Terror in Catalonia

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Terror in Catalonia

James Donald claims he is presenting a "collection of horrors committed by the "anarcho" socialists of Catalonia: horror stories from various eyewitnesses." He then goes on to state that "in this article I make little attempt to put these little vignettes into a coherent story." However, as we will see, this story is distinctly false.

He begins by quoting from Burnett Bolloten's book, The Grand Camouflage, page 41, which quotes Diego Abad de Santillan saying that "It is possible our victory resulted in the death by violence of four or five thousand inhabitants of Catalonia who were listed as rightists and were linked to political or ecclesiastical reaction."

James then says the following, "Compare this with Pinochet, who murdered three thousand people out of a vastly larger population according to the Rettig Report on Human Rights."

Unfortunately for James Donald, this is a very false comparsion. Pinochet organised a military coup against a democractically re-elected government. This means that the murders were organised by the military under orders. The murders in Catalonia occured in response to a fascist coup when the whole population of Catalonia was armed by the trade unions. In other words, it was not organised by the anarchists or the CNT.

According to a non-anarchist eye-witness:

"The libertarians controlled all the most important 'secretariats' -- but in reality power lay still in the streets" [Blood of Spain, p. 143]

Another states that "There was a deep, very deep wave of popular fury as a result of the military uprising which followed on so many years of oppression and provocation." [Op. Cit.,p . 151]

James Donald tries to appear "objective" and asks, "OK, there was terror on a vast scale. Next question. Who did it? Was it an unfortunate consequence of convicts getting out of jail and the breakdown of order, or was it systematically planned to terrorize the population into submission?"

This is a fair question. But James does not give it a fair answer. A fair answer would include this quote from a Basque Nationalist, a Republican and a Catholic, quoted early by Bolloten in his book The Spanish Civil War:

"Blood, a great deal of innocent blood was shed on both sides. . . .But the most radical difference as far as the Republican zone was concerned -- which does not justify, but at least explains, the excesses -- lies in the very fact of the [military] insurrection. The army, almost the entire secret police, the administration of justice, whatever police forces there were, whose duty it was to maintain order, revolted, leaving the legal government defendless. The latter was compelled to arm the people, the jails were opened to release friendly political prisoners, and the common-law criminals who came out with them acted on their own account. Furthermore, with the stirring up of the lower depths of society, the malefactors that exist in every city, in every nation, came to the surface, and found an easy field for their work. . .Is it surprising that during the first days of the revolt these uncontrolled elements dispensed justice in a rude and elementary fashion, the justice of men who had suffered and had been molded in an atmosphere of hatred? All this does not justify the crimes committed in the Republican zone, but it readily explains them." [p. 53]

Diego Abad de Santillan's quote that James uses above starts, "We do not wish to deny that the nineteenth of July brought with it an overflowing of passions and abuses," indicating that his figure of 4 to 5 thousand refers to this period, when "power lay in the streets."

James then goes on to claim that "the testimony of those who were afraid indicates that they primarily expected and feared organized large scale terror, rather than random violence," while in fact not producing any evidence that this was the case. He does quote from Blood of Spain by Ronald Fraser in "support" of his "case," but his eyewitness is someone who was 13 years old at the time and refers to an unnamed workers' patrol operating at an unknown time. The quote is from the section "Barcelona: The Revolution," which describes what happened immediately after July 19. Thus the eyewitness is referring to events from around this period, when, as quoted above, "power lay on the streets." (It could be interpreted to refer to a slightly later time, because of a reference to "people flocking to join the UGT." However, Frazer places the narrative in the middle of other events from just after July 19th, thus indicating that, in his view, it most likely occured during this time).

So, James claimed above that after July 19th, the CNT organised "mass terror," but he presents no evidence that the CNT actually did any such thing. His example does not indicate that the CNT was involved or that the patrol in question was working under direct orders from the CNT. As indicated below, the CNT did oppose assassinations and acted to stop them. As evidence of CNT "killing fields," James's argument fails completely.

He goes on and says "Obviously this was not individuals acting: Individuals and small groups do not set up killing fields, and they do not murder people on a regular and predictable schedule, and they do not have specialization of labor in production of murder." But his example does not prove that the CNT was involved in the killing, nor especially that it organized any "killing fields." It does not even indicate that the persons involved had a trial or who they were. In addition, it is from a time when "power lay on the streets," meaning that the CNT could not control what was happening in Barcelona. In other words, his evidence is extremely weak.

