This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since the Guernica Bombing

26 April 1937 – Guernika-Luma, a Basque town of 7,000 people, entered the history books when it was attacked by the German Condor Legion (aided by the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria) fighting on behalf of Franco’s Nationalist forces. The small town of Guernica, in the Biscay region of the Basque Country was a communication hub for the Basque fighters, who had sided with the Republican forces since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Guernica, the spiritual home to the Basque people, became a target for a sustained and pre-panned terrorist bombing, where civilians, not military targets, would be bombed, to inflict devastation and murder. Operation Rügen would go down in history as a horrific slaughter of innocents which would shock the world, and single itself out as a vile test run for what Germany would inflict throughout Europe only a few years later.

Guernica is a town just inland from the Bay of Biscay, and just 30 kilometres from the Basque capital of Bilbao. The area had been under intense stress from the War of the North, carried out by the Nationalists in the months leading up to the bombing, hot on the heels of years of struggle for the Basque people. Guernica is the home of the Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika), the symbol of freedom to the Biscayan and Basque people. Guernica was also home to a manufacturing plant which produced firearms to the police and military, which became a vital resource during the Spanish Civil War, when the Basque Army supported the Republicans’ cause over Franco’s Nationalist rebels.

By April 1937, the Basque Country was under constant bombardment by the Nationalist advance, coming at them on all fronts. The small Basque Army, set up by the independent Basque Government, sought to protect the Biscaya and Guipuzcoa regions. With the Basque capital of Bilbao only 30 kilometres west, Guernica was vital in protecting the capital, and also a point where Republicans could retreat to if needed. Throughout the war, Guernica had no seen direct front-line fighting, though 23 Basque battalions were now nearby to the east. The area had no airforce protection, no air base and only room to house two battalions if needed.

The attack on the Basque Country has been planned a month earlier by Franco, in conjunction with murderous General Mola, who lead the northern army, along with the German Condor Legion. The town of Durango suffered civilian bombing on March 31, part of a test run of killing innocents, and troops starting pouring into the region. Many people sought refuse in the town of Guernica, away from the fighting. But eventually, there was nowhere else to flee as the Republian and Basque fighters were slowly beaten back by the Nationalist forces. General Mola planned a devastating attack on Guernica, all done with Franco’s blessing. They planed for 21 German and three Italian bombers, carrying 22 tonnes of bombs, to be dropped on innocent people.

Monday was market day in the town of Guernica. While market days had been largely banned or discouraged in the region for safety, people still needed supplies. Monday 26 April was a typical Monday market day which could see up to 10,000 people in the town from surrounding areas, all in the main plaza. Coupled with around 1,000 refugees from the area, the town was full, the roads more congested than usual.

At 4.30pm, the first wave of bombers came from the north from over the Bay of Biscay, along the Urdaibai estuary which connects Guernica to the sea. The initial plan was to cut off bridges to block movements in the area with two 50 kg bombs, while the Italian bombers dropped another 36 50kg bombs on people. The first wave took only a minute, destroying bridges and the San Juan church and Republican Left headquarters, as the people of the town looked to take cover in panic. For the next 90 minutes, another four waves of attack would fly over the town, this time dropping bombs at random, killing innocent people, all cowering for cover in a town overfilled with people trying to buy and sell food. Guernica had no strategic assets to be captured, nor had seen any major wartime fighting, and was totally obliterated without warning or reasoning.

The people of Guernica were given 30 minutes of silence at around 6pm, thinking the bombing was complete. But by 6.30pm, the bombers were back in formation again, spread out over 150 metres, to drop the remainder of their arsenal. Then in came German biplanes, to bomb streets leading out of the town and machine-gun down people fleeing the carnage over a brutal 15 minute period. This cruel attack on civilians would have a larger impact than Franco could have anticipated.

This short space of time saw 75 percent of the town reduced to rubble. While the raid was considered a failure, as it was supposed to have been a military, not civilian attack, to bomb the area and cut off the Republican fighters from communications and reinforcements in Bilbao. As a result for the killings, within days, the Nationalists were able to swarm the area, not that they was much left to ‘conquer’. The firearm manufacturing plant was saved, as planned, along with the Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika) and its government building. The town had become a testing ground for what would go on to be labelled carpet bombing, or blitz bombing, a popular tactic by German planes.

