This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 42 and 43: The May Days of Barcelona 1 – 15 May 1937

Barcelona, May 1937

The Barcelona Generalitat is run by members of many political groups as they fight to both repel the Franco Nationalist invasion, and cope with anarchist-led social revolution, giving workers and the poor equal rights and freedoms. Many sub-groups and belief systems also exist, but to simplify, listed are the major players, in which all these smaller groups are affiliated. All groups are either left-wing, or centre-left, all battling against Franco and fascism, but have been infighting in Barcelona

CNT – Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Labour, a powerful anarchist workers’ union, enacting social revolution and the downfall of the rich bourgeoisie. Aligned to Republican Socialist government but only out of necessity for survival
.
FAI – Federación Anarquista Ibérica, Iberian Anarchist Federation, anarchist workers’ union, heavily sided with the CNT
.
UGT – Unión General de Trabajadores, General Union of Workers, Socialist workers’ union aligned with government after breaking away from the CNT. Not heavily involved with social revolution but pro-workers’ rights
.
POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, a Communist group also aligned with Troksyists. They wish to promote Communist freedoms but reject Stalin and Soviet Communism
.
FIJL – Federación Ibérica de Juventudes Libertarias, Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, a group of young people believing in social revolution and freedom, aligned with the CNT
.
PSUC- Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya, Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, a member of the Comintern, International Communism, supported by Stalin. The rich bourgeoisie support the party as they seek to regain control over Spain. Keen to destabilise the Republican government in order to take over when all is destroyed
.
PCE – Partido Comunista de España, Communist Party of Spain, the largest national Communist party in Spain, including the Communist workers’ unions
.
Estat Català – Catalan State, pro-independence group. Supportive of the Catalonian government, but opposed to power given to the Anarchist workers’ unions. Torn internally between supporting the government and overthrowing it for total control
.
Generalitat de Catalunya, the Socialist government of Catalonia, which controls the city of Barcelona and all regions of Catalonia independently from Spain
.
Second Spanish Republic – the Spanish Republican government, led by Prime Minister Largo Caballero, currently housed in Valencia during the war against Franco, and supporting the Catalonian government. Made up of all political parties fighting against Franco’s Nationalists, but struggling on the frontlines and internally
May 1

The May Day parades are canceled in Barcelona by the CNT and UGT, to avoid riots and clashes. Since the victory for the workers’ unions in Catalonia at the outbreak of war, infighting between leftist factions have been escalating. The Anarchists have established social revolution in rural Catalonia and Aragon, which is coming under constant fire from Communists who oppose social revolution and promote government-led societies. The CNT, FAI and UGT workers unions have been working as part of the Catalonian government alongside the Communists, who fear anarchism (and their hatred of leaders and leadership roles). The Spanish PCE Communist group, along with Soviet-doctrine PSUC Communists have been pushing back against the Anarchists for months in the Catalonian regions. The Marxist POUM have sided with the Anarchists, despite their Soviet roots. Constant outbreaks of fighting have resulted in deaths, and tensions have been growing all year. Leaders and prominent men in all parties have been targeted, many killed in assassinations.

May 2

The Patrullas de Control, Control Patrols, made up of men from all unions, maintain the fragile peace in Barcelona, but are losing control. Errant Civil Guards and Communist gunmen are killing people around the city. Rather than working together, all these leftists groups are splitting apart for power. Spanish President Azaña tries to call Lluís Companys, leader of the Catalan government, but is cut off by workers at the telephone exchange, stating lines are too important for their conversations. Marine and Air Minister Prieto calls from Valencia, only to be told that the Catalans have no government anymore, only a defense committee.

Shooting breaks out on the streets in central Barcelona between pro-independence Catalan State members and anarchist FAI men, who lose a man in the shooting. These outbreaks have become common in resent months.

May 3

The strategic Telefonica building, controlled by the CNT and UGT, is attacked at 3pm. Around 200 guards from the Communist-led police units, under orders from Catalan government members, storm the building. Anarchist guards armed with machine guns manage to repel the Communists, who only claim the first floor of the building. This outbreak of shooting marks the start for other fighting to break out through the city. Hastily made barricades go up in the streets, Communist men occupy tall buildings and bell towers at churches, and start shooting at everyone they can find. CNT, FAI and UGT supporters are targeted, along with the Marxist POUM members. Check points are set up to arrest anyone a member of the CNT or POUM. The army stays neutral but CNT and POUM officers are arrested. Together, the Control Patrol and police leaders, both CNT sympathisers, go to the telephone exchange and appeal for calm. Catalan government leader Companys had no prior knowledge of the outbreak but sides with the police and patrols. The CNT and FAI are forced to get their own union members to maintain peace and calm in the city.

