Barcelona in the Civil War
Outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
The Olympic Stadium is built for the People’s Olympics, scheduled to be held in Barcelona from July 19 to July 26 as a protest event against the 1936 Summer Berlin Olympics. The games were cancelled due to the war.
Heavy streetfighting breaks out between workers militias (principally CNT), the Civil Guard and loyal troops on one side and around 12,000 rebel soldiers on the other.
The workers’ militias with the help of the Civil Guard and loyal troops gain back control over the city in a dramatic two-day barricade fight. The rebels are defeated. The anarchists storm the ams depost and barracks and seize some 90,000 rifles.
Many companies and public services are collectivised by the CNT and UGT unions. Much of the city is under the effective control of the CNT.
George Orwell arrives in Barcelona, where he describes the camaraderie of the revolutionary atmosphere. He asserts that Barcelona appeared to have been “a town where the working class were in the saddle”: a large number of businesses had been collectivised, the Anarchists were “in control”, tipping was prohibited by workers themselves, and servile forms of speech, such as “Señor” or “Don“, were abandoned. He goes on to describe events at the Lenin Barracks (formerly the Cuartel de Lepanto where militiamen were given “what was comically called ‘instruction’” in preparation for fighting at the front.
The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags and with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Ústed’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos días’. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for…so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” Homage to Catalonia
May 1 The parade for the international labour day is prohibited in Barcelona because of the tense atmosphere police and worker organizations.
May 3 to May 8
(Els Fets de Maig in Catalan, Los Hechos de Mayo) Stalinists and official government troops take control from CNT and POUM after the street fighting of the Barcelona May Days.
- Violent incident at the Barcelona central telephone office. Without knowledge of the Catalan government, the Catalan councilor for public order, the Communist Rodriguez Salas, tries to take control over the city’s central telephone office, which has been controlled since the beginning of the war by the CNT and UGT. Salas got this order directly from the Catalan minister for inner affairs, Ayguade, also a Communist. A company of Assault Guards storms the building around 3 p.m., “hands up”, arresting everybody they can. The armed guards on the machine gun post at the stairs on the second floor are not informed in advance, nor is anyone else in the building. When they see armed uniformed men coming up the stairs and hear the yells and shouting from the first floor they shout “stop there and don’t come up” at which point a gunfight breaks out. The anarchist guards resist their attackers and keep control of the upper floors of the building. This skirmish leads to fighting throughout the city. Several hundred barricades are built; Communist-controlled police units occupy high buildings and church towers, shooting at everything that moves. The Communists attack not only the CNT, they also arrest POUM members. The actions are obviously well planned. Some police units and the Republican army stay neutral in the fighting, although army officers, if members of CNT/FAI or POUM, are also arrested if caught at Communist-controlled check points. The police director of Barcelona — a member of the CNT — together with the leader of the “control patrols” comes to the telephone central in an attempt to get the occupying police forces to leave the central peacefully. They have no success, instead Catalonian prime minister Lluis Companys declares that he, like everyone else, was not informed in advance by his minister for internal affairs, but that he agrees all in all with the police action. The radio stations of the CNT and FAI call hourly upon their members to maintain public order and keep calm. Wikipedia
- May 4
- General strike in Barcelona. Gunfights throughout the city.
- May 5
- Companys obtains a fragile truce between the different fighting groups, on the basis of which Rodriguez Salas, now blamed for the police action against the telephone central, has to resign. Communist commandos are still arresting people and the Communist/Socialist official Antoni Sese is murdered, probably by Anarchist gunmen. Wikipedia
- May 6
- “Neutral” police troops from Valencia arrive in Barcelona to stop the fighting. The 5,000 Assault Guards (chosen more or less carefully for their political opinions, to ensure a “neutral” force and the trust of both sides) occupy several strategic points throughout the city. The workers abandon the barricades and the telephone central is handed over to the government. When the Assault Guards enter the city and passed by the central building of the Anarchist CNT, several hundreds of them salute the black and red Anarchist flag on the building. Nevertheless, reprisals against the anti-Stalinist left are starting throughout the Republic. Wikipedia
- May 7
- The fighting in Barcelona concludes, with more than 500 dead and over 1500 wounded. Many are still under illegal arrest in several Communist-controlled police stations, militia barracks and secret prisons. Wikipedia
- May 8
- In Barcelona, police find the horribly mutilated bodies of 12 murdered young men. 8 of the bodies are so mutilated that they cannot be identified. The 4 identified bodies belong to 4 young anarchists, illegally arrested together with 8 friends on May 4 outside the Communist militia barracks in Barcelona, when they were passing by on a truck with “CNT” written on it. The names of the identified young men are: Cesar Fernández Neri, Jose Villena, Juan Antonio, and Luis Carneras. Police also found the dead bodies of the Italian anarchist professor Berneri and two of his friends, who were arrested during the May incidents by Communist militias. Wikipedia
Orwell relates his involvement in the Barcelona street fighting that began on 3rd of May when the Government Assault Guards tried to take the telephone exchange from the CNT workers who controlled it. For his part, Orwell acted as part of the POUM, guarding a POUM-controlled building. Although he realises that he is fighting on the side of the working class, Orwell describes his dismay at coming back to Barcelona on leave from the front only to get mixed up in street fighting. In his second appendix to the book, Orwell discusses the political issues at stake in the May 1937 Barcelona fighting, as he saw them at the time and later on, looking back. Wikipedia
Largo Caballero resigns, Juan Negrín becomes prime minister of the Spanish Republic. After fighting against domination of Spain by any one faction — Communist, Anarchist, or left Socialists — Caballero is left alone with no one on his side. Juan Negrín is presented as the man of the hour, leader of the “Government of the Victory”, as the press presents him and his cabinet. There are no CNT ministers in this new government. Wikipedia
The new Negrín government accepts the accusations against the POUM and prohibits their newspaper La Batalla.