News quickly spread about the horrific acts at Guernica. First spreading through Europe and then the rest of the world, the Nationalists were branded as murders and barbarians (which should have been obvious already) as the blatant killing of innocents became apparent. Franco quickly had to have the propaganda dialled up, and denied the Nationalists’ own involvement, and claimed the Republicans destroyed the own town and killed their own people while in retreat from ground troops. Germany claimed no knowledge of the attack, claiming to have bombed a strategic bridge, the rest nothing to do with them. No such luck; journalists in the area were quick to file stories on the truth of Guernica.

But in the aftermath, the death toll was hard to quantify. The Basque government were unable to do much in way of assistance as Nationalists forced swarmed the area, and they made no attempt to calculate the dead and injured. Many left to die in the rubble were never accounted for, likewise the number of people who fled the region, never to return.

For decades the number of killed sat at 1,654, another 889 injured. A British journalist for The Times was in the area, and also came up with similar numbers. These incorrect figures became commonly adopted as accurate, though with the Nationalists not helping the wounded when then they invaded, and without proper funerals and records, there was no official death and injury toll. Even in the 1970’s the Nationalists were still denying everything and claimed only a dozen people were killed. Without further details coming to light over the years, historians now recognise the number of dead about approximately 300. A comprehensive study in the region in the 1980’s suggested 153, based on what records survived, with another 592 people who either died or recovered in Bilbao’s nearby hospital. While in context with many atrocities which occurred in Europe over intervening years make the numbers appear ‘small’, the casualty rate per bomb was much higher than many carpet bombings to come in the future, setting Guernica apart for yet another reason.

British journalist George Steer reported the story to the world, Guernica on the front pages in England for over a week as the horrors emerged. Cartoons emerged of the Basque ‘holy city’ being crushed by Hitler and his bloody swords in the US. The fact Guernica had no military targets quickly turned on the panic in many around the world, as people realised nothing was safe anymore. Guernica became a symbol of international horror and innocent suffering as deviant fascists sought to kill and destroy all in their way.

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing, Germany formally apologised for their role in the massacre, and in 2003, Guernica was commemorated alongside Dresden at the own commemorations, for suffering such a similar attack, but far less honoured and remembered. On Guernica’s 70th anniversary, officials in Hiroshima spoke of Guernica’s legacy in line with their own experiences. It has been suggested that Guernica be the world capital for peace.

For all the historical significance, the destruction and most importantly, the death toll, Guernica is probably best known internationally due to the Picasso painting of the same name. Picasso, living in exile in Paris, had been commissioned for war painting three months prior, and when he hard of Guernica, all of Picasso’s ideas were scraped for the depiction of those suffering. To Picasso, to bomb women and children was  to victimize humanity. The painting was complete by June 3. In black and white, the painting shows innocents dying, along with the Spanish symbols of the horse and bull, as Spain is ruined, along with tiny symbols of hope trying to shine through while destruction comes from all angles. When German soldiers came into Picasso’s Paris apartment years later during WWII, and was asked if he did the work, he told the Nazi’s – ‘no, you did’. Guernica traveled the world but was not able to return to Spain until 1981 when freedom was achieved for the Spanish people. It now sits in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid (if you haven’t been, you should).

After the bombing of Guernica, the town was in flames, seen 10 miles (16 kilometres) away, according to George Steer, as buildings continued to crumble and crush the injured and trapped. Yet, pilots who belonged to the Condor Legion, whom Franco let practice on his own people, received a mausoleum in La Almudena in Madrid. Many vicious men from the war were revered in Spain, these plaques and statues and memorials removed over the years. To mark the 80th anniversary of Guernica, the mausoleum in La Almudena for fallen Condor Legion pilots was quietly removed, to be replaced with simple names. No more “Here rest the German pilots who fell in the struggle for a free Spain. German aviators who died for God and for Spain”. The plaque had been removed in the past but had been quietly replaced by those who still love Franco and all that happened in his name.  It has taken 80 years for this last sign of pro-German acts to be removed. The wounds on Guernica will never fully heal.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the 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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This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since the Bombing of Durango

