Backwaters of History No. 10 – Barcelona 1937

Just before three o’clock on the afternoon of May 3rd, 1937, three lorries were threading their way through the streets of Barcelona, heading for the huge Plaza Cataluña in the centre of the city. They emerged into the Plaza, pulled up outside the Telephone Building and a body of police guards climbed out. Their leader, Rodriguez Salas, Commissioner of Public Order, went into the building, accompanied by a few guards. As he climbed to the first floor of the ten-storey building shots were fired from the windows of the upper storeys. Reinforcements of police were rushed up and a cordon was thrown round the building; thousands of people gathered in the Plaza whilst excitement ran through the streets to all corners of the city. The tension that had gripped Barcelona during the past few weeks now broke out into street fighting.

Far away, around Madrid and in other parts of Spain, Spanish Government forces were fighting desperately against the armies of the rebel General Franco. The Government forces were re-inforced by the International Brigades whilst  Franco was assisted by arms and troops  from Germany and Italy. But the fighting in Barcelona was not the outcome of a Fascist rising; that had occurred and had been subdued a year before.

Barcelona is the principal town in the Spanish province of  Catalonia. It has a long history of revolt, insurrection and rebellion. In 1931 a Catalan Republic was proclaimed, the Spanish Republican Government issuing a decree whereby the Catalan Government was given a free hand in the organisation of the four provinces forming Catalonia, which thus became autonomous in respect of its own domestic affairs.

The Fascist insurrection which had broken out against the Republican Government of Spain in July, 1936, had met with success in some districts but had collapsed within forty-eight hours in Barcelona. Army officers had marched out the troops from the Atarazanas Barracks in Barcelona and deployed them in the streets and in the Plaza de España and the Plaza Cataluña. They occupied the Telephone Building and the Hotel Colon opposite.

In the Calle Cortes and the Via Layetana the troops were resisted by small detachments of police and civil guards. In a very short time the whole of the population of Barcelona, men, women and children, joined in the fight. Barricades went up, buildings were seized, roofs and strategic positions occupied, machine-gun nests were established and the battle spread all over the city. As soon as the troops realised that they were being used by their officers to effect a coup-de-main, they broke ranks and fraternised with the people. From that moment the Fascist cause was lost in Barcelona, for a year or two at least.

The first shots were fired at five o’clock on the morning of Sunday, July 19th, and by Monday evening, except for some desultory sniping from the roofs, the battle was over.

A general strike all over Spain had been called in a radio announcement by Largo Caballero, President of the Union General de Trabajadores (General Workers’ Union led by Labourites and Communists). When the fighting was over in Barcelona the strike still held. All shops, cafes, workshops, factories, etc., were closed, and dead bodies lay out in the streets amongst the battle-scarred buildings.

The various trade unions and political parties set about re-organising and recruiting their militias, at the same time taking over the control of the city and surrounding district. Public eating-houses were opened, supplies were arranged, transport requisitioned and a system of passes and permits out into operation. Most goods were obtainable except cigarettes; looting was nil. Each of the trade unions and political parties took a prominent building for its headquarters and the red and black flag of the Confederation Nacional de Trabajo (Anarchist Trade Union) and the red flag of the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (party of united Marxists) flew from factories, printing establishments, municipal offices, hotels and the buildings of other industrial undertakings. The proprietors of cafes, hotels and industries, were given an opportunity to work at some suitable task, side by side with their erstwhile employees, on a co-operative basis. If they declined they were dismissed.

During the struggle against the Fascist rebels and immediately after, thousands of workers flocked to join the “left” political parties without any definite understanding of the political principles involved. The enthusiasm of was immense. The Olympic Games*** teams, due to perform in Barcelona at that time, paraded through the city. The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Anarchist organisation) became the most popular party. The differences between many of the organisations that existed became indistinct and there was much federating and amalgamating. All the major organisations had their own armed militia and a Militias Committee was set up with representatives from each. A Supplies Committee was formed in a similar way. As these committees commanded the only armed force remaining in Barcelona, they assumed most of the governmental power.

The official Catalonian Government was composed of Liberal Nationalists, moderate Labourites and Communists. Public services such as education and the administration of justice were left in the hands of this government whilst the committees made decisions on other matters, but in order to re-assure foreign governments, the committee’s decrees were sent to the government to be officially stamped.