James then goes on to claim that "Furthermore, rather than violence ending when the CNT took control, we see the reverse, escalating violence once power was firmly consolidated." The false premise in this argument is that the CNT did not "take control" -- it was cooperating with other antifascist parties and groups in the "Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias," a body which had been disbanded by the end of September. The CNT then joined the Popular Front government as a minority.

So what are his examples of "escalating violence"? He quotes the following as "proof":

Blood of Spain page 140 Joan Domenech, CNT member speaking:

"I said "You are the employers [...] right now if we felt like it we could load you into a lorry and that would be the end of it." You should have seen their backsides wriggling on the chairs!"

However, this threat was not carried out and is from the period when Barcelona was "in full spate of Revolution". So James Donald uses an example which occurred just after July 19th (when "power lay on the streets"), which did not actually involve violence, as an example of "escalating violence"! What logic!

He then makes the following statement: "The reference to a lorry, similar to Stalin's reference to boxcars, again indicates specialization of labor in the mass production of murder, not spontaneous violent action by small groups." But his evidence of these lorries used for his "mass production of murder" actually existing is nowhere to be seen! All we have is a threat, by one member of the CNT, which was not carried out. Where is the evidence that the CNT actually did operate a "mass production of murder"? None is supplied and no historian mentions this "specialisation of labour in the mass production of murder."

What does FAI leading-light Juan Garcia Oliver have to say about the terror in Catalonia? He agrees with the Basque Nationalist quoted above. He states that "Everyone created his own justice and administered it himself. Some used to call this 'taking someone for a ride,' but I maintain it was justice administered directly by the people in the complete absence of the regular judicial bodies."[The Spanish Civil War, p. 50]

The amazing thing is that neither Fraser nor Bolloten mention these "killing fields" alleged by James to have been created by the CNT. Nor does either author mention "the mass production of murder" that James says existed. He himself does not present any evidence for their existence. (Oh, yes, he does quote a threat by one CNT member which was not carried out, but that is not evidence of any "killing fields.") How strange that two historians do not mention these "killing fields" that James Donald claims existed! Surely if the CNT-FAI in Catalonia had managed to organise a system similar to Stalin's (in a space of a few days or, at most, weeks!) some credible historian would have mentioned it? That none do explains why Donald has to invent "evidence" for such a system by unjustifiable extrapolation from one person's comments.

In order to "prove" his case in light of the non-existent evidence, he then quotes Juan Andrade of the POUM executive committee, who states in Blood of Spain page 183 that:

"I don't believe that this alone was the major cause of the PSUC's growth. The CNT was the reason. The latter terrorized so many people that in reaction they came to consider the communists as the party of order."

Notice that Andrade did not say "murder so many people." More important, though, is the fact that the reason why the PSUC grew in size was because it opposed the revolution and the collectives created during it. Because the Communists would protect their property, property owners turned to them. Simple as that. The "terror" was the result of arming an oppressed population, many of whom were in the CNT and FAI. As Frazer summarises, "the revolutionary necessity of assuring the rearguard had been muddied by personal bloodletting, vendettas and arbitrary slayings." [p. 177]

Following on from this, James quotes Juan Miravitlles, an Esquerra representative on the militia committee as follows:

"Day after day we found ourselves on the committee repeating "why these assassinations?" [...] A man was killed because his sister was a nun. [...] They called a man a fascist simply because he went to mass. President Companys said "you are drowning the revolution in blood" [...] "Tell Companys not to come here again" Durrutti said to me and Tarradelas. If he does I will fill him full of bullet holes."

However, before discussing this quote from the period after July 19th (the time when Miravitlles says the "power lay in the streets"), we have to point out that James Donald gets his quote wrong. The actual quote is as follows:

"President Companys told them they were drowning the revolution in blood. 'We shall lose the war for this reason.' The libertarians went pale. When Companys from time to time put in an appearance at the committee, we of his party stood up; the communists half rose, the libertarians remained stolidly seated. 'Tell Companys not to come here again,' Durruti said to me and Tarredellas. 'If he does, I'll fill him full of bullets...'"