The Nationalists had tried everything to get into Madrid. Both the city and surroundings areas in all directions had already been bombarded by March 1937, eight months since the start of the SCW. Franco decided to turn his attention away from the broken yet defiant capital, and launched a new War on the North. General Emilio Mola y Vidal, who was named the leader of the north during the war while Franco commanded the south, decided to wipe out the Basque country. He already had launched offensives throughout the Basque region while basing himself in Burgos (160 kilometres south of the Basque city of Bilbao). Mola decided to deploy 50,000 troops and multiple German planes, but this time had a new plan – to launch ‘terror attacks’, where he would have his men attack civilians instead of military targets. This time, innocents were to be targeted, to inspire fear, to make the Republican held areas cower to the will of the Nationalists, or be hunted down and murdered.

The town of Durango was marked as the test target. Just 30 kilometres south of Bilbao, Durango was a small village, typical of the region and Spain as a whole. With 10,000 people, it was a rail stop between Bilbao and the front lines of the war. While it had no military operations, it was in Republican territory and ripe for attack. Mola wanted to burn the entire province of Vizcaya to the ground for being in Republican territory.

At 8.30am, inhabitants were at Mass at the Santa Maria basilica in the centre of town, and in the basilica arcade, where the local market was held. Five bombers, German Ju-52’s flown by the Condor Legion and Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.8’s flown by the  Aviazione Legionaria, set out and used the basilica as the focal point. A direct hit was scored from the very beginning; the priest and 26 worshippers were bombed to pieces. The nearby cloister was also destroyed, killed all 14 nuns inside. The market was also hit directly, killing all those looking for food, others killed by falling buildings and horrific injuries from which they could not recover. A total of 281 bombs were dropped on Durango, almost 15,000kg of explosives. Just over 200 buildings were destroyed, though some have been rebuilt and their shrapnel wounds are still visible today.

The initial bombing sent the people first into panic, followed by a desperate attempt to rescue those under rubble once the bombers disappeared again. Word spread outside the village; Bilbao received news of the bombings, and send ambulances, doctors and police to help the stricken people of Durango. The tiny village of Ellorrio, ten kilometres from Durango, with no military targets at all, and just a few thousand civilians, was also bombed, like a cruel parting shot at the region.

As help from Bilbao tried to get to Durango and people rushed around their village to save as many as they could, the worst was not over. By 5.30pm that same afternoon, the planes returned, this time accompanied by eight Heinkel He-51 fighter bombers, equipped with machine guns. Bombs were dropped to stop those from Bilbao getting to Durango, and the people of the town were machine-gunned down as they tried to help the injured and those trapped in rubble. By the end of the day 250 were dead, with another 100 to die of their injuries, and 200 homes reduced to rubble.

Killings and executions were common by now in Spain; Durango itself had previously carried out executions on Nationalist sympathisers for earlier bombings of Republicans in their small town. Between this ugliness and the front line deaths, Spain was growing used to fear. But now Mola had ushered in a whole new era. Durango became the first place in Europe to be targeted to kill civilians and not military targets. A whole new world of death was born that day in Durango.

Nationalists denied their role entirely. Mola, and Franco henchman General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano said that the Republicans attacked and killed the priest, nuns and the churches of the village, as had happened in other places. They claimed their planes were looking for military targets and it was Cocialists and Communists who came out and used the opportunity to murder innocents.

By April 28, Nationalists soldier had entered Durango and taken over the area. By then, Mola and his killers had stepped up their missions and bombed Guernica (which needs a long post on its own on its commemoration date).

Where the bombs hit in the centre of the Durango old town is now a site for historical memory, and commemorated every 31 March.

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

This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years since the Málaga-Almería Massacre

‘The Moors are coming’

By January 1937, the Spanish Civil War already six months old, and the southern region of Andalucía had already been through its fair share of horrors. With much of the area sided with the Republicans, the Nationalists, led by fascist Franco (and his German and Italian allies) were hot on ripping through Andalucía and ruling the area, and were having great success. In January, General Queipo de Lllano, who had already enjoyed mass executions through Andalucía, was named head of the Army of the South, a division of 15,000 troops, made up of Spanish soldiers and Moorish fighters from Morocco, based in Seville. They were aided by Italian men brought in from Cadiz, 10,000 ‘Blackshirts’, and were ordered to take Málaga on the southern coast, picking up Granada, Marbella and Ronda on the way, along with the surrounding rural areas.

