‘The revolution ended in May’, Mikel Muñoz’s 2015 film (Spanish with French subtitles) on the five days of infamy and treachery that ended Spain’s social revolution. In the Spring of 1937, with the anti-fascist war at its peak, the pro-Stalinist ‘socialists’ of the PSOE, led by Finance Minister Juan Negrín, the communist-led PSUC (The Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia) led by Juan Comorera, supported by right wing nationalists of the Estat Català, moved against the power bases of the anarcho-syndicalist workers’ militias in Catalonia, starting on April 25 with the customs post at Puigcerdá on the French border, and culminating in the attempted seizure of the Barcelona Telephone Exchange. The latter action and the call for the CNT employees defending the building and adjoining barrio barricades to abandon their positions and give up their arms was endorsed by the infamous ‘notables’ of the higher committees of the CNT, particularly anarchist ministers Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, and CNT National Secretary Mariano T. Vazquez. The following account of the ‘Events of May’ is from ‘Building Utopia’.

MARCH 1937

By the beginning of March the state apparatus was ready, almost fully recovered from the double blow it had received the previous July from the reactionary military and the revolutionary industrial and agrarian working class. With a Cabinet, including the anarchist ministers, fully committed to implementing militarisation, Largo Caballero announced that from 1 April all forces on the Teruel front would come under the control of the Ministry of War. José Benedito, commander of the anarcho-syndicalist Torres Benedito Column was assigned to the Organisational Bureau of the General Staff with special responsibility for re-organising the militia columns. At the same time the Iron Column, the most refractory of the militia columns, was informed that the decree of 30 December which provided for servicemen’s pay being made henceforth by battalion paymaster-officers, answerable to the Treasury would now be enforced.

At a general assembly of the Iron Column, the militians refused to submit to military re-organisation and to the new administrative regulations. Many decided to quit the front in protest. To avoid providing the War Ministry with the pretext to conscript the Column’s members, the War Committee issued the following note:

“The Iron Column has not disbanded, nor is it contemplating disbandment. Nor has it militarised… it has requested that it be temporarily relieved so that it may snatch a little rest and reorganise.”

By mid-March the Column had largely been disbanded on account of the desertions by many of its militians. After an assembly held in Valencia on 22 March militarisation was accepted as a lesser evil and the remainder of the Iron Column, 4,000 men out of a total of 20,000, became known as the 83rd Mixed Brigade commanded by José Pellicer, with Segarra as political commissar. Before disbanding the Column’s assets were shared out among rationalist schools, the CNT field hospital, the anarchist international prisoners’ aid group and anarchist publishing ventures and libraries.

In Catalonia the statist politicians and functionaries were also making the final preparations for delivering the deathblow to the revolution. On 4 March, Artemio Aiguadé, the communist Councillor for Internal Security, announced the dissolution of the Control Patrols, the armed representatives of the workers’ organisations, the Internal Security Council, composed of representatives of every shade of opinion, and the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.1 In addition, members of union or political organisations were prohibited from belonging to the forces of public order. Any infringement of this ban was to be punished by dismissal from the security corps. This provoked an immediate government crisis which was to last almost a month. That same day, La Batalla, paper of the POUM, reprinted extracts, with enthusiastic comments by Andrés Nin, from an article that had appeared in the CNT evening paper La Noche. The author was the paper’s editor, CNT militant Jaime Balius, soon to be one of the founders of the Friends of Durruti group:

‘We anarchists have arrived at the limits of our concessions…Not another step backward. It is the hour of action. Save the revolution… If we continue to give up our positions there is no doubt that in a short time we shall be overwhelmed and the revolution will simply be another souvenir. It is for this fundamental reason that it is necessary to develop a new orientation in our movement.’

Balius added, probably in reference to the POUM, that he was pleased to see that:

‘Our anxiety is now shared by the evening paper of an organisation with which we are in fundamental agreement concerning the present revolutionary epoch and the role of the working class.’

Next day, 5 March, soldiers presenting what turned out to be forged documentation removed twelve of the most modern armoured cars in Catalonia from a military store. The man responsible for the theft proved to be the lieutenant colonel of the PSUC-controlled Voroschiloff barracks. When challenged the officer at first denied all knowledge of the tanks but they were quickly discovered. He then claimed that he had merely been carrying out orders received from the general staff of the Karl Marx Division.

Manuel Trueba, the War Commissar of the Karl Marx Division, quickly denied this allegation. Solidaridad Obrera of 7 March commented:

‘… If these tanks were not taken for use on the front, then to what end was such a brilliant operation mounted? In this we discern the outlines of a dictatorial affront against which everybody knows that we would immediately protest. In this instance, as in every one, we cannot but issue a reminder of the constant peril. Should the unhealthy partisan zeal in someone outweigh the instinct of self-preservation, we have to state yet again our firm and unshakeable determination to defeat fascism above all else. And to defeat it as part of a spearhead of close unity with workers of every political and trade union denomination…’

March 5 also saw the formation of what was to be one of the most controversial anarchist groups of the social revolution — the Friends of Durruti (FOD). Dedicated to the defence of fundamental anarchist principles, the revolution, and to challenging the bureaucratic conservatism of the CNT-FAI leadership, the Friends of Durruti were not just another club:

‘We aim to see the Spanish Revolution pervaded by the revolutionary acumen of our Durruti. The FOD remain faithful to the last words uttered by our comrade in the heart of Barcelona in denunciation of the work of the counter-revolution …To enrol in our association, it is vital that one belong to the CNT and show evidence of a record of struggle, a love of ideas and the revolution…’2

The group made its official debut on 8 March when the same communiqué appeared in issue 77 of El Frente, the official paper of the Durruti Column.

The nucleus of the group, whose membership quickly grew to between four and five thousand,3 were militants from the Durruti Column based in the Gelsa sector, anarchists who had consistently stood out against militarisation and the strategy of the higher committees. Their intransigence had led to them being warned on a number of occasions by the CNT and FAI Regional Committees to change their attitude and conform to the decisions of the Organisation.

These warnings were ignored. Sergeant Manzana, the man rumoured to be responsible for Durruti’s death, accidental or otherwise, informed them that by holding out against militarisation they might provoke bloodshed among comrades:

‘After long deliberation it was decided that within 15 days of the meeting, they would leave the front, handing over their weapons to other comrades who would arrive to replace them.’4

Practically, as well as in theory, the group proposed a return to the ideals of self-management and revolutionary war that had existed among the rank-and-file immediately after the military uprising. In an interview in La Noche on 24 March, Pablo Ruiz, described as:

″ … a delegate from the 4th Gelsa Group, composed of some 600 CNT-FAI militants’ outlined the factors which gave birth to the FOD group: ‘When we set out for the front we left comrades in the rear in possession of what was, from an anarchist point of view, a Revolution marching victoriously onwards. But in the shaping of that revolution, they have allowed a part to be played by political parties who had no feeling for the revolution having, as they did, to defend the interests of the petite bourgeoisie and the UGT which, by comparison with us, represented only a tiny percentage of workers in Catalonia and had damn little influence on the economic and administrative life of the Revolution. And it is now clear that in reaching an accommodation with them we lost our hegemony in the Revolution and have found it necessary to surrender a little more each day with the result that the revolution has been disfigured and the revolutionary gains made in those early days have evaporated.’

