Popular justice and organised terror

There was much talk of 'unrestraint' and 'disorderly mobs' on the opposing side, in the zone where the uprising was defeated. And despite the growth in the number of armed groups in those first few weeks, the absence of government, vox populi, suprema lex, as the anarchist García Oliver put it, and the fact that anyone could carry a pistol or a rifle to exact revenge or kill at will, we should not attach too much blame to the 'disorderly mobs', those who seemed to act on their own initiative, those who have so often been mentioned in order to explain the extreme violence in the republican zone.

Of course, there was no lack of 'disorderly mobs'. They were to be found in Barcelona, a major sea port, with a large immigrant population, centres of low life and prison fodder. They were to be found in the earliest days in the militias that were formed to overthrow the rebels in the large cities, in the 'vigilante patrols', in armed groups of various types, peopled by murderers seeking revenge and thieves for whom the unlocking of the prison gates presented an opportunity to rob at will. But the instigators and perpetrators of many of these killings belonged to the political organisations of the Frente Popular; they were Communists, republicans, socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, who responded to the military coup with arms, killing their political and class enemies in the belief that behind their elimination lay redemption, and that the time for 'popular', 'revolutionary' justice had arrived.

Not everyone wanted bloodshed, and from the outset there were plenty of voices raised against the massacre, something conspicuously absent among the crusaders on the other side. However, the defeat of the uprising released shackles, bringing about complete liberation from the yokes of the past, and saw the arrival of the long-awaited revolution and final judgement for the rich, exploitative bosses, a favourite theme in the most radical propaganda and rhetoric. With no rules or government, with no mechanisms for forcing people to comply with laws, the 'thirst for justice', revenge and class hatred spread with devastating force to wipe out the old order.

Those considered to be oppressors were liquidated in their hundreds and thousands during the early weeks, the end of July and the rest of the summer of 1936. And almost certainly there was an angry, immediate reaction against the military rebels, who were seen as being directly responsible for what was happening. What was certainly angry, immediate and extremely swift was the reaction against the clergy, who, as the most easily attainable target at the beginning of the breakdown of social order, went through a living hell.

There are data that clearly confirm this argument. With the exception of Madrid, where the wave of repression peaked in the autumn, most executions of military personnel took place in the summer of 1936. The rage against the clergy occurred during the same months, in Madrid as well, and by the end of September 1936, the number of ecclesiastical personnel murdered was almost 90 per cent of the total for the entire civil war. August was the bloodiest month in many areas of Catalonia and Aragon, Murcia, Toledo, Badajoz and Castellón.

But the number of killings was still very high in October in Catalonia, and particularly in the Community of Valencia, with percentages slightly lower than those of September, the month with most deaths in the provinces of Alicante and Valencia. There were numerous stormings of prisons in September and October, with dozens of fatalities, and these were repeated in December in Guadalajara and Santander, and in January 1937 in Vizcaya. Some of these storm-ings took place several days after 4 September 1936, the date that Francisco Largo Caballero took over as Prime Minister. And, most significantly, despite the fact that the end of August saw the first decrees setting up special courts to deal with the crimes of 'rebellion'

and 'sedition', was that thousands and thousands of citizens were 'taken for a walk' with no legal safeguards. The protection that this legislation was supposed to give was of little use to them.

This 'ardent' terror became diluted from late November 1936 onwards, and until the first quarter of 1939, with the new outbreak of violence by retreating troops in Catalonia and Levante, cooled down to such an extent that there were many places where there were no more killings. And not because there was no one to kill, as some have suggested: the same 'crimes', the same 'reasons' that in July and August 1936 served to send many to their graves were given a different treatment by the Popular Tribunals in 1937 and 1938. The lives of thousands of prisoners were saved by the order and discipline imposed in the background by political organisations represented in the governments of Francisco Largo Caballero and Juan Negrín, from the UGT to the CNT, as well as Communists, republicans and Basque and Catalan nationalists.

