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 engaged each other in street battles in various parts of Catalonia, centred on the city of Barcelona, in the context of the Spanish Civil War.
|Barcelona May Days|
|Part of the Spanish Civil War & the Spanish Revolution|
|Casualties and losses|
In these events the communist and anarchist supporters of the Spanish Revolution faced on 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 CNT-FAI but also the socialist union UGT. Just after taking the last rebelling barracks, the anarchist leaders met with the President of the Generalitat 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 these industries 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, revolutionary body with 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 even 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 a strong division. On the one hand the communist PCE and PSUC, following the official doctrine of the Soviet Union, as well as being supporters of handling war and revolution separately and the defense of the bourgeois order of the Second Spanish Republic. 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 POUM (similar to Trotskyists), radically opposing Stalin and supporters of making the revolution meanwhile the war was raging (on this they coincided with the anarchists).
The tension was rising due a chain of events taking place during the winter that 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 to Trotsky to reside in Catalonia, despite their differences with him. The POUM leaders were becoming increasingly wary as they moved to the spring of 1937. 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 his infamous 'paseos'. Other anarchists patrols practiced private expropriations which were nothing more than simple thefts. 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 March 26, Tarradellas banned members of the police from having political affiliation and, at the same time, demanded to all the political organizations to 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 April 25 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 of the other customs posts. Simultaneously with these events, the Guardia Nacional Republicana and the Assault Guards were sent to Figueras and other cities in northern Catalonia to replace CNT patrols. In Barcelona began the fear of an outbreak of open warfare between anarchists and the POUM on one side, and the government and the communists on the other. Each side formed weapon caches and fortified their buildings in secret, fearing rivals attacking first. The tense calm continued for one week. May Day, which was 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, decisive in the first days, was motivated by the defence of the revolution, 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, and who were also 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 Republican Left of Catalonia. A third sector was composed by the "possibilist" part of the CNT, supporting an immediate cessation 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 the strengthening of central government that would replace the local committees. To get this done they proposed a top-down 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..."
Chronology of the clashes
Traditionally it has been accepted by historians that the key event that sparked the conflict in Barcelona was the taking by the Assault Guard of the telephone exchange. The reason behind taking the building was the control of government communications by the CNT. The centre was controlled from the beginning of the war by the CNT-FAI, the labour union that collectivized the telephone company in the areas it controlled, and therefore, controlled telephone communications in Catalonia.
On 2 May, the Minister of Marine and Air, Indalecio Prieto, telephoned from Valencia to the Generalitat; anarcho-syndicalist telephonist on the other side replied that in Barcelona there was no government but only a Defense Committee. The Government was convinced that anarchists recorded 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. From long ago republican authorities suspected that anarcho-syndicalists controlled all the official telephone conversations, and these kind of incidents were the last straw.
That same afternoon of 2 May, shootings occurred between members of Estat Català and the FAI in Barcelona, killing a member of the latter. This was evidence of the explosive situation that existed in Barcelona at the time.
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 and presented himself at the censorship department (located on the second floor) with the intention of taking control of the building. The anarchists saw it 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, in his part, had authorization from the head of internal affairs in the regional government, Artemi Aiguader i Miró. Then 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 but 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 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. By the evening, Barcelona was a city at war.
The PSUC and the government controlled the urban sectors situated at east of the Ramblas. Anarchists dominated the western sectors and all the suburbs were also in their hands. In the city center, where the headquarters of trade unions and political parties (installed in requisitioned buildings and hotels) were relatively close, gunfire began to be heard and all the cars circulating were machine gunned. In the telephonic building a truce was agreed and telephone communications, which were 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 stunned Barcelona anarchist leaders the formation of an alliance against communism 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 with barricades. Anarchist armed groups attacked the barracks of the Assault Guards and government buildings. The government and communist militants responded. 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 launch an appeal on the radio asking to 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.
In 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, captained by Rovira, didn't withdraw their proposed march on Madrid until the head of the republican aviation in the Aragon front, Alfonso Reyes, threatened to bomb them if it took place.
By five 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 the mythical Francisco Ascaso and president of the Regional Council of Defense of Aragon Joaquín Ascaso, was killed. The Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain, 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, but at the end a solution is reached and Companys achieve a fragile truce between the different groups. To satisfy Anarchist 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 medical trade union, in Santa Ana Square in downtown Barcelona, and the headquarters of the local FIJL. Anarchists denounced government complicity and Soviet interests in attacking 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 been jailed recently) and asking people to resist. On one of them declares:
A Revolutionary Junta has been constituted in Barcelona. All the culprits of the coup d'etat, that operates 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. They were both murdered during the arrests. The climate of alarm got even worse when British destroyers arrived at the port. The POUM feared that they would begin bombarding. 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 important member of the CNT, arrived with the purpose of mediating between the parties. The Communist Antonio Sesé, General Secretary of the Catalan UGT and member of the Generalitat 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 centrals occupied by them. This situation repeats in Tortosa and Vich, resulting in a final death toll of 30 Anarchists in Tarragona and another 30 in Tortosa. At night, Companys and Largo Caballero had a telephone conversation in which the Catalan President accept the offer of assistance for restoring order from the Spanish government.
