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

Barcelona, May 1937

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

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

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

May 2

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

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

May 3

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

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

May 4

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

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

May 5

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

May 6

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

May 7

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

May 8

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

May 11

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

May 13

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

May 15

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

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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 and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 3: Barcelona and the civil war history tour with Nick Lloyd

Barcelona. The locals are fanatical about their hometown, and tourists flock there like teenage boys to a wet t-shirt competition. I spent three hours on a high-speed train from Madrid, screaming through the Aragon region at 300km/h, imagining what the Spanish civil war fronts in the area would have looked like. The landscape between Spain’s capital and its Catalonian equal changes remarkably, and from each hill, mountain range and abandoned farmhouse, I sat with my face glued to the window (and not the Twilight movie playing inside the cabin….. why, Renfe, why?)

I got to Barcelona and experienced warmth! Yay! Madrid and the other locales of my trip had been mild at best. I got one of those taxi drivers who assumes you are a guiri who doesn’t know they are being taken the long way around to La Rambla. My hotel, Hotel Montecarlo, which is situated metres from a scene written by George Orwell made me feel better. My cheap single room was massive and offered a spa bath that I would never have time to use.

I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia eons ago, when my knowledge of Spain was next to nil. I re-read the book a week before I landed on the Iberian peninsular, to re-acquaint myself with the man and the Barcelona he knew. Orwell’s frustration, and the overwhelming feeling that the Republican factions were all doomed to fail in the war, rang in my ears as I set off around the city on my own.

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Carrer de Bisbe in the Barri Gótic

My goal for the afternoon was to visit Montjuïc Castle and do the self-guided Shadow of The Wind walk. Montjuïc Castle has amazing views of the sea and the city, second to none, and the cable car was good fun. There was an exhibition on Manuel Carrasco i Formiguera in one of the old prison cells. I was pleased to take a look through and the Catalan language didn’t get the better of me. In the middle of a pleasant afternoon, I was the only soul in there. That was the thing that struck me about Montjuïc – the level of tourists put me off. I was tourist too, so I couldn’t point the finger, but as I wandered the courtyard where famous figures of Catalonia and the civil war were imprisoned and killed, it was filled with people visiting the built-in cafes and gift shops. I got the impression that the soul of the place has been wiped. However, if you’re looking for a nice place to visit, by all means, see Montjuïc Castle and the sight-laden Montjuïc area, as some of it is excellent. But I didn’t find what I was looking for.

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The former cell of Lluís Companys, once-leader of Catalonia, before he was taken out and shot, probably near where you can now buy a ‘I ❤ Barcelona’ shirt

I wandered the Barri Gòtic quarter, my Shadow of the Wind tour map etched into my memory. I wasn’t keen to take many photos (I have ‘done’ Barcelona before), but the swathes of people once again put me off. An evening out with a group for dinner and drinks was fun (great fun with The Barcelona Taste), but I still hadn’t found the Barcelona I was looking for.

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The approximate fictional location of the Sempere & Sons bookstore and upstairs apartment in Shadow of the Wind

The next morning, I waited inside Café Zurich in Plaça Catalunya and watched holiday-makers using hand gestures to order breakfast. It was only 10am, yet the city heaved with tourists, many lined up to take the generic bus tour of the city (it could be an easy way of getting around the city if you needed to go to multiple places, however the commentary and delays could be annoying, I would imagine). But I knew my luck was about to change. Enter Nick Lloyd, who arrived right on time. Besides myself, another ten people, couples from all over the world, emerged from the crowds in search of a different Barcelona. A handful of years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about anarchism. It doesn’t sound pretty. However, I now subscribe to their way of thinking and, it seems, so do many others. We didn’t have to wait long before we could have our eyes opened to a whole different Barcelona.

Nick Lloyd is no foreigner in Spain. He may be English but has lived in Spain well over 20 years and you wouldn’t be able to find someone as well-versed on the history of Barcelona, and I am confident there isn’t another person as enthusiastic about its colourful past, either. A quick introduction to one another, and then we stood on the corner of Plaça Catalunya in the shade of the Catalunya a Francesc Macià monument. Despite the frenetic location, Barcelona was allowed to come to life. The nerd in me jumped right in; Nick pointed out a few landmarks which had me happily squealing ‘I know all this’ in my mind (it was too early for me to go showing my nerdiness to the public). As Nick described the hot summer day of 18 July 1936, we could feel it, despite it being an unusually cool May day. Nick’s commentary allows you to feel the excitement that would have buzzed in the Catalonian air as 30,000 CNT works stormed the barracks in search of weapons, ready to rise and defend their city against 12,000 rebel soldiers. However, Barcelona has a civil war history unlike other Spanish locations. They didn’t simply rise up to fight the coup and onslaught of Franco’s rebel army, but they also decided to rise up and fight among themselves – rich versus poor, ideal versus ideal. A great class divide existed in the city and the poor were done with the inequality. With the front line of the war so far from Barcelona throughout the majority of the war, there was still plenty to fight for.