Notice how James changes the quote to suggest that Companys remark caused Durruti's threat, while in fact nothing of the kind is actually stated. It could have been, we agree, but there is no evidence that it was. But what is dishonest is James Donald changing the quote in order to explicitly suggest that it did.

James Donald then says the following, "Durutti was arguably the most powerful military commander in the CNT". Very true, but this only happened after he left for the front on July 24th, 1936, at the head of the Durruti Column. In other words, the event referred to above must have occured sometime between July 20th and July 24th, as Durruti was at the front after that. During this period, and for sometime after, "power lay in the streets" and not with the CNT-FAI. It should also be noted that Durruti did not carry out his threat.

James Donald then states that "Note that president Companys said "you are drowning the revolution in blood," not "random street people are drowning the revolution in Blood", which indicates he saw the terror as being centrally directed and organized." Obviously, however, the quote does not suggest any such thing, and in fact, Fraser and Bolloten do not mention any such thing. According to Bolloten, "during the height of the Revolution" (i.e. the period being discussed here), there was "spontaneous, undirected terror of the CNT and FAI," which he constrasts with "the more sophisticated, centrally directed, and, hence, more fearful terror of the Communists," which occurred after May 1937. [The Spanish Civil War, p.498] This clearly indicates that the CNT and FAI did not "centrally direct" or "organise" mass murder or terror at all. In fact, it indicates that the "undirected terror" was by individuals who belonged to anarchist organizations acting on their own.

According to Fraser, "it should be noted that in Barcelona and elsewhere the FAI was automatically blamed for assassinations and crimes" [p. 148] It should also be noted that the CNT and FAI both opposed assassinations. [p. 149] "leading CNT militants, like Joan Peiro, fulminated openly against such actions." and "both the CNT and FAI issued statements categorically condemning assassinations." The FAI stated: "we must put an end to these excesses." In fact, the CNT-FAI acted to stop assassinations. To quote Fraser, "Anyone proven to have infringed people's rights would be shot -- a threat which was carried out when some anarcho-syndicalist militants were executed." Unsurprisingly, then, as Fraser notes, the "republican government (along with all political parties and trade unions) condemned the assassinations and, as its power increased, brought them under control." [p. 170]

But James Donald ignores this evidence, stating that "The leaders on the militia committee claimed that the worker patrols were doing it on their own initiative, but since the patrols accused were organized and officially authorized by the CNT, this explanation fails to inspire confidence, regardless of whether it is true or false."

Firstly, were the workers patrols organised by the CNT? Nope, the workers patrols were made up of 700 people, of whom 325 were CNT, 185 Esquerra, 145 UGT and 45 POUM. In addition, as Miravitlles noted, "power lay in the streets." He is the source for James Donald's statement above about the workers patrols. Here is what Miravitlles actually said:

"Their leaders on the committee said the libertarian movement was not responsible for the assassinations. 'It's the armed workers' patrols. Some of the members are assassins.' But in my view, they couldn't confront this type of people who represented for them their own ideology. With the notable exception of Durruti at the front, the CNT was always plagued with indiscipline within its own ranks and didn't know how to deal with it..." [p. 150]

We have indicated above exactly how the CNT-FAI did deal with the problems of the assassinations (i.e. they stopped them). Thus James Donald's case is weakened even more.

He then moves a few hundred kilometers to Aragon for his next example of "CNT terror." It should be pointed out that Aragon is not actually in Catalonia (basic facts like this do not seem to matter!) and that the examples below are from "a few kilometers from the front line," unlike the examples above, which are from Barcelona immediately after July 19th.

James states that the example he gives, quoting Angel Navarro from p. 359 of Blood of Spain, is of "continuing terror after CNT authority was successfully imposed." However, this is a few kilometers from the front line and did not involve the CNT imposing a form of authority on the village in question. Navarro says that after the terror, nothing changed in the village or on the land. Donald quotes Navarro as saying that in Alloza "opinion generally favored the insurgent rather than the popular front cause." This means that the CNT militia facing the insurgents across no-man's land may have been a bit worried about pro-fascists a few kilometers behind them. This worry does not justify the two murders, but it indicates why the people were arrested in the first place.