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The city of Málaga, population 250,000, plus another 90,000 who had fled there from the countryside, saw no immediate reason to worry, and their 12,000 Republican militia (only 8,000 armed) did not take up any training, dug in no trenches, set up no road blocks and manned no hilltop lookouts. They simply did not have the manpower or supplies to defend themselves. The Nationalists were battle-hardened men who had no problem killing brutally, particularly the Moorish soldiers, who had committed horrid crimes elsewhere in Spain.

The attack began on February 3, 1937 when Ronda was defeated by Nationalist troops, leading them right to Málaga, coming from the west. The Italian troops, who had entered the region from the northern hills, arrived on February 6. At that point, all the people of the city could either fight or flee. Through the day on February 7, the Republican fighters were torn apart by the onslaught of the Nationalists, and executions began. It mattered little whether you were a militiaman or not, you were executed. Women were raped brutally, and then shot if the rape didn’t kill them. Children were killed in the crossfire or just killed as collateral damage. February 8 marked the official fall of Málaga, completely swamped with Nationalist soldiers and bombed from the air by German and Italian planes. Boats offshore also bombarded the city. Around 4,000 people were killed in the initial executions alone, though exact numbers are not possible.

The people of Málaga had only one way to go; east along the coast towards the haven of Almería, an area relatively safe at this point in the war. But Almería was 220km (135 miles) along the N-340. It is unknown precisely how many people tried to flee, either on foot, donkey or by truck (until petrol ran out anyway), though an estimate by Contemporary History professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto is 100,000 now-refugees.

By dawn on February 8, the city was Nationalist territory, and many of the people who fled were around 30 kilometres east in Torre del Mar, walking the sparse road. Trucks that ambled past were loaded with children, parents eager to get them to safety any way possible, begging the trucks to take children from their arms as they walked. They had to walk with everything they owned, clothes, bedding, sewing machines, tools, water, anything they had, strapped and carried by their bodies or donkeys. But the walk was not their only problem. General Queipo de Llano was not content with taking the city and executing those who didn’t flee. The refugees would be chased.

As people trekked the winding, hilly, unsealed road, the troops were making their way behind them, swift and trained for marching. Then bombing from the air along the road began. People had nowhere to hide – caves, ditches, rocks, anything had to be used for defense as the Nationalists looked to wipe out the lot. The 16-kilometre stretch between Nerja (55 kilometres east of Málaga) and La Herradura suffered a terrible fate as the first wave of civilians were attacked, bodies littering the road as they were defenseless from the air. Parents were forced to dig with their hands and bury their children. People pressed themselves against cliff-faces in the hope of safety and died on the spot. Gutters filled with bodies as they fell from the roadside. Whole extended families were found lying together, all dead, and some with children left alive, picked up by other people strong enough to carry an extra person. The bridge over the Guadalfeo River, 90 kilometres from Málaga, was bombed, sending innocent refugees into the water and drowned at nightfall.

By the time the refugees arrived in Motril, 95 kilometres from Málaga, the International Brigades were there to help defend them against the Nationalists, but many refugees were now injured, starving and exhausted, and still had a long way to go, with family members left dead on the roadside. None would return until the end of the war, some remained in exile for life. Reports state that skeletons of the people killed on that dusty stretch were still to be found on the roadside until the mid-1960’s. No one wanted to go home along the N-340, and the whole incident was silenced.

One man became well-known in the mess, a Canadian named Norman Bethune. A doctor and ambulance driver, he was in Spain to fight fascism as an international volunteer. His ambulance raced back and forth along this road, trying to save all he could. To read about Bethune, try ‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read. It’s a shame the locals who suffered this event were not so well-known, their stories limited to tales told between generations until recently.

Professors at the University of Málaga estimate over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives. Bodies were not properly buried or treated, so the exact figure can never be established. Those killed and buried along the roadside are still left there today. Ten years ago, the Diputación de Málaga opened its archives for professors to complete historical memory works on the massacre in the area, to accompany the stories of 400 people who came forward with their personal accounts of the event.

