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|Barcelona May Days|
|Part of the Spanish Civil War & the Spanish Revolution|
Friends of Durruti Group
|Casualties and losses|
The May Days of 1937, sometimes also called May Events, referring to a series of clashes between 3 and 8 May 1937, were a period of civil violence in Catalonia, when factions of the Republican side engaged each other in street battles in various parts of Catalonia, in particular in the city of Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War.
In these events the supporters of the Spanish Revolution were outmanoeuvred by the recently expropriated bourgeoisie, represented by the Comintern-affiliated P.S.U.C. (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia) and Catalan nationalists. It would, however lead to the latter surrendering Catalan autonomy to the central government, a major factor in the collapse of the front before the Nationalist invasion the following year. It was a major turning point in the confrontation between the interests of foreign capital, especially Britain and France, supported by the Soviet Union, and the Spanish Revolution, which had been the fatal faultline in the Spanish Republic. All these powers were essentially hedging their bets with regard to fascism, as none wanted to take on Germany and Italy directly.
For Stalin especially, the Spanish conflict was a holding pattern to be prolonged until the fascists threatened the British Empire directly. His popular front policy, of courting 'progressive bourgeois parties' in stark contrast to the 'class against class' position of the 1920s, was threatened by events in Spain, which had been sliding inexorably into all out class war for thirty years, with regular spontaneous insurrections. Most Spaniards lived on the brink of starvation and were tired of waiting for reform, the coup had been preceded by a wave of land expropriations and general strikes. The impotence of the popular front government, and the revolt of the military, had removed any basis for legitimate authority and a profound social revolution was in full swing, with workers and peasants spontaneously organising themselves according to the principles of libertarian communism. The Soviets were determined to prevent this at all costs, so they began by engineering a coup against the libertarian communists in Catalonia. Their immediate objective was to destabilise the Socialist government of Largo Caballero, who was regarded by his followers as the 'Spanish Lenin', using the right wing of his own party against him. They had chosen as his successor the right-wing social democrat finance minister Juan Negrin, who was much more in tune with Russian foreign policy. This would allow them to eliminate dissident (i.e. non-Comintern) Marxists from positions of responsibility, and as a bonus end Catalan autonomy, the better to attack the anarchosyndicalists.
“Long before the first shot was discharged in Barcelona, English and French cruisers were hurrying toward the port as if they had a prophetic presentiment of the things to come. If one takes all this into consideration, one asks oneself how much faith in the triumph of the anti-Fascist cause still exists among those people who invoke foreign protection against the workers of their own country?"
- Diego Abad de Santillan, Solidaridad Obrera, May 13, 1937.
Having defeated the military rebellion in Barcelona in July 1936, the workers' militias controlled the city, and with it all of Catalonia. Most belonged to the National Confederation of Labour, and/or the Iberian Anarchist Federation (CNT-FAI). Just after taking the last rebelling barracks, the C.N.T. liaison committee met with the President of the Generalitat Lluis Companys, and as result of this meeting the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias of Catalonia was established, the de facto government of Barcelona and Catalonia consisting of representatives of the unions, and parties from the Front d'Esquerres (the name of the Popular Front in Catalonia). The Generalitat existed in name only, propped up by the workers' committees. At that time the Confederation had approximately two million members, the socialist union UGT about half as many and the Communist party a few thousand, nevertheless these groups were given equal representation, in the interests of 'democratic collaboration' (Diego Abad de Santillan) in recognition of the part they had played in the battle, and their influence in the rest of Spain - also in France, which was viewed as an important potential ally against fascism.