There are some remarkable aspects surrounding the violence unleashed in the republican zone, which, in view of the fragmentation of powers and the variety of situations that came out of the defeat of the rebels, can only be investigated by a thorough examination of the various zones in which the most significant cases were concentrated.

In Barcelona, the wave of repression was clearly class-based; it spread through the factories and the suburbs and settled old scores with the owners and employers, as well as somatenistas and the gunmen of the free syndicates. Despite what has often been assumed and what had been written in the anarchists' writings about a future society, in the early months of the persecution of their adversaries, the CNT committees were more concerned with combating the 'counterrevolution' than with collectivising production resources. However, this was not an unusual situation or unlike anything that had happened in other revolutions. Hence the first thing that the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias (which had been operating since 20 July as a revolutionary government) did was to decree the setting up of special 'teams' to maintain 'revolutionary order'. 'Investigation Groups' and 'control patrols' they were called, and they were made up of several hundred armed men, led by FAI members such as Aurelio Fernández, or anarchists well known for their radical views, such as Dionisio Eroles, who had spent half his life in prison. Both were later to hold important posts directing the police and public order in the government of the Generalitat, which the CNT joined on 26 September 1936.

Until the disappearance of these control patrols, following the events of May 1937, the 'patrolmen' devoted themselves to 'social hygiene'; they set up their own prisons, took the rich, the clergy and right-wingers 'for a walk', and vied with the republicans and Communists for the 'control' of order away from the front. Given the fragmentation of powers that prevailed in the city that summer, it cannot have been very hard for these armed groups to spread panic among the well-to-do.14

Armed control of the revolution spread to other cities and towns in Catalonia, with committees and militias eliminating the bourgeois, holders of political and administrative posts, requetés and traditionalists who, as well as having been involved in the rising, had been members of the somatén and free syndicates. A great many factory and workshop managers were killed, but not many eminent Lliga members or major industrialists, as they managed to flee before they were hunted down. There were plenty of enemies to hunt down in the rural environment, in the interior districts that had always seen constant confrontations over tenancies, with owners and farm labourers being killed in their hundreds. And although a third of the 8,532 victims of this terror in Catalonia met their death in Barcelona, the persecution, as a ratio of the number of deaths over the number of inhabitants, was harsher and more intense in the agricultural districts of the interior than in the more industrialised areas along the coast.

The purifying fire hit the clergy with particular brutality. Stories of the public burning of religious images and artefacts, the use of churches for stabling and storage, the melting down of church bells for ammunition, the suppression of religious acts, the exhumation of monks and nuns, and the killing of regular and lay clergy were recounted and spread in all their grisly detail throughout Spain and beyond the Pyrenees, as the symbol of terror par excellence of anarchist control. It was hardly surprising: 1189 priests, 794 monks and 50 nuns were killed, and the overall figure rises to 2,437 if we count the towns of Aragon and the Community of Valencia that belonged to dioceses based in Catalonia. Over a third of all the clergy shot in republican Spain perished there.

14 Julián Casanova, Anarchism, the Republic and Civil War in Spain: 19311939, Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 101-15.

It is hardly necessary to mention that the clergy were killed without trial. If there was a terror that was 'hot-blooded', it was the terror that was visited on the clergy, who were rarely sent to prison. Only 240 clergy were sent to the Modelo prison in Barcelona during the whole war, 1.8 per cent of the total number of inmates, and up to the end of 1936 only forty-six were sent there.

There was hot-blooded terror aplenty against the clergy, military personnel and right-wingers in Lérida, a city in which the militias also left their mark. A Committee of Public Health was operating there and, from 18 August, a Popular Justice Tribunal, the first to appear in republican territory, and together they constituted a unique revolutionary model, with the presence of the POUM, a blend of Jacobin and Bolshevik influences, which did not go down well with certain anarchists who defended the 'spontaneous' justice of the people.