There was no problem imagining the once Hotel Colon (now the Banco Espanol de Credito) occupied and covered in Communist  propaganda and posters of Marx and Stalin, or the people sleeping in the square, some being part of the 6,000 athletes in the city to participate in the Popular Olympics. With the Olympics in Hitler Germany, many athletes boycotted and chose instead to go to Barcelona. But with a war bearing down just one day before the start of the event, instead many foreigners (around 300) became the first International soldiers to take part in the Spanish Civil War. By the looks of the other group members, this is a largely unknown fact, regardless of the nation that my group companions hailed from.

We moved down La Rambla, which as usual heaved with tourists and souvenir stands. We paused outside Hotel Continental, a pivotal spot for George Orwell. With Homage to Catalonia very fresh in my mind, I was able to stand and listen to Nick (who can recite Orwell by heart and with great fervour) recount the tale of Orwell, returning to see his wife and having to be rushed out, as the police were ready to arrest him for being a POUMPartit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista, member (he fought for them but was not Trotskyist, he wanted to be an International Brigader). It was easy to imagine the Barcelona that Orwell saw while sleeping on the street. Out came Nick’s iPad, which is a gold mine of civil war history. With a popular Republican chant playing for us, he asked us to look to the throngs of tourists and instead see the hopeful look of the workers, weapons in hand, walking up La Rambla, with the confidence that their time had come. That change was upon them. At last they would be equals. At last they would have the freedoms they wished to enjoy. We all know that come 29 January, 1939, those ideals were long crushed and the fight was over, among each other and against Franco, but for that brief moment, you could feel the faith and loyalty that came over the people of Barcelona.

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The one quiet spot on La Rambla

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Orwell’s Hotel Continental

We wandered the narrow streets of the Barri Gòtic and as the tourists began to fall away, and I had the chance to talk with Nick, mostly about the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) for my Barcelona based-novel due next year. If anyone could help me out, it is Nick, and he was gracious and informative. Coming to Barcelona had suddenly become worth the trip. We stopped outside the church of Santa Maria del Pi, which has one of the world’s largest rose windows, and it is truly awe-inspiring. If you do a quick Google search, Wikipedia will tell you that the church was damaged in a fire in 1936. If the internet was ever wrong, this is the moment. Nick spares no details of what went on here in 1936. Nick explained how, during the war only 20% of the population were Catholic and the church had become a target as it was a symbol of oppression. My knowledge on this subject was already fairly substantial, but watching the others in the group become familiar with the facts was interesting. In the quiet plaza, it become easy to imagine the church, with its smashed rose window, interior gutted by fire. However, Nick’s trusty iPad provided the shocking photographs (even to me, though I have seen it all before) of bodies of clergy members, dug up and put on display, their dessicated bodies now simply bones, and stood up to show the masses outside churches to spread a message – “look, they are just the same as us. They are not special in any way”. Regardless of your political leanings, I doubt anyone today would approve of such behaviour, but it graphically shows the difference between modern Spain and the chaos of civil war.

A quick wander around into Placeta del Pi, and we got to see a real little gem. During the war, the plaza was renamed Plaça del Milicià DesconegutSquare of the Unknown Militiaman, to honour those who downed tools and took up arms during the uprising.  However, when Franco’s troops came into town in 1939, they slapped a board over the name and it went back to Placeta del Pi. In 2009, while doing restorative work on the church, they plucked the board off, and there it was, still as intact as the day an anonymous painter climbed up with his brush. There is now a memorial plaque also attached inside the plaza to recognise the occasion.

placa

On we went, weaving through the Barri Gòtic and free of the tourists. The quiet alleyways led us to Plaça Sant Felip Neri. Here lies the church of the same name, which has the scars of the war on show for all to see. The pock-marked facade, remnants of a bomb, has become something of a icon. Francoists spread the rumour that the holes in the stone were made by bullets, when Republicans lined up priests and murdered them. Not so, and Nick knows all for those who wish to learn more. On 30 January 1938, a bomb was dropped, one of many in Barcelona’s aerial bombing nightmare during the war. Landing in Plaça Sant Felip Neri, it killed 42 people, many children who had run for the church in search of safety. On our visit to the church, there were a group of children kicking a football around, right in front of the church. 75 years earlier, children were killed on that spot while they looked for comfort and security. Again, Nick’s commentary spares no detail, no gruesome reality, of what Barcelona had become by that time. The war had moved on, and so had the attitudes; disenchantment had set in as lives were repeatedly taken and destroyed. The shiny facade of the city that gets rolled out for the tourist each day didn’t exist on those streets as we wandered and spoke. It seemed easy to understand the desperation that plagued the city.