The central government was powerless to oppose the revolution that was taking place in Catalonia. Within the first two weeks the militia columns had conquered half of Aragon where they established libertarian (anarchist) communism, working closely with the Aragonese peasantry, as they lacked the ammunition and other supplies to proceed any further. The Barcelona arms industries were collectivized, but bank loans to these industries were denied by the government of the Second Spanish Republic in Madrid, under the influence of the Communists, who feared the libertarian movement above all. In October the Committee dissolved itself and its members became councilors of the government of the Generalitat of Catalonia. But the Patrullas de Control (Control Patrols, drawn from the unions, maintained order. (The C.N.T. made up half the personnel, but had only four of the eleven section delegates, the remainder being Communist and Esquerra (Catalan left) given the anarchists disdain for supervisory roles.
The climate of distrust and confrontation was present not only among republican institutions and workers organizations, but even between these organizations, especially among anarchists, on the one hand, and Socialists, Communists and Catalan nationalists on the other. On the one hand the communist PCE and PSUC, following the official doctrine of the Soviet Union, as well as being supporters of the usual order of the Second Spanish Republic. The PCE PCE was the major communist party in the country while the PSUC was the main communist organization in Catalonia. At the other extreme, in radical opposition to Stalin, the dissident Marxist POUM; who believed, like the anarchists, that war and social revolution were inseparable. This being the chief motivation for those actually doing the fighting, the overwhelming majority of whom were trade unionists and/or had been members of libertarian organisations before the war.
The tension was rising due a chain of events taking place during the winter that heated the political climate and paved the way for what would take place later. The PCE had taken a decision to liquidate the POUM during a conference with Comintern officials and Soviet agents in Valencia. During that conference the POUM leaders were accused of being Nazi agents, part of a plot devised by Leon Trotsky, who was alleged to be conspiring with the fascists to overthrow Stalin - supported by the 'evidence' of the show trials of the leaders of the Russian Revolution that had taken place in Moscow the previous year. The POUM had come to propose an invitation to Trotsky to reside in Catalonia, despite their differences with him. The POUM leaders were becoming increasingly wary as they moved to the spring of 1937. Tension in the streets of Barcelona was becoming evident of the arrival of a hot spring: uncontrollable Civil Guards and Soviet agents continued to arbitrarily arrest and murder Confederals. Josep Tarradellas, on the other hand, wished to recover his own party's monopoly on violence and finish with the Patrullas de Control. When on March 26, Tarradellas banned members of the police from having political affiliation and, at the same time, demanded to all the political organizations to hand over their weapons, anarchists withdrew from the government of the Generalitat of Catalonia. The open crisis forced Companys to give in to these demands and anarchists retained their weapons and the Control Patrols remained in place.
On April 25 a force of Carabineros under the Pro-Stalin Finance Minister, Juan Negrín, took over the customs house at Puigcerdà on the French border  killing the anarchist mayor, Antonio Martin, and three of his comrades. After this, the violence flared up along the entire border, the CNT, determined to maintain antifascist unity, reacted to these provocations with disciplined restraint, confining themselves to self-defence. In Barcelona began the fear of an outbreak of open warfare between anarchists and the POUM on one side, and the government and the communists on the other. Each side formed weapon caches and fortified their buildings in secret, fearing rivals attacking first. The tense calm continued for one week. May Day, which was traditionally a day of celebration, was spent in silence, as the UGT and CNT agreed to suspend the parades, which inevitably would have caused riots.
Three main political forces were involved in the events that led to the May Days. The Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) had as main objective protecting British and French capitalism, and keeping the Spanish conflict going until war broke out in the rest of Europe, a conflict in which Stalin hoped to remain neutral, the better to pick up the pieces afterwards.