‘This led to the formation of the Friends of Durruti, insofar as this new organisation has as its fundamental task the preservation, intact, of the principles of the CNT-FAI, harking back to 19 July, with a view to ensuring that it is the union organisation which has responsibility for the management of the economy and society, with no place given to the political parties, the grounds for that being that they are not regarded as equipped for the work of renovation. And we say all this not with the intention of using force to enforce our plans, but rather as grounds for propaganda within the CNT itself, breathing new life into its creative, organising spirit which we cannot stand idly by and watch die.’

‘And I oppose participation by the parties because it is my belief that this implies the loss of the revolution which must be pursued by all the means at our disposal, but never by means of accommodations with groups which are, let alone in a minority, deaf to the call of revolution.’″

Benjamin Péret, the surrealist writer and volunteer fighter, wrote his last letter to André Breton from Spain on 7 March. He was with the First Company of the Nestor Makhno Battalion, Durruti Division at Pino de Ebro on the Aragón front:

‘Except for a postcard I haven’t written because of the lack of any interesting news. From the first day of my return it was obvious that any collaboration with the POUM was no longer possible. They were ready to accept people on their right, but not on their left.

‘Besides, nothing could be done anyway thanks to the ultra-rapid bureaucratisation of all the organisations and the scandalous activities that have developed. Otherwise, under the pressure of the Stalinists the revolution is following a descending curve, which if it is not rapidly halted will lead very quickly to a violent counter-revolution. In such conditions I decided to join an anarchist militia unit and I am here at the front — Pina de Ebro — where I will stay as long as something more interesting doesn’t take me somewhere else.

‘The sector — which I didn’t choose — is perfectly calm; we are separated from the fascists by the whole width of the Ebro, that is to say a good kilometre of water. Not a cannon shot, not a rifle bullet, nothing. It’s too calm to last. I would like to recount all the swinish acts by the Stalinists who openly sabotage the revolution with the evidently enthusiastic approval of petit bourgeois of all shades. There are many things, many signs disturbing to the greatest degree and which I cannot write about now… ‘5

Crisis of Generalidad Provoked

On 30 March 1937, the CNT’s Regional Committee issued a circular to soldiers, federations and unions, recommending that they remain vigilant and keep constantly in touch. The POUM’s English language paper, The Spanish Revolution, edited by the American Charles Orr, observed that this circular also indicated an attempt on the part of the CNT leadership to centralise authority in its regional committees. The committees were empowered to decree mobilisations, issue orders and watchwords:

‘All who do not act accordingly to these rules and agreements will be publicly expelled from the organisation. ‘6


1          See Background Briefs.

2          Solidaridad 0brera, 5.3.1937,

3       Jordi Arquer, typescript history of the ‘Amigos de Durruti’, quoted in The Alarm, San Francisco, 1983.

4       FAI ′Informe que este comite de relaciones de grupos anarquistas de Cataluna presenta a los compañeros de la region′, Barcelona, March 1937.

5          Claude Courtot, Introduction à la lecture de Benjamin Péret, Paris, 1965.

6          The Spanish Revolution, No. 6, Vol. II, 31.3.1937.

 APRIL 1937

With the pretext of the birthday celebrations of the Second Republic on 14 April, the State and the liberal bourgeois parties, along with the PCE and the PSUC, their Catalan counterparts, began to shift the focus of attention away from the popular revolutionary achievements of July 1936 to the elitist parliamentary machinations of April 1931. Militant opposition to the conciliatory role being played by the higher committees and ministers of the CNT and FAI became more outspoken. Camillo Berneri, published a bitter denunciation of the anarchist ministers in Guerra di Clase and urged them to re-think their position:

“The dilemma war or revolution no longer has any meaning. The only dilemma is the following: either victory over Franco, thanks to the revolutionary war, or defeat.”1

The Friends of Durruti were equally forceful in pointing out the dangers posed to the Revolution by the State, parliamentary socialism and the government controlled security forces. In a leaflet distributed during the 14 April ‘celebrations’ they noted:

‘… We possess the organs which must replace the state which is in ruins. The unions and the municipalities must take charge of the economic and social life of the Peninsula. The clear and obvious solution … Free Unions and Free Municipalities … We want no part of 14 April. Its memory is obnoxious. Only the parasites of politics can commemorate it… 14 April is not a day for demonstrations. We know the meaning of the April masquerade. And because we do not want July to end up like those hopeless early days of the Republic we resolutely oppose those who espouse the April anniversary and the figure of a lawyer raised to the heights of presidential office.’ (A reference to Companys).2

Writing in La Noche that same evening, Iron Column delegate Fernando Pellicer reflected:

‘We have been over-gracious and too, too hesitant in not having seized power in Catalonia so as to bring pressure to bear against the Valencia government’s boycott against the CNT and FAI in Catalonia and its disowning of the Aragón Front, since whenever one speaks about the Catalan region, it goes without saying that one means the Aragón Front. We dithered because we cowered in fear from the threat of foreign intervention. We could have, we should have seized power, and I am one hundred per cent sure that if we had, the Revolution would have taken an entirely different turn, and the war likewise. We know now that the threat of foreign intervention was no greater than the fear that seized us back in the month of July. Back in July, nobody moved in Catalonia without the say so of the CNT. Everything, absolutely everything, was ours. Companys said that we would issue the orders, that we would be the ones to determine what was to be done and that he was prepared to act as the political champion, abroad and inside Spain, of our revolutionary creation. Well, Sr. Companys, what remains today of these fine intentions of yours? Not a thing. It was a play for time until the conservative, political forces, of bourgeois democracy and Moscow style socialist centralisation could compose themselves. And since time was to be the best ally of the middle class and the bureaucracy against the CNT and the FAI, the miscalculations we made during the months of antifascist collaboration did the rest and brought us to the pretty pass of this grave situation in which we presently find ourselves.

‘In the realm of provisions, we have allowed the hoarders and speculators in this region to have their own selfish way, instead of us having, as a war measure, taken over the entire food industry in the chief districts and cities of Catalonia, thereby avoiding the present chaos obtaining in this sphere. Today, in Catalonia, it is not possible to feed oneself with an average income. Yet the hotels and the restaurants, the luxury ones, are brimming with fancy dishes. This is an affront to the hungry families and, above all, to the dependants of the militians away at the front. These luxury cafes are teeming with good for nothings who spend all their time seated around the tables, instead of taking up the gun or wielding the hoe in the fields . . . The countryside despises us because the good life in the cities has been our sole concern, especially here in this rotten Barcelona, teeming with its bourgeoisiefied control committees who commandeer cars even for their private affairs. …We must take provisions, with consent or by force; we should do away with the hotels and the cafes; and the dance halls and prostitution. We must introduce the family wage. Let the capital of each industry become the property of the syndicate concerned. Municipal control of housing. The family wage must apply to everyone. And, as a war measure, there must be intervention in all trade in food, great or small, so that order may be restored to the rearguard … we must increase the labourer’s wage and cut the salaries of the blue-eyed boys so that everyone may eat. And anyone who cannot find useful work in the city, let him climb aboard a train, for the countryside has need of hands so that our peasant comrades need not work such a long day.’