This dual form of control caused complications and it was eventually decided to solve the problems by reconstructing the official government so that it included representatives of all the workers’ parties and the trade unions. Both the anarchists, who were anti-parliamentarian, and the P.O.U.M., which was opposed to the united front, entered this new government. On July 31st, the new government was formed with Luis Companys, a Liberal, as president. Almost immediately conflict broke out between the various political groupings. The Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. wanted to keep military power in the hands of their own organisations, whilst the Labour and Communist parties claimed that all armed forces should be under governmental control.

The Communists were anxious for support from Russia which the Russian Government was prepared to give providing such support did not conflict with its foreign policy of seeking friendly relations with Britain and France. Labourites and Communists, urged by the fear of foreign intervention in the civil war, argued that the war against Franco must take precedence over all other considerations. They called for the disbanding of the workers’ armed patrols and the surrender of all arms to the government.

Towards the end of April 1937, the situation became tense. Parties accused one another of being “Fascist spies” or “Fifth Columnists.” In an endeavour to discredit one group or another and to alienate support from opponents, acts of sabotage were perpetrated which endangered the success of the war against Franco. On April 25th, Roldan Cortada, leader of a Labour Youth Movement, was murdered by persons unknown near Molins de Llobregat, a suburb of Barcelona. Two days later the anarchist mayor of Puigcerda, Antonio Martin was shot and killed. Each faction looked accusingly at the others. On May 1st, all May Day demonstrations were banned for fear of disturbances. Then came the incident at the Telephone Building on May 3rd.

The Telefonica building had been in the hands of the Anarchists since they first occupied it in the early days of the Fascist uprising and they had a sentimental attachment to it. The government claimed that the Anarchists were tapping the telephone the telephone lines but the manner of government police occupation of the Telefonica on May 3rd was undoubtedly provocative.

Shooting broke out in all parts of Barcelona; practically all workers ceased work; trade union offices and political party headquarters were sandbagged; barricades were erected and machine guns placed. Luis Companys issued an order to disarm the workers’ patrols but the police could not finish what they had started. The news and the trouble spread to other towns in Catalonia.

    “The details of the street fighting which lasted from May 3rd. to May 7th, and cost some 950 dead, some 3,000 wounded and millions of pesetas’ worth of ammunition in the worst street fighting in Europe since the Paris Commune, are still open to dispute. The general line is not.” (Civil War in Spain, by Frank Jellinek, page 545)

The Anarchist leaders protested that they were not responsible for the fighting and, together with leaders of all other parties, appealed over the radio for a cease fire with orations that “drew tears but not obedience.” (Jellinek). The Anarchist trade unions issued an order to return to work, but fighting continued. Leadership in the fighting passed into the hands of the youthful enthusiasts of the smaller extremist organisations on both sides.

The Spanish Republican Government, which had moved to Valenica from Madrid, now sent General Pozas, with 4,000 police, to take over the military governorship of Catalonia. Armed police and soldiers withdrawn from the front at Jarama, arrived in warships at Barcelona harbour. The British warship, Despatch, headed full steam for the city. The fighting subsided but an occasional incident it to flare up in odd places. The Valencian police finally suppressed all resistance ruthlessly. The rising faded out and Catalonian independence went with it. Franco finally conquered Barcelona, to which the Spanish Government had withdrawn, on January 26th., 1939, after months of heroic defence and terrific slaughter by air bombardment and naval blockade.

No capitalist government, whatever its composition, be it Liberal, Labour, Communist, Anarchist, or any mixture of them, can allow the armed forces of the state to pass out of its control. An armed working class is a menace to the system. In class society the dominant class must have at its disposal the power to maintain “law and order” amongst the class that it dominates, even when it is divided within itself.



“Civil War in Spain,” by Frank Jellinek

‘The Truth about Barcelona,” by Fenner Brockway

“The Truth about the Barcelona Events”, by Lamda

“Murder in Spain,” by Roberto (Article in International Review, June, 1937)

“Spain”, International Press Correspondence Special Edition, May, 1938


W. Waters


*** Note: This is a reference to the People’s Olympiad taking place in Barcelona in 1936. It was a workers alternative sporting event in opposition to the official Olympics that were taking place in Nazi Germany that year.

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