In short, Catalonia witnessed the various paths trodden by revolutionary violence during the second half of 1936: unrestrained paseos; mass killings directed by committees and control patrols, who had their own gaols, the checas, with the Sant Elías checa in Barcelona being one of the most notorious; militiamen who looked after 'public safety'; and popular tribunals, with their self-conferred licence to carry on killing. The result was that 6,400 people were killed in five months, 80 per cent of the 8,352 killed in the entire war. This was revolutionary retribution of the highest order, the brutality of which would have been just as harsh had the number of victims been several hundred higher or lower.

But there is persuasive evidence that there was a large number of people, including the CNT leader Joan Peiró, senior politicians in the Generalitat and ordinary militants, as well as Pere Bosch-Gimpera, the rector of the university, who tried to prevent the bloodshed, something that can hardly be said for the rebel officers and authorities on the other side. They also saved a good many lives, the best-known example being that of Cardinal Vidal i Barraquer; and they helped several thousand citizens, particularly civil servants, army personnel, politicians and clergy, to leave the country during this period of 'hot-blooded' terror.

Although these efforts to put a brake on this uncontrolled killing were repeated in Madrid - where, at the beginning of 1937, there were nearly 8,500 people who had taken refuge in various embassies - the results were patently dwarfed by the magnitude of the slaughter that occurred there. The image of Madrid that was forever engraved on the collective memory of the republicans and the International Brigade volunteers was its heroic resistance displayed in November 1936. The image for the winners of the war was that of the sacas and killings that occurred during this same period.

Paseos, sacas and checas: these were the three elements that were linked to the wave of terror that engulfed Madrid in the summer and autumn of 1936. Checa was the name given to the gaols, both improvised and organised, in requisitioned buildings where 'committees of investigation' met, set up by left-wing political parties and syndicalists, with carte blanche to make arrests, requisition or kill. Checa was the Russian acronym for the 'Pan-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counter-Revolution and Sabotage'.

If we are to give credence to Agustín de Foxá's opinion, later recycled by Francoist writings, this was 'organised crime': 'for the first time in history, the entire bureaucratic mechanism of a State was an accomplice to murder'.15 The Causa General was later to be even more apocalyptic about the legend of the checas, when it presented a detailed list of over 200 of them, with a large number of accusations of torture and killings.

In fact, in the summer and autumn of 1936, the whole of Madrid, which had previously been the seat of the royal court, was to become one big checa, although the figures - not the legend - say that most of the sacas were from the prisons, particularly the Modelo, which witnessed some unforgettably horrific events. Unforgettable were the names of some of the politicians killed in the saca of 22 August, and over half those shot in Paracuellos on 7 and 8 November came from this prison. One week before this massacre, thirty-one men faced a firing squad in Aravaca, following a saca from the Las Ventas prison. Two of them, Ramiro de Maeztu and Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, were later to figure particularly prominently in the memory of the winners of the civil war. Maeztu, the founder and editor of the magazine Acción Española in 1930 and author of the famous Defensa de la hispanidad, was remembered because he was the most distinguished intellectual the Francoists could display as a martyr, although his popularity was later superseded by that of Pedro Muñoz Seca, the

15 Agustín de Foxá, Madrid de corte a checa, Planeta, Barcelona, 1993, p. 272.

(Original edition published by La Ciudadela, Madrid, 1938.)

author of La venganza de don Mendo, who was killed in Paracuellos at the end of November. As far as Ledesma Ramos, the author of La Conquista del Estado and founder of the JONS, was concerned, it was because impoverished Spanish Fascist thought needed its myths, fearless souls who had died for the Fatherland in the flower of youth.