The preparations for PSUC’s final assault on the workers’ organisations were well under way. Throughout April there were continuing provocations that raised the tension throughout Catalonia to breaking point. Roldán Cortada, secretary of the Generalidad Councillor for Defence, Vidiella, together with another companion from the PSUC, travelled to Paris in April on a mission to purchase arms for the Party’s planned confrontation with the anarchists. In Paris they contacted an agent of Negrín’s, known as ‘C’. ‘C’ opposed the purchase of arms for the purpose indicated, but as Cortada was acting under party instructions and with the apparent involvement of party leader Juan Comorera, he complied, but confined his assistance to putting them in contact with people ‘who may well have been able to assist them in their project.’ ‘C’ reported to Negrín from Paris on 15 April advising against the venture as it would place ‘victory in jeopardy’.3

Ten days later, 25 April, ‘C’ reported another visit to Paris related to the same arms purchasing mission, this time by men named Mora and Nicolau, The arms were supposedly to be paid for through the sale of jewels. ‘C’ voiced his suspicion that the sale of the jewels was for private gain and that the weapons story was a red herring.

The anarchists had their own information services such as the Servicio de Investigación de la FAI, organised by Manuel Escorza, and the SIEP, Servicio de Investigación Especial Periférico, a military intelligence organisation, organised by Francisco Ponzán, and it is possible they were fully aware of Cortada’s activities.

On 25 April, Roldán Cortada, a former member of the CNT and a signatory of the reformist ‘Manifesto of the Thirty’, was found murdered near Barcelona. A number of anarchists were arrested in connection with his death, but no evidence could be found against them. Cortada’s funeral, attended by the armed forces and police, served as the pretext for an hysterical anti-anarchist campaign orchestrated by the PSUC, right wing elements in the UGT and the Estat Catalá, into an anti anarchist demonstration. Tension escalated. A few days later a number of CNT activists in the anarchist-controlled frontier town of Puigcerdá were killed by carabinero troops acting on the orders of finance minister Dr. Juan Negrín. Militants at the front were restrained from taking effective preventive action by the intervention of the CNT leadership who arranged for control of the frontier town to be handed over to the Popular Army.

By the end of April the tension had reached breaking point. Feelings were running so high that both the (CNT and UGT agreed to the Generalidad’s request to cancel the traditional public May Day celebrations in case of violence.

George Orwell captured the atmosphere of the period in Homage to Catalonia:

‘Under the surface aspect of thestreets, with their flower stalls, their many coloured flags, their propaganda posters, and thronging crowds, there was an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred. People of all shades of opinion were saying forebodingly: ‘There’s going to be trouble before long!’ The anger was quite simple and intelligible. It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it — ultimately between anarchists and communists. ‘


1          See Background Briefs: An Open Letter to Federica Montseny.

2          See Background Briefs.

3          See Background Briefs: Confidential letter from an agent of Negrín.

 MAY 1937

The morning papers of 1 May 1937 carried reports of a joint statement on the “abnormal position” of public order by President Companys and the Communist councillor for Internal Security, Aiguadé. The statement stated that the Generalidad Council could not continue to operate under the “pressure, danger and disorder” implied by the continued existence in some areas of Catalonia of groups who “attempt to impose themselves by force and who compromise the revolution and the war”. The Generalidad was suspended until all the forces “not under the direct command of the Generalidad Council” were off the streets so that “the anxiety and alarm which is in Catalonia today may promptly evaporate. At the same time, the Generalidad Council has taken the necessary measures to ensure that its ordinances are strictly obeyed.”1

The ‘necessary measures’ taken by the Generalidad included the prohibition of all May Day celebrations throughout the revolutionary capital of Catalonia in order, they said, “to avoid incidents”. The police carried out raids and street searches in which numerous CNT activists were disarmed and taken into custody. Clara Thalmann, a Swiss Marxist recalls the atmosphere when some Friends of Durruti people she was with were arrested distributing leaflets in the industrial suburb of Sabadell. “Everyone could feel that the atmosphere was electric and was waiting for the spark to send up the powder keg. The short-circuit surprised us with its speed.’2

In a press conference the previous evening the counsellor for Internal Security, Aiguadé, made the following statement:

‘As required, implementation of the Generalidad Government’s ordinances went ahead in Barcelona, also. I must say that with the exception of minor incidents, which were overcome, the order was effective. In conformity with measures taken, this Councillorship will continue to act appropriately, and I have no doubt that with the assistance of the organisation and unions of the antifascist Front, and above all of the people of Catalonia, we shall make possible the kind of rearguard that will carry us on to the ultimate victory in the war. And I am prepared, quietly resolved but also prepared to act with all vigour to see that it is so.’ The counsellors for Internal Security and Defence both received a vote of confidence from the Generalidad Council ‘so that jointly, each within his particular jurisdiction, they may implement the necessary measures so a find a solution to those problems which are still outstanding.’3

Next day, Sunday, 2 May, the Friends of Durruti group convened an urgent meeting in the Goya Theatre, Barcelona, to ‘hoist the banners of the CNT and FAI, in affirmation of their revolutionary principles’ and to warn of an imminent attack on the working class organisations.

By Monday 3 May the counter-revolution was ready for a major all-out offensive. Like harbingers of the gathering storm British and French warships ominously appeared in Barcelona harbour a few hours before the first trouble erupted.4 Aiguadé, with the full backing of the Generalidad Council as we have seen, issued the orders for PSUC Police Commissioner Rodríguez Salas to occupy the Barcelona Telephone Exchange which had been legitimately run under the joint control of the CNT and UGT since July 19. Control of the exchange had been a bone of contention for some time. The justification given for ousting the workers was the government’s claim that it was being improperly run and that official government communications with the outside world were being monitored by the anarchists, but this was clearly a convenient excuse for the long awaited final assault on the revolution.

That afternoon Pavel and Clara Thalmann were passing the Telephone Exchange situated at the corner of the Rambla de las Flores when they saw a crowd of confused and embarrassed looking Civil Guards standing outside the building surrounded by an angry crowd of passers-by. At 3 p.m. three truckloads of Civil Guards had attempted to enter the building but the anarchists workers in the Exchange had refused them entry:

‘At the top of the main staircase one could see militians calmly standing with automatic rifles. The crowd was growing quickly and armed workers were surrounding the guards and looking menacing. It was obvious that just one shot, if fired, would lead to pandemonium; this was the spark everyone had been expecting. The FAI headquarters was nearby in the Via Layetana so I sent Clara there to inform the committee and to fetch “un responsible”.’

