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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, refer to a series of clashes between 3 and 8 May 1937 were a period of civil violence in Catalonia, when factions on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War engaged each other in street battles in various parts of Catalonia, and centered on the city of Barcelona, in the context of the Spanish Civil War.
In these events the communist and anarchist supporters of the Spanish Revolution faced on one hand, the Republican state and the Government of Catalonia, and on the other hand, rival political groups. It was the culmination of the confrontation between prewar republican legality and the Spanish Revolution, which were in constant strife since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
After the failure of the military rebellion in Barcelona in July 1936, the city, and with it all of Catalonia had been under the control of the workers' militias, especially the anarchist trade union CNT-FAI but also the socialist union UGT. Just after taking the last rebelling barracks, the anarchist leaders 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 that represented most parties from the Front d'Esquerres (the name of the Popular Front in Catalonia). The Generalitat and the central government had lost all freedom of action and assisted passively to the revolution that was taking place in Catalonia and extended to Aragon. The industries were collectivized, but there was always the same problem when the petitions of loans to the banks (collectivized, but under control of communists and the Government) were denied due these industries not being supervised by the Generalitat. In October the Committee dissolved itself and its members became councilors of the government of the Generalitat of Catalonia.
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. Even among the Communists there was a strong division. On the one hand the communist PCE and PSUC, following the official doctrine of the Soviet Union, as well as being supporters of handling war and revolution separately and the defense of the bourgeois order of the Second Spanish Republic. PCE was the major communist party in the country while the PCUS was the main communist organization in Catalonia. At the other extreme, the anti-authoritarian POUM (similar to Trotskyists), radically opposing Stalin and supporters of making the revolution meanwhile the war was raging (with this they coincided with the anarchists).
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. PCE's campaign against the POUM had begun in March during a political conference in Valencia. During that conference the POUM leaders were vilified and accused of being covert Nazi agents under a false revolutionary propaganda, constituting enemy agents infiltrated in the country. 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 Patrullas de Control under the direction of José Asens continued to arbitrarily arrest and commit murders in his infamous 'paseos'.[note 2] Other anarchists patrols practiced private expropriations which were nothing more than simple thefts. Josep Tarradellas, as Companys right hand, was determined to unify the security forces in Catalonia under one command 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 forced patrols of CNT in Puigcerdà to hand over control of the customs house; Juan Negrín, the Finance Minister, had resolved to end this anomaly under which the CNT controlled that important border. Puigcerdá had become a center of espionage, falsification of passports and clandestine leakage and its mayor, Antonio Martin, while insisting in general collectivization, raised his own livestock. After a violent confrontation occurred him and several of his men were killed. After this, Negrín did not find it so hard to gain control of the other customs posts. Simultaneously with these events, the Guardia Nacional Republicana and the Assault Guards were sent to Figueras and other cities in northern Catalonia to replace CNT patrols. 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 winning the war, because without a victory a revolutionary approach; like the one maintained by the CNT, the Libertarian Youth and the POUM and other minor groups like the anarchist Friends of Durruti Group or the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain; was entirely inappropriate.
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 aforementioned PSUC and Republican Left of Catalonia. A third sector was composed by the "possibilist" part of the CNT, supporting an immediate cessation of hostilities between both sides. Although the PSUC was not a bourgeois party, from the point of view of the Republican authorities it presented itself as an alternative to the revolutionary chaos, and it advocated the strengthening of central government that would replace the local committees. To get it done an organized and instructed army led by a single command was needed. Orwell summarized the party line as follows:
"Clinging to the fragments of workers' control and parroting revolutionary aims is worse than useless: not only an obstacle but also counter-revolutionary, because it leads to divisions that fascists can use against us. At this stage we do not fight for the proletarian dictatorship..."
"This, then, was what they were saying about us: we were Trotskyists, Fascists, traitors murderers, cowards, spies, and so forth. I admit it was not pleasant, especially when one thought of some of the people who were responsible for it." George Orwell, HOMAGE TO CATALONIA.
Chronology of the clashes
Traditionally it has been accepted by historians that the key event that sparked the conflict in Barcelona was the taking by the Assault Guard of the telephone exchange. The reason behind taking the building was the control of government communications by the CNT. The center was controlled from the beginning of the war by the CNT-FAI, the labor union that collectivized the telephone company in the areas it controlled, and therefore, controlled telephone communications in Catalonia.
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. From long ago republican authorities suspected that anarcho-syndicalists controlled all the official telephone conversations, and these kind of incidents were the last straw.
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 landing of the censorship department. 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.
A crowd gathered in Plaça Catalunya: at first it was believed that the anarchists had captured the head of the police. 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 taken the weapons they had hidden and began building barricades. From this skirmish battles began in different parts of the city. Several hundred barricades were built and police units occupied roofs and church towers. By the evening, Barcelona was a city at war.
The PCUS and the government controlled the urban sectors situated at east of the Ramblas. Anarchists dominated the western sectors and all the suburbs were also in their hands. In the city center, where the headquarters of trade unions and political parties (installed in requisitioned buildings and hotels) 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. The police, installed on the first floor, even sent bocadillos to the anarchists, who occupied the upper floors. However, from the rooftops, various grenades blew up several police cars. Early in the evening, the leaders of the POUM proposed to the stunned Barcelona anarchist leaders the formation of an alliance against communism and the government. 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. Anarchist-armed groups attacked the barracks of the Assault Guards and government buildings. The government and communist militants responded. 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 heard 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 had no desire to use force against the anarchists. Federica Montseny later said that the news of the riots had caught her and the other anarchist ministers totally unprepared.
In the Aragon front, units of the 26th Anarchist Division (former Durruti Column) under the command of Gregorio Jover, gathered in Barbastro to march on Barcelona. However, upon hearing the García Oliver radio broadcast they remained in their positions. Meanwhile, the 28th Division (former Ascaso Column) and the 29th Division of the POUM, captained by Rovira, didn't withdraw their proposed march on Madrid until the head of the republican aviation in the Aragon front, Alfonso Reyes, threatened to bomb them if it took place.
By five in the afternoon, several anarchists were killed by the police near the Via Durruti (current Via Laietana). 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 were 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."
The ultimate result of the battle was the further erosion of worker control of the city and the beginnings of widespread Counter-Revolution. The POUM was dispersed, its publications banned, and its leaders arrested. The Republic conducted mass arrests of the Catalan workers and dissolved the agricultural collectives in Aragon by force of arms. Mandatory conscription in the Republic's Popular Front army was enacted, in which the volunteer militias were absorbed or otherwise its members declared deserters.
Ironically, though the Anti-Stalinists among the workers were silenced in the Counter-Revolution, the USSR's Fascist Enemies defeated the Republic in 1939. As Stéphane Courtois writes, “[Stalin] played his game boldly against the independence of the Spanish People, but feebly against Franco. He succeeded in murderous intrigue, but failed in waging war.” 
In popular culture
- Hugh Thomas, p. 713
- Hugh Thomas, p.590
- Hugh Thomas, p.700
- Hugh Thomas, p. 701
- Martínez Bande, La invasión, p. 278
- 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
- Hugh Thomas, p.711
- Julian Gorkin, Caníbales Políticos, p.69
- Three goups 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.
- 'Paseo' (literally 'take a walk') was an euphemism used during the Spanish Civil War referring to executions by a firing squad. The victim would be 'released' and later shoot in the back when walking away from his captors.