Chapter 17: The May Events in Catalonia

The immediate cause of the events in Catalonia was an openly provocative act of the Minister of Public Safety, Artemio Aiguadé, a member of the Catalonian Separatists, who had taken over this post in the newly formed cabinet only a few weeks before. At three o'clock on the afternoon of May 3rd, Commissar Rodriguez Salas, a member of the Communist P.S.U.C., appeared with a strong division of police at the central telephone exchange in Barcelona and stated categorically that he had orders from Aiguadé to occupy the building. The telephone central, like most of the other public buildings in the city, stood under the control of the C.N.T. and U.G.T., together with an official delegate from the Generalidad, and this state of affairs had long been recognized by the government.

When, therefore, the workers protested, Salas ordered his men to disarm them by force. On the first floor luck was with him in this, because the workers were simply taken by surprise. In the second story, however, he encountered the energetic resistance of the C.N.T. men. Shots were fired on both sides, and the police were unable to force their way further. Meanwhile a huge crowd of people had gathered in the street, attracted by the shooting. The general excitement, however, reached its height when armed P.S.U.C. men suddenly appeared in the adjacent streets and began erecting barricades. An outcry went up then all over the city and quickly spread to the most remote suburbs: "Treason! Treason! To arms! We've got to defend the Revolution!"

All this occurred quite spontaneously. The workers felt that a malicious assault on them had been arranged and resolutely prepared to defend themselves without waiting for the decision of their organizations. In the turn of a hand, the suburbs were converted into armed intrenchments. It was plain from the very beginning that the whole of organized labor was on the side of the C.N.T., just as in July, 1936. So strong was the general resistance in the Barcelona suburbs that the police there, as a whole, remained neutral; likewise the Republican, and even the Communist, militia, as, for instance, the soldiers in the Communist barracks in Sarria. In many sections they went straight over to the people, as in Sans and San Gervasio the Guardia de Asalto likewise did. In Sans the workers took four hundred of the Guardia Civil prisoners and held them in the C.N.T. headquarters. It is characteristic that these and all the other prisoners taken by the workers were promptly released when the fighting was over, while such known members of the C.N.T. as fe]l into the hands of the other side were murdered in cowardly fashion.

Only in the heart of the city, the section where the old middle class resided, did the Communists and their allies remain masters of the situation; and even there only because the workers from the beginning confined themselves strictly to defense and made no direct attacks, as they might easily have done. The Regional Committee of the C.N.T. was concerned above everything else to bring the fighting to an end and to prevent its spreading to other sections of the country. Delegations hurried to Prime Minister Tarradelles and Minister of the Interior Aiguadé and demanded the withdrawal of the bands of police. They were assured that no order had been given for the occupation of the telephone central. This was a manifest lie, for it was later established that Aiguadé had given Salas the order. A short time before the outbreak of hostilities a C.N.T. operator at the exchange had taken in a telegram which was addressed to a well-known Catalonian Separatist politician in France and consisted of the words: "Estic bé. Tot marxa." (I am well. All goes nicely.) The Regional Committee was therefore at once certain that there had been here not just an unfortunate misunderstanding, but a well-planned attack on the organized workers for the purpose of expelling the representatives of the C.N.T. from the Generalidad and bloodily destroying their organization. This conviction was only too well justified, for, it developed later, the same things were going on in other Catalonian towns and were being managed in the same way. The committee found itself in a difficult position. Its members were well aware that the spreading of the conflict would deal the anti-Fascist cause a crushing blow. On the other hand they could not possibly expect the workers to allow themselves to be calmly butchered by a cowardly band of conspirators. The committee therefore concentrated its efforts from the very beginning on the defence, and demanded the immediate dismissal of Aiguadé and Salas by the government, thus restoring peace as quickly as possible. When the government hesitated, the general strike was proclaimed, from which were exempted only those workers engaged in industries of war. This is but an additional proof of the great sense of responsibility which motivated the working classes of Barcelona. Had the government accepted this only too reasonable demand, peace would have been restored within a few hours, for the workers certainly had nothing to gain by killing each other. By their disruptive tactics the Communists and Separatists prolonged the negotiations, thereby aggravating the situation needlessly.

In the suburbs practically no fighting took place. In Sans, Hostafranchs, San Gervasio, etc., the workers merely disarmed the police and the Guardia Civil and concerned themselves only with their own defense. Meanwhile the C.N.T. and the F.A.I. issued appeals to the populace informing them of the true state of affairs and calling on them to end the fighting. In an appeal to the police they say:

"The C.N.T. and F.A.I. are against every form of dictatorship, nor are they minded to force their own dictatorship on others. As long as our adherents live they will never submit to a dictatorship. We are fighting against Fascism, not because we like to fight, but because we wish to assure freedom to the people; because we wish to prevent the return of those forces which are merely looking forward to massacring the militant workers and establishing the exploitation of the people. And we are fighting against all those, who do not, indeed, call themselves Fascists, but nevertheless wish to establish a system of absolutism which stands in contradiction to all our traditions and to the history of our people."