Before Clara Thalmann returned the first shots had been fired. The crowds had scattered and the Civil Guards had taken cover in the porch. Within seconds the steel shutters had come down on the windows and doorways of nearby shops and restaurants. Sandbags suddenly appeared in the windows of the nearby Hotel Colon, the headquarters of the PSUC. According to eyewitness Pavel Thalmann, the exchange of gunfire was particularly violent between the Hotel Colon and the Exchange.

The attack on the Telephone Exchange was one of a concerted series of such raids on confederal strongholds throughout the city. The Spartacus barracks, with 5,000 men, was being bombarded with explosive shells. The barrage was suspected to be coming from the nearby Karl Marx barracks, but the communists there, when telephoned, denied all knowledge of the source of the shellfire. The Malatesta House, base of the Italian anarchists and the CNT Food Union premises was also under attack. But the Generalidad and the PSUC soon discovered the easy victory they had hoped for was not to be. As the news of the Stalinist provocation spread a general strike broke out spontaneously. Trams ground to a halt in the middle of the street and barricades sprang up like mushrooms throughout the main thoroughfares and at all the important junctions of the capital. Only the war industries remained working. The spirit of 19 July had been reawakened and the people were in arms once again to defend the revolution.

Throughout Catalonia the Confederal Defence Committees, with the backing of the Control Patrols, quickly seized power again. Army officers were mobbed in the street and disarmed. Loudspeakers broadcast news and anarchist songs. By nightfall that same day the revolutionaries were again masters of most of Catalonia with the exception of the centre of Barcelona where the strategic positions occupied by the PSUC and Estat Catalá headquarters, the Civil Guard and Karl Marx barracks were all surrounded by the people in arms.

That night Camillo Berneri wrote to his daughter, Marie Louise, with a clear sense of foreboding:

“What evil the communists are doing here too! It is almost 2 o’clock and I am going to bed. The house is on its guard tonight. I offered to stay awake to let the others go to sleep, and everyone laughed saying that I would not even hear the cannon! But afterwards, one by one, they fell asleep, and I am watching over all of them, while working for those who are to come. It is the only completely beautiful thing…”.

Tuesday, 4 May

Sniping continued throughout the early hours of Tuesday 4 May. The barrage of explosive shells continued to rain down on the anarchist troops caught in the Spartacus barracks. Two Italian anarchists, Ferrari and De Perretti, managed to leave the building but were stopped and shot dead by PSUC members. The Regional Committee of the CNT reported that its headquarters in the Via Layetana (renamed Via Durruti) was in serious jeopardy and requested urgent help. With the support of a number of Italian comrades, Ricardo Sanz, now commander of the Durruti Column, led four armoured cars through the heavy fighting to relieve the besieged confederal building. Artillery units on Montjuich and on Tibidabo had their guns trained on the Generalidad building, the police headquarters, the Karl Marx Barracks and the Hotel Colón.

Before the CNT Defence Committee could give the order for the final assault on their attackers anarchist minister García Oliver and CNT National Secretary Mariano R. Vázquez, acting on behalf of the Caballero government, broadcast an appeal over Radio CNT-FAI for a cease-fire in the name of antifascist unity. This statement from the anarchist ‘notables’ had a restraining effect on most of the rank and file and the Defence Committee decided to hold back their planned counter-attack.

‘We spent that first night behind the huge barricade in the Rambla de las Flores’, recalled Pavel and Clara Thalmann, ‘trading shots with a group of civil guards assembled in the Moka Cafe. When the gunfire ceased, we discussed the meaning and the object of the fighting with the workers. They were proud of the spontaneous action and were convinced that the Stalinists had lost out in Catalonia. If we asked them “What are you going to do next? Who’s going to take power? What will relations with the Valencian government be like?” they would calmly answer, slapping their rifle barrels “As long as we have the weapons and the factories neither the Stalinists nor the Francoists shall pass.“‘5

To explain what was taking place on the streets of Barcelona the Regional Committees of the CNT, FAI and FIJL, together with the Barcelona local CNT-FAI committees issued the following statement:

“For months past a poisonous atmosphere has hung over Catalonia making it impossible to maintain confidence between the different sections of the antifascist front. Apart from other problems relating to the matter of war and revolution, we wish to call the attention of everyone to the facts concerning the Catalan Ministry of the Interior. In the early phase of the Revolution, the central government issued a decree authorising the creation of committees within the police forces whose duty it was to supervise the police and to ensure the elimination of any fascist elements that remained within the police forces. When the present Minister of the Interior, Aiguadé, took office, he refused to recognise these committees, in spite of their legal standing. While everywhere else fascist elements were being excluded from police functions, known fascists were allowed to remain at their posts in the Catalan police because the Minister, in agreement with certain police chiefs is opposed to all modifications. Due to this high-powered protection, 62 Civil Guards from the Gerona barracks were able to flee, with ease, across the border, while 31 policemen in Barcelona fled with important documents, including plans of the coastal fortifications. And yet, it was known for months before their escape that these men were fascists.

“After the Central Council of the Civil Guard in Madrid was informed that another group of 40 men had attempted to escape from the Ausías March barracks, the Council demanded a list of the elements with reactionary sympathies still in the Catalan Civil Guard. It was only on 13 April that these elements were excluded by a central government decree. Moreover, the Catalan Interior Minister prevented this government decree, discharging the men, being put into effect, and he allowed the fascists to remain at their posts. At the same time he stiffened his opposition to the committees. He has also done everything in his power to disarm CNT and FAI members, with the assistance of other political factions, in order to break the revolutionary power of the CNT-FAI, power that is the best guarantee for the working people who are not wishful for the return of the regime of exploitation and for state oppression…”. The statement concluded, “For the restoration of confidence in the antifascist forces! For the victory over fascism! Against the systematic provocateurs Aiguadé and Rodríguez! For the purging of the high posts of the police force! Long live the social revolution!”

Companys, shocked at the possibility that he might be confronted with another 19 July, was desperate to put down the revolt and called upon the UGT columns at the front to come to his assistance. In so doing he was prepared to leave a 50-kilometre gap in the Aragón front. That same day 2,000 out of a total force of 7,500 men of the 27th (Karl Marx) Division under the command of Del Barrio left the front at Tardienta for the Voroschiloff barracks in Barcelona. Informed of this development, Máximo Franco, commander of the confederal Rojo y Negro column of the 28th (Ascaso) Division, and militiamen from the POUM’s 29th (Lenin) Division — some 1,500-2,000 men in all — also left the Huesca front, to come to the aid of their comrades in Barcelona.

Wednesday, 5 May

By the morning of third day fighting had eased slightly and an air of normality appeared to return to the city. Around 11 a.m., however, violent clashes broke out again in the city centre around PSUC premises and the Generalidad building. The POUM print shop was seized and Guardia Civil troops occupied the Francia railway station. The CNT headquarters came under renewed attack and they issued an appeal for a further three armoured cars to come to their assistance. The locals of the CNT Health Syndicate, the Libertarian Youth (FIJL), the telephone exchanges and CNT locals in Tarragona and Tortosa also came under attack. At 1 p.m. UGT General Secretary and Minister Antonio Sesé was shot dead outside the offices of the CNT Public Entertainments Syndicate. German anarchist Augustín Souchy’s account of Sesé’s death states that he was not killed by CNT men and that ‘the shot came from the Paseo de Gracia, from a barricade held by his own party colleagues’.