By nightfall, the Catalan State and PSUC Communists have the centre of Barcelona. The CNT have the suburbs and the western portion of the city itself. The POUM, along with the Bolshevik-Leninists and Libertarian Youths are all barricaded in within central Barcelona. The POUM propose an alliance between groups to gain control over the Communists, with no success. Gunfire continues in the city centre, where all parties have their headquarters, while the telephone building is at a truce, to allow vital communications to continue.

May 4

Buildings are barricaded shut in Barcelona, and shops are closed to keep people safe. Only gunfire can be heard through the city. The police seize the Justice building and several CNT bases around the city. Civil war inside civil war is threatening to break out. CNT members in the government meet with other groups at 11am, eager to promote calm. CNT leaders appeal for their members, via radio and newspaper, to lay down weapons and go back to their lives, while executive leaders of the CNT and arrive in Barcelona to plea for peace.

Word comes in that Communist-led military units are not going to abandon the frontlines and come to Barcelona, giving hope to calm. But at 5pm, a CNT car is stopped by Catalan State and PSUC Communists at a barricade as they attempt to get to the CNT-FAI headquarters. All CNT men surrender but are gunned down on the main street of Via Durruti (Via Laietana). Shootings have been breaking out all day, and among them are the deaths of the Aragon Defence Council president Joaquín Ascaso and famous libertarian Domingo Ascaso, family to famed Francisco Ascaso, killed last July. The POUM are openly supporting the Anarchists and Libertarians, and call for a general truce throughout Barcelona in defiance of the Communist uprising.

May 5

Overnight the entire Catalan government has resigned. Each faction in the city is given one member each in a provisional government to negotiate peace. But assault guards attack the Medical Union building in Plaza Santa Ana and the Libertarian Youth building where six men are killed. The CNT-FAI put out more men and armoured cars to protect their headquarters and members, but many Anarchists are trapped and killed around the city. While a truce is called by leaders in negotiations, the units are no longer taking orders from any one person and are impossible to control, and fighting continues.

May 6

Around 5,000 neutral troops, chosen evenly among their units to promote neutral agreements, start arriving from Valencia. They quickly occupy much of the central city, and barricades are abandoned in the streets. The CNT officers reclaim the telephone exchange. While anarchist left-wing parties are facing backlash all over Spain, many of these neutral officers are CNT members and are keen to salute their headquarters as they take over Barcelona.

May 7

Troops from the Jarama frontlines are in the region now, taking control of the area as Barcelona finally stops fighting. The CNT calls for everyone to lay down arms and return to work, but assault guards new to the Catalonia region are still killing and arresting CNT, FAI, UGT, Libertarian Youth and POUM members. The arrests are illegal and they are held in Communist-led military barracks, secret prisons and police stations. Over the past several days, 500 are killed and another 1500 injured.

May 8

Peace has been restored in the city, along with the Barcelona and Tarragona regions of Catalonia, with all anarchist groups defeated. Barcelona police find twelve bodies, all young men who have been mutilated. They had been arrested on May 4, pulled from a CNT truck outside Communist barracks. Cesar Fernández Neri, Jose Villena, Juan Antonio, and Luis Carneras are identified, but the other eight are too badly mutilated to be named. Also found is popular Italian anarchist Professor Berneri and two friends, found dead in a Communist barracks building.

May 11

The Communist PCE and PSUC lay the blame on the May Days on the small POUM, for supporting Anarchism instead of Communism. The Spanish Prime minister Largo Caballero disagrees, but he is losing power against the Communists. The Anarchists are reeling from the fighting in their home power base, knowing they cannot hold power alone and need alliances to continue social revolution, but the Communists are constantly gaining strength.

May 13

The Communists are still pushing blame on the POUM, now claiming they are fascists for Franco. They have also made the same accusation at the social revolution Anarchists who hold control over Aragon. While peace is restored, the hatred between groups continues to swirl.

May 15

Prime Minister Largo Caballero resigns from his post, now having no alliance with either Anarchists, Socialists or Communists. A member of the centre-left PSOE, Juan Negrín, is appointment Prime Minister, and selects a group of ministers from all groups, Republicans, Communists, Socialists and Basque men to form the government. The CNT however are now cut out entirely from Spain’s government, despite having huge support around the country. The Anarchists are quickly losing strength and the POUM is about to be outlawed completely in Barcelona and around Spain.

~~

This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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