At dawn, the CNT once again asks the workers to return to work, although the calls were left unattended, more out of fear than out of obstinacy. At afternoon, however, combats resume. Various members of the National Republican Guard result dead in a cinema by the shootings of 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, depart from Madrid and Valencia towards the Catalan capital. Two Republican destroyers and the battleship Jaime I coming from Valencia reach the port of Barcelona at night. When the news reached the city most of the striking workers ceased resisting. In Tarragona, militias from Estat Català, ERC and PSUC attack the local headquarters of the FIJL, taking it after heavy confrontation.
At 8:20 the expedition of Assault Guards reach Barcelona, occupying different points of the city. Some come by road from Valencia, after dominating revolts in Tarragona and Reus. Local anarchists had blown the bridges, roads and railways to prevent the passage of the column. That day the CNT calls 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 enter Barcelona are under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Torres, that enjoyed certain sympathy with Anarchists and which assignment is proposed by the CNT to ease return to normalcy. Assault Guards in Barcelona, Tarragona and other many towns proceed to disarm and arrest numerous members of the CNT, FAI, Libertarian Youth and POUM that had been taken part on the riots.
Streets return to normality with some isolated incidents and the clean up of barricades begins. The unrest in Barcelona had finally finished. The press of the day estimated the death toll in 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 the great power they still hold and their high level of popular support. The POUM situation was quite different, as the Republican government eventually outlawed the party shortly after (June 16) 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.
In popular culture
The impact and repercussions of the May Days would be reflected in different novels and movies. Homage to Catalonia, from George Orwell, was the first (and most famous) novel wrote about these events, being published in April 1938. The English writer was a first hand witness of the events in Barcelona, as he was among the POUM militias. The confrontations of May are represented in a passage of the novel La plaça del Diamant (The Diamond Square) from the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda published in 1962, a work on the history of Natalia, a girl from Barcelona who has to live the Civil War. A film adaptation was made in 1982, called The Time of the Doves. 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, which tells the story of General Antonio Escobar Huertas and his role during the Spanish Civil War and also during the Barcelona Events.
In 1995 the English film director Ken Loach directed the film Land and Freedom, inspired in the work of George Orwell. The events of May in Barcelona are portrayed in part of the film, with certain similarities to Orwell's work, although greatly simplifying the facts.
- Aguilera Povedano, Manuel. Compañeros y camaradas. Las luchas entre antifascistas en la Guerra Civil Española. Editorial Actas. Madrid, 2012. ISBN 978-84-9739-124-5
- La guerra civil mes a mes, Tomo 13. Los sucesos de Barcelona (Mayo de 1937), varios autores, Grupo Unidad Editorial S.A., 2005 ISBN 84-96507-59-9 (obra completa) ISBN 84-96507-72-6 (Tomo 13).
- Thomas, Hugh. Historia de la Guerra Civil Española. Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores. ISBN 84-226-0873-1.
- Orwell, George (2003). Homenaje a Cataluña. Barcelona: Ediciones Destino. ISBN 84-9710-043-3.
- Jaume Miravitlles (1951–53). Episodis de la Guerra Civil Espanyola. Toulouse.CS1 maint: date format (link)
- José Peirats (1972). La CNT en la Revolución Española. Barcelona.
- Hugh Thomas, p. 713
- Hugh Thomas, p.590
- Hugh Thomas, p.700
- Hugh Thomas, p. 701
- Martínez Bande, La invasión, p. 278
- Hugh Thomas, p.703
- Hugh Thomas, p.704
- Hugh Thomas, p.705
- Hugh Thomas, p.706
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Penguin Books, p.59, ISBN 0-14-001699-6
- Friends of Durruti, Towards a fresh revolution (1937)
- Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938), p.59
- Miravitlles, p.141
- Hugh Thomas, p.707
- Hugh Thomas, p.709
- Julian Gorkin, Caníbales políticos, p.69
- Peirats, La CNT, p. 274
- Hugh Thomas, p. 710
- Peirats, La CNT, p.274
- Hugh Thomas, p.711
- Julian Gorkin, Caníbales Políticos, p.69
- Hugh Thomas, p.712
- Ángel Ossorio y Gallardo, Vida y sacrificio de Companys, p. 210
- Historia de la CNT, por la Federación Local de Madrid
- Peirats, La CNT, p.206
- Hugh Thomas, p.714
- Peirats, La CNT, p.346
- Viñas, Ángel (2007). El escudo de la República. Barcelona: Editorial Crítica. p. 514. ISBN 978-84-8432-892-6.
- Hugh Thomas, p.717
- Three groups of the Guardia de Asalto (3.000 effectives) were available for the security forces, to which must be added 1,000 troops of the Guardia Nacional Republicana (GNR) and other security forces like the Mossos d'Esquadra. Later were sent 4,000 Guardias de Asalto as reinforcements, meanwhile the Navy sent the Battleship Jaime I and 2 destroyers. Should be noted the auxiliary forces of the PSUC, ERC and Estat Català.
- 'Paseo' (literally 'take a walk') was an euphemism used during the Spanish Civil War referring to executions by a firing squad. The victim would be 'released' and later shoot in the back when walking away from his captors.
- George Orwell, in a POUM post at the front line, shared this fear.