Meanwhile, the Rojo y Negra column, led by Máximo Franco — which had left the front to come to the assistance of the Barcelona workers — was halted at Binéfar by Juan Molina, a member of the Generalidad’s Defence Council. According to Peirats and Santillán, Molina was acting in his capacity as a representative of the CNT Regional Committee. Not all the men were stopped. Some pressed on to Lerida where they were halted by the threat of an air strike against them. Umberto Marzocchi, a volunteer with the Italian section of the Ascaso Column, claims that the number who reached Lerida was 4,000 and it was ‘ … the intervention of CNT generals Jover and Vivancos and the threat that we would be lined up against the wall if we persisted in disregarding the plea for peace which the CNT’s Justice Minister, García Oliver, had broadcast over the radio, which led the Spanish comrades to desist in their plans.”6 The Carod Column of the 25th (Jubert) Division also got as far as Valderrobes before they too were stopped, this time by Joaquín Ascaso, of the Council of Aragón.

A French anarchist participant in the ‘May events’ has stated that the early morning of 5 May was also fairly calm in the barrio of Hostafranchs, near Sans. Trouble erupted when a unit of around 300 Guardia Civil attempted to enter the Calle de Léridan. Shooting broke out before they had reached halfway and they were quickly forced to surrender:

‘The young Guardias who surrendered were stripped of their uniforms and were taken as prisoners to the Defence Committee barracks… The last group of Guardias who had occupied Poble Sec surrendered on 5 May at 11.00 a.m. At 2.00 p.m., the Guardias remaining in the barracks, 84 in all, surrendered. Their weapons were shared out among the specific organisations of the two barrios.’7

The CNT Defence Committee in the meantime was renewing its preparations for an assault on the Karl Marx barracks. The continued shelling had cost the lives of a number of men in the Spartacus barracks. The attack was scheduled for 9 p.m. Artillery pieces, on the Tibidabo and Montjuich were ready to lay down a barrage of 500 shells if necessary. Everything was prepared, with the Italian anarchists of the International Battalion of the Ascaso Column in the van. The attack was to be led by Ceva, the commander of the Tierra y Libertad battalion with 4,000 men at his disposal. Meanwhile, Aiguadé, faced with an unexpected and potentially disastrous defeat at the hands of the workers, insisted that Companys call in reinforcements from the central government. Conscious that asking for outside help would mean abdicating power to the Valencia government, Companys resisted such a move.

Caballero, for his part, reacted by summoning the anarchist ministers to insist on a cease-fire. He informed them that unless representatives from the CNT and UGT National Committees flew to Barcelona to convince the workers to lay down their arms he would be obliged to send in troops. He also pointed out that it would mean placing those troops at the disposition of Aiguadé, the very person responsible for the provocation in the first place. In return he would arrange for the withdrawal of the PSUC counsellors on the Generalidad and leave the question of control of the Telephone Exchange open for future discussion.

That evening García Oliver and Federica Montseny, who had made their headquarters in the Generalidad building, broadcast an appeal in the name of antifascist unity urging CNT and FAI militants to lay down their arms. With great reluctance and frustration the CNT Defence Committee called off the attack on the Karl Marx barracks. Clara and Pavel Thalmann describe the dramatic effect that broadcast had on the militants on the barricades: “In whining, moving tones they besought the workers to end the fratricidal struggle, to resume work, for above all the war against Franco needed winning… Some of the anarchist workers at first refused to believe that this was their leaders speaking, but when obliged to believe that what they were hearing was true, their disappointment and rage knew no limits. Out of fury, shame and defiance many CNT and FAI members tore up their membership cards, tossing them into the fires behind the barricades where their soup was still simmering. They quit their positions by the hundreds, carrying their guns away to a place of safety. Feelings ran so high that Montseny and García Oliver could only venture out to the regional committees or assemblies of the syndicates with an armed escort.8 This spontaneous, violent revolt, leaderless and without command, and based more upon a defensive instinct than upon any real combative aggressiveness, came to an abrupt end. The end was imminent.’9 The POUM leadership also ordered its members to lay down their arms and return to work.

The communist evening newspaper, Frente Rojo, leaped to capitalise on the gravity of the situation:

“For a long time we used to attribute anything that occurred to gangs euphemistically called ‘uncontrollables’. Now we see they are perfectly controlled…but by the enemy. This cannot be tolerated any longer … All those who attempt, in one form or another, with some aim or another, to disturb [order] or break [discipline] should immediately feel the ruthless weight of popular authority, repression by the government, and positive action by the popular masses.”

‘Positive action’ was quick in coming. At about 5 o’clock that afternoon. Camillo Berneri’s flat at No. 2 Plaza del Angel, was raided by about a dozen men, half of whom were apparently police officers and the remainder PSUC members wearing red armbands. The officer in charge was a plain-clothes police officer from the Generalitat identifiable only by his badge number, 1109. Berneri and Francesco Barbieri, his close friend and comrade, were arrested and charged with ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ and taken away. Their bodies were recovered the following day, one in the Ramblas and the other in the Plaza de la Generalidad.10 Domingo Ascaso and Francisco Martínez of the Libertarian Youth also died as did twelve militants from the San Andrés district who disappeared, only to turn up as mutilated corpses in the cemetery at Sardanola.

Thursday 6 May

The sense of betrayal and disgust felt by the people on the barricades at the appeal by the ‘notables’ to lay down their arms and return to work led many to abandon their position and return home.

A force of 5,000 Assault Guards were rushed from Valencia to assist the Generalidad restore order. Anarchist centres in Reus and Tarragona were attacked and destroyed. That evening communists and Assault Guards launched an attack on the Spartacus barracks, but were repelled by the anarchists. Barricades were again thrown up to resist the renewed attacks on confederal centres throughout the city.

For its part, the Regional Committees of the CNT and FAI denounced the ‘uncontrollable’ Friends of Durruti in the columns of Solidaridad Obrera:

“We are taken aback by some leaflets circulating in the city and endorsed by an entity called ‘The Friends of Durruti’. Its contents are utterly intolerable and contrary to the decision made by the libertarian movement; this obliges us to disown it in full and in public… We of the regional committees of the CNT and FAI are not disposed to let anyone speculate with our organisations, nor may anyone flirt with dubious attitudes or maybe the intrigues of outright agents provocateurs…The General Council having been formed, everyone must accept its decisions for we are all represented in it. Get the guns off the streets…”

The Friends of Durruti responded immediately with another manifesto naming the provocateurs as the PSUC, Estat Catalá, the Esquerra and the Generalidad-controlled security forces:

‘… it is inconceivable that the CNT’s committees should have acted so cravenly as to order a cease fire and indeed have imposed a return to work just when we were on the very brink of total victory… Such conduct must be described as a betrayal of the revolution … We cannot find words to describe the harm done by Solidaridad Obrera and the most outstanding militants of the CNT… The cessation of fighting doesn’t presuppose defeat. Though we may not have achieved our objectives we have increased our weaponry… Let us be on the alert for coming events… Let us not be deluded by the alleged threat of an attack from the ships of the English fleet… Let us not abandon the streets… ‘.