There were groups inclined to return to the Republican legality too, the authorities of the Republican Government in Valencia and the Generalitat, with the support of the PSUC and Republican Left of Catalonia. A third sector was composed by the higher committees of the CNT, now embedded in the state apparatus, supporting an immediate cessation of hostilities between both sides for the sake of unity. The PSUC was a bourgeois party, created from scratch after the coup, to absorb elements who feared workers' control. From the point of view of the Republican authorities it presented itself as an alternative to the revolution, and it advocated the strengthening of the central government that had spectacularly failed to bring either peace or stability to the country since the failure of the Monarchy. To get it done an organized and instructed army led by a single command was needed. Orwell summarized the party line as follows:
"The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working-class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail. Every move was made in the name of military necessity, because this pretext was, so to speak, ready-made, but the effect was to drive the workers back from an advantageous position and into a position in which, when the war was over, they would find it impossible to resist the reintroduction of capitalism. Please notice that I am saying nothing against the rank-and-file Communists, least of all against the thousands of Communists who died heroically round Madrid. … … In England the Communist war-policy has been accepted without question, because very few criticisms of it have been allowed to get into print and because its general line — do away with revolutionary chaos, speed up production, militarize the army — sounds realistic and efficient. It is worth pointing out its inherent weakness. In order to check every revolutionary tendency and make the war as much like an ordinary war as possible, it became necessary to throw away the strategic opportunities that actually existed. I have described how we were armed, or not armed, on the Aragon front. There is very little doubt that arms were deliberately withheld lest too many of them should get into the hands of the Anarchists, who would afterwards use them for a revolutionary purpose; consequently the big Aragon offensive which would have made Franco draw back from Bilbao, and possibly from Madrid, never happened." -— George Orwell, 'Homage to Catalonia'
Chronology of the clashes
On Friday 5th March 1937, ten armoured cars were requisitioned from the arms factory in Barcelona with an order signed by the factory director Vallejo, which proved to be a forgery, they were followed to the Voroschilov Barracks of the P.S.U.C. Josep Tarradellas intervened. When threatened with a forced inspection of the barracks the Communists admitted they had the armoured cars.
On April 25th, an unknown assassin killed the P.S.U.C.'s Roldan Cortada. He had once been a C.N.T. member, and suspicion fell on his former comrades, leading to a spate of arrests in working class areas, further raising the temperature.
The event that sparked the armed conflict in Barcelona was the assault by Civil Guards on the telephone exchange, which had been a workers’ collective since its recapture from the army, a decisive moment in the July revolution. Their orders were signed by the minister of internal security Artemi Aiguadér, who later claimed he knew nothing about it. Like the fascists before them they only took the ground floor before being engaged by the workers upstairs with machine-gun fire.
Control of the telephone exchange by the unions was of vital importance since it permitted monitoring of government communications with the sanction of cutting them off. Having given equal representation to the political parties and the Catalan bourgeoisie, this was the workers' guarantee against a breach of faith by the politicians, but it was intolerable to the bourgeois-Stalinist bloc. Its collectivisation had been ‘legalised’ by decree in October, and it was jointly administered by the C.N.T. and U.G.T. with a government delegate, not as is often claimed, controlled by anarchists. (At the outbreak of civil war, the U.G.T. was tiny in Catalonia compared to the Confederation, and the Communist and other left parties were insignificant, joint control meant that the anarchist had the majority of personnel, but the other factions had their share of delegates, giving them a political influence out of all proportion to their numbers. The Communists' talent for political intrigue allowed them to take control of the bureaucracy as fast as it was being rebuilt.)
On May 2, the Minister of Marine and Air, Indalecio Prieto, telephoned from Valencia to the Generalitat; anarcho-syndicalist telephonist on the other side replied that in Barcelona there was no government but only a Defense Committee. The Government was convinced that anarchists recorded their telephone conversations (they, of course, had the means to do so). The same day there was a call from President Manuel Azaña to Companys, President of the Generalitat. During the conversation, they were cut by the operator, who said that the lines should be used for more important purposes than a mere talk between presidents.
That same afternoon of May 2, shootings occurred between members of Estat Català and the FAI in Barcelona, killing a member of the latter. This was evidence of the explosive situation that existed in Barcelona at the time.
