Review of non-anarchist writings on the Barcelona May - days of 1937


Originally published as - 1937-1978: Four Decades without a History - as part of a collection of Camillo Berneri's writings

The Parisian publisher Spartacus published several months after these events the booklet by Marcel Ollivier 'The Bloody Days of Barcelona - The GPU in Spain' (republished in 1976 with others, under the title of 'Spain - The Grave-diggers of the Social Revolution').

To what extent do historical research and the publication of various eyewitness accounts correct or emphasise Ollivier's inquiries and interpretations?

It is remarkable that the majority of historians recognise year after year that the question needs to be studied thoroughly Orwell in 1938 in 'Homage to Catalonia' (which is an eye witness account and a basic study ), Burnett Bollioten in 'The Grand Camouflage;' Cesar Lorenzo in 'Les Anarchistes espagnols et le pouvoir;' and one might wonder if there is anything to change since then, as in 1974 Carlos Semprun Maura in 'Revolution et contrerevolution en Catalogne' makes extensive use of Ollivier's evidence.

To Ollivier's question: "Was there in fact an instruction issued?" which he half answered, we can now answer no. And that for both antagonists.

H. Thomas rightly explains that if the Communists and their Catalan Nationalist and Republican bourgeois allies had wanted to attack and wipe out anarchist and heterodox Marxism, they would have ousted their divisions, as they did in Aragon in August 1937 in order to suppress autonomy and workers' control.

On the other side, if the anarchists and the POUM had wanted to exterminate the Communists in Barcelona and Catalonia. they would as a preliminary measure, have ousted their divisions: and, above all, a systematic series of incidents would have occurred in their fiefs (that is to say all the industrial cities and most of the villages. Now, in Lerida where the POUM were particularly strong. in Hospitalet de Llobregat, CornelLa, Badalolna, Mataro, the suburb of Barcelona with FAI groups well-known for their activism, nothing happened.

Moreover, in spite of the propaganda about arms held back in reserve, the workers of Barcelona, the CNT and the POUM were short of arms and ammunition (see Orwell). As for the munitions factories controlled by the CNT-FAI, the artillery at Montjuich operated by the anarchists, the CNT-FAI refused to use them, and only made use of them to exert pressure during negotiations (Abed de Santillan 'for que perdimos la guerra,' 1940). Only five armoured cars - the term is more accurate than tank - were used to ... protect the HQ of the CNT-FAI (not to defend the telephone exchange!) as Souchy says in 'The tragic week in May', 1937.

The Communists refuse these interpretations totally, and if the term: anarchist and Trotskyist 'putsch' has been used automatically from 1960 (Maidanik, 'Ispanski proletariat v natsionalnoe revoliutsonnoe voine') to 1977 (Vdiella, in 'Histona 16') there is also a development. When a grave responsibility is invariably attributed to Franco's agents according to the evidence of Von Faupel, Nazi ambassador to Franco (message of 13th May 1937, the disturbances in Barcelona had been provoked by his agents, in German political archives); now Carnillo in 'Demain l'Espagne,' 1974, and, above all, Viviella in April 1977 talk of "the internal contradictions in the Soviet revolutionary processes .... transposed onto the international plan," end on the assassination of the POUM leader Andres Nin - it was an "assassination. But I would claim that neither the Spanish Communist Party nor the PSUC - Catalan Communist Party - had anything to do with it." A phrase from Vidiella that u all the more surprising than that he claims on the same page that Soviet agents did not intervene 'at all.'

Ollivier's chronological description is still accurate, but one is aware of lacunae for the 5th May with the absence of any mention of the assassinations of Berneri and Barbieri and the Communist Sese. In contrast, the refusal of the CNT leaders of the assistance of the anarchist divisions and the POUM sections is perfectly true. On this point, which is so often stressed by the Communists and their bourgeois allies, it must be added that the day after the troubles, the 4th May the Catalan Government used the alpine militias (a fact that is pointed out by Manuel Cruells in his famous but incomplete book, 'Mayo Sangriento', 1969) who had been summoned in haste (see 'Serra d'Or', special issue on Catalan tourism of 1976) thus abandoning the Front.

As for the description offered by the Communists, it has undergone like that of the role of the USSR, a development. Maidanik, in 1960 offered a first version (at the time Orwell showed the contradictions of the English Communist journals): the guards were attacked by provocateurs and outcasts from the telephone exchange, but in the fight there were 1,000 members of the POUM and 6,000 members of the CNT, the FAI and the Anarchist Youth. In the Levant and Madrid "The CNT did not join a common cause."

Two years later, Pritsker in 'Podvik ispanskoy respubliki' added the 'proof' of the quotation from the Nazi archives about Franco's agents (clearly this was a matter of boasting to impress Hitler). The Soviet ex-ambassador to the London Non-intervention Committee, now a doyen of Soviet Hispanism, is the most original of these Communist historians, since in 'Carnets espagnols' (1964-1966) he claims that the putsch disarmed the guards and seized the telephone exchange. General Batov, military adviser in Spain (of Lukas on the Aragon Front in February 1937, where he was severely wounded by a shell at the same time as Gustav Regler and Lukas, who died) wrote in 'Bajo la bandera de la Espana republicana' (Russian original of 1965) that the putsch "was quelled by the workers of the factories and firms in Barcelona." Finally in 1971 in 'Guerra y Revolucion en Espana' (Moscow, Volume III, by a Spanish Communist Party Collective) we read of "the lack of foresight of Aiguader" and the neutrality of the "confederal working class masses." One can hope that from now until the year 2000 the Communist historians will still provide us with many details.

The number of victims of these days was more than 800 dead according to Ollivier. The majority of authors quote between 400 and 500 dead and 1,000 wounded. Souchy writes of 1,500 wounded and Maidanik of 950 dead and 2,600 wounded (the collective of the Spanish CP says 500 and 1000). In fact these figures do not take into account the repression that followed these days in May. Orwell asserts that these figures are higher than the number of victims during the days of July 1936 in Barcelona against Franco's troops. Thomas, quoting anarchist sources, gives 500 dead (of which 200 were anti-fascists) and 3,000 wounded (for two days), which invalidates Orwell's opinion.

Ollivier's conclusions about "the strength of the anarchists; the indecision of their leaders" and the strengthening of the bourgeoisie was shared at the time by the 'Amigos de Durruti': in 'Hacia una nueva revolucion' (Barcelona 1937), they wrote "in May, it was time for us to save the Revolution," "we were the only ones to be equal to the situation."

Now, these conclusions appear identical in the works of all the authors in favour of revolution from below; Jose Peirats, Vernon Richards, Munis etc.

We will finish with an extract from 'Guerra di Classe,' from an insert of 9th May 1937, a supplement to No. 15 dated 3rd May. It shows the ideas of Berneri's comrades

"Once more and as always, it has been proved that all that is vital and effective in a social movement cannot be anything other than a spontaneous and instinctive expression that comes from below.

"The rank and file have fought and they have fought well and they would have seized Barcelona in the first 24 hours of the fighting of their magnificent and heroic impetus had not been braked by repeated orders from the controlling bodies."

(Translated by Simon Benne)


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