Friday 7 May

On 7 May the CNT’s cease-fire order was repeated, this time with greater emphasis. The commander of the Spartacus barracks, Ricardo Sanz, somewhat reassured by the arrival of an expeditionary force from Valencia commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Porres, former commander of the confederal Tierra y Libertad Column, gave the order to withdraw. In spite of a few minor skirmishes the anarchists had abandoned all their positions by the following morning. Sapped of their fighting spirit by the continued exhortations of the National and Regional Committees disillusionment was widespread. The tragic and bloody ‘May Days’ were over. The national leadership of the CNT and FAI, subverted by power and ably manipulated by the Stalinists and their bourgeois allies, had delivered the coup de grace to the revolution. All that remained to them now was to mop up. The Thalmann’s take up the story:

‘The fighting had ended, the barricades were coming down and, oh miracle!, the trams were running again. On the broad tree-lined Rambla, groups of people were excitedly arguing. Outside the Hotel Falcón, Kurt Landau, Max Diamant, and Willy Brandt were arguing about the meaning of events. Some claimed that the struggle had taken on new revolutionary features but others, more sceptical, believed the opposite, as indeed did we ourselves. We were convinced that a wave of repression would soon follow. Even as we spoke the noise of marching government troops could be heard from afar: in perfect order, with new uniforms and impeccably armed, they came down the main street and marched purposefully towards us. The groups hastily dispersed… ‘ 11

George Orwell was another eyewitness:

‘It must have been late that evening that the troops from Valencia first appeared in the streets. They were the Assault Guards. Quite suddenly they seemed to spring up out of the ground; you saw them everywhere patrolling the streets in groups of ten — tall men in grey or blue uniforms with long rifles slung over their shoulders, and a submachine gun to each group…

‘There was no doubt that the Government was simply making a display of force in order to overawe a population which it already knew would not resist; if there had been any real fear of further outbreaks the Assault Guards would have been kept in barracks and not scattered through the streets in small bands. They were splendid troops, much the best I had seen in Spain, and, though I suppose in a sense they were ‘the enemy’, I could not help liking the look of them. But it was with a sort of amazement that I watched them strolling to and fro. I was used to the ragged, scarcely armed militia on the Aragón front, and I had not known that the Republic possessed troops like these. It was not only that they were picked men physically, it was their weapons that most astonished me. All of them were armed with brand-new rifles of the type known as ‘the Russian rifle’ (these rifles were sent to Spain by the USSR, but were, I believe, manufactured in America).’

The bloody ‘May events’ marked the end of the great social experiment begin in July 1936. They also marked the turning point of the Civil War itself. The PSUC and their Soviet advisers had badly misjudged the situation in Catalonia in their attempt to tip the political balance in Catalonia in their favour. The fragile but fairly cordial thread of unity hitherto existing between the communists and the CNT at national level was broken. From now on unity was to be nothing more than a meaningless propaganda motif, a ploy in partisan proselytism. The common ground, which had held the Republican forces together, was fast disappearing.

Anxious to recuperate what he could from the situation, Stalin immediately selected the POUM as the scapegoats for the ‘May Days’. Pravda of 9 May announced:

‘ … the provocateur’s role played by the Trotskyist-fascist POUM gang in the latest incidents, acting through shadowy contacts with groups of anarchist oafs, a goodly number of Franco’s armed agents among their number, stands clearly exposed.’

The PSUC paper, Treball was more circumspect:

‘ … The principal role in the “putsch” was played by the uncontrollables, manipulated by the fascists and the Trotskyists. Nevertheless, their evil schemes fell on soil made fertile by a certain line of action which, by giving the interests of a so-called “revolution” (which has nothing in common with authentic revolution), priority over the interests of the war, allowed the evil to grow with each day that passed, growing greater and more contagious.’12

Emma Goldman, the anarchist publicist representing the CNT-FAI Committee in London, like many anarchists outside Spain, was shocked by the deeds and words of the CNT ‘notables’ during the ‘May Events’. She voiced her feelings in a fairly muted criticism of the leading members of the CNT-FAI in an article published in Spain and the World (5.2.37). Max Nettlau, anarchist historiographer, wrote angrily, rebuking her for daring to make public her criticism of the movement. In an unpublished letter to Nettlau dated 9 May she unburdened herself of long harboured doubts about what she saw happening in Spain.13

Issue No. 15 of Guerra di Classe, Berneri’s paper, also appeared on 9 May with its analysis of events:

“Having intuitively, instinctively, realised what it would have meant to have allowed the provocation and attempt at occupation by the Assault Guards of the Telephone Exchange to have gone by the way, the Barcelona proletariat has rebelled … without bothering overmuch about whether those in leadership positions in its own organisations approved or disapproved its choice.

‘Once more, and as ever, it has been proven that everything which is living, everything which is of effect in a social upheaval can only be the spontaneous, instinctive expression which proceeds from the grassroots.

‘[They] fought well and would have taken over Barcelona in the first 24 hours… had its magnificent, heroic, irresistible thrust not been brought to a halt by the repeated orders of the leadership groups…’

On 13 May the Minister of the Interior issued a decree disarming all individuals and groups not forming part of the forces of the state. Those who retained their weapons would be charged with treason and rebellion. The Control Patrols were dissolved. Communist ministers Jesús Hernández and Vicente Uribe demanded that the POUM, the chosen scapegoats for the ‘May Days’, be outlawed and its leaders arrested. Largo Caballero, who had been using the POUM as a counterweight to CP influence in the Cabinet, refused to accept that it was a fascist organisation and declared that only the courts had the power to authorise such extreme measures. On 15 May the communist ministers provoked a crisis by walking out of the Cabinet, followed by right wing socialists Prieto, Del Vayo, Giral and Dr. Juan Negrín. The anarchist ministers remained behind. Largo Caballero had been neutralised.

In a letter to Rudolf Rocker dated 14 May, Emma Goldman again expressed her despair at the course of events in Spain:

“…the pact with Russia, in return for a few pieces of arms, has brought its disastrous results. It has broken the backbone of Montseny and Oliver and has turned them into willing tools of Caballero … they have called a retreat and have denounced the militant anarchists to whom the revolution still means something… it is a repetition of Russia with the identical methods used by Lenin against the anarchists and the SRs who refused to barter the revolution for the Brest Litovsk Peace … I have tried and tried to explain and defend the CNT-FAI leaders for entering ministries… although … I saw what the dire consequences will be. I had hoped against hope that the extermination of our comrades and the emasculation of the revolution would not come so soon. That they would hold be held back until Franco’s hordes were driven from the land … the hope which has given me strength to carry on the work here … But the death of Berneri and all the other comrades, and the cowardly stand of Montseny and Oliver and Solidaridad Obrera make it impossible for me to go on as the representative of the CNT-FAI… I am more than ever determined to return to Spain and confront the National Committee of the CNT-FAI for their explanation of the worst betrayal of the revolution since Russia. Ib I fail to get that I shall certainly give up my mandate and retire from, the field of action. Better silence than be a party to the slow bleeding to death of the Spanish revolution.