All the stormings, or sacas, were dwarfed by the one in Paracuellos del Jarama, an event that was never repeated in the civil war, because the situation that provoked it was also unrepeatable. On 6 November 1936, Franco's troops arrived at the gates of Madrid. The Council of Ministers, including the four CNT leaders who were new arrivals in the government, unanimously decided to transfer the government from Madrid to Valencia. Just before the transfer, Largo Caballero ordered the setting up of a Junta de Defensa under General Miaja, which was to exert authority in a Madrid that was under siege from that day until 22 April 1937. Santiago Carrillo was appointed Councillor in Charge of Public Order.

At that time, there were over 5,000 people being held in the prisons and checas of Madrid. Around 2,000 were removed on 7 and 8 November and taken in buses operated by the Madrid tram company to Paracuellos del Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz. The sacas and killings went on for several days and escalated towards the end of the month. On 4 December, the new Inspector General of Prisons, the anarchist Melchor Rodríguez, halted the sacas. In one month, this process had accounted for some 2,700 prisoners, who were positively identified after the war, although in the veneration of the martyrs promoted by the eventual victors, this number was inflated to eight or nine thousand. Some 1,300 people had faced the firing squad in the first of these sacas.16

It was a bad time for the republican cause, with Madrid, with no government, under siege, during which armed groups systematically murdered prisoners. Not surprisingly, the affair gave rise to a string of justifications, accusations and controversial statements, which are to be found in writings even now. Socialists and anarchists, according to the proceedings of the CNT National Committee of 8 November,

16 An analysis of the repression in the republican zone, which the Nationalists called 'red terror', may be found in Julián Casanova, 'Rebelión y revolución', in Santos Juliá (ed.), Víctimas de la guerra civil, Temas de Hoy, Madrid, 1999, pp. 117-77.

reproduced by Jorge M. Reverte, had agreed to classify the prisoners into groups and to the 'immediate execution, dealing with the responsibility', of the first of these groups, made up of 'Fascists and dangerous elements'.17

A major role in this decision would also have been played by militant Communists of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas, the high command of the police system: Manuel Muñoz, the Director-General of Security; Santiago Carrillo, the Councillor in Charge of Public Order; and Segundo Serrano Poncela, the delegate for the Directorate-General of Security. And although it is highly likely that the typical 'disorderly mobs' - those who were always at home in chaotic situations - were acting of their own accord, the November sacas in Madrid suggested a full-scale cleansing dictated by the war, but one that was also coveted, a unique chance to eliminate the political, ideological and class enemy.

Madrid symbolised the checas, mass sacas and 'organised terror' in the same way that Barcelona, during the summer, symbolised the paseo, the 'control patrols' and the 'popular' and 'spontaneous' justice of the anarchists. It is fair to say that in Madrid, the fury was directed primarily against military personnel and leading politicians, while in Barcelona it was the clergy and business owners who bore the brunt. It is clearly significant that it was the socialists and Communists who took the leading role in this mass lynching of the enemy in Madrid, and that it was the anarchists who were behind the chaos that was responsible for the thousands of killings in Catalonia by so many different factions.

Clergy, right-wingers, the military, professionals and tradespeople, textile and footwear businessmen, Catholic workers and many farm owners, 'individualists' who opposed collectivisation made up the sectors that were most affected by the radical elimination of the adversary that sent 5,000 people to their graves in the Community of Valencia. Most of the almost 4,000 who were murdered in the areas of Aragon where the militias had settled were rich labourers, owners of small and medium-sized businesses, tradespeople, craftsmen and day-labourers, with a high percentage of clergy in the diocese of Barbastro. In Badajoz, Córdoba, Jaén and La Mancha, the

17 Jorge M. Reverte, La batalla de Madrid, Crítica, Barcelona, 2004, pp. 577-81.

victims were mainly landowners, agricultural land and industry owners' families, members of the aristocracy, and conservative and right-wing politicians.

A special place with regard to these 5,000 dead is held by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the martyr of the crusade, the ausente, to whom buildings were dedicated, as were hundreds of streets, squares and schools; and many churches bore the inscription 'José Antonio Primo de Rivera, Presente!'