And in a manifesto to organized workers of every faction, we read:

"Men and women of the people! Workers! We are speaking to you frankly and honestly, as we have always done. We are not responsible for what is happening today. We are attacking no one, We are only defending ourselves. We did not begin this fight, nor did we provoke it. We are only replying to the accusations, the calumnies, and to the violence that is sought to be done to the C.N.T.-F.A.I., the irreconcilable fighters of the anti-Fascist front.

"We have never concealed our aims, and we have given sufficient proof of our worth. Why do they want to exterminate us? Is it not suspicious that we are being attacked here while our formations in Madrid, in Andalusia, in Viscaya and Aragon are constantly supplying new proofs of their courage and their strength? Workers of the C.N.T. and U.G.T.! Remember the road that we have traveled together! How many of us have fallen covered with wounds, in the open streets and on the barricades! Lay down your arms! Remember that you are brothers! We shall conquer if we are united. If wee fight one another we are doomed to defeat!"

That is not the language of conspirators, but of men who recognized their responsibility, and who were cravenly assailed because with unshakable fidelity they defended the freedom of the Spanish people.

When the C.N.T. militia on the Aragon front got word of the events in Catalonia, without delay they sent one of their best fighters, Jover, to Barcelona. They were ready at once to go to the assistance of their basely betrayed brothers. The National Committee of the C.N.T. prevented this. That certainly was not the conduct of men who had designs to overthrow the government and put themselves in exclusive possession of public power. On May 4th delegates from the National Committee of the C.N.T. and U.G.T. arrived from Valencia to help restore peace. On May 5th the government at last decided on an armistice. Aiguadé and Salas were removed from their positions. The old government retired and a new one was formed in which one representative each from the C.N.T., the U.G.T., the Left Republicans, and the small farmers had a seat. But, though after the armistice was decided on the workers removed their barricades in the suburbs, the Communists were constantly provoking new clashes in the heart of the city, as they doubtless had been informed that the Valencia government had decided to interfere. Thus, a division of the Guardia Civil, after the syndicates of the C.N.T. had already ceased fighting, suddenly attacked the quarters of the Libertarian Youth. The Youth defended their home with grim contempt for death and in doing so lost six of their best comrades.

In this way the C.N.T.-F.A.I. while the negotiations for an armistice were still in progress lost a number of their best comrades, all of them murdered by Stalinist assassins. On the afternoon of May 5, the two Italian Anarchists, Berneri and Barbieri, were arrested by Communists, and during the following night both were shot. Camillo Berneri was one of the finest minds in the libertarian movement of Italy, a man of blameless character and broad political outlook. As a young professor in the University of Camarino, he had left Italy after Mussolini's accession to power and had since lived abroad as a political refugee. Immediately after the nineteenth of July, 1936, he hastened to Barcelona and formed the first Italian free troop for the war against Fascism. His clear vision quiclcly recognized the ambiguous role of the Russian government, and he warned his Spanish comrades against the approaching danger. In the periodical, "Guerra di Classe," which he conducted, he published an article under the title, "Burgos and Moscow," in which he laid bare the underground machinations of the Stalinists, so that the Russian ambassador in Barcelona lodged a protest against it. After that the agents of Moscow hated him from the bottom of their hearts, and he paid for his article with his young life, the victim of a cowardly assassination.

And in those bloody days Domingo Ascaso also fell by the hand of an assassin. He was the brother of Francisco Ascaso, one of the first to lose his life in the battle against the Fascists on July 19th, and for a long time Durruti's closest friend. Murdered also was Francisco Ferrer's nephew, who had returned from the front, wounded, a short time before. He still walked with a crutch and was accompanying his mother on the street when he was shot down before her eyes by cowardly murdering hoodlums. These are just a few names from a long list who were maliciously massacred at that time. Five hundred deod and fifteen hundred wounded; that is the bloody audit for which the organized workers of Barcelona have to thank Stalin's policy. And all of that -- we keep repeating it -- because the Russian government has to show itself well-disposed toward Anglo-French imperialism; because Russia has contemptibly betraved the cause of the workers and peasants in Spain, and its adherents there stand squarely in the camp of the counter-revolution.

If Stalin's agents and their allies, the Catalonian Separatists, have, still, not succeeded in carrying out their dark plots against the organized workers of Catalonia, this is owing only to the determined resistance of those workers, who did not quietly permit the elements without conscience to wantonly destroy their life work and break up their movement.