The Malaga-Almeria massacre is commemorated at Torre del Mar, considered a halfway point along the road where the massacre took place, on February 7, the date people began to flee their homes in Málaga. This attack was almost a practice, a prelude to many atrocities that would go on to occur in WWII. The damage done to the people of Málaga, the towns that were in the firing line towards Almeria, and the whole rural region itself is unimaginable, and how it shaped and changed the lives and lifestyle of following generation in the area has been largely ignored until recent times.

If you are interested and can read Spanish, the book by professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto from the University of Malaga is Poblacion y Guerra Civil en Málaga: Caido Exodo y Refugio, an excellent book, well researched, with powerful personal recollections.

A first person account written is 1937 is Norman Bethune’s The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria : narrative with graphic documents revealing fascist cruelty (if you can get a copy – I can’t!)

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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 are auto-linked to source for credit.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: José Antonio Primo de Rivera Executed

Would you look at this creep? Was there a vampire lookalike contest in Madrid?

José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, a mouthful of a name for a man who, at first glance, had a standard rich boy’s life, then got himself in with an equally awful man and got his name into history.

Born in Madrid on 24 April 1903, he got to inherit the noble title 3rd Marquis of Estella, from his father Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spain’s dictator through the 1920’s. He started with a typical aristocratic lifestyle, learning from home while being raised by his aunt, riding horses on the rich family’s estates, and then stumbled through university. Over six years, he received an excellent bachelors and doctorate in law while running a group opposing education policies. He graduated the same year his father became Spain’s dictator, assuming he could a better job than politicians. The sense of entitlement was huge in this family.

Baby Rivera went to do his one-year military service while Daddy Rivera started imposing his will on the country. Baby Rivera then got court-martialed for punching his superior officer. The officer had written a letter against Daddy Rivera and his son felt that violence would be the answer. But, naturally, a dictator’s son can hardly receive much of a punishment. (To be fair, the officer was Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, a nasty human being in his own right).

By 1925, Baby Rivera was back to being a lawyer in Madrid, working quietly in his office. With Spain going down the toilet for a variety of reasons, Daddy Rivera was forced to give up his hold on the country in early 1930, and died in Paris shortly after. Now, Baby Rivera was ready for politics.

Spain was in turmoil by the time of the 1931 election, and Rivera strangely ran for office as a monarchist for the Unión Monárquica Nacional party, and also oversaw (which was in opposing competition) the Agrupación al Servicio de la República. The monarchy fled Spain, and Second Republic was born. Rivera was on the wrong side of history. He managed to get his first arrest a year later in the 1932 Sanjurjo coup (also a failure).

But this young fascist was no quitter. By 29 October 1933, he launched his new Falange Española party in Madrid. His opening speech included his feeling that violence was important and democracy… not so important. He stressed that change could not come by elections, but by force. Despite a lack of serious numbers to the party, they could be noticed by the ‘right’ people (meaning rich and mean).

A month later, Rivera ran for office in the election again, for the Unión Agraria y Ciudadana, part of the CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas) group of parties. This time he won, to represent Cadiz in the far south. In February 1934, the Falange merged with the Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, and they became known as the Falange Española de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, with Rivera as leader. Then things really went south.

In early 1935, the Falangists started attacking Jewish stores, believing that violence was acceptable, because both Jews and Freemasons had too greater influence. Any meetings or rallies involving Rivera and the Falange were the scene of constant fighting and racism. The country was becoming a whirlpool of disaster – perfect for a violence-loving man like Rivera.

February 1936 saw another election, with the left-wing Popular Front winning. The Falangists only gained a mere 0.7% of the vote. But hate was on Rivera’s side. Despite the appalling turnout, right-wing sympathisers flocked to the tiny fascist party in the wake of the election, with 40,000 haters quickly signing up to the Falange. Suddenly the amount of voices spouting fascist rubbish was growing, stability was at nil, and the Falange were telling everyone to obey their leaders and prepare for burden.

Rivera hated everything. He spouted fascist rhetoric from Germany and Italy, despised democracy, had a thirst for war, believed women were useless, that people shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, and generally sounded like the Trump of his time. He liked to write poems, mostly about Spain being saved in its hour of truth, ruling with iron fists, blah blah.

