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THE ECHO OF CRUTCHES An Approximation of the career of Manuel Escorza del Val 1936-1937 by Dani Capmany. Translated by Paul Sharkey

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The echo of crutches. An approximation of the career of Manuel Escorza del Val (1936-1937) by Dani Capmany (translated by Paul Sharkey) is the first profile of the mysterious Manuel Escorza del Val, head of the CNT-FAI Investigation Commission — the Catalan anarchist security and intelligence service, the Servicio de Información y Coordinación (SIC) — and the Control Patrols (Patrullas de Control) during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. Capmany’s comprehensive collation of the historiography and published information covers the period from July 1936 through to the Stalinist/Catalanist coup of May 1937, the ‘Events of May’ that effectively ended all hopes of a libertarian social revolution in Spain and, in my opinion, possibly robbed the Republic of victory over Franco.

 

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The time-frame of Capmany’s book, unfortunately, doesn’t extend to Escorza’s questionable role in the subsequent period up to February 1939, or its immediate aftermath under the aegis of the self-appointed Executive Council of the MLE (the Spanish Libertarian Movement in Exile) of which he was a member — in particular his collusion in the murder attempt by the SIC’s foreign intelligence service (headed by Escorza’s brother-in-law José Minué) against two outstanding comrades who had escaped to France (on the orders of Federica Montseny, Germinal Esgleas, and CNT secretary-general Mariano R. Vázquez): Antonio Ortiz, who led the Second Column out of Barcelona on 24 July, to the Aragon Front, and later commanded the 25th Army Division; and Joaquín Ascaso Budria, the anarcho-syndicalist president of the Regional Defence Council of Aragón (seen as a threat by the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT). Also unanswered is Escorza’s role in syphoning off the CNT-FAI funds and assets. In January that year at least 6 million in French francs, gold ingots, share certificates, works of art and jewellery were smuggled into France on Mariano Vázquez’s instructions. The last sighting of the CNT’s treasure-laden caravan of six trucks and a car was at the Chateau d’Aubiry in Céret (Pyrénées-Orientales). Passengers in the car included Mariano Vázquez, Federica Montseny and her partner, Germinal Esgleas.

Cast by his enemies and a number of fellow anarchists as a latter-day Robespierre (or Beria, as do I, at least until further evidence comes to light!), Manuel Escorza del Val’s physical handicaps (polio, dependency on crutches, hunched back, etc.), together with the impunity with which he and José Minué operated, make him the ideal villain. Author Dani Capmany believes otherwise and is critical of the myths and ‘half-truths’ circulated about the ‘sinister’ and ‘bloodthirsty ogre’ that his contemporary Garciá Oliver made Escorza out to be. Certainly, he had to deal with all kinds of threats: Francoist, Catalanist, Stalinist, Nazi, Italian, British, French, Roman Catholic agents, provocateurs and plain old-fashioned criminals, etc. — to say nothing of imposing Regional Committee discipline on the CNT union’s own refractory revolutionary rank-and-file. That — at least for an anarchist — in no way excuses his later behaviour, although the bureaucratically, morally and ethically corrupting nature of his job does help explain it. Even granting the argument that Escorza and his comrades were brave and principled men with lofty motives, their closed society and self-appointed elitism inevitably created a distorted outlook which in turn distanced and alienated them from their original idealism.

Count Windischgratz, an astute observer of human nature and the activities of secretive societies, wrote in 1788: “They are likely to encourage habits of mind and behaviour destructive of attention to the ordinary moral and social duties. The danger of degeneration from the high ideals of a secret brotherhood will always be present because of the difficulties of reconciling the secret obligations to the society with the outside world. Claims to use the opportunities of secret organisations for the preparation of the regeneration of the world are always to be regarded as dubious, given men’s ordinary weaknesses.”