Of course I may find that the rank and file of the CNT-FAI have retained their revolutionary zeal and fervour. I will work for them, but in no official capacity. Meanwhile I am too grieved and too shaken over Berneri’s death … on the day of the disgraceful demonstration with the Communists, the day of the Russian Revolution, I called a meeting in my room. Berneri was present* He brought me a statement pointing out the blunders of the CNT-FAI, I still have it. But even he was against any public stand against the leaders in our ranks…

I cannot write any more

Emma Goldman’

The first issue of the Friends Of Durruti paper, El Amigo del Pueblo appeared on 20 May with a major public attack on the CNT-FAI leadership, the first of its kind to appear in the columns of an anarchist newspaper. In it they also explained their analysis of the May Events:

‘On many occasions, our group has pointed out the innumerable errors committed by the responsible committees of the CNT. We have likewise stated publicly that their disastrous record over nine consecutive months has frittered away the essence of the July revolution… [Having been denied access to CNT press organs even though they were CNT militants]. We had no option but to bring out a paper which would put us in touch with the workers of the city and countryside… The title we have selected is a symbolic one. L’Ami du Peuple was the mouthpiece of Marat. We have exhumed the title carried by a news sheet which at the end of the 18th century crystallised the rebel spirit of that indomitable figure whose giant stature the passage of time has not erased…

‘The Spanish Revolution has not yet gelled. We find ourselves in a period of indecision, which is specially critical for the development of our country’s economy. To use an analogy, we would go as far as to say that the Spanish workers have not yet left the Kerensky stage behind them. And this is the simple reason why we are becalmed amid a sea of uncertainty and anxiety… In the July days we stopped halfway in deference to the international situation. And through lack of vision and revolutionary sense the reins of power were handed to the counter-revolution, which cannot but be found in the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie. The situation in July was priceless. Who could have resisted the CNT and the FAI, had they chosen to seize the initiative in Catalonia? But instead of making reality of the confederation’s ideas as incarnated in the folds of its red and black flags and the cries of the multitudes, our committees spent their time to’ing and fro’ing between the centres of officialdom, but failing to secure a situation where we held a position befitting our strength in the streets. After a few weeks of hesitation, there came the invitation to share power. We recall that at a Plenum of Regional Committees, it was advocated that a revolutionary organ which, it was decided, would be known as the National Defence Junta at an overall level, with regional junta at local level. But the motions passed were not implemented.     No mention was made of that error, not to say the infringement of the decisions made in the aforementioned Plenum. We went first into the Generalidad government, then, later, into the Madrid one. On what conditions was collaboration agreed? Our strength in the streets and in the workplace did not receive its just recompense. We joined the government without receiving the necessary assurances. No other organisation or party would have accepted a minority share of responsibility when it held an overwhelming majority on the streets. From that moment (which marked a setting aside of our principles) we have gone from error to error. The blunders have been such that we do not know has to describe the conduct of certain comrades who bear the responsibility for the uncertainty in which we find ourselves…

‘We have been labelled as agents provocateurs. Why do they say this of us? Because we have had the effrontery to speak the truth in forthright, plain language! And, much to our regret, we have seen how, even from the pages of our beloved daily Solidaridad Obrera, insults have been hurled at us with increasing venom. And this excess, committed by a man with a fascist background has been taken up by others with a background in the Lerrouixist camp…

‘We are undaunted by the attacks to which we have been subjected. We came into being with the revolutionary zephyr of July for our mantle and we have been fortified by the May incidents. Our aims are revolutionary and anarchist. We shall remain on a war footing until such time as the revolution has taken root. We shall be a dyke against which the counter-revolution will destroy itself…’

Two days later a specially summoned regional Plenum of CNT local and comarcal Federations decided that the charges of ‘betrayal’ made by the Friends of Durruti against the Regional Committees should be debated in the union assemblies. This was not done. Instead the FOD were given 48 hours grace to substantiate their charges. The FOD refused to give such an undertaking insisting that the case be debated as decided. So far as the FOD were concerned, only the general assemblies were empowered to judge on the matter.

The second issue of El Amigo del Pueblo appeared, uncensored, on 26 May. It had gone underground: “The absurd treatment meted out to us by the censors oblige us to give them the slip.”

The governmental crisis was resolved on 27 May when President Azaña called in Juan Negrín to form a new government. Indalecio Prieto was his new Minister of National Defence. Negrín was to become the last prime minister of the Second Spanish Republic. Trotskyist historians Broué and Témime describe Negrín as:

‘… an unconditional defender of capitalist property and resolute adversary of collectivisation, whom the CNT ministers find blocking all of their proposals. He is the one who solidly reorganised the carabineros and presided over the transfer of the gold reserves of the Republic to the USSR. He enjoyed the confidence of the moderates… [ and] was on excellent terms with the Communists.’ Needless to say the CNT was not invited to join the new Cabinet. Its somewhat petulant response to this rebuff was a press statement denouncing ‘any government in which the UGT and CNT were not represented and had been weakened by foreign influence.’

Solidaridad Obrera of 28 May carried a statement from the Regional Committees of the CNT and FAI notifying both organisations, ‘confederal and anarchist that all members of the Friends of Durruti association’ who do not publicly dissociate themselves from the stance adopted by said grouping were to be expelled.

The Italian Communist Party paper in France, Il Grido del Popolo carried an article on Camillo Berneri, referring to him as: ‘… one of the leaders of the Friends of Durruti group which… provoked the bloody uprising against the Popular Front government in Catalonia’ and who ‘… got his just deserts during that revolt from the Democratic Revolution whose right of self defence no antifascist can deny.’ That same day two members of the Friends of Durruti group, Joaquín Aubi and Rosa Muñoz, published a letter in Solidaridad Obrera which gives an indication as to the overriding importance ascribed by the CNT rank-and-file to the organisation. They stated that although publicly obliged to renounce the group:

‘…being against the power struggle which it is waging against the specific and confederal bodies… we continue to look upon the comrades belonging to the Friends of Durruti as comrades but the CNT was our womb and it shall also be our tomb.’

