|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, when factions on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War engaged each other in street battles in various parts of Catalonia, centered on the city of Barcelona.
In these events, the communist and anarchist supporters of the Spanish Revolution faced on the 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 Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT-FAI) and the socialist union Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT). Just after taking the last rebelling barracks, the anarchist leaders met with the President of the Generalitat de Catalunya 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 to the fact that these industries were 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. But the Patrullas de Control ("control patrols", a revolutionary body with a repressive character and controlled by the CNT-FAI) continued their activities freely, given the inability of the Catalan government to control them.
The climate of distrust and confrontation was present not only among republican institutions and workers' organizations, but also 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 much division. On one hand, the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) followed the official doctrine of the Soviet Union, as well as being supporters of handling war and revolution separately, as well as the defense of the Second Spanish Republic. The PCE was the major communist party in the country, while the PSUC was the main communist organization in Catalonia. At the other extreme, the anti-authoritarian "Workers' Party of Marxist Unification" (POUM) (similar to Trotskyists), radically opposed Stalin and were supporters of making the revolution while the war was raging (on this they coincided with the anarchists).
Tension was rising due to a chain of events that took place during the winter, which 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 for Trotsky to reside in Catalonia, despite their differences with him. POUM leaders were becoming increasingly wary as spring of 1937 came around. 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 their infamous paseos.[note 2] Other anarchist patrols practiced private expropriations which were nothing more than theft. 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 26 March Tarradellas banned members of the police from having political affiliation and at the same time demanded that all political organizations 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 25 April 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, he and several of his men were killed. After this, Negrín did not find it so hard to gain control over the other customs posts. Simultaneously, the Guardia Nacional Republicana and the Guardia de Asalto ("Assault Guards") were sent to Figueras and other cities in northern Catalonia to replace CNT patrols. In Barcelona, fear of an outbreak of open warfare between anarchists and the POUM on one side, and the government and the communists on the other began. Each side formed weapon caches and fortified their buildings in secret, fearing that rivals would attack them first. The tense calm continued for one week. May Day, 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. Although all parties had as main objective winning the war, 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 had a clear revolutionary motivation. The participation of these groups in the war, which was decisive in the opening events of the war, was motivated by the defense of the revolution and not the Republic. The Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) considered a revolutionary approach inappropriate without winning the war first.
There were also groups with other political affiliations that were inclined to return to the Republican legality, the authorities of the Republican Government in Valencia and the Generalitat. They forged an aliance with the aforementioned PSUC and the Republican Left of Catalonia. A third sector was composed by the "possibilist" sector of the CNT, supporting an immediate termination 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 for the strengthening of central government that would replace the local committees. To get this done, they proposed a centrally organized and instructed army, led by a single command. Orwell summarized the PSUC-party line as follows:
Clinging on 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 [...].
On the position of the POUM, shared by most of the more radical anarchists, like the Friends of Durruti, Orwell states:
The workers' militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to "bourgeoisify" them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.
Historians[who?] have traditionally accepted that the key event that sparked the conflict in Barcelona was the taking of the telephone exchange by the Republican government Assault Guard. The reason behind taking the building was the CNT's desire to take control over government communications. From the beginning of the war, the exchange was controlled by the CNT-UGT labor union committee that had collectivized the telephone companies in the geographical areas it controlled, with a government delegation stationed in the building which crucially controlled Catalonian telephone communications.
On 2 May, the Minister of Marine and Air, Indalecio Prieto, telephoned the Generalitat from Valencia; an anarcho-syndicalist telephonist on the other side replied that in Barcelona there was no government, only a Defense Committee. The Government was convinced that anarchists were recording 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. For some time Republican authorities had been suspecting that anarcho-syndicalists controlled all the official telephone conversations, and these kinds of incidents were the last straw.
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 exchange and presented itself at the censorship department located on the second floor, with the intention of taking control of the building. The anarchists saw this 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, on his part, had authorization from the head of internal affairs of the regional government, Artemi Aiguader i Miró. 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, 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 out 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.
The PSUC and the government controlled the urban sectors situated at the east side of the Ramblas. Anarchists dominated the western sectors and all the suburbs. In the city center, where the headquarters of trade unions and political parties (installed in requisitioned buildings and hotels) were relatively close, shooting began, and cars circulating were machine-gunned. In the Telefónica building a truce was agreed and telephone communications, 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 Barcelona anarchist leaders the formation of an alliance against the communists and the government. The anarchist leaders refused immediately.
On 4 May, Barcelona was a city plunged into silence, interrupted only by the fire of rifles and machine guns. Shops and buildings were covered by barricades. Anarchist armed groups attacked the barracks of the Assault Guards and government buildings. The government and communist militias responded fire. 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 launched an appeal on the radio, asking 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.
On 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, commanded by Rovira, didn't cancel their proposed march on Madrid until the head of the Republican Air Force in the Aragon front, Alfonso Reyes, threatened to bomb them if they pressed on with their plan.
By five o'clock 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, relative of Francisco Ascaso and president of the Regional Council of Defense of Aragon Joaquín Ascaso, was killed. The Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain, an 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.
Inside the Catalan Generalitat, Tarradellas, backed by Companys, still resisted the resignation of Artemi Ayguadé, demanded by the Anarchists. In the end a solution was reached and Companys achieved a fragile truce between the different groups. To satisfy the anarchists' demands, the Catalan government would resign, forming a new one without Ayguadé. The new government would represent Anarchists, ERC, PSUC and Unió de Rabassaires. But uncontrollable shootings still swept through the streets of Barcelona, causing the death of those that ventured to leave their shelters. At 9:30 the Assault Guard attacked the seat of the doctors' trade union, in Santa Ana Square in downtown Barcelona, and the headquarters of the local FIJL. Anarchists denounced government complicity and Soviet interests in this attack on the social revolution in Catalonia. The Friends of Durruti Group published various leaflets, demanding the release of Francisco Maroto del Ojo, an Andalusian anarchist who had recently been jailed, and asking people to resist. In one of them they declare:
A Revolutionary Junta has been constituted in Barcelona. All the culprits of the coup d'etat, that operate under the protection of the government, will be executed. The POUM will be a member of the Junta because they support workers.