Rivera got arrested in Madrid on 14 March 1936, on a charge of illegally possessing a firearm. They held him in custody for nine weeks and shipped him off to Alicante on the eastern coast. Sadly, things were too relaxed there and Rivera could still work with his party to be part of the group planning a military coup against the government. Rivera also wrote with General Franco, and had guns and ammo in his cell.

July 17 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Falange party standing alongside the rebels as the military rose up and killed thousands. Rivera remained behind bars, now in solitary confinement doing nothing while Spain burned. Franco was busy taking over a country with violence, but Rivera languished in jail. Franco never liked Rivera (calling him a foppish playboy) and Rivera played no role in the uprising. The Republicans even tried to swap Rivera for one of their prisoners, and Franco didn’t want him back. Franco took the rhetoric, took the support, and left Rivera to rot.

As Spain heaved through immense pain, it wasn’t until October 3 that Rivera got officially charged with conspiracy against the Republic and military insurrection. As a lawyer, he defended himself, with another failure on his part. He was convicted on November 18, and executed at dawn on November 20.

The Falange party was small, but they did one thing for Franco – while the soldiers were fighting on the front lines, the fascist nut-jobs were running in among the population, carrying out murders to aid the war. Franco had the army, and the fascists, the carlists and the monarchists, the churchmen and their followers, on his side, in every town and city. The Falange party was swallowed in 1937 when Franco killed their new leader, Rivera’s deputy, and gave the job to his brother (talk about a booby-prize). But Franco used Rivera, and his death, as propaganda. A facsist leader, embodying all the evil behaviour necessary to be a right-wing leader, was a great symbol for the haters who fought for Franco. Dead Rivera was named the 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera. When the war ended in 1939, Franco had Rivera’s body put in the royal El Escorial temporarily, and then moved in to Franco’s own super tomb, Valle de los Caídos, in 1959 at its grand opening. Franco also died on November 20, making the day a real super-freak anniversary.

Check out the anniversary of Franco dying  – The Beginners Guide to the 40th Anniversary of Franco’s Death

Check out the 80th anniversary of the death of someone great instead – 80 Years Since The Death of Buenaventura Durruti – 20 November 1936

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of Rivera’s life. Unlike most posts, there is no room for comments, as I don’t want to talk to anyone who supports fascism. I also do not want any more photos of him, his work, his Falange symbols or anything else on my site.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since The Death of Buenaventura Durruti – 20 November 1936

José Buenaventura Durruti Dumange was born 14 July 1896 in León, northwest Spain, as the second of eight boys born to Anastasia Dumangue, and Santiago Durruti, a railway worker and self-described socialist.

Durruti left school at 14 and started as mechanic on the railway with his father. The pair became members of the UGT, Unión General de Trabajadores (socialist General Workers Union). This quiet start to life changed in August 1917, when the UGT took part in a strike, when the government struck down an agreement between unions and their employers. To stop the general strike, the army was brought in to stop them, killing 70 and harming another 500. Another 2,000 were jailed without being tried for any crime. Young Durruti escaped the fighting, but exiled himself to France for safety, where he found company in fellow anarchists over the border.

The harsh treatment by the Spanish government on its people changed Durruti forever. He made his way to Paris and worked there as a mechanic for three years, before deciding to return home. He got over the border and onto nearby city San Sebastian on the northern coast. By now he was an anarchist, and set up his own group named Los Justicieros (The Avengers) with well-known local anarchists Suberviola, Ruiz, Aldabatrecu and Marcelino del Campo, and others keen to fight. While Durruti had been in Paris, thousands of workers had been fighting, jailed or killed by the government while defending their rights, and Durruti wanted a high place in helping them all.

On 15 August 1921, San Sebastian had the inauguration of the Gran Kursaal, a beautiful La Belle Époque style building for the city, with casinos, restaurants and a flourish of the cosmopolitan city’s wealth. King Alfonso XIII attended the opening, and Los Justicieros made their first large play – to assassinate the King. The King, a symbol of all workers were oppressed by, was already under fire for losing 10,000 soldiers in Morocco a month earlier, and had suffered assassination attempts before, but Durruti’s plan failed.

buenaventuradurrutiSoon after this failure, Durruti got approached by the leader of the CNT, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour), a strong anarchist union. Durruti took the offer of going to Barcelona, where workers and CNT members were being jailed, harmed and killed by the government. Members of the Los Justicieros including Durruti moved to Barcelona, where Durruti met Francisco Ascaso and Juan García Oliver, men, along with other prominent anarchists, would become from friends and start the Los Solidarios (Solidarity) group in early 1922. By this time, members  of the CNT including their president were being assassinated, thrown in jail, or hurt in armed stand-offs as people tried to defend themselves and their fights against the government.