During the course of a number of public meetings at the end of May, the CNT ministers gave an account of their achievements in government. It was an unconvincing attempt to present the state, because of the ‘anarchist’ involvement’, as having been transformed. Their experiences in government had perverted their thinking out of all ideological shape. At one such meeting Federica Montseny stated:

‘…Since the CNT chose to enter the government out of a sense of responsibility, and because of its useful conduct and the work it has unflinchingly seen through, a new future opens before the world because the French CGT has stated that trade union representation in the government, the practice of having UGT and CNT representatives in the government, was something of fundamental importance signifying to the world, as it did, the involvement of the labouring masses in the tasks of government… ‘

She went on, plumbing further depths, speaking of the new society:

‘… Who builds it? It is the handiwork of the workers, the producers, those who extract ore from the mine’s depths, those who operate the machines in the factories, who shape the iron in the workshops, those who drag the machines through the streets. The workers by hand and brain, those who labour with a constructive outlook, a sense of responsibility, having immersed themselves as a class in the work of government.’ Later, she posed the question: ‘Do you think it possible or feasible that one can govern today after the style of political parties, disregarding the responsibility in government and the collaboration in government today — and let it, in days to come — whilst taking no account of the organisations, and none of the unions? No, it is no longer possible to do so. Not a thing can they do against us or without us…’

The May Days — Aftermath

Most statistics concerning casualties refer only to the days of actual fighting and do not take into account the murders and ‘disappearances’ in the repression that followed, nor the wounded who may have died. Most authors give figures of between 400 and 500 dead and 1,000 wounded, except for Souchy who talks about 1,500 wounded and the Soviet writer, Maidanik, who cites a figure of 950 dead and 2,600 wounded. There were, however, other casualties. Soviet diplomats Rosenberg, Antonov-Ovseenko, Alexander Orlov, and GPU chief Petrov were immediately recalled by Stalin and summarily shot on their return to Moscow.

Prisoners taken by the anarchists and held in the premises of the various Defence Committees in the different quarters were quickly released. This was not the case with many well-known libertarian militants taken by the other side. According to Augustin Souchy:

‘…some problems’ were encountered in the cases of Paules de Toro, José Dominguez, Antonio Igñacil and Francisco Sarqueda who were still being held in the Karl Marx barracks on 13 May. At least nine anarchists also remained prisoners in the headquarters of the PSUC Central Committee. A further three CNT and FAI militants were held in the Estat Catalá building in the Rambla. There were also countless others held in the Generalidad Palace as well as in police headquarters where upwards of 200 anarchist militants were in custody. Many of these subsequently disappeared.’

The Soviet view of the ‘May events’ was substantially different from other accounts. Former Soviet ambassador to the Non-Intervention Committee in London, Ivan Maisky, recalled in his Spanish Notebooks (pp 122-123):

‘…on 3 May, large detachments of anarcho-syndicalists disarmed the Assault Guards and advanced towards the centre of the city …The putschists seized the Telephone Exchange, mounted machine guns on the roofs of houses and posted snipers in scattered positions…’

Soviet general Pavel Batov’s account in Beneath the Flag of the Spanish Republic is equally unlikely, talking as it does of the disorder following the attempted ‘Trotskyist putsch’ being “suppressed by the workers from the factories and firms in Barcelona.”(Moscow 1967, p. 253).

In a later recollection of ‘the Barcelona putsch’ Spanish Stalinist Santiago Carrillo in Demain LEspagne (1974), refers to ‘… internal contradictions of the Soviet revolutionary process… carried over into the international plane.’ In an attempt to absolve himself of guilt he digs himself in deeper:

‘… to the eyes of the army and the people as a whole this putsch, bringing together a small group of anarchists and Trotskyists, looked like a counter-revolutionary move aimed at breaching the front and easing the fascist offensive. Franco boasted of having agents among the putschists … of course, I don’t believe now that Nin was in Burgos or Berlin. I believe there is a possibility that he may have been executed in our zone. But at the time, in the aftermath of a putsch like that I granted (because it never really came up as a topic for discussion between us) that Nin might have escaped and gone over to the other side, as the bulk of opinion believed. And the putsch in May 1937 only confirmed us in our belief that Trotskyists were counter-revolutionists.’

Briefly, on the question of fascist involvement in provoking the events of May, Von Faupel, Hitler’s ambassador in Burgos claimed responsibility, through his agents in Barcelona, in a report to Berlin on 13 May. This report is not substantiated by the man in charge of Franco’s intelligence operations in Catalonia, José Bertran y Musitú, who makes no reference to nationalist agents being involved in any way in his memoirs, Experiencia de los Servicios de Informacion del Nordeste de Espana durante la guerra, Madrid, Espasa Calpe, 1940.

Interestingly, Palmiro Togliatti, former editor of the Turin communist daily, LOrdine Nuovo, and a member of the Comintern who had led the accusations of Trotskyist involvement with fascists was one of the sixty signatories of an ‘Appeal to Fascists’ which had been published in the August 1936 issue of the Italian Communist Party journal Lo Stato Operaio. The October issue of this journal reported a PCI meeting in Paris where the platform banner read ‘Reconciliation and Union of the Italian people.’ Party policy was aimed at reconciling and uniting ‘the Italian people — fascists and non-fascists.’ On 17 April 1936, French communist leader Maurice Thorez offered the ‘hand of friendship’ to former servicemen who had joined the ‘Croix de Feu’ (Cross of Fire). Communist overtures to the fascists continued to appear in the Lo Stato Operaio until February 1937.


1          Mintz and Peciña.

2       Combats pour la liberte: Moscou-Madrid-Paris, Pavel and Clara Thalmann, Paris, 1983.

3          La Noche, 30 April 1937.

4       In an interview with Solidaridad Obrera published on 13 May, Diego Abad de Santillán stated: ‘There is no doubt that the recent events were the result of a deliberate plot, such has never been seen before in the history of the social movement. This is plain from the fact that two weeks before they happened, people were talking about them in foreign diplomatic circles and were prepared for their occurrence. It was discussed there quite openly ‘that now the CNT-FAI had been forced out of the leading positions in Madrid and Valencia the anarchists in Catalonia were to be given a fight. The same statements were being made in Paris by persons very close to the Catalan government. And how else can one explain the sudden arrival of foreign warships in our harbour just a few hours before the outbreak of hostilities? Is not another proof that we are here dealing with a plan determined in advance? Long before the first shot was discharged in Barcelona, English and French cruisers were hurrying toward the port as if they had a prophetic presentiment of the things to come. If one takes all this into consideration, one asks oneself how much faith in the triumph of the anti-Fascist cause still exists, among those people who invoke foreign protection against the workers of their own country?’

5          C. and P. Thalmann, op. cit.

6          Umanità Nova, 20 December 1964.

7          Interviú, Barcelona, 6 June 1984.

8          André Prudhommeaux, ‘LEspagne Nouvelle’, 18 February 1938.

9          Paul and Clara Thalmann, op. cit.

10     Carlos Rama has suggested that Mussolini’s OVRA agents, were responsible for these murders. The CNT, for its part, accused Aiguadé. Personally, I am more inclined to accept Frank Mintz’s view that the order was given by Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian communist party leader, because of Berneri’s outstanding intellectual influence within the Italian left.

11        Treball, 13 May 1937.

12        See Background papers.

13        See Background papers.