People had questions as we walked; Nick had all the answers. From significant events to daily life, Nick can give all the details. We popped into the silent Església de Sant Jaume, for a little-known piece of history. This church was burned during the war (as they all were), but Nick had found detailed stonework depicting the events of 1936. I didn’t take photos (I got a weird vibe from the place, and I don’t ‘do’ religion), and I will leave the details so you can learn all about it in Nick’s upcoming guidebook.

We headed up La Rambla, while Nick took the time to stress the most important facts of the CNT to me for my novel. We wandered past my hotel and Cafe Moka, which featured in Orwell’s book. If you want to look hard, you can spot tiny marks, bullet holes long forgotten. The soul is gone from Cafe Moka, it is now refurbished to cater to tourists, who pay a high price for getting an English or French menu. (Honestly, Spanish to English menu translations do my head in. I always say I want a Spanish one if my guiri status gets noticed. It’s a much easier read)

We stop just past Hotel Rivoli next door. The spot was a pivotal location in Homage to Catalonia, as Orwell’s apparent disillusion takes hold. I felt lucky to have all my previous knowledge, because the “May Events” in 1937 are a complex and desperate scenario. Gone are the revolutionary tunes of 1936, and the Rambla is still, a sight hard to imagine in the 2013 craziness. The hotel is the former POUM headquarters and Cafe Moka was barricaded, with the Stalinist police members inside. Orwell is on the roof across the street and shots went back and forward for three days between the groups. His wife was up the road and he couldn’t get to her. Nick can help you understand the disarray the city had fallen into.  Over three days, hundred of anarchists and their cohorts were killed by Stalinists. While the war had two years to run, it marked a real turning point. To the side of the now-hotel, stands a plague in dedication of Andreu Nin, a friend of Orwell, who was arrested in June 1937. Orwell never heard from his friend again and hoped he had escaped. He, and the rest of us, knew a happy ending was unlikely. Nin was tortured and murdered outside Madrid a short time later.

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We crossed La Rambla and headed in the El Raval quarter. I don’t know why, but I felt happier and safer in this area, despite being told otherwise prior to the trip. It has more personality than Barri Gótic. It’s noisy, a bit dirty, but has good food, a diverse population and is making no claims about itself. We went into La Llibertària, a CNT co-op bar, and sat down to a twelve-way conversation about all we had seen, surrounded by war propaganda posters. A perfect end. Nick was kind enough to take time for all the questions that the group had, and as a Spanish civil war nerd, I felt really happy to be in the company of people who were genuinely interested in the history and the cause of the people. It seemed perfectly logical that our truly international group would rave about Nick and his tour when he departed.

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I left La Llibertària and wandered El Raval on my own with a smile. I grew up in a working class mining town, so the actions and ideals that the area held during the war were no mystery to understand. A few flags for Catalonian independence hung on balconies. The libertarian anarchism spirit may well still exist in Barcelona, with current political situation with inequality and unemployment.

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Carrer dels Tallers in Raval

Before jumping on an eagerly-anticipated train to Valencia, I stopped by Plaça de George Orwell in the Barri Gótic. It’s an unremarkable place, but in an almost-ode to Orwell’s classic novel 1984, it is home to Barcelona’s first CCTV camera. That is worth a smile on its own.

I won’t lie, I felt relieved to get out of the behemoth that is Barcelona. If you want to visit for your first or tenth visit, all power to you. Climb the Sagrada Familia and the Gaudí buildings. Walk La Rambla, buy overpriced fridge magnets and walk the beach. Get crammed into the cathedral and watch for pickpockets (I saved one guy from having his wallet stolen and witnessed another lose his bag, luckily he got it back). I don’t want to accidentally to stop anyone from trying what millions have done before them. I am not a fan of tours of any kind but this trip is one-of-a-kind. You could visit these locations on your own, but without Nick they would just be sites, like the myriad on offer. For three hours and €20, Nick Lloyd can give you a visit that leaves a mark on your soul.

You can read about and book Nick Lloyd’s tour here – Spanish Civil War Tour in Barcelona

You can read over 130 5-star reviews about Nick Lloyd here – Trip Advisor – Nick Lloyd

Up next…. (a fun one) On the road with ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

Click here for the other parts of this series – Spain 2013 in Review

 
*in the absence of my notebook I have written this from memory, so please correct me if any war detail is incorrect!