In 1923, Durruti and Ascaso carried out the assassination of Cardinal Juan Soldevilla y Romero, a man wealthy on gambling and hater of the common man. That year was huge in Spain, with Miguel Primo de Rivera taking power in Spain and launching his dictatorship of the nation. Durruti, Ascaso and their allies retaliated by launching attacks on military barracks both in Barcelona and along the border stations which led into France. Often, these attacks harmed more anarchists than government supporters. With so many unsuccessful attempts to upset the regime, Durruti, Ascaso and Oliver left Spain. They went to Cuba, before travelling South America, robbing banks throughout Argentina and Chile. All Latin American countries have been told of Durruti, and he wasn’t safe anywhere.

In 1924, Durruti and Ascaso sent to Paris, to again attempt to assassinate King Alfonso XII. Another failed attempt saw both men in jail for a year. Release saw them awaiting extradition to be executed in Argentina, after being convicted in their absence for crimes committed there. But the French anarchists rose up, and the pair were not extradited, but were exiled from France. They fled to Germany, but were denied asylum, and Belgium and Luxembourg offered no help. They fled back to Paris, and lived in secret on the charity of anarchist sympathisers. They moved to the French city of Lyon but were caught by police, so fled illegally to Belgium before making their way back to Germany. Germany again refused asylum and Belgium took them in after a change of heart. Through all this, the USSR were becoming interested in Durruti’s rising status, but the pair refused to take up ‘communist hospitality’ and live in Russia.

Meanwhile in Spain, a secret anarchist meeting in Valencia saw the opening of the FAI, Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation) to bring together various militant groups working for the anarchist cause, and become part of the CNT.

It wasn’t until 1931 when the monarchy was overthrown and exiled, and the Republican government won elections did Durruti and Ascaso came home to Spain. Durruti was influential now, and his presence stirred already-forming splits within the anarchist CNT. Arguments about supporting the Republican government formed, splitting the CNT in two, with the leader Angel Pestaña leaving to form a new party and support the government, and loyal CNT/FAI members, including Durruti, to remain loyal to their anarchist principles. Throughout the year, workers were being killed for striking, with hundreds killed in Barcelona, Seville and elsewhere. Durruti and Ascaso kept robbing banks to give money to workers, but change was coming. Durruti married and had a baby on the way, and he needed to step back.

But in January 1932, the Catalonian FAI staged a violent uprising, and the army retaliated by arresting 120 prominent anarchists, Durruti and Ascaso among them. All were immediately deported to Spanish Guinea, Durruti separated from his wife and two-month-old baby. But continuing surges in violence saw the army back down, and all were sent back to mainland Spain three months later. On his return, he tried to play it safe, with what are called his black years. He joined the Textile Workers’ Syndicate in Barcelona and did factory work, but he was constantly hounded by police for his constant work for unions and the anarchist movement.

By October 1934, Spain was in near collapse. Uprisings by Catalan Nationalists in Barcelona, Madrid and the northern Asturias region saw massive violence. In the Asturias, where workers were well organised, with anarchists, socialists, Stalinists and neo-Trotskyists all working together against their enemy, the Catholic church and the government. The University of Oviedo and the Bishop’s Palace were destroyed, churches we burned, priests shot and nuns raped. Coal miners were striking, and General Franco and his army were sent in to quell drama, killing 1,300 people, mostly the coal miners. Another 3,000 were wounded and another 30,000 jailed, mostly in the Asturias region. The violence saw the rich moving towards fascism to keep themselves safe, while the workers of the country continued to spiral against a system crushing them. The government, now the right-wingers, were looking for blood.

By February 1936, the Republicans returned to power, with full socialist support, but not with the huge anarchist movement, or the smaller communist supporters. Now, the ever increasingly angry fascists, the wealthy and the right-wing religious were ready to pull down the government. Durruti was still in Barcelona, and was forced into hospital in July for hernia surgery, just as war would break out.