James Donald then says that "Angel Navarro. . . clearly expected organized official terror, when he said "now it begins". Equally clearly, most of the villagers shared this concern (See Franco's narrative, page 358)." What James does not mention in all this is that the village was "a few kilometers behind the front line." As would be expected in such circumstances, the troops at the front wanted to make sure that the area behind them was safe. This, remember, was a war zone. He also does not mention what the CNT representatives, who visited the village after these events occurred, said when suggested that the village create a collective. They "stressed that no one was to be maltreated"[p. 360] and many in the village felt safe enough not to join it.

James Donald goes on to state that, "If the terrorists were a small group of people personally pursuing petty conflicts they would not have needed a list, and they would not have arrested people for later execution. . .The list and the arrests indicates specialization of labor in the mass production of murder. Some group to prepare the list, some group to operate the killing fields, which indicates a fairly large and permanent organization of mass murder."

Thus James Donald again claims that there was "killing fields" organised by a "permanent organisation of mass murder," whereas in fact he provides no evidence to indicate that anything of the kind existed. What did exist? The CNT militias at the front, a few kilometers away. It should be noted that if the militia men were part of such an alleged "organisation," would those in charge not have been annoyed that the militia men had not carried out their orders? And it should be pointed out that Angel Navarro managed to get the militia men to leave without anyone on their list ("a list of people they had come to arrest").

James says that because they arrested people, it indicates "the mass production of murder," but in fact it indicates the intention of giving them a trial. It could be pointed out that in a previous visit, a week after the Carod column had reached the village and moved on to Muniesa, it was visited by militia men from two neighbouring villages to make four arrests (which included a priest and a civil guard lieutenant). Franco managed to save two of the four.

So let us summarise the evidence provided by James for his "killing fields" and "fairly large and permanent organization of mass murder." Two visits to one village, one of which involved one car, indicating a pretty small list and which resulted in no deaths. And the overall outcome of this "mass production of murder"? Two people murdered out of a population of 1,800.

James ends by moving back in time and distance to Barcelona, quoting the report by Joan Roig on what he heard another man say (but did not actually see happen). This incident is from, yet again, just after July 19th, when "power lay on the streets." James goes on to say that "Once again we see how the murderers acted openly and unafraid, while those who opposed terror were frightened and silent."

Roig, however, does not indicate that the man being shaved was in the CNT or FAI, or even if his story was actually true. Assuming that it was true, does this prove James Donald's case? No, it does not, simply because it is an example of one person committing acts of terror while "power lay on the streets." No evidence is provided that his actions were organised or backed by the CNT in any way. Funny that.

James Donald asked at the start of his examples, "OK, there was terror on a vast scale. Next question. Who did it? Was it an unfortunate consequence of convicts getting out of jail and the breakdown of order, or was it systematically planned to terrorize the population into submission?"

Does he present any evidence that the terror was "systematically planned" in Catalonia? No, he does not. He supplies no evidence of "killing fields" or organised terror at all. In fact, all the evidence points the other way, that the 4,000 to 5,000 deaths in Catalonia were random acts committed by individuals or small groups. As for the example from Aragon, this again does not prove the existence of "killing fields" or "organised mass murder." The events from Aragon, in a different time and place than the others James lists, occurred near the front line and was carried out in order to ensure that the front was not in danger from pro-fascists just behind it. These resulted in two deaths, out of a population of 1,800. As for his one example of workers' patrols taking people to be shot, it apparently comes from the time when "power lay in the streets." Furthermore, the example does not even say it was a CNT workers' patrol. As evidence of CNT "organised mass murder" it is very weak. And one example from a 600-page book (and none from another book of over 1,000 pages) does not suggest that "centrally organised mass murder" actually existed in Catalonia or in Aragon.

The strange thing about Donald's wild charges is that the historians he quotes do not mention these "killing fields" or "centrally planned mass murder" which he seems to think existed. I would imagine that if such thing had actualy existed they would have noticed it, particularly Bolloten, who was in Republican Spain at the time. The simple fact that they do not mention them shows that James Donald is clutching at straws. According to Bolloten, "during the height of the Revolution" there was "spontaneous, undirected terror of the CNT and FAI," which he constrasts with "the more sophisticated, centrally directed, and, hence, more fearful terror of the Communists" [The Spanish Civil War, p.498] This clearly indicates that the CNT and FAI did not create a "centrally planned organisation of mass murder" at all.