He was born in April 1903 into a well-to-do Andalusian military family, with close links to the land-owning oligarchy, and he was educated as a monarchist aristocrat, at all times loyal to the memory of his father, the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. At the time of the military rising, he was in prison in Alicante, where he had been taken on 5 June from Madrid. He had been arrested, along with other FE JONS leaders, on 14 March, two days after three Falangists tried to assassinate Luís Jiménez de Asúa, a professor of law and a PSOE deputy.

So the rising found him in prison, but confident, having supported it unreservedly in a manifesto drawn up on 17 July, that it would succeed and thus bring about his release. But it did not turn out that way in Alicante, and several months went by in which, while his allies were planning his escape or an exchange of prisoners - something that other leading right-wingers such as Ramón Serrano Suñer or Raimundo Fernández Cuesta managed to secure - the Committee of Public Order in Alicante was thinking of 'taking him for a walk' on the pretext of a transfer to the gaol in Cartagena.

On 16 November, along with his brother Miguel, he faced a Popular Tribunal, made up of three magistrates and a fourteen-man jury, and answered questions about his connections with the conspirators and the preparation of the military uprising. José Antonio denied both his participation in the plot and the Falange's responsibility for acts of violence. On 18 July, the magistrates accepted the prosecutor's request for the death penalty, while the sentence for his brother Miguel was life imprisonment. Miguel's wife, Margarita Larios, Margot, who had gone to Alicante a few days before the rising, was sentenced to six years and one day. José Antonio was shot at dawn on 20 November 1936. He was 33, and he has always been said to have died bravely and honourably.

This marked the beginning of the legend of the ausente, cleverly cultivated by Franco. And there were plenty of ausentes. The other two members of the triumvirate that were behind the FE JONS, Ruiz de Alda and Ledesma Ramos, had been assassinated in Madrid. Onésimo Redondo, the founder of the JONS in October 1931 (together with Ledesma Ramos), was killed on the Sierra de Guadarrama front at the beginning of the war, although there were plenty who believed that he had been killed by Falangists from a rival group.

Among the victims of violence on the republican side, there were very few women. Except for Madrid, where several hundred disappeared in the sacas, the number of victims was very low in most of the provinces, ranging from five in Murcia to sixteen in Alicante and seventeen in Ciudad Real. It hardly needs saying that the wives of many of the victims of revolutionary and leftist violence were also threatened, and in some cases ill-treated; but it was nothing like the ruthless treatment meted out by the military, Falangists and Catholics to the sisters, daughters, wives and mothers of the 'reds'. Despite the widespread conventional image of anarchist militiamen raping and killing women, only seventeen were killed in the eastern areas of the province of Zaragoza, while in the rest of the province, nearly 300 faced rebel firing squads.

The conclusion seems clear: the violence was inextricably linked to the coup d'état and the progress of the civil war. Symbolised by the sacas, paseos and mass killings, it served the two sides in their struggle to eliminate their respective enemies, whether natural or unforeseen. It was an essential part of the 'glorious National Movement', its onslaught against the Republic and the gradual conquest of power, skirmish by skirmish, massacre by massacre, battle by battle. It also became a basic ingredient of the diversified chaotic response provided by left-wing political and trade union organisations to the military coup. Contrary to appearances, this violence was not so much a consequence of the war as the direct result of a military uprising, which, from the outset, went hand in hand with unpunished murder and the coup de grâce. It was a strategically designed plan, which, in the places where it failed, was met by a sudden armed response against the main players in the uprising and those considered to be their material and spiritual brothers-in-arms.

While carrying out this extermination, the rebels were also given the inestimable blessing of the Catholic Church from the very beginning. The clergy and sacred objects, however, were the prime target of popular rage by those who took part in the defeat of the military rebels and who led the 'cleansing' undertaken in the summer of 1936.

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