The rich right-wing haters declared a rebellion on July 17, but fighting did not reach Barcelona until the 19th. Durruti, with his wound still open, left hospital and took up arms to squash the army and police seizing the government. Fighting in the streets went on for hours, and the workers, the civilian militia, were winning. At dawn on July 20, Durruti and best friends Ascaso launched an assault on one of the two remaining army barracks not defeated, but Ascaso was shot and killed alongside Durruti as they ran towards the soldiers.

Durruti Column members

A day later, Durruti along with his other longtime companion Oliver visited the Catalan government leader, still dirty and armed from the attack. They negotiated for the anarchists to join the government and rise up together. The Anti-Fascist Militia’s Committee was formed, bringing together all groups the CNT, the FAI, the UGT, the neo-Trotskyists and a number of Republican groups, taking over as government of Catalonia. Just a week later, teamed with Ascaso’s brother, Durruti and Oliver they formed the ‘Durruti column’ a band of men loyal and ready to take back Spain.

On July 23, Durruti left Barcelona with 1,000 men, ready to save nearby Zaragoza from the army. By the time they marched to Zaragoza, they had between 8,000 and 10,000 men, while other columns worked on saving smaller towns, this large group prepared to save Zaragoza city, though the attack never occurred.  By now, as much of Spain was controlled by the fascists and the army, with people being executed by the thousands, but the Aragon and Catalonia regions were in anarchist hands.

Popular propoganda poster

The Durruti column set out for Madrid, and the group of around 3,000 marched the 350kms to the capital. They arrived on 12 November, just as International Volunteers also arrived to help fight back the siege on the capital. The Durruti Column fighters battled mostly in the north of the city in the Ciudad Universitaria region. Madrid was under full siege, with German planes bombing at night, soldiers attacking by day in every direction, with no escape.

The tide was starting to turn; the Republicans, their supporters and the volunteers were starting to hold off the army. But on November 19 at around 2pm, Durruti was shot in the chest while in the northern region of Madrid. Little was said about the incident as Durruti was rushed to the Ritz Hotel, now a makeshift hospital and surgical theatre. There was little that could be done, and Durruti died at 6am, November 20. The bullet was not even taken from his heart, where it was lodged. He was only 40.

The news of Durruti’s death spread fast, and calls for his body to go home to Barcelona and his family were made. No autopsy was performed on his body, so the calibre of the bullet was not recorded. This made it harder to certify what happened.

The story emerged that Durruti was shot by a sniper. His driver said he had stopped his car on Avenida de la Reina Victoria, the area totally destroyed near the Hospital Clinica. He saw some of the militia leaving the front, and ordered them to return. As Durruti returned to the car, bullets came flying from surrounding destroyed buildings. As Durruti tried to get in the car, a sniper’s bullet shot him in the chest.

Republicans fighting in northern Madrid

This story was relayed over and over, everyone assuming their leader to have died a hero. On November 22, his body arrived back in Barcelona, and half a million people poured in to join the funeral procession. They followed to Montjuïc cemetery where he was laid to rest, and his funeral was the last large gathering of anarchists throughout the rest of the war.

Barcelona funeral

To some, Durruti was a criminal and a bully. To others, he was their salvation against the oppressors. His stories and actions were used for morale and propaganda to help the Republicans cause; this asset now lost. But the story of him dying in a haze of sniper’s bullets continued to circulate, a propaganda story in itself.

But later inquires heard of different stories, from the men who claimed to witness Durruti’s death. Rather than killed by the hiding enemy, the story told was one of simpler disaster. It was said, while planning an attack, one of Durruti’s friends shot him, when a rifle went off by accident. This friendly fire was a common problem due to the poor quality supplies the Republicans fought with. Other rumours suggested Durruti was planning an attack, a sort of suicide mission, and someone shot him to prevent it, though none of that was ever proven. The accidental shooting stayed quiet, the snipers story better to rally the cause.

The Durruti Column was broken up and folded into other groups several months later and while the war did not end until 1 April 1939, the battle to hold Madrid and the Aragon/Catalonia/Valencia regions were the only large success the Republicans had, before eventually falling and suffering another dictatorship for almost 40 years.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of Durruti’s life. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are linked to source for credit.