It should be pointed out that there was a "centrally planned organisation of mass murder" in Spain at the time James is discussing (July 1936 to approximately May 1937) and there is substantial evidence to prove it. It was in Franco's Spain, where mass terror really did occur -- up to and including mass graves ("the killing fields"). And all serious historians have noted the difference between the spontaneous wave of assassinations, in the Republican zone, which quickly ended, with the officially planned slaughter in the Nationalist zone. A slaughter which, it should be noted, was warmly supported by capitalists and supporters of capitalism across the world.

One eye-witness notes that he "had occassion to witness the repression that was being carried on in both zones. In the nationalist zone it was planned, methodical, cold. The authorities didn't trust the people and imposed their will through terror. To do so they committed atrocities. In the Popular Front zone atrocities were also committed. That was the similarity between the two; but the difference was that in the republican zone the crimes were committed by an impassioned people, not by the authorities. The latter always tried to prevent crimes . . . It wasn't so in the nationalist zone. There more people where shot, it was scientifically organised . . . " [Frazer, p. 276]

Historian Anthony Beevor in his 1982 book The Spanish Civil War, confirms this, noting that the "worse of the violence occurred in the first few days throughout Republican Spain" and the "random killings started to be contained once the individuals exploiting the situation were suppressed by the 'control patrols', organised within a few days of the rising by the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias." He also notes that "appears that a considerable part of the violence, and most of the looting, was done by freed convicts . . . Many on the left also alleged that civil guards were often the most flagrant killers, as they sought to protect themselves from suspicions of sympathising with the right." [p. 73] He also indicates the motives of some of the killings, and how the anarchist organisations opposed them:

"In Barcelona the top priorities for revenge (after certain police officials like Miguel Badia) were the industrialists who had employed pistoleros aginst unions leaders and, of course, the gunmen themselves. There was inevitably a wide-ranging settlement of accounts against blacklegs. One or two killlings even went back to old inter-union disputes. Desiderio Trillas, the head of the UGT dockers,was shot down by a group of anarchists because he had prevented CNT members form receiving work. This murder was immediately condemned by the CNT_FAI leadership and they promised immediate execution of any of their members who killed out of personal motives. It was a threat which they carried out. Several prominent anarchists . . . were shot." [p. 73]

He contrasts what happened in the Republican Zone with the state-imposed mass murder of the Nationalists:

"The pattern of killing in 'white' Spain was different. It started as soon as an area had been secured by the Nationalist forces . . . Once the troops had move on, a second and more intense wave of slaughter would begin, as the Falange, or in some areas the Carlists, carried out a ruthless purge of the civilian population . . . It was a political slaughter which dwarfed its counterpart in Republican territory." [p. 74]

He gives some indication what this centrally planning system of mass murder produced in terms of deaths. In Sevile province, around 9,000 were killed, in Granada it was 8,000. In Malaga, at least 3,500 were killed in the first week after the Nationalists took it. [p. 74] In Aragon, where James asserts the CNT created "killing fields", Beevor points to "the mass killings of CNT members in Saragoza and the outlying countryside" by the fascists. In 1979, a mass grave was discovered near Saragossa 500 metres long with around 7,000 corpses in it. [p. 273, p. 75] More of Franco's mass graves have been found since then, with the number of bodies expected to reach 100,000 (at least) once all have been investigated.

Comparing the deaths in the Republican zone to those in the Nationalist, in terms of numbers and nature of the repression there really is no comparison, so proving that James's assertions are nonsense.

In other words, the acts of terror quoted above by Donald are exactly what anarchists claim they are, the uncontrolled acts of individuals and small groups acting on their own initiative and not directed by either the CNT and FAI. We do not doubt that CNT and FAI members were involved in acts of terror immediately after July 19th. However, they did so as individuals and against the wishes of their own organisations. These organisations also took steps to stop these activities, as indicated above. As for the example from Aragon, again these were carried out by the militia a few kilometers behind their front lines and was directed against possible pro-fascists in the village.

On investigation, James Donald "case" for CNT run "killing fields" proves to be false and his conclusions are not supported by the historians whose books he uses, nor any other serious historian.



Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles