibretería. This photo shows the view of the barricade visible from the doorway where Berneri lived, looking to the right towards the Generalidad Palace. It was facing the premises of the UGT’s Water, Light and Power (Electricity) Union. This barricade had been put up by PSUC militants as protection against any move to attack the Generalidad from the Vía Layetana side.

 

The same barricade, seen from the Calle Llibretería side.
In the background, underneath the flag, there is a poster reading “UGT Water, Light and Power Union” on a building that is on the Vía Durruti (now Layetana). On the left, between the two columns, the doorway where Berneri lived, right on the Plaza del Ángel (Dostoievski in those days), at No 2.

The above photograph clearly shows that the doorway to the building where Berneri was living was wide open to crossfire exchanged between the PSUC barricade and the balconies of the UGT union premises.

It is also plain from the photograph that the doorway to where Berneri was living was surrounded by a barricade running from the Vía Durruti (today’s Vía Layetana) into the middle of the Plaza Dostoievski (today’s Plaza del Ángel). No one could have entered or left through that doorway without the leave of those manning the barricade. Machine-guns had been set up on the roof of the building, trained on the Vía Durruti and the Casa CNT-FAI located some two hundred metres distant.

Thus, the location was totally overlooked by the PSUC-UGT; the barricade in the Calle Llibretería, the barricade in the Plaza and the UGT union local. It was a basic security precaution for the Stalinists to investigate and search the apartments in the building in which Berneri was living, which was at the heart of the stalinists’ defensive arrangements.

Berneri and Barbieri were in the worst possible place, at the worst possible moment.

The Italian anarchists living in building were identified during a first visit (on Tuesday, 4 May, at 10.00 a.m.); their weapons (three rifles) were confiscated from them on a second visit (Tuesday 4 May at 3.00 p.m.) and they were ordered not to leave the building;’ on the third occasion, their visitors returned (Wednesday, 5 May, at 6.00 p.m.) with “orders from above” to arrest Berneri and Barbieri.

On the night of 5-6 May, Berneri’s corpse turned up very close to the Generalidad Palace, barely fifty metres from the Plaza de Angel. Barbieri’s corpse was found on the Ramblas.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (1884- 1939)
Ernő Gerő (1898 – 1980)

No one but the stalinists could have arrested them, no one but the stalinists could have murdered them and the word from above that they were to be executed could only have come from a few; the soviet consul Antonov Ovseenko, or the man who led the PSUC from the shadows, Gerö (aka ‘Pedro’) …

 

  1. The Autopsy on Camillo Berneri

“The autopsy carried out on the cadaver of our comrade Berneri demonstrates the ease with which the murdered acted in order to accomplish their feat. Let us see how.

The body displays a fire-arm wound with an entry hole behind the right axillar line, exiting via the right breast at the level of the seventh rib. The bullet moving in a right-to-left direction. FORWARDS FROM BEHIND AND FROM ABOVE DOWNWARDS.

Similarly, there is a further fire-arm injury in the right tempero-occipital region, TRAVELLING IN A DOWNWARDS DIRECTION FROM ABOVE AND FORWARDS FROM BEHIND.

Going by the location of the edges of the wounds, they were produced at close range measured at a distance of no less than 0.75 metres. The injuries were caused when the assailant was behind or side-on to the victim, as far as the abdominal injury is concerned and from a position looking downwards as far as the head injury goes.[5]

Meaning that the first bullet put into him penetrated his chest from the right shoulder-blade to the right nipple and then, once he had fallen to the ground, a coup de grâce was fired into his right breast, with the bullet exiting through the nape of the neck.

“Such was the death of comrade Berneri, along with Barbieri. The very same methods have been used today, just as similar methods were deployed in mid-April to disappear Mark Rein, son of the Menshevik Abramovich, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Democratic Kraten. The Police then conducted enquiries to locate the missing man. And met with no success. Exactly the same as will happen in this instance when they embark upon showy enquiries into these comrades’ deaths.”[6]

  1. The Funerals of Berneri and Barbieri

  2. Tuesday, 11 May 1937

The Regional Committees of the CNT, the FAI and the Libertarian Youth distributed a joint manifesto[7], weighing up the May Events. It had been a provocation, centering upon the storming of the Telephone Exchange by Rodríguez Salas and Artemi Aguadé “unbeknownst to the Generalidad Council.” So the blame was being pinned on those two individuals and the Generalidad government was being absolved of all blame.[8] The reply to that provocation had been “spontaneous”; they did not exploit that point any further.

The May Events boiled down to “three awful days of fratricidal strife in Barcelona. Three days of a systematic and terrifying man-hunt.”

A link was drawn between the murders of twelve CNT militants in San Andrés “brought to the cemetery in Sardañola in an ambulance”, the five members of Eroles’s bodyguard, the fifteen militants murdered in the Tarragona area and the finding of the body of the Italian Berneri, only to finish by lamenting “all the victims on both sides.”

It highlighted the danger of foreign intervention, what with the presence in the port of Barcelona “of six French and English vessels” during the “Wednesday and Thursday of last week.”

The CNT and the FAI “were spurred into revolt by a monstrous manoeuvre involving many, diverse sectors and men whom we shall name, with the appropriate proof, when the time comes.”

The only lesson drawn was denunciation of provocateurs and provocations yewt to come, about which the security forces and UGT were warned, with an appeal to worker unity “in the face of the common foe, within and without, the enemy of the vanguard and rear-guard alike.”

That same day witnessed the discreet burials of Domingo Ascaso that morning and Camillo Berneri that afternoon. The Public Order authorities, abetted by the CNT higher committees’ calls for concord, had banned the funeral processions lest passions become inflamed. In defiance of that ban, the corpses of the Italian anarchist activists Camillo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri, Adriano Ferrari, Lorenzo De Peretti and Marco Pietro[9] were escorted from the Clinical Hospital by a procession of several thousand comrades and friends, walking behind the black flag of the German DAS group.[10]

The editors of Guerra di Classe pointed to the presence, right from the outset, of Barbieri’s compañera and the fact that Berneri’s daughter joined the cortege in the street, having arrived by car from the border at Port-Bou. “There was no oration”, and no more homage that the dipping o the black flag over the five coffins[11] which were laid to rest the following day in the different graves assigned to them, graves owned by the CNT’s Italian section.

On 30 December 1940, the remains of Marco Pietro[12] and Francesco Barbieri were removed to the mass grave in the cemetery in Sants. On 7 November 1941, the same was done with the remains of Adriano Ferrari and Lorenzo De Peretti.[13] Finally, Camillo Berneri’s remains were removed to the mass grave in the cemetery on 16 November 1951.

 

[1] For a life of Berneri, see Francisco MADRID SANTOS Camillo Berneri, un anarchico italiano (1897-1937). Rivoluzione e controrivoluzione in Europa (1917-1937) (Archivio Famiglia Berneri, Pistoia 1985)

[2] For a life of Barbieri, see Antonio ORLANDO and Angelo PAGLIARO Chicco il professore (Zero in Condotta/La Fiaccola, Milan/Ragusa 2013)

[3] For an anthology of Berneri’s writings, see Camillo BERNERI Pietrogrado 1917, Barcelona 1937 (Reprint, La Fiaccola, Ragusa 1990). Selection made by Pier Carlo Masino and Alberto Sorti. With Appendix on the Berneri affair.

[4] “Report on the murder of comrades Camilo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri” [IISH-CNT-005F-9] Fragment of the report lifted from Virgilio Gozzoli’s article in Guerra di Classe (19-5-1937)

[5] Solidaridad Obrera, Tuesday 11 May 1937, p. 2

[6] Idem

[7] CNT-FAI-FIJL-AIT “The regional organizations in Catalonia attached to the CNT, FAI and FIJL, To Public Opinion”. Manifesto/flyer [AEP-C606]

[8] There is more than enough documentary prrof to show that the order to seize the Telephone Exchange building came from the Generalidad President, albeit that it had not been run past the Council, on which the CNT was represented.

[9] Letter to the author from Barcelona Cemeteries (9 October 2013) amending the name erroneously recorded in Guerra di Classe as “Pietro Macon”.

[10] See Nelles, Piotrowski, Linse and Garcia: Antifascistas alemanes en Barcelona (1933-1939) (Sintra, Barcelona 2010), p 353, n. 12. And Guerra di Classe (25 May 1937)

[11] Guerra di Classe (25 May 1937) , front page

[12] According to Aldo Aguzzi in Barcelona, mayo 1937 (Alikornio) p. 159, “On the morning of the Wednesday [5 May] a further risky sortie was attempted. Six armored cars set off from the Spartacus barracks. It took them three hours, fighting every inch of the way, to get through to the Control Patrols headquarters in the Calle Cortes [Gran Via]. The Italians who took part in the defense of that building included, among others, Cafiero, Marcon [Marco Pietro], Zamboni, etc. and they fought heroically. The second of those named perished and the last of those named was seriously wounded.” According to Severino Campos’s evidence, Domingo Ascaso also perished during the attempt to step outside the besieged Control Patrols’ headquarters.

[13] According to Aldo Aguzzi, op cit., p. 158, “[Ferrari and De Peretti], on reaching the Plaza del Ángel were stopped by PSUC personnel and shot.”