Nevertheless, both the CNT-FAI and the FIJL refused to take part in the initiative of this group. At about 5:00 pm the anarchist authors Camillo Berneri and Francesco Barbieri were arrested by a group of twelve guards, six of them members of the local police and the rest from the PSUC. Both were murdered during their arrest. The climate of alarm worsened when British destroyers arrived at the port. The POUM feared that they would begin a bombardment.[note 3] In fact, the English feared that Anarchists would take control of the situation and there were talks about evacuating foreign subjects from the city. At night Federica Montseny, Minister of Health and an important member of the CNT, arrived with the purpose of mediating between all parties. The Communist Antonio Sesé, General Secretary of the Catalan UGT and member of the Generalitat's new provisional council, died in a gunfight on his way to receive his new appointment.
That same day there was combat in Tarragona and other coastal towns. Here, too, the Assault Guard proceeded to oust the CNT from the telephone exchanges they had occupied. Similar actions in Tortosa and Vich resulted in a final death toll of 30 anarchists in Tarragona and another 30 in Tortosa. At night, Companys and Largo Caballero held a telephone conversation in which the Catalan President accepted the Spanish government's offer of assistance for restoring order.
At dawn, the CNT once again asked the workers to return to their work to no avail, although more out of fear than out of obstinacy. In the afternoon, however, combat resumed. Various members of the National Republican Guard died in a cinema after a shelling from a 75mm artillery cannon, carried from the coast by some members of the Libertarian Youth.
An approximately 5,000 strong force, most of them Assault Guards, departed from Madrid and Valencia towards the Catalan capital. Two Republican destroyers and the battleship Jaime I coming from Valencia reached the port of Barcelona at night. When the news reached the city, most of the workers on strike ceased their resistance. In Tarragona militias from Estat Català, ERC and PSUC attackes the local headquarters of the FIJL, occupying it after heavy confrontation.
At 8:20 the expedition of the Assault Guards reached Barcelona, occupying different points of the city. Some came by road from Valencia, after dominating the revolts in Tarragona and Reus. Local anarchists had blown bridges, roads and railways to prevent the passage of the column. That day, the CNT called 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!. The expeditionary forces that entered Barcelona were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Torres, who enjoyed certain sympathy from Anarchists and whose assignment was proposed by the CNT to promote the return to normality. Assault Guards in Barcelona, Tarragona and many other towns proceeded to disarm and arrest numerous members of the CNT, FAI, Libertarian Youth and POUM that had taken part in the riots.
The streets returned to normality with some isolated incidents and the cleaning up of barricades began. The unrest in Barcelona had finally finished. The contemporary press estimated the death toll of 500 dead and 1,000 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 Anarchists and Trotskyites.
The May Days had profound and long consequences. From one side it showed that Anarchists would not act with a single voice as they had on 18 July 1936. A gap opened between the Anarchist ministers, absorbed with winning the war, and the Anarchist youth, obsessed by the triumph, above all, of the Revolution. Otherwise very influential personalities, like Escorza or García Oliver, had lost control over their 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 in it one representative from the UGT (the communist Vidiella), one from the CNT (Valerio Mas) and one from ERC (again Tarradellas). Some responsible for the killings were tried later, but only in Tarragona, and were not sentenced to death but only to imprisonment.
The Generalitat of Catalonia, the Communists and the central government seemed willing to act together against extremists 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 didn't take more measures against the CNT-FAI due to the great power they still held and their high level of popular support. The POUM situation was quite different, as the Republican government eventually outlawed the party shortly after (16 June) and arrested its main leaders, including Julián Gorkin and Andreu Nin. The POUM would disappear from the political map, while the Anarchist movement would never intervene in the war as it had until then. Ultimately, these internal disputes that were tearing the Republic apart were a burden on 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.
The May Days are reflected in different works written by international participants in the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell's 1938 autobiographical work Homage to Catalonia was one of the first works written about these events. The English writer had been a first-hand witness of the events in Barcelona, as he served in the POUM militias. Similarly, the events are also mentioned in Ted Allan's 1939 novel This Time a Better Earth, which was based on Allan's experiences in Spain. Whereas Orwell's work is sympathetic to the POUM, Allan's novel depicts the perspective that Popular Front members had towards the POUM during the May Days.
The May confrontations are represented in Spanish works like the novel La plaça del Diamant (The Diamond Square) by the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda published in 1962, a work on the history of Natalia, a girl from Barcelona who lives during the Civil War. A film adaptation, The Time of the Doves, was made in 1982. Directed by Francesc Betriu, it is a faithful representation of the novel. In 1984, the film Memories of General Escobar, directed by José Luis Madrid, was released. It tells the story of General Antonio Escobar Huertas and his role during the Spanish Civil War and the Barcelona Events.
In 1995, the English film director Ken Loach directed the film Land and Freedom, inspired by the work of George Orwell. The May events in Barcelona are partially portrayed in the film, with certain similarities to Orwell's work, although greatly simplifying the facts. The Spanish Netflix drama, Cable Girls also portrays a dramatization of events of the May Days, but is set in Madrid instead of Barcelona.