A body of 200 police officers commanded by the Minister of Public Order of the Government of Catalonia, Eusebio Rodríguez Salas, went to the Telefónica central and presented himself at the censorship department (located on the second floor) with the intention of taking control of the building. The anarchists saw it as a provocation, since Telefónica was legally occupied by an anarcho-syndicalist committee according to a decree about collectivization from the Generalitat itself. Rodríguez Salas, in his part, had authorization from the head of internal affairs in the regional government, Artemi Aiguader i Miró. Then the anarchist workers opened fire from the second floor. Salas phoned in for help, with a company of the National Republican Guard arriving along with two Control Patrols heads, Dionisio Eroles (head of the anarchist police station) and José Asens (head of the Control Patrols). Eroles persuaded the CNT workers to cease fire and although they resisted at first, they surrendered their weapons but not before shooting through the windows to empty their ammunition.
In the administrative centre the PSUC and the workers both erected barricades, facing each other. The POUM, the Friends of Durruti Group, the Bolshevik-Leninists and the Libertarian Youth took positions, and after a few hours, all political parties had their own barricades. Battles began in different parts of the city. In Barcelona's suburbs, the defence committees retained full control; in those districts police sided with the workers and voluntarily handed over their weapons. Several hundred barricades were built and police units occupied roofs and church towers. By the evening, Barcelona was a city at war.
The PSUC and the Estat Català controlled the urban sectors situated at east of the Ramblas. Workers' committees dominated the western sectors and all the suburbs. In the city center, where the headquarters of trade unions and political parties were relatively close, gunfire began to be heard and all the cars circulating were machine gunned. In the telephonic building a truce was agreed and telephone communications, which were essential for war operations, were not interrupted. Early in the evening, the leaders of the POUM proposed to the regional committee the formation of an alliance against the counter-revolutionaries. The anarchist leaders refused immediately.
On May 4 Barcelona was a city plunged into silence, interrupted only by the fire of rifles and machine guns. Shops and buildings were covered with barricades. During the early hours of the morning the shooting started in the centre of the city. The Palace of Justice was occupied by the police. A few headquarters of the CNT were seized by the police. Most of the Barcelona proletariat supported the anarcho-syndicalists and fears started over a Civil War inside the Civil War. At eleven o'clock the delegates of the CNT met and agreed to do everything possible to restore calm. Meanwhile, the anarchist leaders Joan García Oliver and Federica Montseny launch an appeal on the radio asking to their followers to lay down their weapons and return to their jobs. Jacinto Toryho, director of the CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera, expressed the same sentiment. Anarchist ministers arrived in Barcelona, and with them Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez "Marianet" (secretary of the national committee of the CNT), Pascual Tomás and Carlos Hernández (from the executive committee of the UGT). None of them wanted a confrontation with the Communists, and President Largo Caballero was himself engaged in a bitter power struggle with the P.C.E. and the right-wing of his own party. Federica Montseny later said that the news of the battle had caught her and the other anarchist ministers totally unprepared.
In the Aragon front, units of the 26th Division (Durruti Column) under the command of Gregorio Jover, the 28th Division (Ascaso Column) and the 29th Division of the POUM, captained by Rovira reached Barbastro having followed a P.S.U.C. column, which they believed intended to march on Barcelona. However, receiving the assurances of Juan Manuel Molina (Juanel) acting Councillor of Defence, they remained in their positions.
“Maximo Franco, chief of the 127 brigade, most nervous, had already passed Monzón, at the front of a battalion, with its corresponding material, some cannons and machine-guns. I gave instructions to the Organization in Binefar to meet the column, and get Maximo Franco to call me on the telephone. He did, and on my assuring him that I continued at the head of the Councillorship of Defense and in Barcelona we had enough and more than enough to dominate the Communists, he returned to the front his unit. In spite of the fact that the chief of the Red and Black had distributed his forces on the front, leaving its defense assured, we could not give pretext to the enemies and to public opinion that a military unit had abandoned the front.” - Juan Manuel Molina: ‘El Comunismo Totalitario’, Editores Mexicanos Unidos, Mexico, 1982.
