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.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 17: 7 – 14 November 1936

Week 17: 7 – 14 November 1936

(see Week 16: 1 -7 November 1936 for the Madrid lead-up and maps)

Republicans orange, Nationalists blue

November 7

The attack on Madrid begins. All major bridges are attacked by Nationalist troops, most taken easily on the first day of fighting. General Varela attacks from the north, and troops pour into the Casa de Campo and through Ciudad Universitaria. Nationalist troops fight Republican militia in man-to-man combat, and killing occurs one building at a time as Nationalists swarm the city. The death count rockets on both sides. Despite their soldiers’ training and weapons, Colonel Yague sees over 300 of his Legionnaires Moroccan troops killed on day one. Franco expects the Nationalists will have won within a day, unaware the International Brigade troops are one day from arriving from east, along with the Durruti Column anarchists from Barcelona, in time to back up huge number of Spanish militia and hold back the conquering of Madrid.

The start of the massacres in Paracuellos del Jarama, a small area in the north of Madrid. Political prisoners, most soldiers and priests arrested at the outbreak of war, are taken out of the city to be executed. Between November 7 until December 4, the 5,000 prisoners are moved, as the Republicans don’t want hostile Nationalist prisoners inside the city. Some are moved away from the front, but Paracuellos del Jarama is the site of multiple executions. Over the first few days, 1,000 prisoners, all Nationalist sympathisers, will be shot. The death toll will be unknown; many say 2,000-3,000, some up to 12,000.

International Brigades in Casa de Campo

November 8

The major launch on Madrid begins. General Mola attacks with 20,000 soldiers, mostly the Moroccan troops. The Condor Legion from Germany launches air strikes on the city. German officer Wilhelm Von Thoma leads German tanks alongside light amour support from Italy.

The Republicans have more men, and send 12,000 to Carabanchel, but the larger force of 30,000 heads to Casa de Campo. The problem lies in the detail; the Republican men have had little or no training at all, and have only ten rounds per rifle. Only sheer numbers hold off the Nationalists. Small groups of Moroccan regulares soldiers manage to get over the Manzanares River to Model Prison, which is the set target for the onslaught. One of the Republican leaders, General Miaja, took his scared men forward himself to try to force the soldiers back. Radios all over Madrid repeatedly called the classic ‘­­¡No pasarán!’ (they shall not pass!) slogan, calling everyone to help in the fight against the siege.

By evening, the first International Brigade arrives, the XIth battalion, from Albacete in the east. There were small in numbers, but they provided morale and back-up for the fighting Madrileños. The men had not finished their basic training. They were greeted on Gran Via as a Soviet Union battalion, though they were a mix of German, Polish, Italian French and small numbers of other countries.

Telegrams are sent to the War Ministry in Madrid, congratulating Franco on his victory; no Nationalists are in Madrid, and neither side has won anything.

Nationalist soldiers at the front

November 9

The Nationalists focus on taking the southern Carabanchel suburb. The Moroccan soldiers are trained in open-country fighting and not the urban battle they need to fight. Republicans, who work and live in the area, have the home ground advantage, and there are many Nationalist casualties as the Republicans again hold the enemy back.

The XI International brigade, 1,900 men, start their fighting in Casa de Campo alongside Republicans in the evening. Heavy fighting sees 2/3 of the Internationals killed, though the Nationalists do not advance into Madrid. Fighting will last for several days, with both sides suffering losses. The Nationalist no longer see Casa de Campo as a way into Madrid, though this is not just due to international fighting, but their presence is good for propaganda.

The San Fernando bridge, which flanks the left of the Nationalist-held area over the Manzanares River, is retaken by the Republicans.

Air strike damage

November 10

Ciudad Universitaria in the city’s north is under Republican control, though the Nationalists are prepping the take the area. Around 150 Nationalists are killed on the front line around the north of the city, a total of 2,369 casualties since the start of the siege.

The Durruti Column, a group of 3,000 anarchists from Barcelona, arrive in Madrid, ready to help defend Casa de Campo. They had been marching to Zaragoza to recover the city from the Nationalists, but had no success and carried on to Madrid to help. They are led by famous anarchist Buenaventura Durruti.

University City area held by Republicans

November 11

Another 1,000 Nationalist prisoners are killed in the Paracuellos del Jarama reportedly by the Fifth Column, a communist led group of Spanish militiamen, who are well-organised and well-trained, unlike most in the area. The prisoners, all taken from the Model Prison in inner Madrid, are shot and bodies are dumped, in retaliation for the Nationalists attacking the city. The killings are one of the Republicans’ sides most vicious single-acts against civilians.

The arrival of the Durruti column causes some discontent as the placement of the men is up for debate, as the anarchists and Madrid-based militia try to work together. Regardless of any tensions within Madrid, the Nationalists are still held outside Madrid for another day.

Refuge from bombing in the Madrid subway

November 12

The XII International Brigade arrives in Madrid and launches an attack on Cerro de los Ángeles hill, south of Madrid, only just taken by the Nationalists. This is to ensure the Nationalists cannot advance east of Madrid and claim the road to Valencia. The attack fails, but the road to Valencia is still secure. The brigade of Spanish, French, German and Austrian fighters are suffering from lack of training and supplies, and communication trouble, but the 1,500 strong brigade returns to the safety of Madrid, with minimal losses.