- June 17 Nin is arrested in Barcelona. His arrest is not announced in public; Communist agents take him secretly to an illegal prison in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid. Nin is interrogated under torture by NKVD agent Alexander Orlov. Soviet agents assassinate Nin on June 21.
- August 15 SIM created; political meetings in Barcelona forbidden. The SIM (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar) gives back the control of secret police activities to the government, rather than leaving it in the hands of Soviet and Communist intelligence organizations. Political meetings are forbidden in Barcelona from now on. The mixture of regionalism, anarchism, and defeatism, constituted a steady drain of the Republican war effort. Also the situation was unstable after the May incidents. Wikipedia
- October 30The Republican government abandons Valencia for Barcelona.
Italian aircraft stationed in Majorca attack the city 13 times dropping 44 tons of bombs, aimed at the civil population. These attacks were at the request of General Franco as retribution. More here
Nationalists occupy Tarragona, only a few hours driving from Barcelona
Franco’s troops are closing in, most civilians hide in their homes, not daring to walk the streets of the city.
The city falls into Nationalist hands under command of Yague occupy Barcelona without resistance. The last Republican soldiers and representatives just left the city shortly before. More here
Fascist troops parade through the streets of Barcelona. Photo from here
End of the war.
Proclamation of the Ley de Responsabilidades Políticas (Law on Political Responsibilities).
The use of Catalan in public life is suppressed.
1940 (15 October). President Lluís Companys executed.
I’ve used a number of sources to compile this timeline
- La Barcelona rebelde: Joaquim Cirera Riu Interesting collection of essays
- Barcelona: Michael Eaude (best book in English about Barcelona. Deserves translating into Spanish/Catalan.
- BARCELONA REBELDE – Guillem Martínez
See also La Rambla in the Civil War
Quotes about the Social revolution in Barcelona
Certainly there are fewer well-dressed people than in ordinary times, but there are still lots of them especially women, who display their good clothes in the streets and cafes without hesitation or fear, in complete contrast to thoroughly proletarian Barcelona. Because of the bright colors of the better-dressed female element, Madrid has a much less lugubrious aspect than even the Ramblas in Barcelona. Cafes are full, in Madrid as in Barcelona, but here they are filled by a different type of people, journalists. State employees, all sorts of intelligentsia; the working class element is still in a minority. One of the most striking features is the strong militarization of the armed forces. Workers with rifles, but in their ordinary civilian clothes, are quite exceptional here. The streets and cafes are full of militia, all of them dressed in their monos, the new dark blue uniforms; most of them do not wear any party initials on their caps. We are under the sway of the liberal Madrid government, which favors the army system as against the militia system favored by Barcelona and the anarchists. Churches are closed but not burned here. Most of the requisitioned cars are being used by Government institutions, not political parties or trade unions. Here the governmental element is much more in evidence. There does not even exist, in Madrid, a central political committee. Very little expropriation seems to have taken place. Most shops carry on without even control, let alone expropriation. To sum up, Madrid gives, much more than Barcelona, the impression of a town in social revolution.
From Franz Borkenau
Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.
Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Photo from here of La Ramblas during the Civil War
The bombing of Barcelona
The city fell on 26th January 1939.
Around the web
- Poble Nou in the Civil War. Personal testimonies and photos. Here
- The Poble Espanyol in the Civil War. Little is known about the entertainment complex during this period though seens from the Republican film Sierra de Teruel (L’Espoir) by Max Aub and André Malraux were filmed here. Here
English reading list
- Antony Beevor: The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. The 2006 edition, completely revised with new sections after his access to KGB archives is for me the best introduction to the war, though Hugh Thomas’s Spanish Civil War, is still worth a critical read, Beever’s book contains less battlefield history than his other works, and spends a lot of time looking at the causes of the war and the social changes within it.
- Paul Preston. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge Good introduction.
- George Orwell. Homage to Catalonia. Still fresh, honest and remarkably close to the current view of events. This is a superb wartime journal much of which takes place in Barcelona. Make sure you read the later edition with the chapters on the different political parties and factions relegated to the appendix.
- Micheal Eaude. Barcelona The best introduction by far on the modern history of Barcelona. A very entertaining and illuminating read.
- Chris Ealham Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona , 1898-1937. Very well researched (and very expensive!) radical history of the city, with an emphasis on anarchism. I took it out of the library not having that kind of ready cash. His Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937 which I haven’t read is a much cheaper option, and looks essentially the same book.
- Robert Hughes. His seminal Barcelona ends rather disappointingly without much in the way of conclusion in around 1910, but it does provide a good background to the early days of Barcelonan anarchism and its connections with modernism.