At about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, on Via Durruti, (current Via Laietana) two cars were coming up the street from the direction of the docks to get to the Casa CNT-FAI, headquarters of the Regional Committees. Some 300 metres away a barricade of Catalan city guards and members of the PSUC, with red arm-bands was located. As the cars approached this barricade, they were ordered to stop and surrender their weapons. As they were getting out of the car to carry out the order, they were shot down by volleys of rifle fire. The POUM began to support resistance publicly. In shootings occurring during this day the well-known libertarian Domingo Ascaso, family of the mythical Francisco Ascaso and president of the Regional Council of Defense of Aragon Joaquín Ascaso, was killed. The Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain, official group of the Fourth International in Spain, distributed on the barricades of Barcelona leaflets titled "Long life to the revolutionary offensive", which included the following statement:
"Long life to the revolutionary offensive - No compromises - Disarmament of the National Republican Guard and reactionary Assault Guard - Timing is crucial - Next time it will be too late - General strike in all the industries that do not work for the war effort, until the resignation of the reactionary government - Only Proletarian Power can ensure military victory - Give weapons to the working class - Long live to the CNT-FAI-POUM unity of action - Long Live to the Proletarian Revolutionary Front - in the workshops, factories, barricades, etc.. Revolutionary Defense Committees."
Night-long negotiations resulted in the resignation of the entire Generalitat. A provisional government was formed with one representative from each party. But calm was not restored. Upon the return of the representatives of the CNT-FAI from the Generalitat, the various committees of the CNT-FAI held a meeting. The two officials involved (Aiguade and Salas) whose dismissal was demanded by the workers, resigned with the rest. At 9.30 in the morning the assault guards attacked the headquarters of the Medical Union at Santa Ana Square in the centre of the city. At the same time they attacked, with greater fury the headquarters of the Local Federation of the Libertarian Youth. Six young anarchists were killed in the defence of their premises. Both places telephoned the Regional Committee for help. When, in the afternoon, the hostilities still continued the Defence Committee decided to call for three more armoured cars to defend the threatened Union headquarters. They came within a few hours to the Casa CNT-FAI, and were put into action to aid and support endangered unions and comrades. Soon after their arrival, opposite the Regional Committee, three unarmed workers were seeking refuge in a doorway, being shot at from the barricades of the PSUC, they seemed lost. One of the armoured cars went to the rescue of the endangered comrades upon the initiative of a woman comrade. The Italian anarchists Camillo Berneri and Francisco Barbieri, who had fought on the Aragon front were abducted and shot; Berneri had written an article critical of Moscow. In his book, ‘Ready for Revolution’ Augustin Guillamon shows, with the aid of contemporary photographs, how the two Italians were completely hemmed in by P.S.U.C. barricades and overlooked by the balconies of the U.G.T. office. There was only one door, and it is inconceivable that anyone could have entered or left the building without the Communists’ permission.
An armistice was agreed, but the fighting continued, the regional committee asked several times who was controlling the police, because they were not taking orders from the government.
Gregorio Jover returned from Huesca to Barcelona but saw no need to recall the militia.
At 8:20 the expedition of Assault Guards reach Barcelona, occupying different points of the city. Some come by road from Valencia, after looting and pillaging confederal premises in Tarragona and Reus.
“The Regional Committee was informed that the armed forces of the Catalan Nationalists and the PSUC had taken possession of the village of San Juan. The armed workers of the CNT and the FAI entered the village, disarmed the enemy and liberated their comrades. In the open village square they had to answer for their actions. They were warned not to take up arms against the people. Then the anarchists set their enemies free again. … At six o'clock they telephoned that 1,500 Assault Guards had reached Tortosa on their way to Barcelona. They occupied the headquarters of the CNT unions, the cultural centres of the FAI and the Anarchist Youth, arresting all those found inside. These troops had come from the central part of Spain. According to the evening paper Noticiero Universal of Saturday May 8th, these troops had come from the trenches of the Jarama front, where they had been fighting for four months alongside the International Brigade. The anarchists could also have called in their columns from the Aragon front, as well as armed forces from other parts of Catalonia, and there is no doubt that they could have been victorious within 24 hours. But they did not want to break up the anti-fascist front. They never did more than defend themselves against the attacks directed against them.”