The children of Madrid

November 13-14

The battle continues in Carabanchel, and man-to-man fighting continues right in the military hospital, with the Republicans losing many men but still holding the area.

Fighting along the south and west of the city continues, with air strikes on the city combined with close combat fighting. The Nationalists are preparing to take Madrid via the northern Ciudad Universitaria area, as Casa de Campo and Carabanchel manage to hold safely. The International Brigades are basing themselves in the north now to hold the Nationalists back.

Republicans at the front

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 16: 1 – 7 November 1936

Week 16 sees the starts of the Siege of Madrid, which will last until the end of the war in 1939. Also, the Republican government leaves Madrid for Valencia

November 1

The Nationalist army, which has been marching north from Seville since the outbreak of war, has now reached the outskirts of Madrid. Around 90% of Republican fighters in Madrid are civilian militia, and the government has little control, as they have been set up by the trade unions and communist groups. All the small towns surrounding Madrid have now been taken by Nationalists and the Republicans are now backed into the city. Nationalist numbers are at now 25,000 but the Republicans have double the men. But the Nationalists are highly trained and battle ready, while the Republicans are not soldiers or have proper weapons and supplies. Propaganda leaflets are dropped over Madrid city by Italian planes, warning the public that Madrid will be wiped off the earth if they do not rise up and take the city for Nationalists.

The government has no faith in their side and expect General Mola and his Nationalist men to take the city, and plan to evacuate, including the Prime Minister. General Mola states to the English media that his four columns of regulares soldiers and Moroccan fighters will take the city, despite the difficulty of surrounding Madrid, and his fifth column, of powerful Spanish right-wingers, already in the city, will take inner Madrid. This strikes paranoia in the inhabitants, and starts killings between civilians as ‘traitors’ need to be found and executed.

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Troops in the city’s north of Ciudad Universitaria

November 2

The Republicans finally get air defense over Madrid. Russian Chatos planes have arrived just in time and start air strikes over surprised Nationalist ground troops. The public are unsure of the air strike and do not take cover. Several Russian planes are shot down by Italian retaliation for the Nationalists. The Madrid public fear German planes, and when a Russian pilot parachutes to safety after a strike, he is killed by a mob when he is mistaken for a German Condor Legion pilot.

The town of Brunete, only 15 miles west of central Madrid, is the scene for a battle between opposing sides. The Republicans lose the stronghold, giving the Nationalists a chance to get even closer to the city from the west.

The Republicans have one advantage. The Manzanares River runs through the city, providing a barrier, keeping the Nationalists from walking directly into the west and south of the city. The Casa del Campo, an open park area on the west of the city centre, is chosen as the main strike area, with forces crossing the Puente de los Franceses (Bridge of the Frenchmen). Republicans are already defending their bridge. The northern Ciudad Universitaria (University City) area of Madrid is also prepared for an attack, likewise Carabanchel in Madrid’s southwest, which has only a  small river defense.

Nationalist troops retreat with their wounded

November 4

The anarchists now join the Republican government, with four ministers involved. As the anarchists are the largest group of civilian militia fighting for the Republicans country-wide, they need their voices in government. The Republicans must reply of all factions coming together to save their country.

The south Madrid suburb of Getafe is occupied by the Nationalists. It is at the basin of the Manzanares River, giving easier access to troops. The Moroccan troops attack, with tanks and overhead air strikes, crushing the Republican protectors. Vicious General Verela, a man leading so many massacres, is proud to tell the media that he shall have destroyed Madrid within the week.

Only 115 Nationalists are killed in the Getafe battle, but southern suburbs are working class and heavily populated, meaning it is not a good place to engage in street battles. Verela instead plans to attack Ciudad Universitaria in the north, where the population have fled for the safety of the inner city.

Republican militia defend their barricades in the south

November 5

The Republican reinforcements of Russian planes and pilots have some success when they bomb surrounding Nationalist troops, and an impeding northern assault of the city is beaten back.

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The Republicans defend the outskirts of the city

November 6

The Nationalist troops continue their southern assault under cruel Colonel Yague, and conquer Carabanchel and take the Cerro de los Angeles hill, the geographical centre of Spain, and prime lookout area over the plains around southern Madrid. The Nationalists are now all-but in the inner city of Madrid, with Republicans ever squeezed into the capital. The new Junta de Defensa de Madrid (military government team) is set up under General Miaja and is ready to take Madrid.

Propaganda is rife

The Republican government flees to Valencia, 350kms to the east on the coast. While this means men in ‘power’ are safe, as well as the government itself, the civilians and fighters of Madrid are left to face the Nationalists, with their German and Italian fascist back-up, on their own.

A simplified map of the Madrid suburbs

November 7

The attack on Madrid begins. All major bridges are attacked by Nationalist troops, most taken easily on the first day of fighting. General Verela attacks from the north, and troops pour into the Casa del Campo and through Ciudad Universitaria. Nationalist troops fight Republican militia in man-to-man combat, and killing occurs one building at a time as Nationalists swarm the city. The death count rockets on both sides. Despite their soldiers’ training and weapons, Colonel Yague sees over 300 of his Legionnaires Moroccan troops killed on day one. Franco expects the Nationalists will have won within a day, unaware the International Brigade troops are one day from arriving from east, along with the Durruti Column anarchists from Barcelona, in time to back up huge number of Spanish militia and hold back the conquering of Madrid.

The attack begins

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit