Women in the Spanish Civil War: Part 2 – Federica Montseny Mañé

A name synonymous with anarchism and feminism during the Spanish Civil War is Federica Montseny. With a powerful voice and even more powerful convictions, the anarchist cause owes a great deal to Montseny.

Federica Montseny Mañé was born February 12, 1905 in Madrid, the only surviving child of strong anarchist parents. Her mother, teacher Teresa Mañé Miravet (aka Soledad Gustavo) was an anarchist activist, and her father was Juan Montseny Carret (alias Federico Urales) a tunneling worker turned propagandist and anti-authoritarian writer, who had spent time exiled for his beliefs (hence the need for aliases). Together they were editors of La Revista magazine for anarchists from 1898 until 1905 before moving home to Barcelona in 1912 to write libertarian propaganda.

Montseny’s parents were enthusiastic in education, which stayed with their daughter her whole life. As well as the usual basic subjects, Montseny was also educated in arts, politics, dance, philosophy, languages, history and classics. She grew up in a rural environment, and became strong in self-reliance, independence and freedoms not many girls were able to enjoy. She became a writer at an early age, and found her youth of being concerned with herself changed to wanting to share her independence and free thinking with the population. In a country where social, political and feminist freedoms were largely non-existent, anarchism was a way for Montseny to express her views. As with many feminists throughout time, she believed that equal rights cannot exist until women’s rights are addressed. Montseny could see from an early age that women were oppressed in Spain for a variety of social and economic reasons, and social revolution was in dire need.

Montseny published her first novel, Horas trágicas (Tragic Hours) in 1920, at the age of only 15, and another 50 would follow. She was living in a time of huge social upheaval, peppered with violence as workers rose up to the government and landowners alike. She fought to insist women gain the right to choose who to marry, if at all, if and when to have a family, and a woman’s right to choose the father of her children. She also fought for women to be educated in women’s health and pregnancy, which most women were denied. As women were given all responsibility for pregnancy and raising of a baby, Montseny believed that a woman should be given education in order to fill that role as best as possible.

Another view Montseny advocated was free love, rather than the usual view of marriage, which oppressed women in Spain during the era. She entered into a relationship with Josep Esgleas Jaume (aka Germinal Esgleas) and while they would never marry, they remained together for life, with a daughter born prior to the Spanish Civil War, a son during, and a daughter after the war.

The Second Spanish Republic came to Spain in 1931, which paved the way for revolution, and many organisations, such as anarchism, were given more power and confidence that true social changes could be made. The Socialist Republic pushed for changes, with Montseny there to help arrange regional and nationwide meetings to collectivise the people and their needs and ideas. She travelled across Spain, discussing  workers’ rights, women’s rights, how people could stand up to their government, and the need for all to come together for social revolution.

The trouble was that women were still not given any rights during this time. Women were not supposed to travel on their own, or be doing anything that was not controlled by a man. Attending rallies alongside men and spending time with men without a husband or father meant she was not always given the time she deserved – the same as the men advocating for rights. When the government turned conservative in 1933, changes stumbled, and with fascism creeping into Europe, people like Montseny could see the trouble awaiting them.

Montseny supported the Popular Front government went they won the 1936 election, though as an anarchist, this was not an easy decision. Anarchism was not part of the collective group of left-wing parties in the Popular Front at the time. When war broke out in July 1936, it was clear that a violent strike against the rebels was needed for both survival and to protect the left-wing government from fascists.

In November 1936, Montseny was chosen by Prime Minister Largo Caballero to be Minister of Health and Public Assistance, and she joined the Popular Front, despite anarchism still not supporting the government. She was the fourth female government minister in western Europe, (after one in Denmark and two in Finland). While in times of peace this would have been an excellent role for her, during war it was a struggle. Hospitals, doctors and nurses were overrun with wounded and dying from the front lines, and people were refugees in their own war-torn country, moving constantly to try to stay alive. Food and medical supplies were far too sparse to help, and the number of orphans quickly skyrocketed. Health problems broke out as people did not have access to clean water and sanitation. The front lines needed all supplies available, fighting in ‘peaceful’ areas was constant, and the Popular Front began to collapse as the factions brought together fell apart. The anarchists/powerful CNT were reluctant supporters, and the Communists could not agree with either group. All the programmes that the Minister of Health could oversee were in complete disarray.

Despite the situation, Montseny pressed on, and kept up with her support for women’s social revolution. She joined the Mujeres Libres, which arranged schooling for children as their mothers fought in the war effort, were trained with useful skills and educated on multiple subjects. She fought to ensure women who wanted out of prostitution (let’s face it – all of them) could be helped, educated and trained for new roles in society, in a time where women were needed everywhere. New mothers were cared for and pregnant women were also educated in women’s health. She went to anarchist Juan Garcia Oliver, Minister for Justice, to make sure children of unwed mothers were made legitimate, as neither the women or their children deserved to be treated with such disrespect by society. Under her charge, abortion was made legal (Franco destroyed this law immediately after the war).

But with factions on the left collapsing as the war pressed on, Communist pressure  forced Montseny from her post in May 1937. She returned to anarchism, even though many hated her for ever leaving, and continued to help in the war effort to kill fascism. As the war went on, she was forced to accept food packages from friends in the Netherlands. When Barcelona was bombed in 1938, she feared either that or raids by Franco supporters would see her and her family killed. When the Nationalists finally broke Barcelona in January 1939, she, her partner, their daughter, their newborn son and both of her parents fled north through the snow, walking to France. Montseny’s mother died on route, which forced Montseny to leave her body, and the country, behind. Many refugees were now in France, and kept in internment camps, where death swept through those displaced. They lived near Paris, trying to help Spanish refugees, but then the Nazis invaded, forcing them to hide in Toulouse.

Franco was after Montseny specifically now, wanting to execute all those who opposed him and the Nationalists during the war. In 1942, the same time Montseny’s father died in an internment camp, Franco asked the French government to help catch Montseny for extradition. But Montseny was pregnant and the French government refused to send a pregnant woman home to be killed. Spanish refugees were trapped in France, the French pinning them in, and allied countries were of no help.

Montseny and her family were forced to stay in Toulouse, where on top of her 51 novels, Montseny finished 22 nonfiction works, and wrote regularly for two French magazines, despite only learning the language after her exile. She did not return to Barcelona in 1977, two years after Franco was dead.

Montseny addresses the first CNT meeting in Barcelona since the war, in 1977

Montseny did not stay in Spain; she continued with her life in Toulouse, publishing her final book, Mis primeros cuarenta años (My First Forty Years) in 1987, and died aged 88 in 1994. She lamented that she was unable to instill her ideals about gender into her children, in particular her son, as the change in generational shifts came too late.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of the Montseny’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 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.