- Augustin Souchy: ‘The Tragic Week in May’
That day the CNT calls again for a return to work, by proclaiming on the radio: Down the barricades! Each citizen takes its paving stone! Let's return to normality! . Assault Guards in Barcelona, Tarragona and other many towns continue to arrest and murder members of the CNT, FAI, Libertarian Youth and POUM.
Streets return to normality with some isolated incidents and the clean up of barricades begins. The unrest in Barcelona had finally finished. The press of the day estimated the death toll in 500 dead and 1000 injured. The May Days had secondary actions in many towns, mainly in the provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona. The fight was strong here too, but it ended with the defeat of CNT, FAI, Libertarian Youth and POUM.
The May Days had profound and long consequences. From one side it showed that Anarchists would not act with a single voice as it had been on 18 July 1936. A gap opened between the Anarchist ministers, who still believed in antifascist unity, and the Anarchist youth, determined to defend the Revolution. Other time very influential personalities, like Escorza or García Oliver, had lost control over his own followers. The crisis showed that there could be no truce between Communists and the POUM. The Generalitat of Catalonia was restored in its old functions, entering on it one representative from the UGT (the communist Vidiella), one from the CNT (Valerio Mas) and a one from ERC (again Tarradellas). Some responsible for the killings were tried later, but only in Tarragona, and are not sentenced to death but only to imprisonment.
The Generalitat of Catalonia, the Communists and the central government were determined to discipline the workers by force, if necessary. The new Director of Public Order in Barcelona, José Echevarria Novoa, soon restored normality in much of the judicial system, but, in this way, the Communists could take more easily their crusade against the POUM. The republican authorities took more measures against the CNT-FAI due the great power they still hold and their big popular support. The POUM situation was quite different, as the republican government eventually outlawed the party shortly after (June 16) and arrested its main leaders, including Julián Gorkin and Andreu Nin. The POUM would end disappearing from the political map, while the Anarchist movement would never intervene in the war as it had done until now. Ultimately, these internal disputes that were tearing the Republic apart were a burden in its internal unity against the rebels. Other consequences of the Events of Barcelona were the fall of the Government of the Victory presided by Caballero and the exit of the four Anarchist ministers represented on it, and a clear victory of the Communists in influence and power in the Republican camp.
In popular culture
- Hugh Thomas, p. 713
- Hugh Thomas, p.700
- Hugh Thomas, p.703
- Hugh Thomas, p.704
- Hugh Thomas, p.705
- Hugh Thomas, p.706
- Miravitlles, p.141
- Hugh Thomas, p.707
- Hugh Thomas, p.709
- Julian Gorkin, Caníbales políticos, p.69
- Peirats, La CNT, p. 274
- Hugh Thomas, p. 710
- Peirats, La CNT, p.274
- Julian Gorkin, Caníbales Políticos, p.69
- Peirats, La CNT, p.206
- Hugh Thomas, p.714
- Peirats, La CNT, p.346
- Viñas, Ángel (2007). El escudo de la República. Barcelona: Editorial Crítica. p. 514. ISBN 978-84-8432-892-6.
- Hugh Thomas, p.717
- Three groups of the Guardia de Asalto (3.000 effectives) were available for the security forces, to which must be added 1,000 troops of the Guardia Nacional Republicana (GNR) and other security forces like the Mossos d'Esquadra. Later were sent 4.000 Guardias de Asalto as reinforcements, meanwhile the Navy sent the Battleship Jaime I and 2 destroyers. Should be noted the auxiliary forces of the PSUC, ERC and Estat Català.